By Briana Vannozzi
Perhaps one of the most unique examples of why New Jersey ended up with 565 municipalities is South Hackensack. Just plug the Bergen County town into Google Maps. It’s split into three unconnected sections. And though it has mutual aid agreements and shared services with its neighbors, merging is not on the table. But many Democratic lawmakers believe that’s the way to lowering property taxes. And an updated version of a bill to encourage municipal consolidation is sitting on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.
“What this law does is, it’s the next step,” said Courage to Connect NJ Founder and Executive Director Gina Genovese.
Former Long Hill Township Mayor Genovese runs an organization dedicated to educating towns on the benefits of consolidation. She says maintaining duplicate services and governing bodies with multiple employees can be inefficient. This bill will increase flexibility in the process. It creates equalization if towns have two different tax rates. And clarifies some of the rules, like allowing non-contiguous towns to merge.
“When you start to see the redundancies and you start to see that you might not be able to provide the services if you’re too small that a larger town perhaps [could], you start to see what model are we really looking at?” Genovese said.
But Marc Pfeiffer of Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy has research showing that perception may be flawed.
“When you look nationally at the number of municipalities we have, yes we have more municipalities per square mile than any other state, but when you bring density into it and the number of people we have because we are the most densely populated state by 20 percent more than number two, things look a little bit different. So when you look at number of municipalities per 10,000 people on a per capita basis, we’re 35th in the country,” Pfeiffer said.
In fact the research showed no national standard for the number of or the number of people in a municipality. New Jersey is actually on the high end of how many people we pack in our towns. And in some cases, potential cost savings may be overstated.
“We looked at the cost per capita of municipalities of different sizes. And although there was no big trend, what was clear is that larger municipalities had a higher per capita cost. Smaller municipalities had a lower per capita cost,” Pfeiffer said.
“We support consolidation if they’re willing partners,” said New Jersey State League of Municipalities Assistant Executive Director Mike Cerra.
Cerra points to the 2013 merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough. But adds, it took 50 years of conversations to make it work. But it already had one board of ed, one fire department — felt like one community. The league objects to four amendments in this last bill they call cost drivers.
“Including tenure and terminal leave rights. We had supported an earlier version of this bill but we can’t support it in its current form. And our recommendation is that if you return the bill to the previous form, we could support it,” Cerra said.
Reached by phone, bill sponsor Sen. Bob Gordon tells me consolidation may not be the only answer to property tax savings, but it creates options. Ultimately the final decision goes to residents who would vote on the mergers. Christie pocket vetoed a similar bill last year and now has 45 days to sign it.