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"When are we going to acknowledge as mature, reasonable adults that we have too long tolerated a municipal framework that represents the opposite of everything this century has learned about effective management, efficient control and economy of scale."

Alan J. Karcher,
Multiple Municipal Madness

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What’s really holding up municipal consolidation

RECENTLY, the state Department of Community of Affairs rejected an application by Merchantville and the township of Cherry Hill to study municipal consolidation. The ruling was surprising, disappointing and – most important – wrong.

At a time when New Jersey is facing a severe fiscal crisis, we need every cost-saving option at our disposal. It’s remarkable that the DCA would turn its back on a grass-roots effort to reduce local expenses and eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy. Once again, Trenton is getting in the way of much-needed reform.

The DCA’s decision turned on two clauses of a 2007 law creating a new form of consolidation, called “Local Option Municipal Consolidation.” The law reads: “[I]n order to encourage municipalities to increase efficiency through municipal consolidation for the purpose of reducing expenses borne by their property taxpayers, more flexible options need to be available to the elected municipal officials and voters.” In addition, the law states that its provisions “shall be liberally construed” to encourage municipal consolidation.

The state legislators who wrote this bill four years ago wanted to encourage consolidation however possible. They allowed municipalities to initiate the consolidation study process in one of two ways: by governing body resolution or by voter petition. But, in a narrow and technical ruling, the DCA decided that all of the municipalities seeking to create a joint study commission must use the same form of approval – in other words, each must obtain approval by resolution, or each must obtain approval by petition.

For various reasons, Merchantville and Cherry Hill needed to file a “hybrid” or “mix-and-match” application, whereby one municipality obtains approval by resolution and the other by petition. But that wasn’t good enough for the DCA. The department rejected the application, in direct violation of the law’s requirement that it offer “flexible options” to municipalities considering consolidation.

This might seem like an esoteric discussion of legal interpretation. But it’s these tiny technical issues that get in the way of real reform. And given Governor Christie’s goal of fixing this state, it’s amazing that he has allowed his bureaucrats to stymie progress.

This op-ed originally ran in The Record. To download a full PDF, click here.

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A sign that’s needed from the state: Merge

Quietly, history is being made in South Jersey: Activists from Merchantville, a Camden County nook of 3,800 people, soon will become the state’s first citizens to initiate a municipal merger — that is, if New Jersey officials eventually get out of the way.

Citing a dusty 2007 law, the Merchantville residents collected signatures on a petition requesting a study on a possible merger with Cherry Hill, its massive neighbor with 70,000 residents. The Cherry Hill Council passed a resolution, welcoming the idea.

In August, the group submitted an application to the Department of Community Affairs, but the agency rejected it last week. Officials said the law allows petitions from each town or a resolution from both councils, but no mixing-and-matching. State Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) has proposed new legislation that permits the a la carte approach.

“The purpose of the original law was to allow citizens the ability to step over mayors and councils who only want to protect their turf,” Gordon said. “We just never foresaw this stumbling block (one petition, one resolution), so we need to fix it.”

If the bill passes, as expected, next month, the Merchantville group will resubmit its application.

The Merchantville activists see trouble ahead: State aid is shrinking, the town surplus has evaporated and costs are spiraling. Hamlets are quaint, but, as money tightens, they don’t make financial sense.

This article originally appeared in the Star-Ledger. To download a full PDF, click here.

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Courier Post Op-Ed: “DCA wrong to shoot down merger study”

Merchantville and Cherry Hill should get state help in examining potential savings.

Maybe the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the primary state agency that works with municipal governments, doesn’t want to see any towns merge. Maybe DCA Commissioner Lori Grifa or someone else in the DCA isn’t eager to see towns start merging because if there are fewer towns, there might be less work for the DCA to do, and then the DCA could get downsized.

Perhaps that’s far-fetched, but the DCA’s rigidity in its decision last week to deny an application for Merchantville and Cherry Hill to study the possibility of merging is a head-scratcher.

The idea behind passing a state law in 2007 to encourage municipalities to explore potential mergers and save taxpayers dollars was a sound one. Equally sound was having the DCA provide money for towns interested in researching a merger to conduct a formal study. After all, it would be impossible to ask voters in two or more towns to go the polls and vote on merging their governments into one unless they had detailed data on exactly how much money would be saved. Thus, the need for studies.

