Local governments should consider the latest freeze in state municipal aid as a portent of things to come. And rather than sue the state - as some threatened to do following the $21-million aid freeze earlier this month - municipalities, school boards and counties should be scrambling to find ways to cut costs permanently.
As a recent report by the State Commission of Investigation found, there is plenty of waste to cut in local public-employee contracts and policies. But tucked away in that scathing report is praise for five towns that are aggressively trying to reduce bloated public-employee benefits, which are the main cause of New Jersey's ridiculously high property taxes.
Those five towns should serve as role models for other local officials - and as eye-openers for taxpayers. Too often, public officials talk about employee contracts as if they were something they have no control over. Hogwash.
One of the towns that came in for praise is Vineland, which has negotiated contracts to provide no terminal leave, no severance pay, no longevity raises and no extraordinary leave. New employees are required to contribute toward the cost of health insurance. Another is Point Pleasant, which has similar restrictions and requires all employees to contribute something to health insurance. And there, for the first time in the state, the municipality is taking police negotiations out from behind closed doors and into a public session.
Frankly, we're not sure if Point Pleasant's idea will turn out well or not. But we laud the experiment - and the impulse to let the public see what is being proposed in contracts that the public is paying so dearly for. There are some good reasons that negotiations have historically been done in closed meetings. But taxpayers should at least demand that contract details be available before a vote on the contract and should scrutinize those details - not just salary increases but such esoteric benefits as terminal leave and longevity (which is a hidden raise given after a period of time just for showing up and breathing).
The SCI pointed out that although New Jersey has no law banning some of the ridiculous benefits given to public employees at the local levels, it does not have any law requiring them either. Towns can control costs on their own, as Vineland and Point Pleasant are doing - "through tougher personnel policies, ordinances and more aggressive collective bargaining," the SCI said.
New Jersey has a budget shortfall next year of as much as $10 billion, a third of the budget. More than 40 percent of that budget goes toward municipal and school aid. Local officials should see the proverbial writing on the wall. And taxpayers shouldn't accept property-tax increases unless they are certain their towns have done all that's possible to rein in overly generous benefits to public employees.