Christie's Toolkit, and its Discontents
Property tax cap measures will require several points of municipal restructuring in Cranford.
What is the toolkit?
Governor Chris Christie's property tax cap goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2011. The legislation holds all local government tax hikes below a 2 percent ceiling, excepting voter mandate that might allow increase above it. As a response to municipality worries that they will not be able to function, and that vital services would need severe cutbacks or eliminations to avoid exceeding the cap, a "Toolkit" of measures to enable these governing bodies the ability to function with less has been offered.
Among the reforms required by the toolkit are several involving arbitrators between governing bodies and unions (which represent law enforcement, firefighters, etc.), pension benefits allocations, worker furloughs, as well as several reforms directly affecting the educational system.
A complete listing of these changes can be found as a press release on Gov. Chris Christie's Web site.
When will we see the toolkit measures take effect?
The collective of bills that comprise the Toolkit has been a point of contention in the Statehouse for nearly six months, with Republicans and the Democratic majority at a stalemate. This has become a source of frustration to the Cranford local government, as the tax cap is an inevitability but the measures with which to facilitate it are not.
How will it affect Cranford?
Mayor Mark Smith is very clear about the Toolkit's necessity. "Without the Toolkit in place, the 2 percent cap is really difficult, if not impossible, for municipalities to work with."
Some of the changes Smith feels would be most beneficial to Cranford are directly connected to arbitration, pension and an overall benefits system he characterizes as, "…way out of whack."
Specific to this, Smith points to a 4.25 percent increase in salaries for the police and fire departments, aside from standard increases. He feels that, without changes that would give local government more leverage in the arbitration process with the unions, increases such as these will continue. Without the ability to make that reduction, the mandated 2 percent cap will require townships to draw from other services, hands tied from addressing these other expenditures.
He also feels that savings could be achieved by reforming the election process, moving Board of Education elections from April to November, to coincide with existing electoral infrastructure; the combination of the two voting instances would be a strong reduction to budgetary needs.
Public Affairs Commissioner Daniel Aschenbach supports the Toolkit, but with caveats. "It sounds good, but Cranford municipal employee wage increases have always been close to the cost of living. I do not think much in the toolkit, which relates to arbitration reform, helps communities like Cranford to better balance property taxes with services. Maybe it would help if inflation comes back but our increases have been less than private sector for many years."
Aschenbach sees several primary issues that will need to be addressed in order to make it work. "We cannot keep funding the Rahway Valley Sewer debt service as an operating expense. 2011 may increase this item by 25 percent. The cost increase is to prevent ocean dumping of sewage which should be funded by a broader tax base."
Aschenbach continues, "There are numerous budget issues before the township from reducing the garage deficit, to debt restructuring, and municipal reorganization."
Are there any alternatives?
One organization The Citizens' Campaign, decided to stop waiting for the Toolkit to pass. They presented a group of cost-cutting measures of their own, "The People's Tool Kit," advising mandatory competitive insurance bidding, banning benefits for part-time officials and the creation of an oversight citizen's task force to address cost-sharing measures.
Heather Taylor, the communications director for Citizens' Campaign, says the need for a localized approach is greater considering prior efforts on the part of statewide government.
"(The Toolkit) is built around thirty-three bills that have been stymied in the legislature," she says.With governing partisanship in the mix, the CC expects that the final result will be a weakened series of measures.
Taylor points to Citizens' Campaign's "no-blame attitude" and asserts that the best way to make the effort work is by "…changing the culture of local municipalities."
A press statement from the Citizens' Campaign also suggests bidding for grant money regarding municipal energy audits – millions of dollars in local government grants are currently available through a rebate program.
"More than 500 municipal and county entities are eligible for $20,000 rebates and up to $50,000 in direct funding for energy saving measures. Government entities have until December 31 to apply," the press statement reads.
What will happen if the toolkit doesn't pass the legislature?
To those who are in doubt of the Toolkit plan and have concerns, Commissioner Aschenbach offers this: "Local government in Cranford delivers service to citizens effectively. Yes, we have complaints, but we also respond and try to resolve. Local government is the closet to citizens and that means we are closer to what citizens want."
Currently, there is opposition to passing the measures in the legislature, and Mayor Smith himself is not optimistic about the chances of passage of the plans, but is adamant of their need. "If (the toolkit) isn't adopted, the 2 percent levy cap will just be a reduction in services. Services will continue to erode, and if a municipality can't provide for the safety of its citizens, then what's the point of having a governing body at all?"