So then, we come back to the DCA’s decision regarding Merchantville and Cherry Hill. In tiny Merchantville, which abuts the northwest corner of Cherry Hill, an organized group of citizens fed up with rising property taxes has pushed for a merger with Cherry Hill. There are other motivations at play, as well, not the least of which would be a school district merger and a chance for Merchantville kids to move on eventually to Cherry Hill’s highly rated high schools.

The citizens group, Merchantville Connecting for the Future, met the benchmark of getting signatures from more than 10 percent of the registered voters in the borough who voted in the 2009 election.


This article originally ran in the Courier Post. To download a full PDF, click here.

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Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Kevin Riordan discusses Merchantville-Cherry Hill merger

“We interpret the [municipal consolidation] law a little differently than DCA,” says Gina Genovese, executive director of the nonprofit organization Courage to Connect New Jersey, which is lobbying for consolidations statewide.”This is an issue that everyone has said for years the public is not going to go for, and here you have a group that says, ‘We think we can be part of the solution.’ And they were shot down,” says Genovese, adding that Courage to Connect would ask the state to review the decision.

Merchantville Mayor Frank North, however, thinks DCA made the right call. “We support a study, but it shouldn’t be done without the governing body being involved,” he says. “Let’s do this. But let’s do it right.”

Merchantville Connecting, the mayor adds, “is doing their own thing.”

Cherry Hill’s resolution did not cite “any particular entity” within Merchantville but rather indicated the township’s willingness to consider consolidation, says Dan Keashen, spokesman for Mayor Bernie Platt.

“We were asked to dance, and we want to [dance] with whoever the proper entity is,” he says. “If it’s the governing body, fine. If it’s the petitioners, fine.”

With the prospective partners (and their parents in Trenton) so cautious, I won’t be surprised if this dance takes awhile. Maybe another 58 years.

This article originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. To download a full PDF, click here

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Agency shoots down Cherry Hill-Merchantville merger attempt

The state Department of Community Affairs has formally declined an effort to study whether Merchantville and Cherry Hill can consolidate municipal services.

In a letter sent to officials of both towns — as well as the grass-roots group seeking the merger — the state said proper procedures were not followed in seeking the study.

The consolidation plan was initiated by a Merchantville group, Merchantville Connecting for the Future, after continued hikes in property taxes and reductions in municipal services.

The DCA said Monday the application Merchantville and Cherry Hill sent does not meet state application requirements.

A group of Merchantville residents sent a petition to the DCA, while Cherry Hill submitted a resolution to undertake a consolidation study. But the law requires the same method of application from each community — either resolutions from each municipality or a petition circulated by a representative committee of voters from both towns, Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the DCA, said in September, when the applications were submitted.


This article originally appeared in the Courier Post. To download a full PDF, click here

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Gina Genovese speaks on Merchantville and Cherry Hill merger proposal in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Merchantville Borough and Cherry Hill Township still may come together as one municipality, but the courtship will likely take longer than residents expected.An application from a grassroots group of borough residents trying to take the first step toward merging the tiny municipality with its larger neighbor was rejected this week by the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

New Jersey’s Local Option Consolidation Act does not allow for a “hybrid application” resulting from the action of the governing body of one municipality and a citizens group from another municipality, said Thomas Neff, chairman of the state’s local finance board and acting director of the DCA’s Division of Local Government Services, in a letter to the group Merchantville Connecting for the Future.

The application “will not be considered for that reason,” Neff said.

State officials said the application did not meet statutory requirements mandating participation of two municipal governing bodies or two committees representing registered voters.

A committee is required to have petitions signed by at least 10 percent of the voters in the last general election.

The law “allows people, not just elected officials, to initiate municipal consolidation,” said Bob Stocker, a member of Merchantville Connecting for the Future. It allows for creation of a commission to study consolidation “based on either a signed petition of 10 percent of the voters or a council resolution.”

Stocker said his group was dumbfounded by the state’s action and was working with Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit that encourages consolidation, to explore legal options.

The group had gathered 300 signatures in Merchantville, more than the number required, and received support from the Cherry Hill mayor and council. The application was submitted in the summer and rejected Wednesday.

“The law explicitly provides towns with a lot of flexibility to undertake a consolidation study however they see fit,” said Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey.


This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. To download a full PDF, click here

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Courage to Connect NJ Highlighted in The New York Times

TETERBORO, N.J. — At 1.1 square miles, this town is smaller than Central Park — smaller even than Teterboro Airport, which spills past its borders. It has no schools, no police or fire department, far more aircraft than residents, and a bone to pick with the Census Bureau.

The bureau estimates Teterboro is home to 17 people, making it the smallest municipality in New Jersey. But locals say the true population is at least 50, maybe 60.

