EDITORIAL: A step forward for municipal mergers

The legislation eliminates some of the one-size-fits-all provisions of the 2007 consolidation act, and gives towns considering consolidation wide latitude in negotiating agreements that satisfy both sides.

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In a legislative session that has produced few tangible results in easing New Jersey’s property tax burden, there may be a ray of hope in a bill approved by the Assembly last week aimed at making it easier and more palatable for municipalities to consolidate.

The bill, A-1739, sponsored by Democrats Tim Eustace, Reed Gusciora and Joseph Lagana and co-sponsored by Republicans Declan O’Scanlon and Jack Ciattarelli, was approved 55-10-4. It next goes to the Senate, which we hope will move quickly after the first of the year to give it its blessing.

The path to passage in the Assembly was a long and winding one. First introduced in January 2014, it has undergone a number of amendments — not surprising considering how detailed it is — each aimed at clarifying and increasing the flexibility of the 2007 Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act. Since that act was passed, only two towns have consolidated — Princeton Borough and Princeton Township.

The level of detail in the bill is one of its strengths. Its provisions are aimed at overcoming the many procedural and financial obstacles to consolidating one or more towns. Overcoming those hurdles can only help take the pressure off taxpayers while providing, in many cases, more efficient municipal services.

Having 565 municipalities in New Jersey — 250 boroughs, 245 townships, 52 cities, 15 towns and three villages — is anything but cost-effective or efficient. Certainly some towns are best left alone. In other towns, particularly the smaller ones, having separate police departments, road crews, and attorneys and other professionals makes sense only to the public officials and workers who benefit from the redundant employment they provide.

The majority of towns fall into the “small” category: 321 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities have fewer than 10,000 people; 158 have fewer than 5,000 residents and 32 have fewer than 1,000 people.

In many communities, resistance to consolidating has come from those whose jobs could be affected by it. In other cases, there is a sincere belief that smaller government provides better government or that consolidation will inevitably produce winners and losers, financially or in the provision of municipal services.

One of the strengths of the legislation approved by the Assembly is that it eliminates some of the one-size-fits-all provisions of the 2007 consolidation act, and gives towns considering consolidation wide latitude in negotiating agreements that satisfy both sides.

Among other things, the legislation would allow towns to develop their own process for equalizing property assessments and apportioning debt, and permit consolidation of non-contiguous towns if they are located within a reasonable distance of one another. It also would authorize severance pay for employees of consolidating municipalities to encourage them to stay until the consolidation took effect. And it would indemnify towns from any legal actions stemming from agreements to adjust benefits between the municipalities or other incentives to facilitate consolidation.

This legislation may not create a rush by towns to join forces with neighbors. But it will remove many of the impediments to doing so. The Senate should pass the bill and Gov. Chris Christie should sign it into law.


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