Can a Town Get By Without Its Public Works Department?

Favoring privatization, a New Jersey mayor’s budget proposes to cut garbage collection, street cleaning, and more.

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For a representative of the government, Mayor Stephen Acropolis is not a big fan of the government.

“It’s very difficult to say that government does anything better than the private sector,” says Acropolis, the aptly named mayor of Brick Township, New Jersey. “I can’t think of one off the top of my head.”

A few things that didn’t come to mind for the mayor: sanitation, street cleaning, road sanding and salting, street signage, police and city fleet maintenance. These are all duties of the township’s Department of Public Works, a department Acropolis’s recently proposed budget would completely eliminate.

The 77-person department is a drain on taxpayers, argues Acropolis, and its services – especially garbage and recycling collection – would be better handled by the private sector. He’s issued pink slips to all 77 city employees, notifying them that their last day would be March 30. His proposal has alarmed some residents in this town of 80,000 about 40 miles east of Trenton, but Acropolis argues that cost-saving moves like this are what the people want.

His constituents did fairly recently indicate they're willing to pay for the costs of such public services, narrowly approving a referendum last April to increase taxes and allow public spending above a state cap. But Acropolis says the reality of those tax increases didn’t sit well once people actually had to pay.

“It’s kind of like asking somebody: do you want a Ferrari or do you want a Chevy, but you don’t tell them how much the Ferrari is,” Acropolis says. “Well, when people got their tax bills in August, they said ‘we no longer want the Ferrari, we would rather have the Chevy.’”

In November, four incumbent Republican town council members were voted out in favor of four Democrats who had all been critical of the tax hikes. Acropolis, a two-term Republican who waives his salary, says the voters are clearly calling for their taxes to go down. That’s why he’s proposing to cut the $8 million added to the budget through the referendum, money that went directly to maintain services such as public works and police. Acropolis’ current proposal would affect only the Department of Public Works, not the police.

“From my point of view, government’s got to get smaller,” Acropolis says.

“Now, I agree with the fact that government needs to be a little bit smaller,” says Council President John Ducey, “but getting rid of as essential a service as the Department of Public Works that people rely upon, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Ducey argues that Acropolis’ plan to fire the entire department will place a burden on residents, who will have to find and pay for private services to collect their garbage and recycling.

“The impact will be great. He’s expecting every homeowner to contract on their own. So what if they don’t? People are going to be throwing bags of garbage in the woods and on the beach just to get rid of it. Or into their neighbor’s trash, and then there could be neighbor conflicts,” says Ducey. “It would just turn the town into chaos.”

Acropolis points out that 70 percent of towns in the state don’t provide garbage collection service.

The mayor's budget was introduced last week, and is now in the hands of the town council for review and revision. Ducey says he and his colleagues will likely propose other cuts in the budget to allow public works to survive. Even Acropolis isn’t expecting the entire department to disappear when he approves the final budget later this spring.

“I can’t veto a budget, but I can just make the decision,” Acropolis says. “I’m not saying I’ll do that, but I can imagine that there probably will be some changes in the public works department.”

One change could be switching some of the duties of the department to be carried out on a project-by-project basis rather than by a salaried staff. He’s also considering a plan that would keep maybe half of the department and privatize only garbage and recycling services.

“If it wasn’t for the human aspect of it, I would absolutely cut the public works department,” says Acropolis. “My concern is the 80,000 people that live in Brick, not just the 80 people that are going to be affected by this.”

Top image: imageegami / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.