Doughnut hole municipalities: Can they help set the tone for wholesale town mergers?

As the volume of New Jersey’s consolidation chorus continues to grow louder — encouraged by Gov. Chris Christie and others who say reducing government is the surest path to reducing property taxes — the state’s nearly two dozen “doughnut hole” towns find themselves easy targets.

These municipalities, called “doughnut holes” because one town completely surrounds another, appear to many to be the most likely to merge.

Often, these towns already share many services: a school district, a library and, in places like Chester (Morris County) and Princeton (Mercer County), they even share a name. But in the spirit of home rule, many of their biggest expenses — police and fire departments, public works and town halls — remain separate.

On a map, the doughnut hole towns would seem to be the likeliest candidates to consolidate and merge: One town simply absorbs the other and, voila, two municipalities become one.

There are more than 20 of them statewide, including Freehold and Freehold Township in Monmouth County, Metuchen and Edison in Middlesex County, Lakehurst and Manchester in Ocean County.

But the doughnut mergers haven’t happened and, for a variety of reasons, are unlikely to happen soon. And there are questions about whether — in talks about the value of small government and municipal consolidation — the doughnut towns matter at all.

Assemblyman Reed Guscoria, D-Mercer, grew up in one doughnut (Hopewell and Hopewell Township) and lives in another (Princeton and Princeton Township). He believes towns like those can be used to demonstrate the benefits of merging entire municipalities.

Guscoria has sponsored a bill in each of the past two legislative sessions that would force the doughnut towns to merge within 10 years. His current bill (A1904) was introduced in February 2010 and has not moved out of committee. Its predecessor in the previous session fared no better.

He believes his colleagues in the Legislature are unwilling to force the hands of local officials in their districts to consolidate themselves out of jobs. But Guscoria thinks the doughnut towns are the perfect place to start.

Continue reading this article in the Asbury Park Press or download a full PDF here.

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