Bill aims to merge NJ towns — even when they aren’t neighbors
Ten years ago this month, a state law was enacted encouraging more municipal consolidations as a method for saving money and reducing property taxes.
In the decade since, there’s been just one merger – the combining of Princeton borough and township.
Now a less ambitious update to the effort is on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk. It seeks to clarify some of the rules and tools though does include a few wrinkles – such as allowing towns to merge that are near each other but aren’t directly neighbors.
Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Bergen, said he doesn’t foresee a surge of municipal consolidations because of the bill – though he does think local voters will look at the prospects more willingly as costs keep rising.
“There’s no reason why two small towns next to each other or close to each other shouldn’t get together and try to save some money,” Gordon said.
Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, D-Monmouth, said it would be a big change to allow towns that aren’t attached to consolidate. They would have to be within a reasonable distance from each other and in the same county.
“We’re trying to do all that we can to give an option to a town to make that happen. And ultimately who has the final say is the residents that live in that town because they would have to vote on it,” said Houghtaling.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented. South Hackensack, a township in Bergen County, is split into three unconnected parcels. It used to be one municipality, before all but 0.7 square miles of its land was carved off to create other boroughs.
Gordon said residents have been reluctant to agree to mergers but thinks that will change as people seek relief from property taxes and municipal costs. He said people like the feel of their communities – but says consolidating government doesn’t have to mean giving up those local distinctions.
Gordon points to Woodbridge Township in Middlesex County, which has nearly 100,000 residents but maintains separate identities for its 10 separate sections, such as Avenel, Colonia, Fords and Iselin.
“There’s one police chief and one superintendent of public works and one mayor and council, and that community has delivered services more cost-effectively than the equivalent population in a place like Bergen County, for example, where you drive a mile and if you blink you’ve missed a couple of towns,” Gordon said.
Gordon said the bill on Christie’s desk mostly makes technical changes for things like merging police departments learned during the merger in Princeton.
But Jon Moran, a senior policy analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the bill’s tenure, continued employment and terminal leave protections for public-safety employees will actually discourage mergers.
“Public safety, that’s the biggest chunk of your budget. Public safety personnel costs are the biggest chunk of that,” Moran said. “This does nothing to encourage municipalities to consolidate because it would do nothing to address those costs.”
Houghtaling said protections are already on the books for public-safety workers in mergers.
“One of the harsh things about the merger is trying to eliminate good employees that you have,” said Houghtaling. “It just tries to make it fair to the employees as well. You have a lot of people that have spent a lot of time working in a municipality, and my feeling is you want to be fair to them.”
Citing Census Bureau data, the League of Municipalities says police protection costs account for more than 10 percent of total property tax collections in New Jersey – including school, county and special district taxes.
The bill would also expand from 11 to 32 the number of sparsely populated municipalities eligible for a simplified merger process. Currently it’s available for towns with 500 or fewer residents, but that would be raised to 1,000.
The bill, S690/A2921, was passed 51-21-2 by the Assembly this month, after being approved 25-13 by the Senate last May.
This is the bill’s second time on Christie’s desk. A version that got through the Legislature in 2014 and 2015 was pocket-vetoed 14 months ago by Christie – meaning, it was rejected without action after the Assembly gave it final approval on the last day of the session.