Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NJ, Where Only the Strong Survive?

By Carolyn Smith, ‘11


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Conventional wisdom, courtesy of Benjamin Franklin, dictates that one can be certain of only two things, death and taxes. These days, I’m sure of one other thing…that every time I see Bergen LEADS Director Amanda Missey, she will say to me, while displaying her boundless energy and obvious enthusiasm, “Carolyn, are you going to blog about this?!” Perhaps it is somewhat ironic that the topic of the forum at which I recently saw her was…death and taxes – that is, the desired death of certain negative aspects of our unsustainable system of home rule, which would result in a decrease in New Jerseyans’ taxes, and hopefully a kind of fiscal resurrection for our State.

New Jersey is comprised of 566 municipalities, the highest concentration per square mile in the U.S. Because of home rule, each town possesses its own elected and operational officials. The funds needed to run a town come from property taxes. And New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation, with Bergen County having the highest property taxes in N.J. So, solve this riddle: How do we reduce high property taxes needed to run the municipalities of N.J.? One organization says structural change is the answer.

On March 18, Courage to Connect NJ (CTC-NJ) and Bergen Community College co-sponsored a forum entitled, “A Vision of the Future of Bergen County and New Jersey.”

Gina Genovese, former mayor of Long Hill Township (located in the southernmost part of Morris County), founded the aptly named CTC-NJ as a result of her experiences in office. Her small town of 3,100 households couldn’t afford all the costs associated with administering a town. CTC-NJ’s mission is to educate the public about the redundancies and inefficiencies created by NJ’s 566 municipalities…and works with taxpayers and lawmakers to reform and consolidate.

Panelists at the forum included Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac; Woodbridge Schools Superintendent Dr. John Crowe; Reagan Burkholder of Summit Collaborative Advisors, LLC; CTC-NJ Research Director Andrew Bruck, Esq.; and former Bergen County Executive/LEADS Seminar Director William “Pat” Schuber. After Bergen Community College President Dr. G. Jeremiah Ryan’s welcome, the panel got down to business.

Woodbridge Township, which is comprised of ten distinct towns, served as a case study about what could happen if several towns pooled resources in an effort to achieve maximum efficiency, and thereby reduce costs to individual taxpayers. One distinct difference is that Woodbridge has been operating as one township for hundreds of years. (So as to eliminate confusion, “Woodbridge” is one of the ten towns that make up “Woodbridge Township.”) The township of ten shares services, such as police, finance, and public works. In Middlesex County, where Woodbridge is located, there are only three towns with lower tax brackets. Mayor McCormac said his constituents don’t complain about taxes. (Another example to all my fellow shoppers out there: Short Hills is not incorporated and is governed through Millburn.)

Woodbridge Township Schools Superintendent Dr. Crowe conveyed his message that everyone must give up a little in order to gain the most efficient delivery of services, just as the colonists gave up some state-level control to gain national control, and he urged towns to assess the strengths and benefits of sharing. Mr. Burkholder explained that, with several towns sharing services, it is possible for everyone’s taxes to go down. Research Director Bruck appealed to fellow policy wonks, and took us through the process, from initial petitions to council resolutions, to commissions made up of residents of each town involved, to opportunities for public comment. According to CTC-NJ, all a town needs to move toward consolidation is enthusiasm. CTC-NJ offers everything else, including its how-to-consolidate manual entitled, “Courage to Connect NJ Guidebook.”

There are multiple models seeking efficiencies, including towns simply sharing services or actual consolidation of town governments. It will ultimately be up to the residents of Bergen County (or anywhere else) to vote on consolidating.

Repeated throughout the forum was the assurance that towns will not lose their identity. Former Mayor Genevese says town identities do not come from administrative structures, but from the people in the town.

Panelists urged towns to have the courage to try sharing one service, not merging. Do it in steps and find services you can share, such as custodial services, they advised.

Pat Schuber wrapped up the morning with his plea for action: “It’s time”…“so the symbol for Bergen County isn’t real estate signs on lawns.” Bergen County “can have both” lower taxes and distinct town cultures.

Another possible benefit from consolidation would be that if towns reach the 50,000 population threshold, they would be eligible for more federal funding. Currently, only 29 Jersey towns meet that criteria.

What’s next? A Bergen County chapter of CTC-NJ is forming to educate the public on this issue. Residents’ input is needed from the beginning to the end of the process. CTC-NJ is researching funding opportunities for the studies that interested towns would need to measure the feasibility of “connecting.”

To view the forum, and for tons of information on this subject, as well as a complete how-to-connect guide, visit www.couragetoconnectnj.org.

The LEADS Class of 2011 was very well-represented at the forum: Jennifer Reyes, Jayne Press, Susan Barbuto, Lisa Gladwell, Laura Amerman, Carmine Marchionda, Linnet Castro-Pereira, and Lorna Beebe were there, as were many members of the LEADS organization. Leadership consultant Lynne Algrant, Board Member David Warshaw and many LEADS alumni, like Karyn Egeland, also attended.

NJN reported on the event, as did the Bergen Record. It’s an important topic here in N.J.; the forum had a great turnout of interested New Jerseyans, and even someone from PA. Viewers caught glimpses of Linnet and Jayne looking very studious on NJN.

So, do those t-shirts tell the truth? Is N.J. a place where only the strong survive…fiscally strong and efficient ‘connections’ that provide the highest benefits of economies of scale, while maintaining each town’s identity? According to CTC-NJ, if only the strong survive, towns must connect their resources to become stronger to ensure survival. With its 70 municipalities, Bergen County has many opportunities to connect. Two alumnae of LEADS, Roberta Sonenfeld and Wendy Worden, have met former County Executive Pat Schuber’s challenge to leaders in Bergen County to remedy this important issue by serving on the board of CTC-NJ, and also as co-chairs of the Bergen County Chapter. Now, to hash out the best solution, we need to flex our vocal muscles and participate in this dialogue, complete with our strong Jersey accents and all.

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