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Form E. Newark, Harrison, Kearny Merger / Shared Services Study Commis

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The municipalities of Kearny, Harrison, and East Newark should consider merging into a single, consolidated town. The towns are small in terms of both population (approx. 40K, 14K, and 3K respectively) and geography and can easily be managed more efficiently (both in effectiveness and cost) as a single entity.

As a first step, the town councils should gather information on the process of merging and then form a joint commission to see if it would be beneficial to either to share more services or to merge outright. Possible areas to share services or those that would be consolidated as part of the overall merger: school districts, police departments, fire districts – these are ultimately the biggest services/costs for the municipalities (millions of dollars).

Please understand: while I am advocating for consolidation, and many people may disagree with the benefits/need for consolidation, I only want to see these three municipalities CONSIDER this by forming a study commission that would look at consolidation and service sharing. Even if the only thing to come from it is more shared services, that would still be great for all of us. For example, let’s say the only thing that is decided upon is a shared garbage contract that saves $50K a year – that is still a 50K savings!

If any of us were to start from scratch and create new municipalities in NJ, we almost certainly wouldn’t create them as they are currently. There are 565 municipalities in NJ, some quite large (e.g. Newark), others quite small (e.g. East Newark). They exist for a mix of historic reasons: related to the difficulty of governing larger areas in years past (think pre-Internet, phones, cars, etc.), and as a result of NJ’s long support of home rule (people can form towns when they don’t feel that the current town they are part of truly represents them).

Why are there still so many towns now? In many cases, simple inertia. It takes work to rationalize town size. In recent years, there has been bipartisan effort to create the systems and legal framework to allow towns to merge.

Princeton Township and Princeton Borough have recently voted in favor of municipal consolidation. For details, here is the pro-consolidation advocacy website: http://www.uniteprinceton.org/. A BusinessWeek article on the Princetons: http://www.businessw...-consolidation.

What I propose we do:

1. Contact our town councilpersons, administrative personnel, and mayors to request they at least consider this proposal to form a joint consolidation and shared services study commission. (E-mail addresses below.)

2. Ask each town council invite the non-profit, non-partisan Courage to Connect NJ (http://www.couragetoconnectnj.org/) to present at the next public council meetings in each respective town. The purpose should be to understand the process, examples, the benefits, the drawbacks and costs to municipal consolidation. The Councils could even ask a couple people from the Princetons to present: maybe a person from the “pro-consolidation” side and one from the “anti-consolidation” side.

3. Each Town Council votes to form a Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission.

OR

4. If the Town Councils are not willing to vote to form a Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission, we form a group to advocate for the consolidation, creating the required petitions to force the municipalities to form the commission.

Of note: This is posted in the KOTW forums for all three municipalities.

E-mail addresses I could find (as a side note: I was shocked it was so difficult to find e-mail addresses for our elected local representatives – imagine if any 200-300 person company didn’t have some sort of e-mail contact easily available nowadays):

Harrison:

Councilman James Doran: jdoran@harrison.k12.nj.us

Kearny:

Main “contact us” form: http://www.kearnyusa.com/contact

East Newark:

Mayor Joseph Smith: jsmith_eastnewark@verizon.net

Borough e-mail address: boroughofeastnewark@verizon.net

Arguments in Favor

Greater Efficiencies Through Shared Services. Shared services are already being employed in some cases (e.g. E. Newark and Harrison share dispatching, street sweeping, and road salting). Maybe the answer from the study commission will be to only share more services, maybe full consolidation. We don’t know until we form a study commission. The basic idea is that certain functions can be easily combined: a single town clerk, single department heads for construction, public works, police, fire, health, recreation, treasurer, superintendent of schools, etc.. You won’t be able to eliminate that many rank and file workers, but if nothing else you can eliminate some department heads and flatten the workforce structure – saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, healthcare costs, and pension obligations. As an operations or supply chain person would tell you, one of the best things you can do to reduce wait times and inefficiencies is to pool resources. That is exactly what this allows. We can keep the best workers, eliminate multiple administrative heads, and put our combined resources where they are most needed.

Reduce Health Care Expenses. The combined municipality will have a larger pool of employees and be able to negotiate reduced per-employee rates for group health insurance. The same is true for the new combined school district. Other purchasing/procurement costs will also go down as we can negotiate from a larger base than each town was able to do previously. Overall we are looking at savings of millions of dollars each year.

Lower Property Taxes. This is result of reduced expenses and greater efficiency. This is probably the main argument.

Greater Clout. As a single entity our towns will end up being stronger in Hudson County and in NJ. Together we have a larger tax base and more citizens. A single town, largely acting through a single Mayor, will have substantially more influence than any of our current Mayors.