Either way, many people wonder why it is a town at all, and a bill before the State Legislature would abolish Teterboro and split the pieces among its neighbors. That bill has stalled, but the idea is not likely to go away. And many other places across the state are ripe for the same treatment.

New Jersey has long viewed its thicket of local governments, many tiny — including 566 incorporated municipalities and 591 school districts — as an instrument of cherished local control.

But a growing number of government officials and residents are starting to see these hyperlocal entities as a source of duplication and waste. With voters rebelling against high taxes, and towns and school districts struggling to absorb rising costs and falling state aid, there is a drumbeat for consolidation.

…..

But Gina Genovese, a former mayor of Long Hill (population 8,600), said that if you needed to share all sorts of services, “maybe you shouldn’t have a town.”

“We shared a fire inspector, a health officer, a construction officer and police communications, and we had a part-time C.F.O.,” said Ms. Genovese, who founded Courage to Connect NJ to promote consolidation. “We shared services with 14 other towns, and it just took a fractured structure and fractured it even more.”

Ms. Genovese’s group plans to release a guide in January for towns interested in consolidating under the 2007 New Jersey law.


This article originally ran in The New York Times. To download a full PDF, click here

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SUNDAY CONVERSATION: Gina Genovese, head of Courage to Connect N.J.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another one of our “Sunday Conversations,” a question and answer interview with a prominent Morris County person. This week, we feature Gina Genovese, the former mayor of Long Hill Township, who is the executive director of a non-profit group, Courage to Connect N.J., which is trying to reduce the cost of local government in New Jersey by merging municipalities. Genovese, 51, is a lifelong resident of New Jersey and a former professional tennis player.

Q: You have been a mayor and also a candidate for the state Senate in 2007, how did you move on from those activities to what you are doing now?

A: As a local elected official, after about two years, I realized the burden on 3,100 households in Long Hill. They had to pay for a police department a DPW, etc. and I just started to see that Long Hill Township should perhaps not exist by itself, that it would be a better town if we had more economies of scale to capture and if that happened, it would be a way to address the local property tax issue in New Jersey. That’s not to say our police department and DPW were not great; we had 3,100 people paying for it. I started to ask a lot of questions, a lot of questions about municipal aid. I started to inquire about the size of towns and I started to look into it. I discovered that shared services is perhaps a step, but that really wasn’t going to remedy the situation that New Jersey was facing. I said this is not the way to go; the way to go is to strengthen our local government.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Record. To download a full PDF, click here

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New Providence forum to discuss municipal mergers

NEW PROVIDENCE — The public is invited to learn about the potential benefits of municipal consolidation for the borough and neighboring municipalities at a public forum on Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m.

The event will be held at the New Providence Library, 377 Elkwood Ave. The free program will feature Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, who will explain the growing efforts statewide to connect municipalities under a single administration. A question-and-answer session will follow.

The event will be hosted by former Borough Councilman Bob Robinson, and a local orthodontist with a practice on Springfield Avenue. Robinson said Courage to Connect New Jersey’s message that government could be more streamlined, more efficient and less costly resonates with residents who are tired of paying high property taxes.

Genovese, who is also the owner of Gina’s Tennis World in Berkeley Heights and former mayor of Long Hill Township, said municipalities across New Jersey are starting to seriously consider consolidation as an option for reducing property taxes.

This article originally appeared in the Independent Press. Click here to download a full PDF

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Town merger advocate brings her message to Northern Valley

NORTHVALE — A supporter for the consolidation of municipalities brought her message to Northvale residents on Oct. 12.

Gina Genovese and Wendy McCahill, founders of Courage to Connect NJ a non-profit promoting consolidation of municipalities, were invited to speak to area residents by Northvale Councilman Andrew Gullestad after he heard a presentation from the group earlier in the year.

The purpose of the presentation was to inform residents of the benefits of consolidating towns in order to bring property taxes under control.

“We’re all here to figure out how to make things better,” Gullestad said, welcoming those who attended the presentation.

Consolidating towns would consist of bringing several smaller towns into one, with one mayor and council, and one set of administration and services, watching over the town to avoid duplicating responsibilities and costs.

“We’re all in this together,” said Genovese, a former mayor of Long Hill in Morris County.

Genovese said she was in Northvale because she’s seen budgets struggling throughout the state, with taxpayers having to pick up the tab.

“And we’re struggling too,” she said, with many leaving the state in response.

This article originally appeared in the Northern Valley Suburbanite . Click here to download a full PDF of the article.

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