Gov. Chris Christie hosted a packed town hall meeting at the Princeton Public Library today to discuss the merger of the two Princetons and the need for more state efforts to help reduce the cost of government in the state.
“I came here today because Princeton is putting practicality over parochialism,” Christie said, applauding the Princeton merger vote of Nov. 8. “The two Princetons are setting an example for type of government I am trying to bring to Trenton.”
More than 150 people filled the community room at the public library for the hour-plus-long event with Christie, Princeton Borough Council President Kevin Wilkes and Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner that included a question and answer session. Dozens more watched on closed circuit television.
“Congrats to the residents of the borough and the township for successfully moving forward,” Christie said. “It’s been an effort that has been in works since 1953. We in New Jersey are slow but steady, and we eventually got there.”
Christie said politicians in the state need to stop just talking about changing the status quo and need to actually make changes, asking questions “in a significant way about how to make government more efficient and effective.”
“We’ve seen higher and higher property taxes because people refused to take a stand or say no to anyone,” Christie said. “Especially in difficult economic times, this is no longer an acceptable course of conduct.”
Christie said the state is glad to contribute 20 percent to the transition costs for the merger of the two Princetons. While consolidation should help save money in towns that merge, he said such merger decisions should be made at the local level and not by the state.
“Locally driven decisions like this one are the only way to do it,” he said. “The decision should not be made by the the Department of Community of Affairs or the Governor’s Office. We all know it’s a contentious and emotional issue, and also a complicated one. People at the local level have the best feel for what to do. I have no business deciding on the merits of whether it is the right move to make while I am sitting in Trenton. But we need to have the conversation, and we need to move to taking action.”
Christie discussed the state’s needs to make further reforms in the area of personnel costs to ease the burden on taxpayers and make the state solvent, and stressed the need for reform in the state’s civil service system and sick pay system. The sick pay system offers government employees compensation for their unused sick days upon retirement. Christie said the current liability for that system is $825 million, and argued the only perk employees should have in terms of using unused sick days is to transfer them to co-workers who are critically or terminally ill.
Asked by Christie what the biggest challenges are in running municipal government, both Goerner and Wilkes cited personnel costs.
Goerner said local governments need more flexibility and are sometimes too restricted by state regulations, as, for example, the Princeton Consolidation Commission found when it gathered its recommendations for consolidating the borough and township.
“We need to know what those issues are, clean up the Municipal Consolidation Act and make it better, ” Christie said.
Audience members asked questions on everything from green house gas policy and fracking to accountability for utility companies. Christie said intensive hearings will be conducted regarding how the utility companies handled Hurricane Irene and the October snow storm.
Asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement and what the government’s role is in terms of the disparity in income in the country, Christie said industries that provided jobs for the middle class have been driven out of the country because of bad policies that made the cost of doing business too high.
“The Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement come from the same place in terms of emotion,” Christie said. “They both are saying government is not working right now, but they could not be more diametrically opposed to each other. The emotion driving both of them is that government is not working for them, just for the people who can afford to hire the best lobbyists.”
Christie argued the solution to income inequality is not to increase taxes for the rich. He said the top one percent of taxpayers already pay 41 percent of the income tax in the state. “The wealthy are paying more than their fair share,” he said.
He argued the tax code needs to be fixed to close loopholes and prevent expensive lobbyists representing corporations from controlling public policy and legislation.
Christie said the U.S. is on the brink of being an “entitlement society” rather than an opportunity society where opportunity drives people and the economy.
He closed the meeting by saying the state is headed in the right direction in terms of reform.
“The New Jersey comeback has begun, though not as fast as would like to be,” he said.