WESTFIELD, NJ — Each of New Jersey’s 9 million residents would have to fork over $16,722 to pay off the state’s retiree health benefits and pension liabilities, a recent state report found.

The looming fiscal crisis this debt presents has prompted state legislators to consider merging school districts, combining municipalities, reducing police and firefighters benefits and increasing shared services.

State legislators sparred over these potential solutions during a forum before about 65 business leaders in Westfield on Wednesday. The event was sponsored by the Greater Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

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“These changes are very significant,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, R-Westfield. “And the reason they’re hard to do is because people get mad when you make those changes.”

Bramnick, however, emphasized the importance of solving the fiscal crisis. He noted that people are moving out of New Jersey in large numbers, something that has largely been attributed to the state’s high cost of living.

“Unless leadership in Trenton sends a message to both the business community and the working people in New Jersey that we are going to start to make this state more affordable, this crisis is going to continue,” Bramnick said.

The New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup report, which the discussion centered on, includes the following recommendations.

  • Merge school districts to improve the quality of education and promote efficiency.
  • Allow the establishment of two countywide school district pilot programs.
  • Require the mergers of municipal courts with small caseloads.
  • Authorize county governments to provide the full range of local police services.

Frank J. Abella, CEO of Investment Partners Asset Management, a Metuchen-based a registered investment adviser, has studied the state’s liabilities extensively.

“I’ve come to conclude the system is insolvent, that whatever you’re doing or attempting to do is a political response to an economic disaster,” Abella told the panel of lawmakers.

He demanded action plans that deal with the reality of the fiscal crisis in which the state’s liabilities outweigh its revenues.

The state formed the New Jersey Economic & Fiscal Policy Workgroup to address that budgetary gap, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Voorhees, said in reply.

“We do know it,” Greenwald said. “We’re very aware of it. It’s why the taskforce was created.” There is also talk of changes to the state’s constitution that would help solve the fiscal issues, he said.

Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Westfield, said he favors shifts in the pension and health benefits for public employees, but mainly for newer employees.

“We also want to keep our promises to the people who are going to rely on the health benefits and for the people who are going to rely on the pension benefits,” Kean said.

Merging municipalities

Merging municipalities and school districts, as the state report recommends, would be a tough sell, Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union, said.

“I can assure you that there will be anger and not just on Jon Bramnick’s Facebook page if there is a referendum in New Jersey to consolidate … school districts.”

Have the school districts and municipalities discussed the possibility? – “A lot people’s oxen, which would be gored in the plan, have not weighed in,” Cryan said.

However, Greenwald said school districts with less than 1,000 students cost 10 to 15 percent more to run. The mergers would reduce administrative costs, he said.

“This is going to get done because we’re at a crisis,” Greenwald said.

Bramnick spoke against school district mergers, noting some taxpayers’ willingness to fund schools.

“There is one thing people will pay for: They will pay for their schools – in Westfield, in Summit, in Cranford,” he said. “Talk about a third rail. They don’t mind spending money on their kids.”

While some on the bipartisan panel differed in their views of the specific solutions, each clearly conveyed to the audience the need for action.

“If we don’t fix this problem, my children and your children are not going to be staying here,” Greenwald said.

Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh