Could a Town Merger Solve Collingswood's Budget Woes?
The nonprofit group Courage to Connect New Jersey spoke to residents Wednesday night about new laws that empower citizens to advocate for municipal mergers.
Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and the town borders of Collingswood, Haddon Township and Oaklyn had all been erased.
Walking down the street, would things look any different? (Maybe the street signs would all be painted the same color.)
The new entity—let’s call it Oakwood Township, for the sake of fun—would have one centralized police administration. One superintendent of schools. One mayor, one township council … and some 33,000 residents whose property taxes just fell significantly.
This is the hypothetical argument proposed by Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit, grassroots organization that is traveling the state to talk about municipal consolidation.
Faced with a shortage of dollars and increasing expenditures, the 566 distinct municipalities in the state must begin to consider seriously the idea of merging governments to save money, argues Gina Genovese, executive director of the group.
“Is it really essential to have 566 municipal governments in the state of New Jersey?” she asked, addressing a handful of listeners at the Collingswood Library Wednesday evening. “They do 80 percent of the same thing.
“That 2-percent cap is really handcuffing your towns,” Genovese said. “To try to have the level of services that you’re accustomed to and still keep under that cap. … Is it realistic to cut our way out of this problem?”
The issue has been up for discussion in the state for nearly 120 years, Genovese said, citing an 1895 article from the New York Times in which citizens in the Oranges were seriously discussing merging the two towns “for purposes of economy and efficiency.”
“We’re not talking about anything new here,” she said. “We’re [still] taking all our problems and bonding them into the future.”
According to Wendy McCahill, co-founder and board president of Courage to Connect New Jersey, 65 percent of towns in the state have fewer than 10,000 people supporting the entire budgets of their municipalities. As the costs of services increase, the burden of supporting an entire civic government becomes unsustainable to distribute among so little a population.
To illustrate her point, as Genovese delivered her presentation, McCahill turned over 566 placards, one for each municipality for the state of New Jersey. By the time she was done, the stack reached the ceiling, with extras to spare.
Moreover, McCahill said, New Jersey is home to only 28 towns of 50,000 or more people—the cutoff for federal funding dollars—which further underscores the necessity for change.
“We have to figure out is this a sustainable structure,” she said.
An identity crisis
The biggest obstacle to municipal consolidation is emotional, Genovese said. New Jerseyans are attached to their communities as a source of identity, and for that reason alone the average person will bristle at the notion of merging towns.
“Jersey is Jersey,” she said. “We are identifiable down to the soil. Everyone knows where the border is. But is your town identity tied to your local government?”
Historically, Genovese said, New Jersey towns have fractured off from larger districts because of any number of outmoded decisions: railroad company land claims, sewerage issues, whether they wanted to allow or deny access to alcohol.
A civil planner in attendance pointed out that Camden county is home to 37 distinct towns, including one housing subdivision, one housing corporation, and two golf courses—each with their own governance.
Some of the artificial boundaries have even resulted in bizarre—and expensive—policymaking decisions, said Bob Stocker of Merchantville.
“Seven municipalities in Bergen County have more fire equipment than the entire city of New York,” he said.
Stocker is a citizen who helped pioneer the recent question raised in Merchantville about whether the town should merge with Cherry Hill. A 2007 law allows New Jersey residents to petition for a planning study to examine such a question without the approval of the town government, and that’s just what Stocker did.
“We needed 127 signatures in Merchantville [to show valid cause for the study],” he said. “We got over 300 in about a day and a half.
“Most of the people really wanted to see some sort of study done, but we had to do it around our elected officials,” Stocker said. “We have a town that’s less than one square mile, and we have our own police department, schools, everything.”
Stocker related a story of how a fallen tree in Merchantville blocked the town border with Cherry Hill for days. The resident from whose property the tree had fallen was told that it was his responsibility to remove it.
“Cherry Hill public works came three times to clear the road and were told it wasn’t their property,” Stocker said. “This guy paid more than $10,000 per year in taxes and his town couldn’t clear the road.”
Genovese said that issues like the one Stocker described have sparked interest in the feasibility of municipal mergers statewide. She described how, in Union County, citizen-led consolidation efforts are moving forward “with hostile mayors in both Scotch Plains and Fanwood.”
Alternately, she said, a study led by the mayors of Hightstown and East Windsor determined that consolidating the two towns wouldn’t generate any savings.
Most recently, the merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough was approved in the 2011 elections in both communities, and is expected to net more than $3 million in savings while providing a platform to re-institute several services that had been cut back in prior years.
According to Courage to Connect New Jersey, in order to start a consolidation study nearby, petitioners would need:
- 296 signatures in Haddon Township
- 279 signatures in Haddonfield
- 233 signatures in Collingswood
- 160 signatures in Woodlynne
- 100 signatures in Oaklyn
The group provided these figures for the purposes of discussion and is not advocating any specific municipal merger among these communities.
“Is it only selfishness that keeps us apart?” Genovese asked. “We have to stop saying, ‘How’d we get here?’ We all have to start thinking as one to move New Jersey forward.”