If it's broke, why not fix it?
According to Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a recently formed non-profit group that attempts to educate the public about the benefits of consolidation, “efficiency was clearly not on people’s minds when these governments were formed.”
“It’s widely agreed,” said Genovese, who is also the former mayor of Long Hill Township (pop. 8,702), “that New Jersey could save a significant amount of money if we consolidated towns on a large scale. And more than money, we could be delivering better services.”
Though there are no precise estimates on how much money the state as a whole could save through large-scale municipal consolidate, Genovese said that it could easily be hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The problems of fragmentation stem, in part, from the fact that many of the towns in New Jersey don’t have sufficient population to generate a robust tax base. Additionally, larger towns often benefit from economies of scale — the increase in efficiency in the production of goods or the delivery of services when the volume of goods or services increases. Finally, Genovese said, fragmentation breeds redundancy: “Do we really need five mayors to govern twenty square miles? Do we need five police chiefs?”
New Jersey state law does provide an avenue for towns that wish to consolidate, but in practice, this process is fraught with complications and delays.
The Borough of Merchantville and the adjacent Township of Cherry Hill, for example, applied for a study commission on consolidation, but the application was denied by the Local Finance Board because one town had approved it through direct petitioning of residents while the other approved it through the Town Council. (New Jersey’s Legislature voted unanimously to change the law this month in order to rectify this apparently unintentional effect, and the measure awaits the Governor’s signature.)
On at least one occasion, towns that have asked for funding were told that the Department of Community Affairs didn’t have the money.
And local voter resistance remains strong.
For example, Princeton Borough is actually completely surrounded by Princeton Township — in local parlance, the Borough is a “donut hole” town — leading many to question why there are two separate governments, especially as property taxes have risen in both.
The residents of the jurisdictions have considered consolidation three times before, and each time they have voted it down, according to State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who represents the district that includes the Princetons. “People are afraid of change,” he said. “They want to hold on to their little fiefdoms.”
A fourth referendum is scheduled to be held this fall.
Home rule: New Jersey’s religion? (part 2)
Gina Genovese uses the example of Woodbridge Township to illustrate her point. Woodbridge, the oldest town in New Jersey, is one of few towns in the state that did not splinter up into several small towns in the 19th and early 20th century. Instead, Woodbridge continues to contain 10 communities within its jurisdiction, all but one of which have a population of more than 10,000. None of the 10 has its own municipal government.
In addition, taxes are relatively low in Woodbridge, while the town can afford to retain a full-time grant writer, and the school district (one of the largest in the state) can afford to put solar panels on its roof (See related box on school district consolidation on page 5).
Genovese is trying to find a group of four or five communities to do a consolidation study, and is using Woodbridge as the model. “I want to show people that the real savings come from merging more than just two towns. When two towns merge, there is usually a winner and a loser,” she said, referring to the fact that, sometimes, property taxes in one of two merging municipalities might go up, although there is a net savings. “The more [towns] that consolidate, the more everybody wins.”
So far, though, local officials aren’t buying the idea that consolidation can help a municipality. Many Mayors continue to cling to their town’s identity (and, some say, their jobs).
The southwestern New Jersey Borough of Penns Grove, for example, broke away from the larger Carney’s Point in 1894, and now has a population of fewer than 5,000 people. It is surrounded on three sides by Carney’s Point and on the fourth by the Delaware River.
Mayor John Washington said he often heard the suggestion that the two towns should consolidate. “I’m not buying that at all,” he said. “We’re a historic community. Yeah, we’re a small donut [hole] town, but we’ve been a donut [hole] town for 100 years.”
Same goes for Mayor Nancy Martin of the Borough of Helmetta (population 1,825). “I guess it’s always easy to sit at a desk in Trenton and decide what’s best for everyone,” she said. “I don’t even know the real reason it makes me so angry – it just burns me up that they sit there and say they know what’s best for everyone.”
But every local official interviewed for this article said that, if they were presented with a study showing that they could save money by consolidating, they would be much more open to the idea.
“It would have to be a professional study,” Washington added, “not some back-of-the-envelope thing.”
Even William Dressel at the League of Municipalities said that he would be open to the idea of the state incentivizing municipalities to consolidate if comprehensive studies were done. But, he added, “I don’t think LUARCC has the staff to do that.”