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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 11/14/05        NJBiz online

The Paradox of New Jersey

by Ingrid Reed

   The annual New Jersey League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City is an amazing phenomenon. It usually is the first chance for a governor- elect to appear before a large crowd of municipal officials and government insiders. They carefully assess the governor-to-be for hints of what is coming next.
    The event, held two weeks ago, features two-and-a-half days of seminars, meetings and programs on every topic of interest to officials and staff members from the state's 566 municipalities.
These sessions reflect the paradox of New Jersey Here are hundreds of municipalities engaged in overlapping tasks with largely duplicate staffs. Politicians and ordinary citizens say these functions could be carried out with less expense by fewer governments and fewer people. But in it state devoted to home rule, communities like the duplicated services, the elected officials and the employees who perform them.
    Consider the fact that some 20,000 people attended the three-day event. if every municipality Sent just three elected officials, that would account for more than 1,500 people. If the same municipalities sent five appointed officials, that would be nearly 3,000 more. Also wending were countless state officials and businesspeople interesting with the delegates in programs, corridor conversations and evening receptions, or manning exhibits that stretched over 15 aisles in the Atlantic City Convention Center.
    Banks, insurance companies, architects, paving companies, sign makers and record keepers were just a few of those vying for the attention of municipalities. My favorite displays were the shiny snow plows and dump trucks with pristine tires ready for admiring mayors with capital budgets.
All these municipal leaders think they are indispensable. But in the programs I attended, they were quick to express their skepticism about the effectiveness of other governments. State employees and their unions were criticized for excessive pension costs. School districts too small to operate efficiently were held up as examples of what needs to change. On the other hand, there was serious discussion of the need to change how municipalities are managed. Knowing nods were exchanged, but no details were offered.
    Never once did I hear of any research that cited how savings could be achieved if the number of municipalities were reduced. Nor was there information about staffing ratios that could be used as guides for improving efficiencies, or analyses of the savings that could come from combining school districts, or a discussion of incentives to encourage the consolidation of municipalities.
    Richard Codey, who will step down as acting governor in January while keeping the state Senate presidency, told convention goers that property tax reform cannot be considered "unless local
spending is reviewed," without giving a clue as to how it could be. Governor-elect John Corzine emphasized tax reform while promising to work closely with municipal officials. Referring to his experience as a U.S. senator and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, he urged listeners to "never back down from a fight," and "stand up for what you believe, regardless of the outcome." Oddly enough, he neglected to mention what lie must also have learned at Goldman Sachs: The importance of doing your homework, agreeing on the facts and basing initiatives on solid analysis.
    Fighting before you know what you want and are able to produce it won't improve the way we govern ourselves. Serious alternatives must be put on the table along with careful analyses of who gains and who loses. Without specifics, there will be little reality behind the rhetoric of change. A few days at the league conference proves that.