To the Editor:
Consolidation or shared services? Both are riddled with obstacles, some more easily overcome than others. Towns have been sharing services for years; Scotch Plains and Fanwood have been sharing for decades. It is a sensible way to reduce costs and is becoming the ‘buzz word’ of local government.
The governing bodies of Scotch Plains and Fanwood currently are in the midst of exploring how we could merge our police departments in an effort to save money and provide more efficient services. Several obstacles stand in the way, but the two that seem the most difficult to resolve are funding and governance.
One option is to form a “Joint Meeting” and the second alternative is a contractual shared service. The joint meeting would involve creating another level of government, where each town would appoint a representative to oversee the police department with a ‘tie-breaking’ representative agreed upon by both towns. I
n this scenario, this entity would have full control of the police department’s financing, contract and operations. Each town would have equal representation, however, Scotch Plains would fund approximately 75% of the budget and Fanwood approximately 25%.
The Division of Local Government Services in the NJ Department of Community Affairs recently informed us that they recommend a contract service rather than a joint meeting. In this scenario, Scotch Plains would employ Fanwood’s police officers and Fanwood would pay Scotch Plains for the police services it receives.
I, speaking for myself and not the Scotch Plains Council as a whole, favor this option as it seems more equitable for both towns. I don’t believe the joint meeting provides Scotch Plains residents with adequate representation, yet it requires that their tax dollars fund three quarters of the budget.
Both town’s governing bodies have expressed their desire to continue to try to work through this and the other difficulties that have arisen during this process. It is more complex than most would assume and it is time consuming, but we are committed to complete the investigation and move forward if it is prudent.
Consolidation, however, is the wave of the future, and must be considered at the same time. Just last week, a citizen’s group submitted petitions to the Local Finance Board of the Department of Community Affairs. These petitions proposed to form a study commission that would consider the pros and cons of the consolidation of Scotch Plains and Fanwood into one town. If the petitions are approved, the study commission would be formed and report back to our residents with the information they need to make an informed decision.
At some point in the future, not likely sooner than two years, a referendum would appear on the ballot and voters in both towns would have the opportunity to decide whether or not to formally consolidate into one town. Let me be very clear here – the petition, nor the study commission, nor the governing bodies can make this decision. Only the people of both towns can make it.
I fully support the concept of the study commission. Consolidation has been on the minds of many residents of both towns for years. I cannot tell what a new town would be like, but I imagine very few of our day to day lives would be impacted much. I don’t know what the new governing body would look like, or whether the names would change, or how much money it would save. These, and others, are the things our residents need to know before they can make a decision. And these are the things that the study commission is tasked to determine.
I cannot understand why anyone would be opposed to becoming more informed through the work of a commission. Being in favor of this does not equal being in favor of consolidating the towns. No one should make that ultimate determination until they have all the facts.
The big question on everyone’s minds is how much money they will save in property taxes. Again, I don’t have those figures for either a merged police department or for a consolidated town. I pay taxes, too, and I want them reduced just as much as everyone else does.
I think it is critical to point out, though, that even if we were able to cut the municipal portion of our residents’ taxes in half – and I don’t really believe that would ever be possible – but hypothetically speaking, that would save the average taxpayer (who pays $10,000 per year in property taxes) about $900 per year.
Don’t get me wrong, every dollar counts these days and if we can save anything, it’s better than nothing. But I want our residents to understand the reality: merging police departments or even consolidation of towns is not going to result in the huge savings in property taxes that we need. I will, however, continue to pursue both options because our residents expect and deserve it.
Mayor Nancy Malool