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Why It's Time To Abolish County Government

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issue brief

Why It's Time To Abolish County Government

May 1, 1997
OtherCulture & Society

James W. Treffinger is the County Executive of Essex County, New Jersey.

It may seem strange that someone who holds the position of county executive is proposing the abolition of county government, but it’s something I’ve given serious thought to over many years.  Abolishing my job would, I believe, be a very beneficial reform for the citizens of my state and my county.

The present form of government in Essex County, New Jersey was created in 1978.  Prior to that, Essex County was administered by nine commissioners.  It was thought that unifying these functions under a single executive would eliminate the political fiefdoms that then predominated, and make county government more responsive, open and efficient.

What’s the situation 20 years later? My immediate predecessor is now in jail for crimes he committed in office. The day I took over in January 1995, we discovered the county faced a deficit of $162 million on a $530 million budget. Taxes were out of control.  Our $38 billion rate base had just shrunk by $1 billion.  Our bonds had been downgraded to one grade above junk bonds. Two county jails were being supervised by a federal court which had just levied $297 million in fines. Our juvenile detention facility was under a separate federal court order because of overcrowding and inhumane conditions.  Valuable county assets, including park and recreation areas and a large regional zoo, had been allowed to deteriorate.  Our workers’ compensation system was costing taxpayers millions of dollars, and not a single claim had been disputed in four years.  Welfare costs were spiraling out of control. And the county’s debt, $500 million when my predecessor took office, had doubled in just four years, leaving us with a $71.8 million annual payment.

County Government Is Both Superfluous and an Impediment

I believe that part of the problem is the nature of county government itself.  In 1995, the 21 New Jersey counties collectively spent $4 billion, employed 44,000 people and maintained 9,300 vehicles. And this doesn’t include the numerous utilities and authorities created by each county.  As one journalist noted, even if you figured out how your own county worked, you couldn’t assume you knew how things worked in the    other 20.

Small as it is, New Jersey probably possesses within its narrow borders more governance per square mile than any other state. There are 567 municipalities, 606 school boards, 21 counties and 400 municipal and county authorities, not to mention scores of autonomous authorities.  All of these bulge with officials patiently awaiting their generous pensions. And all enjoy the power to tax, which, as Chief Justice Marshall told us many years ago, is the power to destroy.  Or if they can’t directly tax they can do much the same thing: charge tolls or fees for services, or set rates for everything from garbage collection to gambling, parking to picnicking.

Counties get their money from the municipalities.  In Essex County, the percentage of property taxes paid by municipalities to support county government ranges from 25 percent to nearly 40 percent of their total tax collections.

Sixty percent of what county governments do is mandated by the State.  Counties, for example, finance and operate the jails, the prosecutors offices and the sheriffs departments. Yet all of these are in the service of state laws, and it certainly would be better if we eliminated the extra layer of bureaucracy and simply allowed the state to pay for them.

Of the remaining 40 percent, some spending is legitimate, like maintaining public parks whose boundaries extend beyond one town. Other spending is capricious.

Local or Regional Governments Should Handle Current County Responsibilities

If we eliminated county taxes and allowed municipalities to decide what functions they wanted to continue supporting on a local basis, or in ad hoc regional associations, I’m convinced every mayor in the county would jump for joy.  Even if a decision were made to maintain every function now performed by the county—each of which is a separate bureaucracy with separate rights, separate union contracts and separate pension and benefits programs—there would still be savings because everything would just operate more efficiently.  Unfortunately, only the Legislature has the power to abolish the county system, so what I have tried to do is make some reforms where they are most needed.

How to Improve County Government if It Can’t Be Eliminated

We’ve undertaken a number of privatizations. I emphasize that the goal of these is to improve services and to save taxpayers money; we have not privatized for the sake of privatizing.  Taking the county janitorial service private saved us a million dollars a year.  Privatizing the county security services saved another million dollars a year.

We were losing $3 million a year on the county geriatric center, so we sold it to the Kessler Institute, one of the premier quality care providers in the nation.  The transaction generated $7.8 million in revenue and put an end to our ongoing losses.  And our most vulnerable citizens are now enjoying improved patient care.

We are closing down aging jails, which are located in residential centers, and building a new facility away from heavily populated areas.  The new jail will save taxpayers more than $8 million a year in operating costs (even including the principal, debt and interest payments) just because it will allow us to operate so much more efficiently.  In the meantime we’ve been able to lower the per diem cost of incarcerating inmates from $98 to $87. And we’re going to start charging the prisoners what it costs to keep them, although this will not apply to everyone.

We’re about to open a new youth facility that will relieve the overcrowding that we’ve experienced for decades. Our new juvenile justice initiatives also include a program in which business professionals and members of the religious community serve as mentors and work with young offenders and their families to help these young people rebuild their lives.

On the other hand, we have also saved money by deprivatizing our workers’ compensation system, which had been privatized by the previous administration. We started investigating and challenging cases, which has resulted in reducing the number of claims per month from more than 100 to 15.  In the month I took office there were 85 people out of work on such claims; today the average is six per month. In 1994, the county’s cost of workers’ comp per employee was $440; today it’s $70.  All told, we’re realizing nearly $3 million in savings annually.

We’ve created nonprofit foundations in three areas to solicit private and corporate donations for upgrading and maintaining our recreational sites.

And we have begun a reform of our welfare system, which county governments in New Jersey are responsible for administering.  When I took office the welfare system was a mess, and the county was faced with spiraling costs.  Essex County, with a population just under 800,000, is the eighth largest welfare delivery system in the entire nation, believe it or not.  There are 1,000 employees in the welfare bureaucracy alone, handling 75,000 AFDC recipients and 125,000 people who get food stamps.

We consolidated eight separate job training and job placement divisions into one department to better prepare welfare recipients for the workforce. I’ve also developed a plan we’re calling “communitization,” designed to harness the knowledge and the power of local community groups. It’s clear that the public sector, which is really a large and impersonal bureaucracy, has shown itself incapable of standing alone in the fight against poverty.  Our idea is to create partnerships between the county government and community-based organizations to work in a variety of social service areas. These underutilized associations, including voluntary groups, civic groups, social groups and religious organizations, represent our best hope for freeing people from dependency and poverty.

Government Must Be Accountable and Efficient

Let me reiterate.  I firmly believe that disbanding county government would be one of the best things we could do for the citizens of New Jersey.  It would eliminate an extra and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and save money. However, as long as county government continues to exist, it has the same responsibility as any other form of government. It must perform its functions efficiently, and its officials must be held accountable for their actions. It must keep in mind that the money it spends belongs not to the people in office but to the people who pay the taxes.