CHERRY HILL — It’s been said God made the country and man made the town. In New Jersey, man may have overdone it: There are 566 municipalities in a state that is fifth smallest in square mileage.
But one citizen’s group from the tiny borough of Merchantville has taken it upon itself to merge its municipal operations with Cherry Hill — using a little-known state law that doesn’t require the permission or blessing of a town’s political leaders to initiate such action. Some feel this could be the catalyst of a movement to reduce the number of New Jersey towns and fiscal redundancies. “If there are successes and people see they have the power to do this, they can exercise that power,” said Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit, independent group that promotes municipal consolidation. “This has never been done here. It’s exciting.” The efforts of the community group “Merchantville Connecting for the Future” began early this year. State aid had dropped from $715,691 in fiscal 2009 to $557,946 for fiscal 2011. Residents noted long-term sustainability was a real issue for the Camden County borough, which measures six-tenths of a square mile and has a population of 3,800. “Our taxes have been going up and we’ve been supplementing our budget by drawing down money from our town surplus,” said Greg La Vardera, a Merchantville resident and member of the 20-person coalition. La Vardera said residents asked the borough council to consider a merger with Cherry Hill so school systems, municipal departments and other services could be efficiently extended. The initial response was lukewarm, he said. “And then nothing happened,” La Vardera said. But then the group became aware of the Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act of 2007, which allows everyday citizens and/or elected officials to initiate municipal consolidation. It requires 10 percent of town voters from the last general Assembly election to sign petitions in favor of a merger.