by Tom Hester and Mike Frassinelli/The Star-Ledger
Wednesday October 22, 2008, 7:17 PM
A powerful state council today shot down the Corzine administration’s plan to make 89 rural towns pay part of the cost of State Police protection.
The ruling by the Council on Local Mandates spares the towns — including three dozen in Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren counties — from paying $12.6 million, and ends a contentious battle between the state and mayors. The total cost for State Police protection for the towns is about $87 million.
Patricia A. Meyer, the executive administrator of the Council on Local Mandates, said its members determined the provisions were “null, void and unenforceable” because they constituted an unfunded local mandate.
More than a dozen of the towns, including tiny Rocky Hill in Somerset County, brought the matter to the council, contending they should not be forced to pay for services they have received for free since the State Police was established in 1921. Nearly 323,000 people live in the 89 towns, about 4 percent of New Jersey’s population.
“Governor Corzine’s proposal was a slap in the face to residents of these rural communities who already see a disproportionate amount of their tax dollars used to fund services for residents in urban areas of the state,” said Assemblyman Michael Doherty (R-Warren). “We warned the governor that his plan was unconstitutional, but he chose to ignore those warnings.”
The state, for example, wanted Union Township in Hunterdon to pay $224,887; Victory Gardens in Morris County $37,216; Rocky Hill $29,227; Wantage in Sussex County $448,074, and Harmony in Warren County $216,270.
The Council on Local Mandates, which is independent of all three branches of state government, was created to carry out a 1995 constitutional amendment that declared the state could not set mandates on local governments without paying for them. Its eight members are appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Leland Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the matter may not be over, even though the Council on Local Mandates has powers to issue decisions that cannot be second-guessed by state courts.
“We strongly disagree with the council’s decision and are considering all options to reverse its potential impact,” Moore said. He would not say what those options may be.
Earlier in the day, Corzine said he may have to find cuts elsewhere to cover the $12 million. He has already said about $400 million may be sliced from the current budget because of the bad economy.
“We can always go and take municipal aid in some other place if we can’t do it in this place,” Corzine said. “This is all speculative … Is it going to come out of higher ed? Is it going to come out of school aid? We have limited choices.”
Rural mayors were outraged when Corzine proposed his plan, saying it would force higher property taxes.Over the summer, Knowlton Township mayor Frank Van Horn vowed he would go to jail before his Warren County municipality paid $123,060 for for State Police coverage.
William Dressel, executive director for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the decision “is not just a win for the 89 municipalities, but for all local governments because this would have set a dangerous precedent in foisting upon the local property taxpayer costs for providing services the state has traditionally paid for.”
However, Hope Township Mayor Timothy McDonough said he does not believe the state will stop trying to get towns to pay.
“I think this issue is going to keep coming up,” said McDonough, who next month becomes president of the state League of Municipalities. “It started with Whitman, then McGreevey and now Corzine.”
McDonough said paying $86,000 for State Police coverage in Hope would have meant a $100 per household tax increase in his sparsely populated community off Route 80 in Warren County.
He said the township couldn’t afford to start its own police force or join one with a neighboring municipality. As it is, the township has just three full-time employees — a clerk and two road crew members.
McDonough said he is pushing for a plan by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) to pay for rural State Police coverage through a $9 surcharge on traffic tickets.
Staff writer Dunstan McNichol contributed to this report.