State Senate President Stephen Sweeney's proposal to require municipalities to share services or face state aid cuts has drawn predictable opposition from some municipal officials.

But this is an idea whose time came yesterday. For decades, the state has coaxed towns to merge or share with additional money and other "carrots." The "stick" has been missing. And while some merging of services has taken place over the years - and consolidation is no panacea for high property taxes - much more could still be accomplished.

Sweeney targeted island communities in particular for consolidation of police and other services. Long Beach Island, he pointed out, has six towns and five police departments. Eliminate four chiefs, and save more than a half-million dollars in salary and benefits. The five-mile island containing the Wildwoods has four separate police departments.

Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester, said the state's Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission would examine municipalities to recommend which services should be consolidated. If towns don't follow the recommendation, their state aid could be cut by the amount they would have saved. His reasoning is sensible: Why should the state subsidize unnecessary spending?

Police departments in particular are a hot-button issue in consolidation. There are a lot of bruised egos involved. If real savings are to occur, top brass must be thinned. There can be only one chief. And there is often parochial, knee-jerk reaction from officials and residents about loss of home rule or worries about being on the short end of police protection.

But the climate has changed in New Jersey. Local government is under unprecedented pressure to reduce spending and find economies. Consider Camden County - where freeholders are actually suggesting a countywide police department. Sweeney last week endorsed that effort. Similar initiatives are being studied in Morris and Somerset counties.

In Camden County, the big issue is Camden - one of the nation's most impoverished and crime-ridden cities, where nearly half the police department was just laid off. Some suburban police chiefs worry the countywide force would be focused too heavily on that city. But some mayors seem, surprisingly, less resistant. And Sweeney took a long - and thoughtful - view: "Camden's problem is everybody's problem," he said. "Once (the criminals) bleed Camden, you don't think they're going to be looking at Gloucester City and Westville?"

Other southern New Jersey counties should be looking closely at the Camden County initiative, as well as other ways counties can provide regionalized services. Will Haddonfield and Camden ever share the same countywide police force? We don't know. History would say that the odds aren't good. But the fact that officials there are even having the discussion is an encouraging step.

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