Cash-Strapped N.J.: Pay up for State Police

By: - September 9, 2008 12:00 am

Just how gloomy is New Jersey’s fiscal picture these days?

Faced with an estimated budget shortfall of nearly $3 billion in January, lawmakers in the Garden State offered early-retirement packages to nearly 4,000 state workers, completely dissolved two state agencies and slashed the operating costs of every remaining department by an average of 5 percent.

>The Legislature rescinded hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax breaks for some residents, made deep cuts in funding for hospitals and ultimately delivered Gov. Jon Corzine (D) a budget that he called “painful” to sign.

Now, one aspect of New Jersey’s sharply pared-down spending plan is drawing new opposition from many corners of the state. To help cut costs and raise revenue, the state has decided to start charging small municipalities for a service they have enjoyed free since 1921: regular state police patrols that help communities without police departments respond to crime, car accidents and other emergencies.

>The plan – a version of which also is being considered in neighboring Pennsylvania – has infuriated many of New Jersey’s small-town officials, who accuse the state of trying to balance its books on their backs. Shocked by the nearly $13 million that the state is seeking from 89 municipalities for the patrols, the officials say small communities can’t afford to pay the state without hiking property taxes substantially.

“The state has been paying for (patrols) for many decades, and now they’re reneging on that commitment. We feel that that is an unfunded mandate,” said William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities . The organization, which lobbies the state on behalf of towns and cities, has advised the affected communities to challenge the new policy before the state’s Council on Local Mandates , an independent arbiter that still could strike down the plan.

>But New Jersey officials, while acknowledging that charging for rural policing is a way for the state to cut costs at a time when it desperately needs to do so, also say it is a matter of fairness. About 96 percent of New Jersey residents pay taxes for both state police and local police forces, so the 4 percent that relies exclusively on the state should pay for the extra patrols they have been receiving for free, said Tom Bell, a spokesman with the state Department of the Treasury .

“We think this is fair,” said Bell, who noted the state is encouraging affected municipalities to explore cooperative agreements with other towns or cities to share police services. The towns have until Dec. 15 to decide whether to pay the state or make arrangements for their own police patrols, Bell said, adding that simply failing to comply with the policy is not an option. “It’s a state statute, so they have to,” he said.

>New Jersey’s decision to start charging towns for rural police patrols marks another example of cash-strapped states seeking new – and often controversial – ways to cut costs or raise revenue.

In California, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in July ignited a firestorm when he sought to ease the state’s budget crisis by temporarily reducing state workers’ salaries to the federal minimum wage of $6.55 an hour. Though Schwarzenegger has not followed through on the threat, the Legislature still has not come to a budget agreement, more than two months after the spending plan was due.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island, after overriding a veto from Gov. Don Carcieri (R) in May, have sought to generate much-needed revenue by allowing 24-hour gambling at the state’s slots parlors on weekends and holidays. The new hours will remain in effect at least until next June.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania appear to be the only states that have explored the idea of charging municipalities for state police patrols, which even supporters of the plans admit won’t produce a windfall of new money. But Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers , said the idea is consistent with an emerging trend among elected officials to identify very specific ways to cut expenses, particularly as the economy falters and tax revenues bring in less than expected.

“Especially in tough times, states and localities over time have had to define costs and pass those costs on to where they believe the benefit is occurring,” Pattison told .

Pennsylvania’s proposal to charge municipalities for state police patrols differs from New Jersey’s in one key respect: it would only apply to the 21 communities in the state that have more than 10,000 residents and no local police forces of their own. Of the 89 towns being charged for state patrols in New Jersey, by contrast, only four have more than 10,000 residents, according to the state Treasury.

Pennsylvania state Rep. John E. Pallone (D), who introduced the plan in the Keystone State, said it is not fair for communities of more than 10,000 people – and in some cases up to 40,000 -to expect state police to provide all of their law enforcement needs, while residents elsewhere pay taxes for both local as well as state law enforcement. His legislation would impose a -per-resident fee on the affected communities to cover the costs of rural state police patrols.

Pallone estimates his plan would generate about $31 million for Pennsylvania, which, unlike New Jersey, is not facing a major budget crisis. He said the money could be used to hire more state police officers and boost law enforcement across the commonwealth, noting that the state police “are stretched thin right now.”

Pallone acknowledged that officials in the towns affected by his proposal deplore the plan. But “if you talk to the hundreds of municipalities that have local police departments,” he said, “they support this legislation 100 percent.”

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