TRENTON — Outside the Statehouse Annex on Thursday, a few thousand public workers rallied in favor of Gov. Phil Murphy’s planned budget, particularly its millionaires tax, and against the Path to Progress government reforms pushed by Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Inside, that package of bills began its journey through the Legislature. The Senate state government committee started not with the high-stakes issues of pensions and health benefits, however, but instead advanced nine bills aimed at creating more efficient county and local governments.

“We have as you know the highest property taxes in the nation,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the  New Jersey Association of Counties. “Something has to be done. It’s unsustainable.”

“It’s got to be the local citizenry that really gets up in the arms to come out to their local governing body and say, ‘You really need to start addressing this.’ Because you’re going to see a mass exodus,” said Michael Egenton, an executive vice president for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce who worked decades ago for the County and Municipal Study Commission, which would be revived.

“We all have a responsibility in elected office to do our very best to protect every tax dollar,” said state Sen. James Beach, D-Camden, the committee chairman.

Nine bills advanced:

  • S3760 — Requires municipalities, counties, school districts, and local authorities to regularly meet to discuss shared service agreements.
  • S3761 — Establishes County and Municipal Study Commission.
  • S3762 — Concerns assessment of real property.
  • S3763 — Renames joint meetings as regional service agencies; grandfathers existing joint meetings.
  • S3764 — Requires counties to appoint shared service coordinators.
  • S3765 — Establishes Office of Local Government Efficiency.
  • S3767 — Establishes pilot program to permit use of generally accepted accounting principles.
  • S3768 — Requires shared service agreements to include certain provisions.
  • S3769 — Permits county police department to provide police services to municipalities.

The bill that drew the most opposition was the one permitting county police departments.

“When you merge services, and you attempt to consolidate, the larger towns end up paying more per person than the smaller towns. You merely shift the burden from one town to the other,” said Sean Lavin, executive director of the New Jersey State Fraternal Order of Police. “You don’t alleviate what that cost is by consolidating the police force. You just give it to somebody else.”

“Nobody in the communities that we’re aware of in the towns, and we represents nine-tenths of every municipal police department in New Jersey, have come screaming for the county to come take over their police department,” said Rob Nixon, director of government affairs for the New Jersey State PBA.

There is only one county police department currently, in Union County, and it covers things such as highways but isn’t the first response unit within municipalities. Camden County has a force that was created in 2013 solely to patrol the city of Camden.

The bill advanced, in part because it would allow county police departments that provide municipal services but not require it.

“It is permissive. So it’s not mandating it. It’s not requiring it. What it might do is kick start a dialogue, which we think is always helpful,” said Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

“To pass a bad law just to create a dialogue to me doesn’t make sense,” said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who abstained from the vote on that and five other bills. “There’s nothing stopping them from having the dialogue now.”

More From WOBM News: