Consolidating municipal services

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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 used to be that shared services were a good idea for someone else’s town,” Professor Peter Woolley, the FDU poll director, said in releasing the poll last April.“Now, voters are suggesting that it’s a good idea for their town too.” The question on the state level is whether a “carrot-or-stick” approach is the best way to encourage major cost savings through shared services and consolidation initiatives.Spending caps, rising property tax appeals, and a sluggish economy are spurring elected officials to push for police department consolidation, school district regionalization, and other shared services in a movement that promises to reshape the way government services are provided in New Jersey."The idea of merging police forces or school districts used to be the third rail of politics,” said Hunterdon County Freeholder Rob Walton. It's now part of the everyday discourse on how we govern ourselves as counties, municipalities, and school districts.

"Quite frankly, towns are doing everything they can to reduce the bottom line,” Dressel said. They're reevaluating interlocal service agreements to see if they can add additional communities or cooperate with counties or school boards, and they're breaking down a lot of the barriers that used to exist.The landmark countywide school consolidation proposal by the Hunterdon County Shared Services Task Force is just the latest in a series of initiatives that are sweeping the state, with Republican Gov.Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) providing high-level, bipartisan political support: What is striking about these unprecedented and ambitious initiatives is that they are being pushed by Republican and Democratic officials in urban, suburban, and rural counties throughout the state, and “home rule” has taken a back seat in the discussion to questions of cost savings, quality of service, and staffing levels.Christie declared two weeks ago that an increased emphasis on shared services is the key to reducing property taxes, and said he is working with Sweeney on legislation to drive property tax savings.Sweeney sounded the same note as Christie in declaring that shared services would be one of his three major initiatives for the upcoming legislative session, and by reintroducing a shared services bill that carries a big stick.

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