By Michael M. Shapiro
Last month, Senator Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), chair of the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, scored points for fiscal responsibility and common sense by advocating the elimination of pension credit for part-time government employees.
At the end of April, she scored a touchdown when she pledged to reject any attempts to insert “Christmas Tree items” into the budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. She also proposed the restoration of $62 million in proposed cuts in municipal aid, including $37 million in eliminated tax relief for towns with fewer than 10,000 residents.
So-called “Christmas Tree items” are typically inserted by legislators during the final phase of the budget process to provide money for pet projects of that legislator. Usually, the projects will benefit the legislator politically and will benefit supporters of the legislator financially. “Christmas Tree items” inflate our state budget by tens of millions of dollars every year, costing our taxpayers unnecessarily. Senator Buono’s pledge to reject all “Christmast Tree items” is not only welcome but should be adopted by every legislator.
Governor Corzine’s proposed budget calls for reducing the Consolidate Municipal Property Tax Relief Act by $62 million. All towns with populations under 5,000 would lose all relief, estimated at $22 million. Fifteen million dollars would be lost by towns with populations of between 5,000 and 10,000 residents.
The governor’s proposal is meant to encourage shared services and the elimination of duplication on the part of small towns. However, the adoption of shared services takes time to implement and, in some cases, is not possible. In addition, what might be deemed duplication could be, in reality, necessary for the proper functioning of a municipality.
The governor’s plan proposes a drastic elimination of aid to small towns, which will cause steep increases in property taxes. Rather than penalize all less-populated municipalities, it may be suggested that the governor work to implement benchmarks for shared services that all small towns in New Jersey should attempt to meet over a certain period of time. These benchmarks could be tied to future state funding, thereby providing time for small towns to implement shared services and for adequate notice to prepare for budget shortfalls should they not meet the intended goals.
Senator Buono’s pledge to refuse to allow so-called “Christmas Tree items” in this year’s state budget should be adopted by all legislators. Her proposal to restore $62 million in funding to small municipalities is appropriate at this time.
However, the adoption of shared services and the elimination of duplication in all New Jersey municipalities should also be implemented as soon as possible. To that end, the provision of benchmarks for small towns coupled with a period to implement such changes before state funding is reduced, would be a step in the right direction.
Michael M. Shapiro, founder of ShapTalk.com, is an attorney who resides in New Providence. He currently serves as the editor of The Alternative Press, www.thealternativepress.com Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org
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