The question of whether New Jersey municipalities should consider consolidation as a money-saving effort as the state faces economic challenges was discussed during a Tuesday night forum in Waretown.
The event, which was organized by the Waretown Democratic Club, was prompted in part by Gov. Chris Christie’s proposal late last month for state funding to cover the cost of mergers between New Jersey municipalities and drew Southern Ocean County residents and officials, including some from Barnegat, Ocean and Long Beach Island.
Under legislation proposed by the governor Sept. 30, the state Department of Community Affairs would pay 20 percent of the cost of consolidation.
Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a non-partisan, non-profit organization pushing for a more efficient municipal structure in the state, told those in attendance that consolidation may be a viable solution to New Jersey's economic woes.
"Our state is in trouble," she said. "We as taxpayers are finding it difficult to stay up with taxes escalating every year."
Joan Finn, president pro tem of the Waretown Democratic Club, said that the event wasn't intended to promote a certain political viewpoint, but rather to create a dialog among residents and municipalities.
"The purpose of this meeting is not to present a Democratic or Republican or independent party agenda," she said. "The purpose of this meeting is to propose an idea of town clusters so that all of us can think about it, discuss it and begin the process of evolving."
"We are here tonight is to start the conversation, just talking about different ideas of new ways to look at New Jersey. Let's see where it takes us," said Wendy McCahill, Courage to Connect New Jersey's board president.
Genovese said that New Jersey began with 104 municipalities which grew into 566 by the late 1800s because of arbitrary reasons.
"We started to fracture off because of railroads, rivers, schools, a wet town, a dry town, sewers — all kinds of issues that have absolutely no validity today," Genovese said.
This fracturing has led to the Garden State having more towns than California — which has fewer than 500 — and more than one third of municipalities have fewer than 5,000 residents, according to the Courage to Connect New Jersey.
The idea of consolidation is not new, Genovese said, as she presented a New York Times article from 1895 in which the author discusses merging the Oranges into a single municipality. Though historically a difficult process, legislation passed in 2007 allows for residents to petition local leaders to conduct a study to determine if consolidation would benefit their town. Courage to Connect New Jersey aims to start discussions about the process and help interested municipalities to merge successfully.
As mayor of Long Hill Township from 2005-07, Genovese said that her first-hand experience of running a small municipality of 8,700 residents made her realize that more towns meant increased spending.
"I don't think that my town should exist by itself," she said. "I felt that there were 3,100 households that had to bear the burden of a police department, administration and [department of public works]. I felt the burden was too great."
At that same time, Gov. Jon Corzine challenged towns to merge police departments, he would give the first few towns $1 million.
Genovese said that her "progressive" police chief was in favor of consolidation, but the neighboring municipalities that she approached outright rejected the proposal.
In 2006, Long Hill participated in one of the first police department communications mergers in the state, which led Genovese to look further into consolidation. Furthermore, her township shared services with many surrounding municipalities including DPW equipment, building inspector and health officer.
"I started to say to myself, 'if we're not large enough to have a health officer, are we large enough to exist?'"
Shared services, Genovese said, "fractures off an already fractured structure."
"In 10 years, your town may not be doing anything by itself," she said.
Townships that are losing money are bonding those missing funds into the future, Genovese said. The aggregate of New Jersey municipal governments in 2000 was $5 billion. In 2010, that amount grew to $12.5 billion, according to Genovese.
"Is this what we want? To keep putting this on our children and grandchildren?" she asked.
While consolidation may be a solution to cutting back on administrative and other municipal personnel, Genovese said that many residents throughout the state are resistant to change because they fear losing their local identity.
"It is only selfishness that keeps us apart," Genovese said. "We all need to that thinking about the state of New Jersey differently."
One resident in attendance noted that town mergers could cost jobs as, for example, police officers are laid off as multiple forces combine. Another questioned if fewer administrators tending to an increased consolidated population would lead to a degradation of services.
Municipalities must study whether consolidation is right for its residents, and if towns decide to merge, Genovese said that the decision of with whom should be left to the residents.
"We are not for forced consolidation," she said. "It has to be organic. It has to come from the people."
Woodbridge, the sixth most populated township in the state which is divided among 10 distinct unincorporated areas, was used as an example of how consolidation could work for other municipalities in the Garden State. If each of those unincorporated areas had its own mayor, police, school board and other services, Courage to Connect New Jersey estimated that the same region, split into 10 separate towns, would require an additional $45 million in tax revenue to function.
"[Woodbridge] is a model of how each of these communities has kept their identity," McCahill said. "It's really nice to know it's not about having a monochromatic community. It can actually work with very different people coming together. It's the administration that oversees the entire population and gives opportunities for many more things to happen."
Ocean Township Mayor Joseph Lachawiec said that his town has kept the property tax rate flat for the past two years and would not welcome consolidation with surrounding municipalities that are not financially sound.
In Sept. 2010, Lachawiec said that a study considering consolidation among Berkeley, Lacey, Ocean, Barnegat, Stafford and Eagleswood completed. The mayor said his town could have suffered from a merger.
"They say, 'Join with us.' And we say, 'Why? We don't see the point,'" Lachawiec said. "I looked at this before and from Waretown's perspective, it's not a winner for us at all."
"Well, there's your answer," Genovese said.
But for other areas, a merger may work. A consolidation between Princeton township and borough could bring about an estimated $200 in tax savings per year for each household, with greater returns coming down the road, Genovese said.
Finn said that the meeting was "an excellent start" to the consolidation discussion, a matter that sparks disagreement.
"[Courage to Connect New Jersey] didn't come here for people to agree," she said. "I think New Jersey needs to start looking at the importance in terms of working together as taxpayers. We are top heavy in this state. We don't need all this administration. We need all the services but we don't need all these little fiefdoms. We need to cooperate for the good of the people."
Finn said that her club will further discuss consolidation and decide whether members will forge ahead with the movement which would include proposing the consolidation of Berkely, Lacey, Barnegat and Ocean.
"I understand why people don't like change," Finn said. "But I feel like this change is worth starting."