The joint meeting of Scotch Plains and Fanwood’s mayors and municipal councils, one of the more anticipated meeting on shared services in the past two years, adjourned after just 45 minutes Monday night. The group of 10 council members and two mayors, squeezed elbow-to-elbow on the dais at the front of the Scotch Plains Municipal Building courtroom, did not vote on any measures, but did announce that they had reached an informal consensus to prioritize the potential mergers of three municipal agencies: the police departments, the courts and the construction offices.
“Issues of how and who are for another day. We need to start somewhere, and this is what this meeting is about,” Scotch Plains Mayor Nancy Malool said. “This meeting is for us to come together to make sure we’re all on the same page and to make sure what the next steps are.”
The shared services discussions, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr added, “are a way of acknowledging that property taxes are crushing all of us. The questions that we will keep on the forefront as we move forward are, ‘Will the services be improved or enhanced?’ ‘How will shared services affect the experience of our employees in both towns?’ ‘What will the savings be?’ ‘And what will the effect be on the general public?’”
Both Mahr and Malool repeatedly stressed that any shared services plan would not compromise safety or increase costs. Instead, to gain approval, it would need to “save money, but not at the expense of services,” as Mahr described.
The three proposed mergers will be taken up by the Shared Services Committee, comprised of officials from both Scotch Plains and Fanwood, Mahr and Malool said. The committee will then bring its findings to each council, most likely by the end of June. The Shared Services Committee, created about two years ago, is different from the Shared Services Coordinating Council, which helps facilitate shared services in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood school district.
Following the mayors’ opening remarks, each council member offered brief comments on shared services and the councils' informal consensus.
Fanwood Councilwoman Katherine Mitchell spoke first. “I tend to be an optimist rather than a pessimist,” she said. “As long as we can do things and it doesn’t cost us any more money, that we can get better services, as our mayor said, without safety being jeopardized, I am ready to go tomorrow morning.”
Scotch Plains Councilman Mickey Marcus also expressed for support for increasing shared services. “It is something that I think will clearly benefit both Scotch Plains and Fanwood, and my hope is that as a result of this meeting tonight, that we will be able to see some definitive action being taken that will sincerely result in a process in the sharing of services between the two towns,” he said. Pointing to the to make merging the police departments their top priority, he added, “I think we’ve made it somewhat clear to the public that we are very, very interested in sharing services as much as possible with Fanwood. We do not believe there are any impediments to doing that."
Fanwood Councilman Russell Huegel echoed Marcus and Mitchell’s comments, and encouraged both towns’ officials to “embrace that challenge” of merging departments, which he argued would increase efficiencies and decrease costs.
Scotch Plains Deputy Mayor Mary DePaola argued, “Now is the time for government to get smaller. Redundancies in government need to be eliminated…. In our circumstances, towns that are side by side need to combine or share services.”
Fanwood Councilman Mike Szuch was the first to express hesitation regarding the shared service proposals. Reiterating comments he has made in previous, he stated, “In my short time in council, I’ve already seen our police chief work with a streamlined force, accept shared dispatch out of the county, and save some good money. It would really be my intention to investigate some smaller departments, set up some good successes, set up some savings, show that we can do it, achieve it, show that we can achieve improved, or comparable service, certainly, while saving money.”
Szuch also suggested that the councils set more clearly defined goals and deadlines for integrating shared services.
Fanwood Councilwoman Joan Wheeler, who also previously expressed concern regarding shared services, said simply that she would support a plan only with a guarantee that it would “never decrease the level of service that [residents] have come to expect.”
Scotch Plains Councilman William Vastine forcefully endorsed the shared services proposals as outlined by the mayors, particularly with regard to merging the police departments. “I don’t think we were elected to focus on small things,” he said. “I think we were elected to focus on solving problems, whether they be big, bold, or eccentric. I’ve heard a lot of commitment to continuing to think about it, study it, look at it, touch it, feel it, smell it. But we’re past that time, in my opinion. We’ve alluded to the fact that the governor and the legislature is proposing that they start cutting funds to the towns and cities of New Jersey if they don’t do this. My perspective on this, whether it be regardless of party, is that the time for talk, the time for study, the time for thinking about it and poking it, is past us, and the time for action is now. Not in small things, but in big things. Otherwise, we will not be the champion of our own destiny, we will be the recipient of someone else’s plans.”
Fanwood Councilman Robert Manduca, who opened his remarks by stating he was “proud tonight to be from Fanwood-Scotch Plains,” urged the mayors and councils to not rush any mergers.
“Ask yourself, when you buy a car, do you research its miles per gallon, what its price was, its horsepower, or any of the particulars about the car? Or do you walk into a dealership and just sign and buy it? If your answer is no, you should expect us to do no less when it comes to decisions about shared services, where essentially we need to know with what we’re buying,” he said. “Shared services, done badly, can make things worse. Taxes are high. Even the best of intentions can make them higher for residents.”
Manduca argued for a shared services plan that would include "factual, quantifiable metrics" by which to judge its success.
Scotch Plains Councilman Kevin Glover, pointing to the Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District, argued, “It’s time that we move and expand those types of shared services, whether it’s the police department, or the department of public works, it’s just something that we need to do. We can’t create money, there’s no money from Trenton coming to bail us out. We need to do this ourselves. We’re not going to be reckless.”
Fanwood Councilman Anthony Parenti was the last to speak. “A contract is not good, unless it helps both parties,” he said. “It has to make the taxes go down in Scotch Plains, and it has to make the taxes go down in Fanwood. It has to make the efficiencies, in whatever departments we look at, whatever departments we decide, get better.”
Parenti then alluded to arguments he’d made earlier to put a police department merger to a public referendum. “The public did not, when they elected us, they did not elect us to make decisions on their safety,” he said. “I think when it comes to my safety, this is something that they have to decide, so I do disagree that this body should here should make a decision as important as combining the police departments, which is a decision as important as the safety and health of the community.”
The meeting was sparsely attended, with about 15 residents sitting in the gallery, including the two police chiefs and the directors of the Scotch Plains and Fanwood libraries.
Of the proposed police department merger, Fanwood Police Chief Richard Trigo said, "It can be done, but we need to look where other towns have failed and we need to make sure why they failed. People are under the assumption that it's just done with the flip of a switch, when it's a lot more complicated that that. However, it can be done. We just have to stress that it's done the right way."
Stay tuned to Patch as this story continues to develop.