We are either going to change or, frankly, die. Look at the American auto industry. They didn't change, and now they are on the verge of death. The same thing is true of the financial industry. They didn't change their greedy and irresponsible ways and had to be bailed out with an obscene federal rescue plan. The same thing is true of individuals, especially when it comes to money. We sometimes spend money we don't have, refuse to change our ways and then find out that our debt is so out of control that we can't get credit.
In New Jersey, this painful fact of economic life is becoming truer than ever before, particularly when it comes to smaller communities that refuse to change. I am talking about towns of just a few thousands people who refuse to seriously consider consolidating with neighboring towns just as small. New Jersey has 611 school districts and nearly 600 individual communities. It is called "home rule" and it hasn't changed in hundreds of years in our state.
We like home rule. We like our own neighborhood schools, police department and fire department. We like having the name of our town stay the same. It makes us feel comfortable and makes us feel we belong to something that is our own. That's all well and good, but like I said, economic times are tough and those communities that refuse to change are going to find themselves teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Municipal services are being cut drastically. State aid will consistently be reduced. State officials encourage communities to find ways to be more economical by sharing services, but the resistance remains.
A couple of years ago, there was a Monmouth University/Gannett poll that found that 7 out of 10 New Jersey residents would be "very willing to share police and fire services if in fact it produced a significant reduction in property taxes." Except here is the problem. In spite of those encouraging poll numbers, nothing much has been done in the past couple of years to merge and consolidate communities that are so small that it is impossible to achieve any economies of scale.
How many school districts do you know of that have merged or consolidated in the past few years? How many police and fire departments have come together so they only have one boss? It's just not happening. It is as if just because we want things to be a certain way, we expect a positive outcome, even though all the evidence is to the contrary. Economies of scale, otherwise known as doing more with less, is achieved by finding ways to accomplish things with fewer people—fewer layers of bureaucracy. You don't need a superintendent in a school system with a few hundred students, especially when you are paying that superintendent a couple hundred thousand dollars. The job doesn't warrant it and we can't afford it. Doesn't it make more sense to pay one superintendent of two communities with a few thousand people that same salary, thereby saving money on the extra salary and benefits?
Everyone says they want smaller government. We say we want our taxes to be brought under control. The problem is, either we are lying to ourselves about our willingness to do what is necessary to achieve that (consolidate and merge smaller communities) or our political leaders are ignoring this opportunity because they are scared to death that if they actually mandate or force municipal consolidation, voters would revolt.
So how does this story end? Do we simply continue to ignore all the signs of economic destruction and just keep moving forward the way we have been? Do we spend like drunken sailors and then expect to be totally sober at the end of the night? It just doesn't work that way. I am afraid that what it is going to take is municipalities to go bankrupt; to close up town hall; to lay off massive numbers of workers and simply tell citizens, "Sorry, the park is closed" or "We've got no more police or fire department."
Ridiculous you say, huh? Don't bet on it. It has happened in other parts of the country, where government entities have shut down and they will continue to do so. The question becomes, will we wait until such a dire outcome or will we finally—finally—face the hard economic facts of life that tell us that home rule just doesn't make sense any more.
If we are going to survive these brutal economic times, one of the only ways to do that is not simply to accept change, but to embrace it and celebrate it. Merging and consolidating tiny New Jersey towns is an idea that is long overdue. Let's stop playing games and do what we all know must be done. What do you think? Write to me at email@example.com