These new grant programs are not the first attempt by New Jersey leadership to promote shared services and mergers among the state's numerous towns, school districts, authorities and fire districts.
(TNS) — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy laid out Wednesday how his administration plans to spend $10 million appropriated in this year's state budget to promote shared services and government consolidation, and at least some of that money will be used to study school district mergers.
Speaking before a shared services symposium at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, Murphy announced the creation of a new Local Efficiency Achievement Program within the state Department of Community Affairs to administer and distribute the funding to towns and other interested local governments.
"We are putting the collective energy of the (DCA's Division of Local Government Services) with real money behind their work," Murphy said. "We in New Jersey have a long history of home rule. We've always enjoyed the individuality of our communities and our residents. What we need to prove to them is that sharing services doesn't erode the character of our communities but will strengthen our ability to serve them."
About $3.15 million will be distributed as so-called "challenge grants" that will be awarded to counties, municipalities and other governments that agree to collaborate on "shared services of significance." The funding will be divided equally among the state's 21 counties and then awarded on a competitive basis to impactful projects based on the scope, breadth of collaboration and efficiencies generated, officials said.
Another $5.8 million will be distributed as "implementation grants" to reimburse governments for costs associated with shared services projects or consolidations, such as new technology and equipment, rebranding and training.
About $2 million of the implementation grants will be devoted to school district consolidation studies.
New Jersey currently has over 600 school districts, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3 of West Deptford, and a bipartisan working group he formed last year have already recommended consolidating all elementary and middle school districts into K-12 grade systems. Doing so would likely impact about 300 school districts statewide, including about 22 in Burlington County.
The remaining $1.05 million will be distributed to each county to hire a full-time shared services coordinator to identify shared services opportunities within the specific county. The position will be considered a one-year fellowship and hires will receive training from the state.
The grant programs are not the first attempt by the state to promote shared services and mergers among the state's numerous towns, school districts, authorities and fire districts.
In 2007, then-Gov. Jon Corzine instructed the state's 21 executive county superintendents to develop plans to both eliminate all non-operating school districts that have no schools, and to merge all elementary and middle-schools districts into K-12 systems. But the effort never gained much traction, partly because the state never provided funding for feasibility studies examining the potential savings and tax impacts of any consolidations.
That same year the state also created the Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission to identify areas where mergers and shared service can save money. Like with schools, there's been little appetite from municipalities to merge, although most now engage in at least some shared services with their neighbors.
In Burlington County, municipalities have found savings and efficiencies, for example, by merging municipal courts and sharing tax assessors and animal control officers.
Last year, Murphy appointed former mayors Jordan Glatt and Nicolas Platt, as the state's first "shared services czars" to help encourage local officials to agree to enter into cost-saving collaboration, though he also used his line-item veto authority to axe additional funding the Legislature sought in the budget to study shared services and government consolidation.
While New Jersey is known for having among the highest property taxes in the nation, state lawmakers have generally remained reluctant about making any shared services or consolidations mandatory.
One exception is Sweeney, who has repeatedly pushed legislation he penned that would dock state aid from towns that decline to enter into shared services agreements the state identifies.
Sweeney first introduced legislation to dock aid in March 2011, and he has touted its importance in each of the last three legislative sessions, choosing to make it the first bill introduced at the start of the 2014-15 and 2016-17 sessions and again during the current session. However, it has never advanced to the governor's desk, despite Sweeney's considerable sway.
Sweeney's working group also looked at mandating consolidation of many of the state's 565 municipalities but opted against recommending forced mergers after finding many small towns deliver services more efficiently than their larger neighbors.
On Wednesday, the Senate leader applauded Murphy for moving forward with the grant program, but he also stressed that more needs to be done to bring down property taxes.
"The grant program announced today is an important step," Sweeney said. "But we need to make sure we provide officials with the support they need to make the tough decisions, such as reviving my S-1 'carrot and stick' legislation that requires towns to implement shared services that provide demonstrable savings."
He also pressed for school districts to begin moving forward with studies of regionalization and consolidation.
"School regionalization and countywide school districts will enable us to expand curriculum and educational opportunities, while holding down the school property taxes that make up more than half of the property tax bill statewide," Sweeney said. "We have been meeting with leaders throughout the state from Sussex to Salem counties who are eager to make this a reality."
©2019 Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.