Gov. Chris Christie proposed a tool kit of reforms in May, aimed at helping municipalities meet their local budgets. But four months on, just one of the reforms has been enacted: a 2 percent cap on any increase to local tax levies.

Christie said he hoped to see 32 other reforms passed "by summer's end," and draft legislation has circulated since May.

But several proposals have not been introduced as bills. Of the 19 that have been introduced, just a few have come up for discussion in Senate committees, and then not until this week.

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After a summer of waiting, local mayors said this week that they want to see action on the package of reforms. The proposals would limit union contract payouts, relax civil-service rules, reduce who is eligible for state pensions and make mergers cost-effective by eliminating bumping and payouts for some contract benefits.

Some officials argue those changes should have been made before the state put municipalities under any new spending cap.

"It's very important, now that legislators passed the cap, to see the tool kit go through as soon as possible," said Woodbine Mayor William Pikolycky, was was elected as an independent.

As one of the mayors who signed on to support Christie's proposal publicly, Pikolycky said he expected by now to see new powers to save municipalities money - in Woodbine's case, by sharing services.

"We've been looking at sharing our courts," Pikolycky said. Woodbine, a small borough in Cape May County, is studying how to join the court system in neighboring Middle Township.

Two of the governor's proposals would change the law that protects employees who are vested in civil service, if their jobs face merger with other departments.

Right now, a municipality following civil service rules that wants to merge services must buy out existing union contracts and bump other employees to make room for those with seniority. Christie has argued those rules undo the savings possible under any merger.

"They just destroy the point of the merger, which is to save taxpayers money," Pikolycky said.

"We want this tool kit to fill in the gaps for towns, so we have the power to control how we spend," he said.

Pikolycky is not alone in wishing money-saving measures had been enacted before the Legislature had celebrated passing a hard cap on municipalities' future budgets.

"We have argued all along that they put the cart before the horse," said Chuck Chiarello, Democratic mayor of Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County.

"I'm very disappointed in the order this has all happened," said James "Sonny" McCullough, Republican mayor of Egg Harbor Township, also in Atlantic County.

Senate and Assembly Democrats successfully overruled Christie's proposal for a tight 2.5 percent constitutional cap on increases to local tax levies, arguing that because a constitutional cap cannot be undone by legislation, it was not flexible in cases of fiscal emergencies.

Both houses voted in favor of a legislative cap with a lower margin, allowing tax levies to rise just 2 percent each year. Christie signed that proposal July 13.

But McCullough said a matching cap to limit state spending has not been enacted: "Right now, we're holding local and state officials to different standards."

McCullough said he would prioritize the package's three key reforms to public-employee contract negotiations, which would shake up not only how mediators in contract disputes are picked but would force them not to exceed cap limits on awards. Arbitrators could soon be picked by drawing lots or by rotation, rather than through agreement between municipalities and unions.

Changes in how municipalities deal with unions form a large part of the 33-bill proposal. Two separate bills seek to limit contract awards, one to school employees and another to other public unions that use arbitration.

Proposed legislation limits those to 2.5 percent. But some mayors say that number should be lowered to match the 2 percent property-tax cap.

Those caps in union awards have caused hesitation among some mayors, especially those who used to work in law enforcement.

Robert Romano, Republican mayor of Vineland in Cumberland County, used to serve as a police lieutenant.

"The fact is, I support about 90 percent of what's in the tool kit," he said. "But those award limits are making a lot of people unhappy."

Vineland will be an early testing ground for those reforms because six public-safety contracts are set to expire by the end of the year.

Other bills would allow municipalities to plan staggered furloughs of police and fire staff, and reclassify some offenses by public workers as minor, saving the cost of hearings.

Mayors' frustrations at the proposals' slow progress reflect feelings statewide, said Bill Dressel, who heads the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Dressel helped lawmakers craft property-tax reform in 2006 - talks that led to a previous tax cap but no other restraints. Back then, he said, "Their momentum for other structural reforms melted away."

After the "euphoria" of passing Christie's tax cap this summer, Dressel said, "I sense that same lack of urgency."

Contact Juliet Fletcher:


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