TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Democratic leaders in New Jersey united Thursday to stand up to Gov. Chris Christie’s complaints that they’re blocking reforms to help towns meet a new state requirement that property tax hikes be kept to 2 percent or less.

They unveiled an alternate plan that they say will meet Christie’s goal of overhauling the contract arbitration process of police and firefighters.

But they said that neither their solution nor Christie’s, which would ban arbitrators from awarding compensation packages that rise by more than 2 percent, would offer much tax relief.

They also blasted the Republican governor for not addressing a reform that they say would help — reducing the amount of government in the state’s 566 towns.

The Democrats hinted they would target that issue with future legislation. “Home rule, this holy grail of New Jersey, is a farce,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

Christie, a major campaign-trail attraction for Republicans across the nation since he slashed the state budget enough to erase an $11 billion projected deficit, has been calling out leaders of the Democrat-controlled state Legislature for not addressing his 22 bills designed to make it easier for local governments to contain property taxes. At an average of $7,300 per home, the property tax bill in New Jersey is by far the nation’s highest.

He also agrees that towns should at least share services, if not consolidate, and has suggested incentives for them to do so. He says that they’ll be motivated to act as they deal with realities of tighter budgets.

Indeed, more towns are sharing more, such as by consolidating municipal courts. The big southern New Jersey suburbs of Cherry Hill and Gloucester Township announced last week that they would contract together for trash collection.

On Thursday, Democrats announced they had reached an accord among themselves on how to handle arbitration, and said they were closing in on an alternate plan to reform civil service. They argued that out of the governor’s proposed changes, those areas are the only two that would bring much tax relief.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said the bill introduced Thursday would help contain local property taxes by making arbitration awards fairer to towns.

Public safety employees are not permitted to strike, so their contract disputes are settled by arbitrators. Mayors in New Jersey have been asking for arbitration reforms, calls that have grown louder since that state passed a law requiring them limit budget increases to 2 percent starting in January.

The Democrats’ proposal would require an arbitrator to choose a contract award based on final offers from both sides and to consider how the constraint of the new property tax cap. It’s similar to the “fair and final” contract resolution system in place in New Jersey until about 15 years ago.

The proposal also would make the selection of arbitrators more random, shorten the amount of time an arbitrator has to make a decision and force them to explain, in writing, how their decisions comply with state laws.

Bill Lavin, president of the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, planned to testify against the proposed changes. He said the current system has been proven to work. Union leaders and arbitrators already consider economic conditions, he said, as evidenced by multiple-year wage freezes and zero percent increases accepted by many firefighter locals.

But the Democratic lawmakers said their approach would save more money, and allow more creative contract settlements.

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment on the proposal. Democratic leaders speculated that he might reject it.

“If the governor wants to say, ‘This is the only way it’s going to be done,’ he’ll have to decide whether he wants arbitration reform or not,” Sweeney said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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