Experts agree that property taxes could be dramatically reduced if towns can find a way to share services, but the top lawmaker in the State Senate says too many municipalities simply refuse to do it because of home rule.

Last year he sponsored a bill that is a little carrot and a lot of stick and Governor Chris Christie says that measure could be re-introduced soon.

At his latest town hall meeting yesterday, Christie was asked about shared services. A woman who lives in North Carolina, but wants to move to New Jersey did the asking. She says her husband who is in Afghanistan right now is also a volunteer firefighter and she wants to know what Christie thinks of fire departments sharing services.

"It's a great idea," said Christie. "I think one of the things you're going to see happen in this legislative session is a broad and aggressive shared services bill. Right now municipalities have a lot of barriers to sharing services, mostly the civil service system which prevents them from really achieving savings when they share services."

Christie says he and Senate President Steve Sweeney have been talking privately about a bill Sweeney introduced in the last session. The Governor expects Sweeney to re-introduce the bill soon.

The new bill says Christie, "Would lower a lot of those barriers and make shared services not only more attractive, but also start to make it mandatory in certain places. You know, if you don't do these kinds of things to save money for the taxpayers then maybe we need to reduce your state aid in response."

Sweeney's original measure required New Jersey's Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC) to study local government units (county government, municipal government, school districts) to determine where taxpayer dollars could be saved through sharing of services. If the study shows that a savings can be realized through sharing that service in one or more local governments, the question of whether to do so or not would be put to a public referendum in all municipalities involved. If the towns involved fail to pass the proposal, they would be subject to losing state aid in the amount equal to what they would have saved had they shared the service. If one town approves it but another denies it, only the town that denied it would lose aid.

"It's about sharing services," explained Sweeney late last year. "For years we had programs that we give you money if you would share. Didn't work…..We tried the nice way of giving you money and people wouldn't take it to share. Now, my approach quite honestly is the stick approach. If you don't share we're going to reduce your state aid. Then for the people in the local community, there's no State involvement, there's no State money. They want more expensive government? They got it!"

Civil service rules would be suspended for employees impacted by any shared services agreement that is reached. This would address a concern raised by local government leaders that civil service rules serve as a barrier to sharing services. In putting together the legislation, Sweeney met with dozens of local elected officials who provided input on the issue of shared services.

"We've got to shrink government and the only way we're going to help taxpayers here is to shrink government by forcing shared services and consolidations," said Sweeney. "We as a (State) government should be able to reduce our contribution to their local government. Why should we fund government that could be cheaper?"

What if voters in town "A" vote in favor of sharing services or consolidating, but voters in town "B" shoot the Ballot Question down? Sweeney answered, "We don't punish town "A" because they were willing to step up, but town "B" is going to lose aid."

Even mayors in towns that want to share services with neighboring towns have often complained that public employee civil service rules are a roadblock. If one municipality is in the system, but the other is not a merger is all but impossible. Under the first version of Sweeney's legislation, "Where you do a shared service we do away with civil service. I'm not saying the whole operation, but if one town is civil service and the other town's not, when you put these two entities together and create one where one moves over to the other there's no civil service."

Bill Dressel, executive director of the State League of Municipalities applauded the majority of the bill but feels voters in towns that reject the sharing of services shouldn't be penalized by losing state aid.

"We have to get away from simply waving money in front of towns and talking about shared services in the abstract in the hopes that a few will decide to come together," said Sweeney. "The carrot has gotten very few nibbles. It's time for us to break out a few sticks."

Earlier this month, Dressel said, "What we have repeatedly been told by the Legislature and various Governors over the past few decades is that there should be more incentives to provide sharing of services -and that the various impediments to providing successful sharing of services should be removed by the state."

He says first and foremost, what needs to change are civil service regulations, "If you're getting involved with your neighboring town or school district or County government, and one is non-civil service, and the other is civil service, that is a tremendous hurdle that you have to overcome in order to be able to marry up with that other jurisdiction…there have been some attempts to amend that - those statutes - but nothing has really passed at this particular point."

Dressel pointed out "The onerous regulations that are imposed by the Department of Personnel - that's a state Agency - onto local governments - are unbelievable…private sector employers would not be able to survive if they had to get the approval of a state agency to transfer employees from one department to another department…in these times of fiscal distress, Mayors and governing body officials are looking at any way to try to reduce the costs and increase efficiencies…God knows, we can't rely on Trenton to provide additional property tax relief."

He added, "It's very encouraging that Senate President Sweeney is working on a bill to amend civil service regulations, and we are in fact working with him to fine-tune that initiative to make sure that it is in fact able to provide the kind of streamlined process that is necessary in order to remove a lot of the civil service impediments - we think Senator Sweeney is on the right track - he's going in the right direction."

Dressel says in addition to loosening civil service regulations, Trenton also needs to look at the energy tax receipts that municipalities have relieved on - there has been a diversion of those dollars - that are paid on your electric bill.

"The energy tax - it's paid to the state," explained Dressel. "Traditionally the money was returned to the municipalities - but the state keeps taking a larger percentage of those dollars the last couple of years …the time has come for them to return those dollars back to help provide an alternate revenue source - other than the property tax."