For years governors, legislators and others have been advocating “shared services” as a way for towns to hold the line on costs and thus halt the rapid rise of property taxes that has been plaguing New Jersey municipalities for decades. The Legislature may get an opportunity to do more than just advocate shared services; it may force Teterboro in Bergen County to be split among the four adjoining municipalities.Although there are many issues to be worked out by state legislators and town officials, breaking up the minuscule town of 38 residents with 23 employees and the location of one of the busiest private plane airports in the region, could be the opening round of forced or voluntary consolidation in New Jersey.
If municipal consolidation becomes one of the solutions to redundant and costly local services, then the next logical method would be to consolidate on a larger scale.
For example, if Bergen County with its 70 municipalities were consolidated into one city of about 900,000 residents, the City of Bergen would become the 12th largest city in America, just below Detroit in size. A city of less than million citizens is quite manageable and potentially could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The following is by no means an exhaustive or definitive blueprint for the City of Bergen, but a starting point for the Governor, County Executive, state legislators and local officials to discuss whether transforming the County to a city would achieve the goal of streamlined government and lower property taxes.
The City of Bergen would be governed by a mayor and city council of 13, ten elected from designated sections, e.g., southeast, southwest, south central, northeast, etc. There would be three at large council members elected by all the people of the city. All elected officials would serve no more than three years and could not serve more than three terms. Term limits must be imposed. We would end “career” public officials. Pay and other benefits, but no pension, would be commensurate with a full time chief executive and a full or part time council.
Each town in the County would become a “neighborhood” just like in New York City. New York City has dozen of neighborhoods noted for their local character, charm and culture. The City of Bergen, in short, would become a “mini” New York City.
Now for the challenge of transforming Bergen County to the City of Bergen. A city police force would be created based on current local police departments. There would be a city police chief and several section commanders who would oversee a dozen or more neighborhoods under their purview. Local police chiefs’ positions would be eliminated. A streamlined Bergen city police department would replace the current bloated local police payrolls. The County police department would be eliminated and officers would be assigned, if they are needed, to section police departments.
Currently, local police salaries have reached unsustainable levels because of arbitration and the power of the police unions. A city wide pay scale would have repercussions on highly paid local police officers, but if the motto of the police is “to protect and serve” then the taxpayers’ pocketbooks must be an integral component of the pay schedule discussions in the City of Bergen.
As far as the public schools are concerned, a similar restructuring would take place. Local boards of education would be replaced with a city board. The city board of education would have 10 section members and three at large members elected for a three year term. There would a term limit of three years. The city superintendent appointed by the mayor with the consent of the council would oversee several section superintendents. All current local superintendent and assistant superintendent positions would be eliminated.
Principals would administer each school with one, two or no more than three assistant principals. Each school would have to create a parent/taxpayer advisory council that would consult with the school administration on local school issues.
The dicey issue for a city wide school system is the pay scale for teachers and administrators. Currently, median teacher salaries range from the upper $40K to the lower $80K. Clearly, there is wide disparity in the County. There is no “easy fix” for this issue. However, what should not happen is a ratcheting up of salaries because there will be a city school district.
(I have called for transforming the public schools into nonprofit institutions run by teachers and administrators. Funding would come from tuition, fees, grants, donations, endowments, etc. This would take school spending off the public rolls and put it where it should be, a service paid for by parents. As long as we have the current public school system, reducing its costs and improving teaching should be the foremost goals.)
All other services that Bergen County and towns provide must be “put on the table” so we can “rationalize” their costs and use. Ideally, we should transfer all government social services to nonprofit organizations over a number of years and supported by the people with their time and tax deductible contributions. The City of Bergen then would become model for the rest of the nation, leading the way for the nonprofitization of social services, a goal the late management expert Peter Drucker advocated nearly two decades ago as the best way to help the least fortunate among us.
To pay for City of Bergen services a combination of property taxes and other revenue measures would be enacted, replacing town levies. This would have to be discussed in depth, because the last thing we should do is to increase taxes for some neighborhoods in order to achieve consolidation.
If advocates of shared services and consolidation are serious about their goals, then let’s have a conversation about the creation of the City of Bergen.