Arguments Against (I’ve made the argument and the counter-argument)

Reduced, Not More Efficient, Services. The obvious fear is that this will result in reduced services in each town. This shouldn’t be the case. By consolidating, there should be more funds available to continue municipal services as we won’t be spending as much on top level administration. Towns are all struggling to pay for the services as is and are making cuts in different areas: better that these cuts be to administrative overhead rather than whole types of services.

Previously Incurred Debt Sharing. You may think: “Gosh my town runs itself very well (e.g. Kearny), I don’t want to merge with terribly run other towns (E. Newark and Harrison) and pay off their huge debt loads related to all the development stuff I wouldn’t have supported.” Good point, I probably wouldn’t either, or at least it would be a concern. Fortunately the law allows for towns that merge to have the option to maintain separate payments of previously incurred debt – so the former Harrison residents would still be on the hook for that debt, but going forward all debt would be shared. Of course we could also simply share more services, not consolidate, in which case this is a non-issue. Regardless, a study commission would look in depth at this issue.

Transition Costs. Yes, there are absolutely costs of merging the towns and school districts, such as standardizing uniforms and equipment, consolidating code books, printing, moving/relocation costs, harmonization of salaries, and town and municipal signage. Perhaps even severance packages if the towns decide that is a direction they want to go when laying off senior workers. In the Princetons it is estimated that the transition cost is a one-off $1.7 million. That’s a lot, but perhaps not when compared to the expected annual savings of up to $3.1 million…

Psychological. In many cases some of the voting residents have formed strong attachments to their respective towns. While it is possible to still maintain that unique identity, some might not agree. For example, a Kearny resident that graduated from all Kearny schools may not like the idea of combining with Harrison, or vice versa. An “us vs. them” mentality. Personally I think this is narrow minded and fails to take a larger perspective on the world, but I understand some people think this way. So then why not simply share more services? A study commission is still a great first step.

Municipal Layoffs. You might say, “greater “efficiency” simply means firing government workers. It isn’t fair to get rid of hard working people at the alter of efficiency. They have families. This likely would mean eliminating workers, particularly higher level workers (department heads, some assistant superintendents, etc.).” However, if we feel this is so unfair to them the study commission can advocate for severance packages to these workers as part of the transition costs. Ultimately, government does not exist to provide jobs to as many people as possible – if that were the case, we should all be advocating for each town to hire more and more workers.

Loss of Sovereignty. People may think: won’t my voice be drowned out by the larger community? For example, “I live in East Newark now, how will my voice be heard when I am part of Kearny that has over 40K residents and my old town only has 2.5K?” OK, true. The point of home rule was exactly that: to make sure little tiny distinct communities could govern themselves if they felt different from the larger group. That’s why East Newark split from Kearny a hundred years ago anyway. But how much is that ultimately worth to your household? If it means $400 of $500 less per year in property taxes for you because we merge, do you still care? Do you feel like you are actually part of a distinct community now? Where would you draw the community lines? Exactly as they are now? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel I have a say in the town as it is, going to a combined town of about 60K isn’t that bad. It is still substantially smaller than many other towns. 60K people is still a small town and the geographic enlargement is fairly minimal (we all share so many similarities geographically anyway).

Corrupt Political Process. You may be convinced this all makes sense on paper, but don’t trust the system. After all, Harrison has only had 2 mayors in something like 40 years right? You are probably thinking everyone in government service is likely corrupt or in a position because of nepotism and the new system will be the same and you will never see any reduced property taxes. It is ultimately possible that is the case. All the same, why not simply form a study commission or at least start the discussion somehow. Perhaps the increased reporting and transparency created by this process will itself be beneficial. Personally, I think it will be more difficult for a larger system to be corrupt than for any of the current smaller systems. Ultimately with shared services or consolidation, the towns will spend less because of the greater efficiencies, so the “pool” of government money will be reduced.

Final Thoughts

There are certainly arguments against municipal consolidation or shared services. Fair enough. Maybe we shouldn’t do either. However, what would it hurt to simply bring in the non-profit group to talk about possible consolidation at town council meetings, and possibly bring in some of the people that just did this in the Princetons and learn from their experiences? That costs absolutely nothing other than a few hours at the town council meetings.

A study commission is the logical next step, and the costs to simply conduct the study are extremely minimal (tens of thousands, compared to the tens of millions we spend annually for the combined budgets of these three municipalities). Even if it was recommended to merge, it would have to then go to a vote in each municipality. And the state helps pick up some of the tab for the consolidation study and for the actual transition costs. I am merely advocating for an intelligent discussion on the issue.

I encourage everyone to post thoughts on this. More importantly, I encourage everyone to reach out to their elected town representatives one way or the other on this issue.

Edited by KOTW

To post a reply go to Kearny forum and search forum for this exact topic. The topic is closed here but not in he Kearny board.

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Harrison and East Newark kids go to the same High school. Harrison and East Newark's court appearances are done in Harrison. East Newark no longer has a judge. So it is a beginning of trying to save money.

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