Towns Examine Sharing To Cut Costs Some Have Started To Work Together. One Main Sticking Point: Worries About Lost Local Identity.

Posted: April 05, 1998

Two Burlington County towns pooled their money to buy a fire truck. Six Camden County towns hired one purchaser to buy equipment for the municipalities to share. Neighboring Gloucester County public works departments share a leaf and branch shredder and storage facilities, saving each town thousands of dollars.

With New Jersey's 567 municipal governments squeezed into the nation's fifth-smallest state - each relying on tax dollars to keep its schools, public works, police and fire departments funded - many officials want to share more services and enter joint agreements to keep costs down.

There are more local governments in New Jersey's almost 8,000 square miles than in Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming combined. In Gloucester, Burlington and Camden Counties, there are a total of 35 towns with fewer than 5,000 residents. Almost half of those towns take up less than one square mile of real estate.

Although the towns foster the quaint environment many urbanites seek, they also contribute to a distinction many local government officials and residents find frustrating: New Jersey taxpayers pay more property taxes per capita than taxpayers in any other state.

New Jersey taxpayers paid $1,481.50 on average in property taxes in 1994, the latest figure available from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows. That amount was twice the national average of $724.90. Government officials and residents alike point to New Jersey's myriad towns as a major source of the problem.

``It is clear New Jersey has more government units and school districts than it needs,'' said Don Linky, director of the Public Affairs Research Institute, a Princeton-based taxpayers association that specializes in government data. ``In general, we think greater efficiency can be achieved through consolidation.''

And some state officials believe that, too. In this session, they have proposed legislation that would offer municipal governments $50 million in matching grants to encourage regionalizing, consolidating or sharing services.

While many local officials recognize the need for lowering costs and taxes by cooperating with neighboring governments, concerns about home rule and losing local identity are a factor in slowing some efforts to regionalize services.

``Once you merge in, you're part of the big boy; you lose your say in what is going on,'' said Fred Lyman Simpkins, mayor of Pemberton Borough, a Burlington County town that covers about half a square mile along the Rancocas Creek.

Pemberton Borough illustrates the financial pinch being felt by towns across South Jersey. This year, the borough passed a $1.9 million budget that includes a 2.5-cent property tax increase - its first tax increase in five years. The town's new school budget, however, includes a more substantial increase - 72.2 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value, an almost 49 percent increase, if voters approve it April 21.

When it comes to controlling costs, Simpkins sees the benefits of sharing services with neighboring Pemberton Township such as a fire truck jointly purchased for $225,000 last year. The borough also provides the township with some water and sewer services.

Although Simpkins said he wondered how long the town could afford to keep its own school district for 210 students, he believed residents were comfortable with local control of most services.

``I'd like to keep everything - even the schools,'' Simpkins said. ``I don't think bigger is best.''

And that is one of the major considerations of joint agreements - a municipality must consider whether money can be saved and whether that cash will outweigh some loss of control.

Pemberton Borough's school board held a public hearing Monday to explain the proposed budget and its 48.9 percent increase. Although residents expressed anger and frustration at the proposed tax increase, they supported keeping the school district.

But on the other side of the balance between savings and control is the Municipal Shared Services Coalition of Camden County, a group of representatives from Barrington, Collingswood, Audubon, Haddonfield and Haddon Heights Boroughs and Haddon Township. The group won a $25,000 Joint Services Incentive Grant from the state Department of Community Affairs for hiring a single purchaser to buy equipment and negotiate deals for the six communities.

Since taking over the purchasing for the six towns on Jan. 15, Tom Cella has negotiated a new animal-control contract for the towns, and is working on a deal with telecommunications companies that would bring phone rates down for municipal offices. Cella said merging the towns' animal control services would save the communities a combined $12,633 this year.

Pete Marcinonis, a Barrington Borough councilman and former coalition chairman, said the group had merged building code inspection services in three towns and worked out agreements for towns to share trash collection and recycling services, and public works supplies such as dump trucks and cherry pickers.

``Everything we spend money on is up for grabs,'' said Marcinonis, of the group formed in 1994. ``A thousand here, a thousand there - in a small town, it makes a big difference.''

This year, each town in the Camden coalition is facing municipal or school tax increases, or both, and sharing services has offered some relief for escalating taxes, Marcinonis said.

In Gloucester County, the city of Woodbury has saved $20,000 by using Deptford's Public Works Department's leaf and branch shredder.

Wenonah Borough and Woodbury Heights are looking into merging police services by sharing a police chief and purchasing cruisers and equipment. A public safety commission is surveying how much money can be saved by the merger, said Betty Ann Scully, Wenonah's business manager.

Deptford Councilman Walter ``Butch'' Berglund leads the Gloucester County Consortium, a group of officials representing Westville, Wenonah, Woodbury Heights, West Deptford and Woodbury, which began meeting last year. Each town faces increased taxes in their 1998 budgets, Berglund said.

``The hardest part is getting started,'' Berglund said.``This is a fairly new area that's being explored - some of the old-timers don't want any part of it.''

Berglund worked with Ellen Harley, director of the Project for Regional Cooperation, a nonprofit organization that works with governments in 11 counties in the tri-state area, to get the Gloucester County consortium started.

Over a seven-month period, Harley helped the Gloucester County towns strategize cooperation plans. She said the most pressing concern among leaders of those towns was the fear of losing some of their autonomy.

``The main ingredient to successful cooperation is trust,'' Harley said. ``Having open lines of communication takes patience and it takes time.''

Harley said police and fire department mergers were the most sensitive issues when discussing merging services because they are the strongest symbols of a town's independence.

``Part of every community's identity is whose name is on the side of the police car,'' Harley said. ``[Residents] like those cruisers to show their name. They reflect the fierce independent individualism we share in the United States.''

A bill introduced in March by Assembly members Joseph J. Roberts (D., Camden) and Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon) seeks to voluntarily encourage consolidations by offering a matching grant program with $50 million from the state's general fund. If passed, the legislation will pay municipalities the same amount they save by sharing services for five years, Roberts said.

The grant money could be used only to bring property taxes down, Roberts said.

``It's a way to tell the governments that we're ready to come to the table with money,'' Roberts said.

Once the bill makes its way through the Assembly's Local Government Committee, it will be reviewed by the Assembly's Appropriations Committee. It might not be voted on until late May, Roberts said, but he is busy seeking support from other Assembly members and Gov. Whitman. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate on Monday.

Gene Herman, spokesman for the governor's office, said Whitman might endorse the bill. ``It seems to be a move in the right direction, in concept, with the governor's efforts to encourage local governments to reduce property taxes by merging,'' Herman said.

While merging services may provide relief from increasing taxes, some longtime residents in small towns are not easily swayed.

``People in [Pemberton Borough] want to try and hold on to their personal identity,'' said Charles Yerkes, a 74-year-old resident who has lived in Pemberton Borough all his life.

He was serving on the school board in the late 1950s when he got his first sense of merging services such as public schools with the neighboring township. Although Yerkes said he remained skeptical of sharing services with the state, county or Pemberton Township, he viewed consolidation as a necessary evil.

``We may have to come to more shared services,'' Yerkes said. ``I wouldn't like [Pemberton Borough] to go from the same identity we presently have, but if we keep pushing tax rates higher maybe we'll lose it.''

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