By Jack C. Sheppard Sr.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney stood before the TV cameras of the NJTV Network recently and spoke on the topic of town consolidation and the related issue of shared services.
According to Sweeney, he has tried the “carrot” approach to shared savings for 14 years to no avail. He says it is now time for use of the “stick” to force towns to merge services.
He said a state agency known as LUARCC — for the “Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission” — would decide how much a town can save by merging services with another town. The town would be told the estimated savings a merger will provide and, if residents vote against accepting the deal, the estimated savings amount will be deducted from their municipal formula state aid.
Sweeney specifically named the Borough of Wenonah, saying that when the police chief retired, the town was given the opportunity to merge police services with its neighbor, Mantua Township, at a saving to Wenonah taxpayers of $400 per household. But voters rejected this plan because they liked the idea of having their own little police force.
Under legislation that Sweeney has introduced, Wenonah would have lost almost $40,000 of state formula aid.
Ever wonder what happened to the old concept that elected officials are “public servants”? Just where in the laws of the State of New Jersey is it decreed a single elected official can micro-manage the future of a town that has thrived successfully for over 140 years? Our former “public servants” have apparently become our masters.
The senator apparently believes that when it comes to town size, bigger is always better.
However, that just doesn’t survive close scrutiny. If he would check prison records, I believe he will find few, if any, officials from towns smaller than 5,000 population.
But the prisons are loaded with officials from larger towns. Just read the book about New Jersey, “The Soprano State,” if you don’t believe me.
Small towns are the backbone of our state. They are the most honest, have the most volunteers, have near 100 percent involvement of parents with their schools, and are most conducive to enriching family life.
On the other hand, the larger entities, such as the cities and the state, appear to waste staggering sums of tax dollars principally due to excessive union work rules, patronage hiring practices and corruption.
Finally, if Sweeney would set his “stick” aside long enough to check the facts, he might be surprised to learn most of our smaller towns have been sharing services for years. Instead of being criticized, Wenonah should be praised for its efforts.
Consider, Wenonah already shares the following services: construction code office (Woodbury); trash collection (East Greenwich); tax assessor, emergency management coordinator (Gloucester County); repair of public works vehicles, yard waste and leaf collection, road salt (Mantua).
Our town is in a Joint Health Insurance Fund and a Joint Insurance Fund. We share a tax collector with Newfield and Franklin Township. We share a chief finance officer.
My recommendation to Sweeney is to back off from his apparent obsession to force the smaller towns to merge and lose identity, and focus his energies instead on cleaning up the vastly overstaffed and expensive-per-capita governments of the larger cities and the state.
I was at Walt Disney World in Florida several years ago and, while waiting for the grandkids to exit an attraction, I struck up a discussion with a man standing next to me who said he was from Michigan. He asked where I was from. I responded: “If I tell you I am from the most corrupt state in our nation, where would you guess I am from?”
He said, “You must be from New Jersey.” I was ashamed to admit he was right.
Sen. Sweeney, if this is where your vaunted town consolidation is leading us I, for one, want no part of it.
Jack C. Sheppard Sr. is the former mayor of Wenonah.