Towns will get less state aid if they reject state mandates for shared services if a set of state bills becomes law.
And the Point Beach mayor, most of the Point Beach Council and the New Jersey League of Municipalities are not happy about it.
Mayor Vincent Barrella and most of the council expressed opposition at their Tuesday night meeting to the portion of the companion state Senate and Assembly bills that would financially penalize towns if they ignore a state commission's dictates for specific shared services.
Mayor Vincent Barrella said that if Senate bill, S-2 and its companion Assembly bill, A-1171, become law, they could ultimately mean Point Beach loses as much as $200,000 in state aid and that it should be a concern for all municipalities in New Jersey.
"This should send a shudder down the spine of every mayor and local governing body member in New Jersey," Barrella said in an interview on Thursday. "This is a frontal assault on home rule."
Not everyone agrees. At the Tuesday night meeting at Councilmen William Mayer and Tim Lurie voted no on the opposition vote.
"There are things in this bill that could be positive, to help towns share services," said Mayer, who was sworn in on Jan. 1. "There is some merit to the bill."
"If you want to vote against home rule, go ahead," Barrella countered. "People who bought homes in Point Beach did so because they want to live in Point Beach."
Barrella said he believes, from talking to local residents, that they want to continue to live in Point Beach, with its current level of services, and not be merged into Point Borough or forced into any shared services they don't feel will save money or work efficiently.
"Well, if you don't want to merge with the Borough, what about Bay Head?" Lurie asked.
Bay Head Mayor Wiliam Curtis and Council President John DeFilippis could not be reached for comment.
Lurie also said at the meeting that any proposal for shared services still goes to the voters.
"But if the voters turn it down, the state cuts the funds they think we would have saved," said Councilman Bret Gordon, who was sworn in on Jan. 1. "Anything that invalidates the vote of the residents is something we have to oppose."
Councilman Stephen Reid said, "I work in Trenton and the last thing I want is for Trenton to tell us how to run our town. I'm with you, Mayor."
The council's 4 to 2 vote has no immediate, direct impact on the progress of the bills, but serves as an opposition message to Trenton.
Copies of the council's resolution opposing the bills are being sent to Gov. Christie, state legislators, mayors throughout the state, the Ocean County Board of Freeholders, the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors.
Who is backing the bill, how it would work and where it stands
Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem), is sponsoring the bill, with Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., R-Monmouth, and Sen. Kevin J. O'Toole, R-Bergen, Essex, Morris and Passaic.
Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Sweeney, said in a telephone interview that Barrella is "overreacting" when he cautions the bill could make Point Beach lose $200,000 or any amount of state aid.
"This is not going to be the state rushing in telling the town what to do," Roseman said. "It's not going to be a shotgun wedding. This bill calls for an independent state commission to meet with the towns to try to work out the best plan for entering into shared services or consolidation to save money.
"For some towns, there may be no way to share services and save money, so the commission won't say they should do that," he said. "But for other towns, that are ignoring opportunities to share services and save money, the commission will work on a plan with the towns to do that."
The process would call for the state commission, the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC), to come up with a plan that would be put to a public referendum.
If the referendum vote is against the state finding, the state would reduce state aid by the amount it thinks the town would have saved through the shared service it is rejecting. Towns can appeal to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
"In my opinion," Barrella said, "the likelihood that the DCA will override the commission is infinitesimally small."
The bill says there will be no aid reduction if towns reject a "consolidation," which is a merger of municipalities into one.
While Roseman acknowledged that towns who ultimately reject the commission's findings are subject to reductions in state aid, he said that would be a last resort after the towns have ample opportunity to present their facts and figures to the commission and after putting the matter to a public referendum vote.
"If the commission says the town can save money through a shared service and the town votes it down, then we're not going to continue to subsidize inefficient government," Roseman said.
Barrella said he could go along with the bill if it stopped short of usurping the will of the public.
"But the fact that the public can vote on this and the state can penalize the town for not going along with what they want is what I object to," he said.
Carrots and Sticks
Legislators felt compelled to include a punitive element in the bill because, Roseman said, "nothing else has worked."
"We tried offering grants and encouraging towns," Roseman said. "We tried the carrots and they didn't work. Now it's time to break out some sticks."
The New Jersey League of Municipalities has a different take on why the "carrots" didn't work.
"The carrots had been eaten by the time they got to us," said Michael Cerra, the League's senior legislative analyst in a telephone interview. "It's historic. It's nothing new. Years ago the towns had handshake agreements on what we now call 'shared services.' The state didn't back them up with enough administrative and financial resources.
"The state has provided seed money for towns from time to time and then taken that seed money away," Cerra continued. "There have been promises the state would help absorb up-front costs and then that was taken away. The state has never made sustained efforts to assist towns with this on a long-term basis."
So when League officials spotted the threat of state aid cuts in the bill last year, they started meeting with Sweeney and his staff. As noted in a Dec. 8 League letter on its website, the primary concern is the "penalty part" of the bill, Cerra notes. (The Senate bill was introduced last year as S-2794 and re-introduced this year as S-2 and the Assembly bill had been A-3918 and is now A-1171.)
"We don't think there should be a penalty, we're hopeful that can be worked out," Cerra said. "The focus needs to be on removing barriers to have cost-effective shared services."
"We've been working with the legislators on the language, they've been very open to us and we've had a lot of discussions," Cerra said. "I'm not quite sure where we'll land. These are two bills that will likely be heard."
Roseman said the Senate bill has been referred to the Community and Urban Affairs Committee and will probably also be reviewed by the Budget Committee.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said in an email on Friday that Christie is working with the key legislators on the bill.
"The Governor supports consolidation and shared services as a way to take control of costs and further reduce property taxes," Drewniak said. "He has spoken enthusiastically about his common goals with Senate President Sweeney and other legislative leaders in this regard, and we continue our work with them as this legislation progresses."
When asked if Christie supports the punitive portion of the bills, Drewniak said, "For now, I’m not going to add anything, which is customary during development of legislation."
As for the amount of state aid Point Beach has received in recent years, the amounts are as follows, according to data from Point Beach Borough Business Administrator Christine Riehl:2011 $571,362.00 2010 $571,383.00 2009 $743,790.00 2008 $758,362.00 2007 $885,723.00 2006 $869,704.00 2005 $869,718.42 2004 $869,704.00 2003 $803,051.72 2002 $797,252.22 2001 $797,786.00
Barrella said he urges any municipal officials who have questions or objections to contact the League of Municipalities and their state legislators as soon as possible.
"Right now the snowball can be stopped, before it starts rolling down the hill," he said.