Murphy suggests $15M to help shift town services to counties
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposes putting some money behind the talk of consolidating local government services.
Language sought for the Department of Community Affairs budget would appropriate as much as an additional $15 million to encourage some services to be consolidated at the county level rather than have them handled by municipalities.
The county-based demonstration project would be voluntary and seek “to achieve efficiencies and future cost savings” in providing local services. The Murphy administration has identified 911 dispatch, public health and snow removal as the types of services that could be better handled by counties.
Some counties handle at least some health services at the county level already, including Atlantic, Cumberland, Monmouth and Ocean. But a state property tax database shows only about 15 percent of municipalities pay for health services through county taxes, rather than municipal taxes.
State Sen. Sam Thompson, R-Middlesex, said he “can certainly see an advantage” to having emergency dispatch handled by counties.
“911 dispatch requires you have an employee available all the time to receive a call. But I suspect you don’t get calls very frequently,” Thompson said. “So if you had it an the county level, you have a lot more calls that may be coming in and makes the service more efficient.”
It has now been just over a year since Murphy appointed two shared-services “czars” to find ways to consolidate services, in part to save on property taxes, which are approaching $30 billion statewide when counties, municipalities, schools and special authorities and districts are taken into account.
Melanie Walter, director of the state Division of Local Government Services, said the state is trying to create conditions that put towns in position to share services when the moment arrives.
“One of the challenges that we see across the state is getting regions coordinated – to have similar technology, to have similar contracts, so that when it’s time to embrace a shared service opportunity, they can do so smoothly,” Walter said.
Walter said part of that is to seek “soft landings” for as many workers as possible.
“There’s always a way to get there through revenue generation and through attrition that makes it a much smoother transition and much less intimidating for communities,” she said.
State Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, said that’s an important point.
“Through attrition, through some sort of transition period, it may not be something we do overnight, but it could over a multi-year period, all a sudden – if we didn’t start, we’d never get there,” Oroho said.
The Department of Community Affairs budget includes $200,000 to add three staffers to a new Local Assistance Bureau that Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, the DCA’s commissioner, said is already working on 14 potential shared-services agreements.
“And we have a pipeline of 30 additional shared services entities that are waiting for assistance,” Oliver said.
Oliver said communities most commonly look for shared-services guidance for their courts, public works department, police, fire and dispatch and tax collections. She said school administration and corrections mergers are also being contemplated.
In budget documents, the DCA said the preliminary recommendations will be refined as research continues, including by the Division of Local Government Services economist.
“The division is seeking realistic proposals that can be achieved across the state, being particularly mindful of divergent community characteristics in various regions of New Jersey,” the DCA said. “Final recommendations and a more detailed report will focus on services that can be treated relatively uniformly across all counties.”