This article originally ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 29, 2010 Some liken it to two people dating. There’s a courting period to get to know each other before anyone pops the question. That may be where officials in Cherry Hill Township and its tiny neighbor, Merchantville Borough, now find themselves.
Several hundred borough residents signed a petition over the spring calling on Merchantville officials to study the pros and cons of a merger. And this week, organizers were fashioning a more formal petition intended to further prod the town into examining the question. They say Merchantville is being squeezed by the lack of tax rateables and state aid cuts that will force tough choices. Aid dropped from $715,691 in fiscal 2009 to $557,946 in fiscal 2011. “I don’t see how the town is sustainable,” said Bob Starker, a borough resident who has helped lead the petition effort. “We’ve been delaying reality and are now at a tipping point where we might have to increase [property] taxes and reduce services,” he said. “That’s when we circle the drain.” The borough could bring millions of dollars in additional revenue to Cherry Hill, which could easily and more efficiently extend services to an adjacent community of 3,800 people in sixth-tenths of a square mile, Starker said. Why bear the expense of separate governments, police departments, and school systems – not to mention a host of other services, ranging from trash pickup and stump-grinding to snow removal and road maintenance – residents are asking. Merchantville Mayor Frank North and Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt have met to discuss the merger proposal and hope the state will fund the study, expected to cost more than $100,000. “I’m not against [a merger] or for it,” North said. “I’m here to do whatever is right for Merchantville and our residents. “This is something that has to be approved by both communities. It’s like going to the prom. If you want someone to go and the other person doesn’t want to go, it’s not going to happen.” North and Platt both said they needed more information before the communities could decide on tying the knot. “There is no question in my mind that any time you can eliminate redundancy in municipal services and save taxpayers money, it is the right thing to do,” Platt said. “Any kind of consolidation that is done, whether it is a trash contract or municipalities, needs to be done in a thoughtful manner with a benefit for all parties involved.” Even approval of a study to look at the merger question “would be a wonderful example to communities across the state,” said Gina Genovese, former mayor of Long Hill Township in Morris County and founder and executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit that educates the public about home rule and local government changes. “You are looking at a much larger town with a huge capacity that could take Merchantville under its wing,” she said. “The last merger was in 1952. . . . Government is like a huge ship, and it doesn’t turn fast. You have to answer the concerns and fears of the people. We’re just starting that conversation.”