In municipalities throughout New Jersey there are few hotter topics than that of shared services or even a progression toward full consolidation. There are 566 municipalities in the state and it’s fair to say that all of them have looked at, or are looking at, some form of shared services with neighboring towns.
At Tuesday night’s town Council meeting in Scotch Plains Mayor Nancy Malool and council members discussed the feasibility of consolidating the municipalities of Scotch Plains and Fanwood into one. Such consolidation would apparently be the culmination of a series of shared services agreements.
Council members and the mayor offered opinions on a proposed resolution encouraging the municipalities to unite. It’s a sensitive issue precisely because the two towns have been talking about such consolidation for nearly four years with little movement.
“(The vote on this resolution) is basically a formality - a way of getting together our collective feelings of what we think should be happening,” Mayor Malool said. “For four years as council has said we want to enter into the consolidation process and we’ve gotten sidetracked.”
Shared services agreements typically focus initially on several key areas - schools, police and fire and municipal courts. The shared serviced and consolidation issue apparently continually arises because Scotch Plains and Fanwood share a single school system.
For councilman Kevin Glover, that is a convincing argument in favor of consolidation.
“Sixty-five precent of our budget goes to the Board of Education and we’ve merged those operations,” Glover said. ”The Board of Ed is the big gorilla. Sixty five percent of (consolidation) is done. Why we wouldn’t make more than that happen is just control and politics.”
Glover said that because the municipalities know what they need to do - he called it “low-hanging fruit,” - that the towns did not need to commission another feasibility study to state the obvious. Glover said there are really two issues on the table - forming shared services agreements and then subsequent full consolidation.
“Consolidating two townships when you can’t even share services is a bit over the top,” Glover said. “If I am a taxpayer, I want to know why. We need to articulate what it means to taxpayers.”
Councilman Bo Vastine said the study would reveal key data that will allow elected officials and the public alike to see what consolidation, including shared services opportunities would look like in financial terms.
“We are not proposing consolidation, we’re proposing studying consolidation to see if it even makes sense,” Vastine said. “The good thing about the consolidation process is that it puts a decision in the hands of the people to vote whether we want to do a study.”
Mayor Malool told council members that the municipality is not making a decision between consolidation efforts and shared services as they are two separate paths. She pointed to the merger of police departments - a next logical step in shared services agreements for the two towns - as a indication that shared services agreements are not enough.
“One obstacle is dispatch because we are dispatched here and Fanwood is dispatched with the county, the second obstacle is civil service - we are and Fanwood is not. No one has told me how we overcome that obstacle,” Malool said. “The third issue is governing. Who appoints the police chief? Who does promotions? In our form of government the manager is the CEO and makes those decisions. In Fanwood, it’s their mayor. I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But as far as I’m concerned, when you look at consolidation, all these questions go away.”
The council votes on a resolution to encourage the township of Scotch Plains and the borough of Fanwood to pursue consolidation of municipal services at its January 17 meeting.