County Executive Kathleen Donovan outlined her vision to cut spending by pushing for greater cooperation between county and municipal government Thursday in her state of the county address.
From exploring cooperative electric and gas purchases to sharing county police services, Donovan touted her administration's record of working with local government to trim costs at both levels.
"In 2013, I want Bergen County to be the laboratory for innovation in partnerships with local municipalities to deliver essential services for less money," she said, declaring a "new era of intergovernmental cooperation."
Donovan's primary shared service pitch involved encouraging more towns to consolidate emergency dispatch services and embrace use of the county communications center in Mahwah.
"It's an asset already paid for by the taxpayers, so let's use it to help those taxpayers," said Donovan, who noted that over the next two years the county would assume 9-1-1 and emergency dispatch services for all 70 municipalities at no charge.
"No town must do it," she said, "but any town that does will save money — and they can pass along that savings to their taxpayers."
Freeholder Board Chairman David Ganz said he was in complete agreement with Donovan that there should be an expansion of shared services with municipalities, but that he differed on how best to accomplish that goal.
Ganz said he didn't believe Donovan's support of a merger between county and Demarest police — something she called a "win/win for both parties and a model for other communities to follow" during her address — was a wise investment.
"I don’t believe it makes sense for the county to undertake an acquisition where the cost of doing so would be negative for the taxpayers to an extreme," said Ganz, whose freeholder board defeated the merger plan in late December. The merger itself was not the problem, he said. Rather, Donovan's asking price of $2.7 million per year was not enough.
When the county executive wasn't promoting intergovernmental cooperation Thursday, she was touting a variety of county projects carried out under her watch.
"It's amazing what you can do when you properly plan and carefully execute a major renovation project — and spend the taxpayers' money as carefully as you would your own," she said, recapping the county's makeover of the flood-prone Riverside County Park that spans Lyndhurst and North Arlington.
Other accomplishments Donovan noted included finding a home for the county police in the old county health building in Paramus, improving the county animal shelter and introducing fiscal discipline at Bergen Community College through the appointment of a new president.
Her successes, Donovan said, were in contrast to the aimless and costly capital projects she inherited from her predecessor, Dennis McNerney.
"This is a prime example of the legacy of the previous administration," she said of the $22.7 million juvenile detention center that opened recently in Teterboro. "Spending for capital improvements without proper planning or concern for Bergen taxpayers who will be picking up the cost for years."
Ganz called Donovan's criticism of the detention center "disingenuous."
"As a lawyer, she knows very well it was mandated by the Juvenile Justice Commission and the county had no choice," he said, adding that Donovan wasn't getting anywhere by continuing to compare herself to McNerney.
"If she wants to run against Dennis McNerney, she can do that," Ganz said. "But the people spoke on that issue once before — she's the county executive and he isn’t."
During her speech, Donovan also announced a complete revamping of the county's website and her administration's shift — in conjunction with the Freeholder Board — to paperless government in an effort to save green by going green.
"We will be using technology that allows us to have resolutions, agendas and ordinances and supporting documentation available electronically to elected officials, staff and eventually the public," she said. "By reducing the amount of paper and ink used, as well as redesigning the workflow for employees, we expect to save more than $500,000 over the next five years while saving over 100 trees."
Donovan concluded by reasserting the county's commitment to sharing both services and ideas for improvement with local municipalities.
"I am open to ideas from our local officials on how we can use their knowledge of municipal needs and the resources of county government to serve the people who pay the taxes that keep both municipal and county government afloat," she said. "I don't want to build monuments with taxpayers' money; I want to improve people's lives."