UNION COUNTY, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy’s shared-service czars are distancing themselves from an ad hoc group put together by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney that reportedly discussed tax-restructuring ideas that include consolidating and eliminating towns smaller than 5,000 people.
According to the czars, Democrat Jordan Glatt and Republican Nicolas Platt, their goal is to expedite shared-service agreements between towns that voluntarily choose to pursue them for budgetary reasons. Both men are former mayors who agree that forced consolidation of the state’s municipalities is neither their goal nor their hope.
“When we meet with the governor, he does not use the words ‘merger’ or ‘consolidation’ in our discussions,” said Platt, a former mayor of Harding in Morris County. “We are to help facilitate and provide incentives. Whether it’s cutting through red tape, or letting them have access to the extensive research we have on towns that have done shared services in the past.”
Sweeney announced his Economic and Fiscal Policy Working Review Committee of lawmakers and tax experts in February following the federal tax changes pushed by President Trump. Initial reports of their work in June included discussion of eliminating towns smaller than 5,000, like Union County’s Garwood and Winfield Park.
More recent reports of its activities have noted ideas such as consolidating elementary-only school districts into regional K-12 school systems and sharing services such as snow removal and police departments.
“Share enough services and you get the advantages of consolidation while keeping the community identity,” said Glatt, who served as Summit’s mayor from 2003 to 2011 and now lives in Springfield. “If we can convince them that we can do this without sacrificing their community DNA, we will be successful.”
With the specific goal of helping individual towns save money by encouraging them to share resources with one another, the czars hope to use their positions to create statewide savings with the direct assistance of Murphy.
“Murphy is committed to this,” Glatt said. “He’s basically told us, ‘tell me what you need and we’ll get it done.’”
Glatt said he believes that the key to getting shared services to work on a large scale is cooperation between neighboring municipalities.
“It starts the ball rolling, it gets people thinking about what else can be done. One shared service sort of begets another. Before towns go buy a piece of equipment, now they think, ‘Maybe we can do something with the next town instead of buying our own.’”
Summit recently merged its own courts with the existing joint court system of New Providence and Berkeley Heights. According to Glatt, this could save the town more than $100,000 yearly, and it is such services that are essential stepping stones toward major savings.
“Building trust starts with working together with some of the simpler services, shared municipal courts, zoning offices, health departments,” Glatt said. “It’s getting the governing bodies to start working together and realizing that service in some cases is going to be better when it’s larger because they’ll have access to better systems.”
Platt, currently a committeeman in Harding, is also confident in the efficacy of shared services. In 2010, a joint court was established in Madison, and now has jurisdiction over four neighboring communities, including Harding. According to Platt, Harding saved $180,000 the first year using the joint court, and more than $200,000 every year after that.
“We would, as former mayors, bridle at the thought of someone appointed by the governor coming in and telling us what to do. We’re very sensitive to that,” Platt said. “We are going to be looking for the municipalities themselves to recognize that we already know where we can save money.”
Although saving money is something that all town officials would like, members of smaller communities worry about the reliability of such initiatives.
Ileen Cuccaro, a Garwood councilwoman and Republican mayoral candidate, pointed out the mixed impact of shared service agreements on Garwood. The small town has implemented successful shared service agreements with Westfield and Cranford, but has seen varied results from its agreement with Fanwood regarding public works resources, she said.
“We needed a new street sweeper because ours was broken so they threw it in the contract, but there isn’t any planning at all,” said Cuccaro, who has lived in Garwood for 51 years. “We don’t know when they’re coming.”
According to Cuccaro, streets were cleaned several times a month before the agreement with Fanwood. Since the sweeper is sent with no prior notification, many cars remain parked on the street, preventing the sweeper from cleaning properly.
“It’s important to the residents, the streets used to be swept several times a month and now it’s almost never,” Cuccaro said. “A lot of residents really miss that.”
She also noted that, despite multiple shared service agreements, it has not become less expensive to live in Garwood.
“All these shared services have done nothing to decrease taxes,” Cuccaro said. “Our taxes have gone up every year for 17 years.”
Garwood Councilwoman and Democratic mayoral candidate Sara Todisco pointed out that although taxes have not gone down, their average rate of increase has done so, due in part to the shared services.
“They save money, which means that taxes would have been significantly higher without those shared services in place,” Todisco said in a recent telephone interview.
Although generally pleased with Garwood’s shared services thus far, Todisco, a lifelong resident, expressed reluctance to further consolidation.
“I’m very big on Garwood maintaining its identify first and foremost and also providing the best level of service for the residents of the town,” Todisco said.
While the implementation of shared services has yet to be perfected, the czars remain optimistic about the level of interest from individual towns, and the support for Murphy.
“What is most heartening since it was announced is the amount of communities that have reached out to us,” Glatt said. “We’ve been fielding incoming versus going out and promoting.”