New Jersey towns face crash diet of budget cuts
By Philip Read/The Star-Ledger
January 09, 2010, 10:00PM
The furloughs are business-as-usual in Maplewood, so much so that they wind up listed under “Events” on the suburb’s official website.
There will be 12 more of the monthly unpaid days off this year. There’ll be rolling summer library closings, too. Add those to the 22 staffers laid off — 10 percent of the municipal work force — and its pedestal on Money magazine’s list of “one of the best places to live in America” looks frayed.
The crash diet in this Essex County Township isn’t likely to end anytime soon after Gov.-elect Christopher Christie on Wednesday warned New Jersey’s already cash-strapped municipalities that state aid would be reduced in the coming fiscal year. The sobering reason: The state could run out of money as early as March.
The cuts — coupled with the fallout from as much as a 25 percent rollback in state spending — are likely to force towns to reconsider what services they can provide.
“We have been living far beyond our means — living a lifestyle of municipal and educational services beyond our economic capacity,” said James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “There is no painless silver bullet to get back on track. The question is not, ‘When will things get back to normal?’ but rather, ‘What will the new normal be?’
“There may have to be significant service downsizing in adjusting to this new normal,” Hughes said.
That is likely to translate into a debate about what a municipality considers a “core” service versus a “discretionary” one.
Traditionally, municipalities have provided everything from road repairs to snow cleanup, from libraries to community centers, tennis lessons to summer beach events. Kevin Sluka, the administrator in Somerville, said these usually aren’t luxuries, but some services towns typically provide are not mandated by law.
New Jersey towns might forgo recreation departments, for example, since they are not mandated, said Sluka. “Dog licenses are mandated. Cat licenses are not,” Sluka said. “Is there a benefit to knowing what your cat population is? Service is not the driving factor. Economics is.”