Off the Cuff: March 2011

It’s time to rethink how the government spends our money.

One thing our current economic problems have taught us is that we have to think differently about how the government spends our money. All of us have made necessary changes in our lives, and in our businesses — we’ve had no choice. But Americans have generally had a very hard time understanding why our government hasn’t done the same. Of course there’s been a big hue and cry about federal overspending, and about state budgets. But I’m also thinking about government on the smallest level, in our towns and suburbs and villages. That, too, has to change.

In New Jersey, we’re beginning to see that happen. We’ve all watched as Governor Christie has become something of a national spokesman for talking tough to teachers’ unions and on state pensions and other bloated expenses. Recently, New Jersey state senate president Stephen Sweeney has been speaking the same language on a more local level, talking about governments sharing services instead of each town or borough providing everything for its citizens. Sweeney says the problem is that a lot of mayors “don’t want to give up their kingdoms.”

My town, Margate, is a prototypical example. Margate shares an island with Ventnor and Longport (Atlantic City is on the northern end). Is there any reason why these three small vacation towns should have three police departments, and three fire departments, and three public-works departments? Of course not. But that’s how small towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania developed. They became their own entities, soup-to-nuts providers for their residents. This is a quaint idea that has to die.

Senator Sweeney, who is an ironworker and a union man, is the surprising leader of a revolt that naturally will eliminate many superfluous government jobs. The senator is from Gloucester County, and he’s been pushing to combine services there for a decade, at a substantial savings for taxpayers. There are 24 towns in Gloucester County; five years ago, every one had its own emergency medical service, and many struggled to get ambulances to respond fast enough. So Sweeney created a countywide EMS, which bills residents at a reduced cost, a service so reliable it recently won a state award. Yet nine of those 24 towns in the county are still holding out — still running their own EMS units, even though they also now pay for the countywide EMS. Which is outrageous.

Gloucester County has saved more than $24 million by sharing police, fire, tax assessing, trash and other services. Senator Sweeney told us that “you get a lot of heat” over shaking up the status quo of bloated little governments. People resisting consolidation, Sweeney says, “has to do with keeping jobs. With protecting what you have. Even though they understand that consolidation is right.”

I’ve felt firsthand the challenge he faces. Not long ago, I attended a commissioners meeting in Margate where building a new fire station was discussed. Instead, we should have been talking about how to consolidate fire-fighting services for the southern end of the island. Yet at this meeting, firemen appeared in uniform and lined the walls. Would anyone dare get up to suggest that, just maybe, a new fire station wasn’t needed in Margate? Of course not.

Senator Sweeney now has a bill in the works that would take state funding away from municipalities that refuse to share services with nearby towns. Bravo, Senator Sweeney! Please come to Margate and talk some sense into our part-time commissioners, who oppose cost-saving measures at every turn. (Upon request, I’ll supply their names and home phone numbers.)

All of us have been startled to discover how every state, every city, township and town seems to be going broke. How did this happen? It’s not the economy — spending is out of control. We’ve been pumping far too much money into local governments for too long. It’s time to cut back. And that means, folks, when you call the cops or an ambulance, it just might come from a neighboring town. It’s time to get over it.