Over the past year, Maplewood and South Orange have entered into a number of shared service arrangements. Officials from both towns say to look for more in the months ahead.
Currently, Maplewood and South Orange governments share lawn services, motor vehicle maintenance and the animal control officers for the two towns cover both towns. Governments in both towns are currently looking at ways to combine court services and violation bureaus. The two towns have also pooled resources with the school district for bids on some services. Maplewood and South Orange officials are hoping for more cooperation between those three entities, as well as with other Essex Municipalities.
The increased shared services have driven down spending—sharing lawn services saves the two towns and the BOE about $100,000 annually. Nonetheless, the increased interest in shared services is not a result of the economic downturn. Maplewood Vice Mayor Kathy Leventhal, who co-chairs the shared services committee, said the impetus for increased shared services predated the recession.
“Before the economy got really bad, we were looking at this anyway,” Leventhal said.
While saving money is a major factor for pooling resources, in one case at least, the benefit is improved service for both towns. Through sharing separate animal control offices, the towns save money on overtime costs while getting increased coverage. The South Orange office covers mornings and afternoons and Maplewood’s covers afternoons and evenings. As a result, both towns get 12 hours of daily coverage, up from the eight hours each town had previously.
And the burden appears to be evenly split between the offices.
“During the three months in the summer, there were 24 calls each office fielded for the other town,” Leventhal said.
At the South Orange Board of Trustees Meeting today, the board will discuss in closed session whether the town will draft a resolution to combine court services with Maplewood. The plan for the arrangement, for which no legislation has been written yet, is to have South Orange rent space in Maplewood’s court, and hold sessions on nights when Maplewood does not use it.
South Orange is tight on space. There is a planned expansion for their municipal court, but that would not be necessary if they moved into Maplewood’s space.
South Orange Board of Trustee Howard Levison, Leventhal’s South Orange shared services counterpart, said that there are other areas where cooperation would benefit both parties. He said the towns are looking at street cleaning and recycling (South Orange and Maplewood have common days for electronic recycling currently) to reduce costs. Other suggestions wouldn’t necessarily entail saved money, but are likely to increase quality of life. Levison said that through a combined department of arts and cultural affairs, cultural and recreation organizations could schedule events in a way that would be complementary to each other, rather than compete for the same audience.
“We need people to talk to each other,” Levison said.
The interest in sharing services extends beyond Maplewood and South Orange. Levison and Leventhal have had two meetings with other officials from Essex County municipalities interested in combining services. Levison said that they are exploring ideas such as county wide shared leaf collection and composting services and having health departments at the county level. In addition, he said that as a group, they could more effectively lobby at the state level.
The benefits of these proposals all seem clear. Why hasn’t there been an interest in looking at them before? Levison suggested that municipalities have prioritized autonomy over self interest.
“It’s home rule,” Levison said. “It’s what’s wrong with the way the 500 and some-odd municipalities in this state are run. They all want their home rule.”
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