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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

New Jersey counties find reforms bring efficiencies

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE PROJECTS EDITOR

One in an ongoing series

HACKENSACK, N.J. - In the race for New Jersey's Bergen County executive seat this fall, the Republican challenger will run on a platform that residents' taxes are too high.

The Democratic incumbent, who's seeking a third term, agrees.

"That's the number one issue in Bergen County," Executive Dennis McNerney said in an interview with The Blade from his spacious Hackensack office with a view of the New York City skyline.

Mr. McNerney and his opponent, county Clerk Kathleen Donovan, also agree on another point: The executive council-type structure of government in Bergen County gives the executive the power to lessen the tax burden on residents by encouraging the sharing of municipal government services among the county's 70 towns.

As the debate rages in northwest Ohio's Lucas County over the need for government reform and the shape those reforms should take, some elected officials, bureaucrats, and politicos on all sides of the discussion have opined that there is room for a streamlining of services to taxpayers.

Ben Konop, the Lucas County commissioner who is advocating a citizens' petition drive to place a charter and executive-council county government on the Nov. 2 ballot, three years ago commissioned a panel to study ways to make municipal and county government more efficient. Among the recommendations of that panel were various ways Lucas County and Toledo could share services and save taxpayers' money, but few if any of those sug-gestions were implemented.

More recently, as the debate has materialized over Lucas County possibly changing from its antiquated structure of commissioners and row officers to the executive-council format, figures such as former local and state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Ruvolo and county Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak have suggested studying a move to "unigov" - in which municipalities merge governments with the county to provide services.

And still others, such as former Lucas County administrator and current city of Oregon Administrator Mike Beazley, long have discussed the need for cities and towns to share services, enter into joint purchasing agreements, and eliminate many of the redundancies caused by governments in the county's 21 communities.

In New Jersey, where there are 21 counties, more than 560 towns, and more than 600 school districts, sharing services and merging smaller governments may be the only option to lowering property taxes that are among the highest in the nation.

A blueprint for achieving those efficiencies can be found in at least two New Jersey counties - Bergen and neighboring Essex - where county executives not only have crafted agendas and enforced policies to streamline county government but also have offered encouragement and mediation for towns looking to share services and save cash.

"It's a regional government," Mr. McNerney said.

Bergen County, with about 895,000 people, and Essex County, with about 743,000, are New Jersey's most populous and third-most populous counties, respectively. They are among the five counties in the state to swap a commissioner government structure for the county executive format.

For comparison's sake, what Ohio calls a "county commissioner," New Jersey refers to as a freeholder - a term and government style that dates back more than 300 years. Fifteen of New Jersey's 21 counties are governed by a board of freeholders, and one county has an appointed county manager fulfilling executive duties.

Bergen and Essex counties, which have executives and a board of freeholders providing checks and balances on the executive, took different paths to reform.

In Bergen, a charter commission established in 1984 to study multiple alternative governing methods recommended a change to an executive-freeholder system that voters approved a year later.

In Essex, after a charter commission recommended in the 1970s to maintain the freeholders government, a bipartisan group of residents collected signatures to place a new charter on the ballot and change government styles later that decade.

It may have been the people of Essex County who pushed for and ultimately achieved reform there in the late 1970s, but repeated scandals had turned off many of those same people by the time current county Executive Joe DiVincenzo was elected in 2002.

"Towns wanted to secede from Essex County," Mr. DiVincenzo quipped.

Essex County, the home of fictional mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO's The Sopranos, had more than one thing in common with the typical crime syndicate.

The two county executives prior to Mr. DiVincenzo eventually were convicted of corruption and extortion charges stemming from their actions in office. County construction projects had been stalled for years and were draining public funds, and the county's debt bond rating had plummeted to junk status.

"People didn't want to come to Essex County," said Mr. DiVincenzo, a Democrat and past president of the Essex freeholder board. "People didn't believe in their government. … This place didn't look the way it does today."

While Newark, the Essex County seat, continues to struggle with city budget deficits, high crime, and unemployment, Mr. DiVincenzo has made countywide improvements that have benefited downtown Newark as well.

As the overseer of Essex County's eight departments and architect of the county's $675 million budget, Mr. DiVincenzo took a $64 million deficit and turned it into a budget surplus that climbed as high as $54 million in 2007 (he says the surplus today is about $16 million). The county's bond rating has risen six times to A-1 status.

Referring to himself as the "construction manager" for all county projects, Mr. DiVincenzo has a packet of public projects completed under his watch, including parks, a new jail, and the transformation of a former jail into government office space. The latter two projects are revenue generators for the county.

Mr. DiVincenzo also has established shared service agreements with 12 of the county's 22 towns for culvert cleaning, traffic light maintenance, street sweeping, and leaf collection.

DiVincenzo administration statistics show that Essex taxes have increased minimally compared to virtually all other New Jersey counties in the last eight years.

In New Jersey, property owners pay a single tax collected by the municipality they live in that goes toward funding school systems, municipal governments, and county governments. Each time one of those governing bodies increases its budget, property taxes go up.

With Bergen County's budget rising 3.9 percent from 2008 to $480 million in 2009, the Republican executive candidate, Ms. Donovan, is homing in on a key issue for her party's base in Republican-leaning Bergen.

"We've grown too big," Ms. Donovan said. "Dennis has let spending get out of hand."

Mr. McNerney said Bergen County residents pay an average of $7,500 a year to live in their homes - about 60 percent of which he said goes to fund schools. He said about 10 percent goes to county government.

"I don't believe county government's the issue," said Mr. McNerney, who claims to have brought efficiencies to Bergen County by reducing the county payroll 10 percent.

Mr. McNerney said he's been working the last two years to reduce taxes by promoting shared services throughout the county.

Since 2008, some of the McNerney administration's accomplishments include:

•Initiating a shared purchasing agreement program for emergency medical equipment for all Bergen towns.

•Providing hybrid police cruisers for four different boroughs to share.

•Merging the county's utility authority with the same functioning body in a smaller Bergen community.

•Regionalizing the 911 dispatch operation to eliminate the redundant departments in municipalities.

"I am just creeping around looking for" any service that can be shared or merged, Mr. McNerney said. "We're opening a new dispatch center where the county is going to all the towns and saying we'll do their dispatching because towns can't keep up. These small towns with a $4 million budget just can't do it any more."

Mr. McNerney is also in favor of towns with fewer than 10,000 residents merging entire governments but has been met with resistance from those who value home rule in their small communities.

In Lucas County, there have been some successes for collaboration among entities. Those successes include a single library system throughout the county, a Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, and a county emergency medical transport system.

But when the initial stages of a merger between the city of Sylvania and Sylvania Township came up for a vote in 2008, it went down to major defeat in the township.

Gene Kramer, a Cleveland-area attorney and primary architect of the only two county charters adopted among Ohio's 88 counties, said the ultimate goal for government reformers should be merging services and governments. But he said the only way to bring about a "truly regional" government is to first adopt an executive-council county government.

"I don't think regionalism will ever come about unless you reform county government and it's structured to have different communities working together," said Mr. Kramer, who said a county council elected by district promotes trust and collaboration throughout the county that could lead to future reform.

Bergen County's Ms. Donovan, who hesitates to embrace entire government mergers but is in favor of sharing services, says the executive-freeholder format there paves the way for positive changes to be made in trying times.

"I think we made the right choice 25 years ago to have a county executive form of government … and it's right for the 21st century because there has to be one person in charge," she said, later adding: "All politics aside for a moment, whether it's Dennis or me, this is an excellent way to do government."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6559.



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