With 565 independent municipalities, New Jersey has too many local governments, right? It may seem so, although given our nearly 9,000,000 people, the number isn’t really all that large. In fact we place in the bottom third in terms of per capita municipal governments. What makes it seem large is that we also have 600+ school districts, and maybe more importantly, we have all of this in a relatively small land mass. Given our ever-increasing property taxes, it’s no surprise that political leaders from Gov. Chris Christie to NJ Sen. President Steve Sweeney are on the municipal consolidation bandwagon. The idea is that combining local governments should increase efficiency and this lower taxes. Certinaly it seems logical.
But a recent report from the Bloustein School at Rutgers casts doubt on whether municipal consolidation in New Jersey will really reduce taxes. Unless it does – or at least halts their continuing increases – New Jerseyans are not so hot on the idea of giving up their local governments. In fact, our results today show a noticeable decline in support for consolidation since we last asked about it in March 2010, when a majority of the state offered support for the idea. Today, Garden Staters are split evenly over the idea, unless it is tied to gaurantees of tax cuts or at least stability. They also doubt claims of greater efficiency or improved quality of local services, mostly thinking little would change or things might even get worse.
Full text of the release follows. Click here for a PDF of the text, questions, and tables.
DESPITE PUSH BY CHRISTIE AND OTHER OFFICIALS, NEW JERSEY NOT YET EMBRACING MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT CONSOLIDATION
Support for municipal consolidation has declined since 2010
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As NJ Gov. Chris Christie renews his call for merging local governments as a means to get rising property taxes under control, Garden State residents express less support for the idea than they did in 2010, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Just 45 percent support consolidating their municipal government with that of a neighboring community, down nine points from a March 2010 Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Opposition has climbed to 46 percent, up eight points.
“This decline in support may be partially a result of the smaller property tax increases seen over the last few years,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers. “While some towns have had large tax increases, many have not, which ironically may be reducing pressure to cut local government costs.”
Even as support for consolidation has dropped, views on the efficiency and quality of consolidated local services remain similar to four years ago. Today, 37 percent say consolidation would make local government more efficient, while the same percentage says it would not change things much at all. Just 18 percent are negative, expecting consolidation to make government less efficient. In 2010, results were nearly the same: 39 percent saw greater efficiency, 34 percent little change, and 22 percent believed combined government would be less efficient.
While nearly four in ten think consolidation means more efficiency, fewer say local services would improve. Just 20 percent think services would get better, while 27 percent says they would get worse. Forty-four percent anticipate little change. These results are also little changed from 2010.
The prospect of stable or lower property taxes may reduce opposition to consolidation. Non-supporters were given one of two follow-up scenarios: consolidation guaranteeing property taxes would remain stable for many years, or guaranteeing at least a 10 percent cut in property taxes. Results show no significant difference between the two. Forty-six percent of opponents change to supporters in the case of stable property taxes, while 43 percent of opponents offer support in the 10 percent-cut case.
“Tying consolidation directly to property tax control changes the minds of many New Jerseyans, leading to a majority becoming supportive,” said Redlawsk. “We saw similar effects in 2010. No doubt this is because we offered a guarantee of tax stability or cuts in the questions. But as a new report from faculty of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers suggests, it is unclear if property taxes would really decrease as a result of consolidation.”
Results are from a statewide poll of 816 New Jersey adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from March 31 to April 6, 2014. The poll has a margin of error of +/-3.9 percentage points.
Support for consolidation down in most groups since 2010
In addition to now dividing New Jerseyans overall, support for consolidation has dropped across many groups over the past four years. The 47 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans who now say they support consolidation represent a double-digit drop for both groups since 2010, when 61 percent of independents and 56 percent of Republicans were supportive. Democrats have shown little change over the same period: 44 percent now support consolidation, compared to 43 percent in 2010. Across parties, residents favorable towards Gov. Christie are mixed: half support consolidation while 42 percent prefer their own government; among those unfavorable toward the governor, the result is just the opposite.
Support for consolidation has declined significantly in several regions of the state. Only 39 percent of those in the urban counties of Essex and Hudson preferred to maintain their existing local government in 2010; today that number is 60 percent, and only 34 percent support consolidation. Similar changes have occurred among those living in exurban northwestern counties and those in southern New Jersey. Nearly half of south Jersey residents now prefer their own government, versus just 33 percent four years ago, while exurban support for consolidation has dropped from 67 percent to 46 percent, a 21-point decline. Countering this trend are shore county residents, a majority of whom still support consolidation, and suburban areas, with 47 percent support. Both are virtually unchanged from 2010.
In 2010 men were 10 points more likely than woman to support consolidation: 59 percent to 49 percent. Both have shown a noticeable decline, men to 49 percent and women to 42 percent support. The only residents showing wholehearted support for consolidation are those who believe it would make local government more efficient (77 percent) and those who think it would make the quality of local services better (74 percent).
Potential property tax savings have positive impact on views
Gov. Christie’s push for consolidation has been accompanied by the argument that property taxes will drop if towns combine. If so, consolidation will be more appealing to New Jerseyans who do not initially support it. Almost half of respondents told there could be many years of stabilized property taxes change their minds in support of consolidation, while about half remain opposed. Those told consolidation could guarantee at least a 10 percent cut in property taxes show a similar pattern.
When initial supporters are added to these new supporters, 69 percent of all New Jerseyans are in favor of consolidation, including the 24 percent supportive only if property taxes would remain stable or be cut. A quarter remains opposed, even given one of the two tax scenarios. The overall increase in support is enough to give consolidation majority support in every key demographic group.
“For consolidation to be embraced, proposals will have to all but guarantee tax cuts,” noted Redlawsk. “But we don’t know whether voters would believe politicians who say combining governments will cut taxes. Some clear real-world evidence will likely be needed. Even the recent merger of the Princetons resulted in just a five percent initial savings, while it is too early to tell if the combination will keep tax increases under control.”
Efficiency and quality more or less expected to stay the same under consolidation
While New Jerseyans may be split on consolidation, they are also not sure that efficiency and quality of government services would improve if their municipality were merged with another. Few, however, expect that efficiency (18 percent) or quality of services (27 percent) would get worse, but well under half thinks they would actually improve.
Partisanship makes little difference in these views. Favorability towards Gov. Christie has some effect: 43 percent of his supporters see more efficiency, compared to 34 percent of his detractors. Similarly, only 15 percent of those favorable toward Christie think consolidation would lower efficiency, while 22 percent of those unfavorable are negative about efficiency.
Seeing consolidation as increasing efficiency and quality of services is strongly related to supporting the effort to combine governments. More than three quarters of those who think consolidation would make local government more efficient support the move, while 87 percent who think efficiency would be hurt want to keep their current government. Among the large number who sees no change, only 37 percent support consolidation. Perceptions of changes in the quality of local government services under consolidation lead to similar findings: 74 percent who think services will get better support consolidation, while 86 percent of those seeing lower quality services want to retain their town’s current independence.