Among the other issues we covered in our recent polling in new Jersey is the question of consolidating local government. New Jersey has an amazing number of municipalities and school boards, and a very strong tradition of home rule. But this fragmentation comes with a presumed cost - duplication and inefficiency in particular. In a time of massive state budget cuts and increasingly difficult local budget problems, it may be that merging some of NJ's local governments could have some positive impact.
But the assumption is that consolidation would not be popular with residents of towns that would be merged. The evidence seems to support this in the sense that the few attempts to do so by ballot have generally failed. But it turns out that at least in the abstract New Jerseyans today support local government consolidation, believing it would improve efficiency while maintaining or improving the quality of services provided by local government.
Following is today's release on attitudes towards municipal consolidation. The detailed tables and questions can be found here.
NEW JERSEY RESIDENTS SUPPORT MUNICIPAL CONSOLIDATION, EXPECT INCREASED EFFICIENCY WITH SAME OR BETTER QUALITY SERVICES
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J – A majority of New Jerseyans favor consolidating local governments, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released today. Support for consolidation is driven by the 50 percent of residents who say there are too many local governments and the 70 percent who believe the quality of local services would stay the same or get better under consolidation.
While believing there are too many local governments, Garden Staters remain more committed to their local schools, with only 36 percent saying there are too many school districts. The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, conducted March 31 to April 3, included 953 New Jersey adults. The full sample has a margin of error of +/-3.2 percentage points.
“New Jerseyans feel overtaxed at the local level, and believe one solution is to increase efficiency by consolidating local governments,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “As we reported earlier, this same poll shows strong support for cuts in state aid to local government, and making it easier to fire municipal workers. Given what is sometimes called the ‘hyperlocal’ focus of residents, to see a majority support doing away with their own local government is fairly surprising. But it is another reflection of the difficult financial times facing the state.”
Redlawsk also noted that the school district findings are supported by other results showing residents do not want to cut state aid to schools or to lay off teachers. “Residents make a clear distinction between support for their schools and support – or a lack of it – for local government,” he said.
Most Support Local Government Consolidation
Fifty-four percent of respondents favor government consolidation, while 38 percent would prefer to maintain their own local government, the poll found. Half believe there are too many municipal governments, while 40 percent say the number is just right. Nearly three-quarters who say there are too many local governments support consolidation and only 21 percent would prefer to keep their own local officials. Among those who do not think there are too many local governments, 36 percent still support consolidation while 55 percent would keep their own government.
Regional support for consolidation is strongest among Philadelphia area residents (66 percent) and in the exurban areas of New Jersey (67 percent), with 53 percent from shore counties and fewer than half of suburban and urban residents in favor. Resistance to consolidation is strongest in the suburbs: 46 percent oppose the concept compared to 26 percent opposition in exurban areas, 33 percent in the Philadelphia area, 38 percent in shore counties and 39 percent in urban areas.
The prospect of lower property taxes reduces opposition to consolidation, Redlawsk observed. Forty-five percent of opponents said they would favor consolidation if guaranteed a 10 percent tax cut; 54 percent would become proponents with a 20 percent cut. With a 10 percent cut, 47 percent of respondents continue to prefer their own local government but support falls to 36 percent with the enticement of a 20 percent rollback “While consolidation does not guarantee lower taxes, if residents thought merging local government would save money, they would be even more in favor than they are now,” Redlawsk said.
Quality of Services Expected to be Maintained
One-in-four New Jerseyans believe the quality of local services would improve under consolidation, but another 25 percent think services would worsen. Almost half (45 percent) envision no changes in quality. These results are similar to a 1994 Eagleton Poll where 24 percent thought they would see an improvement in quality, 27 percent anticipated a drop in quality and 40 percent thought the quality of services would not change.
“Little has changed between polls,” Redlawsk said, “but there has been virtually no actual consolidation. One reason may be that the state has provided few incentives or mandates to consolidate, and when push comes to shove, the pressure to maintain a sense of community seems to win out, even when residents say they would support consolidation in theory.”
Those favoring consolidation also think it will increase the efficiency of local government by nearly a 6-to-1 margin (62 percent to 11 percent), with 24 percent anticipating not much change.
Among those who approve the current number of municipal governments, most (47 percent) still say not much would change if consolidation were to occur, while 31 percent believe municipal government would be less efficient, and 16 percent say it would be more efficient.
Overall, New Jerseyans think the quality of local services would not be impacted negatively by consolidation, with almost two-thirds of those in favor also believing greater governmental efficiency would result. “Given the economic conditions of the state, there may be more openness to consolidation as a way to get a handle on ever rising costs and property taxes,” Redlawsk said.
Local Government is about Police, Schools, and Garbage Collection
When asked to name their most important local government service, 27 percent of respondents named police services, followed by local schools (23 percent), garbage and recycling (10 percent), roads (9 percent) and fire and rescue (5 percent). No other service drew more than 5 percent of responses.
“Local government is mainly about providing basic services to residents, including police and fire services,” said Redlawsk. “At the same time schools are clearly important to residents. They are reluctant to make cuts in school aid or to lay off teachers but are happy to make it easy to fire municipal workers.”
Redlawsk said that Garden State residents are much less likely to say that there are too many school districts than too many local governments. Only 36 percent say there are too many school districts, while 41 percent say the number of districts is just right, and 14 percent believe there are actually too few school districts.