In the world of cutting municipal costs, shared services are the prevailing darlings of local politicians.
That’s not nearly enough, says Gina Genovese.
The former mayor of Long Hill Township and one-time Democratic candidate for State Senate is the executive director of Courage to Connect NJ, an organization that advocates municipal consolidation. It’s not a new concept in New Jersey, but Genovese has a vision of a grassroots effort to effect large-scale consolidation, calling for groups of five to 10 municipalities to join together in an effort to reduce property taxes and improve services.
“If you were a business owner, you would not have 566 offices around New Jersey offering the same service,” Genovese said.
Genovese began considering consolidation during her tenure as mayor in 2006, when Long Hill and Bernards townships merged their police communications departments.
“At the end of the day, there was very small savings,” she said. “(Shared services) is taking a complicated structure and making it more complicated...You’re not taking the largest part of a municipal budget and addressing that.”
That would be the administrative salaries, a cost that towns of all sizes must shoulder.
She also said that merging doesn’t equal loss of town pride.
“Individual towns with strong identity and history can be under one administration and have absolutely no loss of identity,” she said, pointing to the 10 communities, including Iselin, Colonia and Fords, that make up the township of Woodbridge.
Municipal consolidation isn’t an original concept, but many New Jerseyans are leery of the idea. In a May 2009 study conducted by the state Department of Community Affairs, a commission found that studying consolidated towns was difficult, as so few consolidation attempts had been successful. In the few towns that merged departments, cost savings came from reducing positions and facilities, not greater efficiency, and only served to offset the actual cost of consolidation.
In November, residents in Sussex Borough and Wantage soundly defeated a ballot question to merge the tiny towns, a move that would have resulted in tax reductions for both municipalities. A similar measure is being mulled in Chester Township and Borough.
In the last 50 years, only two towns, Hardwick and Pahaquarry in Warren County, have successfully merged. That was in 1997, when Pahaquarry had a population of six.
William Dressel, the executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the league supports the consideration of consolidation efforts.
“We have never, ever opposed in any way these consolidation studies…but we have, adamantly, opposed efforts by the legislature over the years to impose a consolidation onto municipalities and bypass the public’s involvement,” Dressel said.
Still, Genovese’s full-throated promotion of consolidation is something of a voice in the wildnerness.
“I’m the only one,” Genovese said.
The “Courage to Connect” Facebook page has only 75 fans, and when Genovese begins giving talks about her concept next month, it will be a one-woman show. But that doesn’t bother Genovese, a tennis club owner who was once ranked 150th in the U.S. If this movement is to work, she said, it must come from New Jersey residents who want to see change.
Although, considering the state’s finances, Genovese said that may come sooner rather than later.
“They’re going to see it when they get their tax bills,” she said.