3.02.2008

SMALL TOWN, SMALL GOVERNMENT

Amy's family is from New Jersey, so I get asked a lot about my opinion of Governor Corzine's proposed budget. My general take, without having delved into the details, is that the state has lived beyond its means for a generation, effectively pushing costs and challenges to future generations; and since Corzine was hired to do the tough stuff needed to get that right, he would get my support if I was a voter and taxpayer.

One easy place for efficiency is government consolidation. This is a terrifying word for many, who view it as a threat to small towns and a code word for massive layoffs. Yesterday's Inquirer had a nice piece on the subject: "Small NJ Towns See Big Threat." One resident is quoted as fearing consolidation would mean his municipality would lose its small town feel.

Let's make an important distinction between a small town and a small government. Government consolidation, in New Jersey's case, does not necessarily need to be about small towns getting swallowed by bigger ones, but rather right-sizing the level of geography of various services that have become inefficiently cut up into pieces. To use a countrywide example, national defense is necessarily a federal concern. It would be stupid for each city or even state to have their own national defense budget. Instead, we all pay federal taxes and the federal government provides this service.

On a more local level, not every municipality is big enough to justify its own power grid or water treatment facility. So while some big cities have their own, many smaller towns have shared access to such resources. There is no discernible change to the end user; we all still flick on our light switches and turn on our taps, with no thought as to what size of government structure enabled that convenience.

Let's get back to New Jersey. According to the Inquirer article, the state has 566 municipalities, 616 school districts, 486 local authorities, and 792 fire companies. Pine Valley, population 19, has a mayor and borough commissioners, a clerk, a solicitor, a tax assessor, a tax collector, and even its own police force of seven. It also has a school district, although it has no children.

To me, that's a lot of salaries and a lot of administration that doesn't need to be there. Consolidating the services with neighboring jurisdictions would have no discernible impact on the end-users. Pine Valley is a bad example because it's actually a golf course masquerading as a town; but there are other examples of towns of less than 500 people that have paid government administrators and school boards, and consolidating these functions into larger geographies would save money without adversely affecting the services received by residents and workers.

It seems to me that if you want to live in a small town, you can have it one of two ways. The town can be smart about sharing services that deserve to be shared, so as to provide those things at reasonable service levels for reasonable tax rates. Or it can decide that it wants to be a very amenity-rich place, and set high tax rates in exchange for the high service levels. But it can’t have it both ways, and demand high overhead while complaining about high taxes. As creatures of the state, municipalities as a group are and ought to be as diverse as possible, so that within a state different people can choose into different “products” – some want big cities and others small towns, some want low taxes and others high services. Consolidating services won’t change that menu of options for New Jerseyans; it just right-sizes functions that really ought to be done at larger geographies. So let’s not confuse swallowing functions with losing small town charm.
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