Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) recently introduced legislation that would dissolve county government and require the State and municipalities to perform the functions of the State’s only true regional form of government.
Although we commend the Assemblyman for putting forth a proposal to reduce the State’s multiple layers of bureaucracy and overwhelming property tax burden, this legislation does not take into consideration the fact that neither the State nor its 565 municipalities have the resources available or subject matter expertise to provide the essential services delivered by county government on a daily basis. Some of these critical services include: administering the State’s social service programs; maintaining and operating the county jails, court and juvenile detention facilities, expansive park systems, and virtually every bridge in the State; funding the county colleges, county vocational-technical schools, and offices of the county prosecutor; managing elections and vital statistics; probating wills; promoting economic development and job growth; providing transportation services for the aged and disabled; regulating consumer affairs; handling solid waste and recycling activities; and, much more.
Moreover, as municipalities continue to struggle with the 2.0% property tax cap, a declining ratable base, and a seemingly never-ending barrage of unfunded State mandates, towns across New Jersey are looking to county government for leadership and relief. In addition to delivering the scope of services highlighted above, county government has evolved over the past decade into providing traditional municipal functions at a significant cost savings for local property taxpayers while enhancing the level of service provided. Some of these former municipal functions include: cooperative purchasing, 911 dispatch, animal control, public health, tax assessor, electronic waste recycling, public works, wastewater management, vehicle maintenance, EMS, police, and much more. In fact, Burlington and Gloucester counties alone will save their property taxpayers approximately $50.0 million in 2015 by delivering many of these time-honored municipal services at the regional level. These substantial savings and creativity in governing in a cost-effective manner is a story being told in all 21 counties across the State.
The statement contained in this legislation cites Rhode Island and Connecticut as states that do not have county government, but fails to mention that Rhode Island eliminated county government in 1842 and has only 35 municipalities that essentially function as counties. Connecticut eliminated county government in 1959 as the State exercised significant administrative control over county functions at the time, but has since created planning regions to fill the void. County government plays a limited role in Massachusetts, but as is the case in Connecticut, State leaders are re-considering the importance of a regional form of government. According to a 2014 study conducted by the “Tax Policy Center,” these states also have the unfortunate distinction of joining New Jersey in the top ten of states with the highest property tax burdens in the nation. The remaining 46 States maintain strong forms of county government that effectively respond to specific local needs and lower property tax obligations as a result. Although New Jersey may in fact have too many layers of bureaucracy, counties must continue to play a vital and growing role in relieving residents and businesses of the highest property tax liability in the land.
The New Jersey Association of Counties (NJAC) is committed to advocating for legislation, regulations, and policy directives that empower county government to operate more effectively and efficiently. As a non-partisan organization that represents the only true regional form of government in the State with a unified and proactive voice, NJAC is dedicated to advancing innovative programs and initiatives that enhance the level of service provided and save valuable taxpayer dollars.