TRENTON - About 30 New Jersey mayors appealed to Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday for help complying with a new limit on property tax and cost increases that takes effect Jan. 1.
The mayors asked Christie to push the Legislature to pass bills that would contain some local government costs and help them hold expenses to within the new 2 percent cap.
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Christie and the Assembly Republicans accused their Democratic colleagues of stalling action on property tax-reform legislation. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said deliberation over various tax-reform proposals is continuing on schedule.
The Assembly approved two bills Thursday designed to cut government red tape and control costs, and the Senate cleared five.
The head of the State Police union also was at the Statehouse, warning of massive layoffs and corresponding crime spikes unless something is done to help fund municipal public safety. The union had called for a temporary exemption to the cap for public safety costs, but backed off when it became clear the proposal was opposed by the Republican governor and the Democratic leader of the Senate.
"It's dead in this house, too," Christie said when asked about a bill introduced by Assembly Democratic Leader Joseph Cryan, then panned by Senate President Steve Sweeney, to exempt police, firefighters and emergency services workers from the cap.
State PBA President Tony Wieners said there are 2,228 fewer police officers in New Jersey now than at the start of 2009, warning that number would accelerate when towns adhere to a 2 percent cap on spending growth rather than the current 4 percent cap.
The mayors, who were accompanied by New Jersey League of Municipalities Executive Director Bill Dressel and Vice President Chuck Chiarello, said they will be forced to slash services in 2011 to remain within the lower cap unless they get relief from mandated costs such as employee pensions and health care and the arbitration system that awards police and firefighter contracts.
Chiarello, the Democratic mayor of Buena Vista Township, said the governor had met with the group, listening to their concerns.
"Everything's been in kind of limbo up until now," said Chiarello, who has been a strong proponent of parts of the tool kit. "We wanted to come up and press our case a little bit."
He said that while Republicans had expressed a hope to enact the governor's proposals as soon as possible, and certainly by the end of the year, Democrats such as Sen. Jim Whelan of Atlantic County expressed a different view.
"We heard from Democrats that they're concerned about enacting a one-size-fits-all proposal, and sitting back and expecting it to work," Chiarello said. "The challenges towns are facing vary, they said. And that's certainly true."
Dressel said most municipalities operate on a calendar year, so mayors are preparing budgets now for next year.
Christie on Thursday repeated his call for changes to the way public employee salary disputes are resolved through arbitration and criticized Democrats in the Assembly for inaction.
"I wonder what the heck they're doing down there in the Assembly," Christie said. He and the mayors want reforms to be in place when the cap kicks in.
Christie said arbitration reform was an essential component of his so-called "tool-kit" proposals because arbitrators often side with public safety workers when settling contract disputes. He said in Belmar, for example, police recently were awarded contracts with a 15 percent salary increase over five years despite the pending 2 percent cap.
The Assembly unanimously approved two bills: one allows more groups to challenge costs to towns that the state mandates but does not pay for, such as requiring additional security measures at municipal courts and allowing more time between required re-examinations of municipal master plans.
The Senate approved bills that restrict quasi-government employees from enrolling in the state pension system; allow state colleges to pool insurance coverage; bar retiring public employees from cashing out more than $15,000 in unused sick and vacation time; encourage municipal court mergers; and eliminate a 5 percent down payment by towns and counties for bonds.
Legislative leaders said additional cost-control measures will be on the governor's desk by the end of the year, but the bills they pass will not all mirror Christie's proposals.
Staff Writer Juliet Fletcher contributed to this report.