Consolidating municipal services

King noted that school costs account for up to 70 percent of the property tax bill in Hunterdon County -- and Hunterdon County’s ,216 average residential property tax bill was the highest in the nation over the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, according to the most recent statistics from the nonprofit Taxpayer Foundation.Walton’s group found that Hunterdon County schools spent 7 million in 2010, and that high-performing county-run school districts in states like Maryland and Georgia spent more than 25 percent less, even after adjusting for cost-of-living differences between the states.Then for the people in the local community, there’s no state involvement, there’s no state money. They got it.” The New Jersey State League of Municipalities applauded the provisions of the Sweeney bill that limited seniority, tenure, pension, layoff, and reemployment rights under both existing law and under the Civil Service system for employees affected by shared services agreements.But the league remains adamantly opposed to Sweeney’s proposal to strip recalcitrant towns of state aid, Dressel said.It's a big step forward.” Hunterdon County is now debating a groundbreaking proposal to merge the county’s 30 school districts -- and their 30 school superintendents, administrative staffs, and school boards -- into a single countywide district, with potential tax savings in the tens of millions of dollars for Hunterdon’s 128,349 residents.Such a consolidation would be unprecedented for New Jersey school districts, but New Jersey Future, the nonprofit research group, noted that the Central Bucks School District -- located in the Pennsylvania county across the Delaware River from Hunterdon -- has one superintendent directing 15 elementary schools, five middle schools, and three high schools serving nine municipalities with a population of 114,548.“It cannot be argued that taxpaying voters who democratically reject an option offered them by an agency of the State bureaucracy should, therefore, forfeit their right to property tax relief funding,” Dressel wrote in a December letter to legislators.

"There has been more real interest in shared services in the last few years than in the previous 35 years combined." Interlocal service-sharing agreements date back to 1973, but while municipalities have added more and more shared service pacts over the years, most were contracts with other towns for non-core services such as animal control officers or building inspectors.

“Some people are against it, the preponderance of people think it’s about time and long overdue, and some think it’s too much, too soon.” Any countywide school consolidation would require the apportioning of taxes on an equalized basis, potentially resulting in tax cuts for about half of Hunterdon’s 26 municipalities, but tax increases for the others if the projected savings are not as large as expected.

But what is most significant to Walton is that the idea of regionalizing school districts suddenly has widespread support.

Or we’re going to reach a tipping point where the situation is so bad that we have to make severe cuts rather than having the ability to take a phased-in approach” that cushions the impact on employees, he said.

It was Raritan Township Mayor John King who originally suggested the idea of consolidating Hunterdon County’s 24 local school districts and five regional high school districts into a single countywide district, and backed it up with a formal resolution from the Raritan Township Committee asking the Hunterdon County Shared Services Working Group to study the idea.

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Towns are talking to school boards, school boards to counties.” The biggest change, Dressel said, “is that more towns are now directing their attention to emergency services -- to police, fire, first aid and police dispatching -- and they're getting more cooperation from their police and fire unions than previously because in many cases they're still talking about retaining jobs." Dressel and Walton agreed that fiscal and economic pressures are driving elected officials to consider police or school consolidation initiatives that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

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