Bergen Cty & its Shared Service Challenges

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Bergen County, the state’s most populous County (905K), has 70 municipal jurisdictions ranging in size from Teterboro (67) and Rockleigh (391) to Hackensack (43K) and Teaneck (39K) respectively – indicating how misleading it is to calculate the “average” population of Bergen municipalities (12.9K). The number of County municipalities skyrocketed after a 1894 law allowed referenda of subunits to establish new local boundaries (boroughs) and in a phenomenon called “boroughitis” townships and other local jurisdictions were quickly formed largely motivated by being able to carve out lower local tax structures.

That administration of efficient economies of scale for a variety of public services do not now follow these municipal boundaries is obvious. Indeed, there is agreement among academics, most county and state public officials, an informal poll of BGR members and even the state’s residents (71% in one FDU poll) that in the abstract both “shared services”, consolidation and/or the delegation of more service administration to county/regional governance would help stem the steady rise of municipal taxes while preserving services.

But when proposals emerge to actually implement these sharing concepts, local officials and very often the residents they serve balk at specific steps. And then when examples of local and or county government official malfeasance are revealed, the focus often shifts from shared services to making sure first that the existing government processes are free of corruption and functioning efficiently. A clear sense that existing local governance is competent and on the “up and up” may well precede willingness to move the decision center further from the electorate.

To begin this exploration, BGR asked those who were involved in the recent Hackensack elections that were viewed by most media, particularly the editorial page of the Record, to represent a successful electoral reform effort to describe what they did and how it was achieved. Part of that discussion focused on what challenges the new electoral officials and those advising them are facing as they try to implement internal city changes. The panel of key Hackensack officials, led by state assemblyman Gordon Johnson, active member of Hackensack’s official “transition team”, walked us through their perceptions of these issues.

Municipal Reform in BGR’s future: BGR intends to pursue exploration of municipal reform – where it has worked, why and how reform is informing the definition and implementation of more efficient delivery of services within and across existing municipal borders. It is considering reaching out to representative small and medium size municipalities in the County, perhaps through formation of a new municipal reform task force, to record what can be learned from municipalities of all sizes and to report it back not only to BGR but to the media as well.

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