Mayoral Musings: Value in Sharing

By: Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

BRIDGETON, N.J. – As a mayor, there are certain things you tend to keep an eye on because of the potential to help your community financially and otherwise. What those things are varies from town to town and each mayor will have his or her own mental checklist, but there are some constants and one of them is shared services. I recall focusing on this several years ago and at that time, we had approximately 18 such agreements. As of this writing, that number has gone up to 31, including 24 where Bridgeton is providing something and seven where we are receiving.

As the New Jersey Shared Services Portal points out, there are roughly 600 school districts in the state and 565 municipalities. You have to wonder how many of these communities duplicate services and at what cost. When I pondered this question previously, I learned that nearly 60 percent of the communities in the state had a population of less than 10,000 spread out over some 250 boroughs, 245 townships, 15 towns, and three villages. Surely, there are some improvements to be had.

At first glance, as a topic of discussion, shared services has about the same appeal as reading a user’s manual for a toaster oven. But shave a little down below the surface and you quickly realize that people can be passionate about the subject in much the same way some people are passionate about protecting the right to bear arms. That’s because it speaks to “home rule,” which in turn touches on a “don’t tread on me” sensibility in society. 

This mindset is fully understandable, since freedom to choose and to control our environment is what this country and our communities are founded upon. Viewed in those terms, $150,000 or $200,000 worth of shared services (i.e. Bridgeton’s range), whether you’re providing or receiving them, hardly seems worth it if it means losing autonomy. But as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, community life is much more involved than it was when most communities were founded, and autonomy comes with a pricetag.  

For Bridgeton, we participate in a variety of shared service agreements, mostly with our neighbors in western Cumberland County and with County government. These services include a joint municipal court, emergency medical services, public works equipment, fire safety and construction code inspections, tax assessing, fleet maintenance, police services, and water emergencies. There is also mutual aid for fire calls and solid waste/recycling services. But there is room to expand shared services.

The list seems like a good cross-section, touching a lot of areas, and is a testament to the fact that modern community life is complicated. Shared services as a formal framework for local government in the state emerged in the 1970s when New Jersey passed laws authorizing and defining the concept. In the last decade or so, shared services in its various forms throughout the Garden State has saved about $28 million. Each governor for the past two decades, regardless of party, has encouraged shared services and bills have been considered in the legislature with only limited success.

Yet, I suspect that municipalities will have to get better at shared services in the years ahead and much of the pressure will come from the things local communities will be required to do just to maintain a minimum of health and safety. I’m thinking now about basic things like water and sewer, trash and recycling, energy generation and conservation, just to name a few. I don’t know how climate change or global warming will impact these, but it won’t be neutral. As science and technology uncover more threats to health, we’ll have to respond and there won’t be many quick fixes—just expensive ones.

We’re in the habit of expecting government to step in and solve problems, especially problems the private sector can’t easily turn a profit on or where the risk is just too high. This won’t change, but as the problems become more complex, touching more of our lives, it will mean that government at all levels will have to become leaner and more efficient in order to respond. 

If I’m right about the future, then much of what we’ve been doing in the way of shared services are really just baby steps whose chief value is not so much cost savings (though there are some) but in getting us accustomed to the idea that in the not-too-distant-future, we won’t have much of a choice but to share more.