It is widely anticipated that Gov. Chris Christie’s first budget message, to be delivered on March 16, will show the harsh reality of New Jersey’s bleak financial outlook. No one is expected to be spared.
Immediately following the Governor’s address, every media outlet in the state will be hit with a barrage of letters from local lawmakers and special interest groups. Outraged and furious, these writers will all have very legitimate reasons as to why cuts in state funding will have dire effects on the most fragile New Jerseyans.
I sympathize with these individuals. As a former mayor in Morris County, I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with constituents about the hard decisions that have to be made. I know first-hand the strains that come from deciding which worthwhile organizations should receive a limited amount of government aid and the consequences when that money doesn’t come.
As New Jersey slogs through this impossible budget year, the solution for the state’s chronic budget crisis will become glaringly evident: The only way in which we can control spending is by greatly reducing the number of municipalities in the state.
With 566 towns jammed into the most densely-populated state in the nation, there is a baffling duplication of effort: town halls geographically within a mile of one another, municipal garbage trucks taking short cuts through other towns to finish their routes and towns dropping their bond rating just to borrow the money for a new fire truck.
This all generates tremendous waste at the local level, rising taxes to the levels that we are suffering through now. The seriousness of the situation is magnified with dried-up state coffers and no resources left to squeeze money to towns for yet one more budget cycle.
My non-profit, non-partisan organization, Courage to Connect New Jersey (CTC-NJ), is convinced that residents will be willing to consolidate their towns if they were presented with the facts in the right way. They need to recognize the state is broke. There is no hidden pot of money that can control local property taxes now or in the future.
So, we all have to take it upon ourselves to solve the problem. There needs to be conversations at the grassroots level in communities statewide. People need to see for themselves where the waste is and how we can solve the problems together.
CTC-NJ believes the only way to right the ship is for five to ten towns to consolidate their municipal services. But, just as important as it is for these towns to run more efficiently, the plan will only work if towns can maintain their own identity.
What we are proposing is not new to New Jersey. Woodbridge Township, for example, is actually the compilation of 10 towns, such as Iselin, Colonia and Avenel. These “sections” of Woodbridge have their own zip codes, fire departments, etc. They each have a strong identity yet are under one local government.
Under this model, communities retain their own names as they have in Woodbridge Township. We are convinced that connecting five to ten towns to realize significant savings can work throughout the state.
With significantly fewer local governments, we can maximize state aid, eliminate administrative redundancy and govern the state more effectively. New Jerseyans just need to recognize this as a viable solution. Our frustration with higher taxes and lower levels of service can move us to vote for consolidation as the solution to our state’s financial crisis.
Before you say widespread consolidation will never happen in New Jersey, just think what has happened in recent history when the people have reached their boiling point and demanded change.
Civil rights legislation was launched in 1964, just four years after Black students held a sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
The Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989, after protesters lined the walls in East Germany chanting "Wir wollen raus!" (We want out!).
New Jersey needs its own historic moment.
Before our state is forced to declare bankruptcy and our business base relocates to more affordable areas of the country, we need to make sweeping changes now. Let’s begin the conversation about how best to consolidate our municipalities and end the legacy of waste that has our state teetering on the brink.