New Jersey’s Blind Ironies

Those crying “high taxes” allow little change.  Information is the key.

In May 2015 the township of Pennsauken, NJ announced that it will not replace its police force with the Camden County Police Department.  The decision was greeted with local applause as jobs were saved and the town maintained its autonomy. This may seem well and good, but perhaps the notion of county-level services is not well understood.

The consolidation of local services (including police) into county-level is key to lowering property taxes because there is fiscal truth to the phrase, “together we are stronger.”  Furthermore, given how large and amalgamated NJ’s cities and towns have become, consolidation follows the same logic as the original services themselves – share services to save.

New Jersey state map. The state is sandwiched between NYC and Philadelphia, both of which are in different states.
New Jersey state map. The state is sandwiched between NYC and Philadelphia, both of which are in different states.

Sandwiched between NYC and Philadelphia (both of which are out of state), NJ is no longer a state of many small towns and cities but a state hosting significant portions of large urban sprawls of which we possess neither center.  That is, the NJ state government must provide metropolitan level infrastructure and services but cannot draw tax revenue from either center directly (e.g. the corporate and industrial tenants).  From a systemic financial perspective this disadvantages the state and underlies high property taxes.

On top of being financially isolated from the corporate and industrial tenants NJ revolves around, the state lines segmenting NJ from NYC and Philadelphia also introduce tax competition.  New corporate tenants have choice at approximately the same location. This results in each state racing to the bottom to entice.  From the chronically depressed state of NJ’s cities, often juxtaposed with thriving cities out-of-state, it is clear the state’s been losing at this game for generations.

New Jersey Population Density Map demonstrating how the state hosts significant portions of 2 major urban sprawls (NYC & Philadelphia)
New Jersey Population Density Map demonstrating how the state hosts significant portions of 2 major urban sprawls (NYC & Philadelphia)

Gradual change
In Pennsauken concerns about losing police primarily regarded job security for the local police officers.  This is fair.  Jobs are important but change shouldn’t be juxtaposed with unemployment, nor should the narrative be of sudden change.

Why not implement gradual improvement?  For example, grandfather the current Pennsauken police force (e.g. same contract, terms of employment, benefits, pensions, etc.) under new county cover and gradually augment the system to become county in scope.

Fear of thy neighbor
Having observed this recent development in Pennsauken and knowing the area well I get a sense the push back is also rooted in a fear of Camden, characteristic of the local psyche and rooted in Camden’s rather shocking collapse.  Here again is one of NJ’s blind ironies.

NJ is a place where chronic, generational urban decline is rarely coupled with its rightful mate, long standing unemployment.  Idle people are not healthy people.  Alternative interpretations of Camden’s decay suggest that residents are inherently flawed, akin to bigotry.

It’s understandable that root causes are sometimes obscured.  The real culprit is that NJ is fundamentally disadvantaged by the very state lines that define it.  The root cause of the state’s biggest economic challenge is the root of the state itself.

Segmenting urban sprawls with state lines introduces a level of competition and duplication in what should be a cohesive, integrated economic unit.  For example, the nearly opposite economic performance of Camden and Philadelphia at essentially the same location should be regarded as exceptional.  There’s something odd about Philadelphia’s enormous skyline juxtaposed with Camden’s waterfront parking lots.

Camden (top) has had vastly different fortunes than Philadelphia (bottom) despite both being co-located. Courier Post (South Jersey News), Sunday November 2, 2014.
Camden (top) has had vastly different fortunes than Philadelphia (bottom) despite both being co-located. Courier Post (South Jersey News), Sunday November 2, 2014.

Some might suggest North Jersey fares better, yet even in economic success, Jersey City and Hoboken amount to slivers hugging the Hudson between a deep, expansive, high density urban form on the New York side of the border. Secaucus, NJ may be case and point.  As far from the Empire State building as central Queens or Brooklyn, Secaucus resembles a rural area.

Secaucus, NJ with development concept that has not yet been implemented. Photo courtesy of: http-::galaxyrising.com:ee:images:photoshows:developmentswest:secaucus:01
Secaucus, NJ with development concept that has not yet been implemented. Photo courtesy of: Galaxy Rising

My experience living in the world suggests that rivers rarely amount to obvious economic performance transition points.  Instead, they usually represent a shared opportunity both sides coordinate and benefit from in an equitable way.  It is sprawls segmented by state/national boundaries that demonstrate strikingly different developmental patterns and economic performance between the two sides of the border.  That is, one side eventually loses.  One side of the sprawl is disadvantaged by the division and therefore the entire sprawl is worse off compared to those wholly contained in the same regional territory.

Segmented cities are a national economic issue.  NJ holds 2 of many American cities segmented by state/national boundaries with visible, obvious effect (usually the out-of-state sister city is in chronic decay – though outcomes vary case by case). Examples include Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis, Washington, Kansas City, Memphis, San Diego, etc.

Why are segmented cities so common in the USA? Most of the country was founded and planned when rivers constituted major impasses.  No one foresaw that technology would erase the hours and efforts required to cross them.  Furthermore, when US states were delineated, few could have foreseen 21st century urbanization; cities with millions was unimaginable. As a result, many US state lines are drawn along waterways, which made sense in the past but today it appears some boundaries no longer fit, such that they undermine the salient economic unit of the modern economy, the urban sprawl.

Policy Wand
America is governed by 18th century policy structures.  Some work while others, particularly those that did not anticipate urbanization, do not.  For example, territorial delineations (state, county, city, town, etc.) are effectively set in stone with no policy-based mandate to periodically review the lines that divide.  Thus, legislative boundary as policy tool is not only a foreign concept but it’s not part of the discussion or fabric of American values.  It should be. 
I champion the following:

  1. Gradual county-level consolidation of public services.  Towns should gradually consolidate into their counties.  Relative to government employees, those in effected organizations could be grand-fathered into the new system and serve to bridge the gap between the new and old organization while ensuring the preservation of institutional knowledge. With time, town mandates/charters fade into the county in the same way South Philly is part of Philadelphia or the West Village is part of New York.  Neighborhoods retain character and cultural autonomy but are managed in a more financially prudent and coordinated way.
  1. Redraw boundaries to accommodate urban sprawls, the salient economic unit.  Specifically, divide NJ into north and south, amalgamate South Jersey with PA and North Jersey with NY.  Again, change is characterized by the gradual consolidation of services.  All current employees are grand-fathered into the new system (as above) and the implementation timeline is decades, not months or years.

Broadly, even the above #2 solution is imperfect.  Ideally northeastern states will adopt the California, Texas or Florida model of large state organization.  Capturing the span of cities between Washington and Boston under one large state would accommodate the northeast-corridor urban sprawl (aka: Northeast Megalopolis) and mute interstate divisions.

Alternatively, perhaps these states could work together to replicate their respective tax environments, mute competition, share services and collaborate the provision of infrastructure.  This can be difficult to achieve altruistically without support from a higher authority such as the federal government, or perhaps the advent of regional government, sandwiched between state and federal.

The Northeast Megalopolis (aka: BosWash). Image courtesy of ArchDaily
The Northeast Megalopolis (aka: BosWash). Image courtesy of ArchDaily

Innovate, my country
The tax situation in NJ is unsustainable and has been associated with brain drain and economic blight.  We need a new conversation, one guided by broad public awareness of the role state lines play in the economic fate of New Jersey.  Awareness is Step 1.