The moment for merging tiny towns may have arrived in New Jersey – but not in blink-and-you-miss Hi-Nella
Welcome to Hi-Nella, a tidy little borough in Camden County where the mayor and others seem uninterested in the possible savings and other benefits of merging with neighboring towns.
Meredith Dobbs, the mayor of Hi-Nella, has heard the promises and the put-downs before.
Like the prediction that merging his minuscule Camden County borough with some of its neighbors, and merging other small New Jersey communities with theirs, will save money and reduce property taxes.
Or the dismissive observation that, with fewer than 900 souls residing on just over 140 acres, a quirky little burg like Hi-Nella "shouldn't exist" — at least according to a locally infamous headline of 2010.
That's when Dobbs, a farmer and retired elementary school teacher with deeper-than-deep South Jersey roots (he's a Sickler, as in the family that gave Sicklerville its name) declared such a municipal merger "dead on arrival."
The successful 2013 marriage of the Princetons (township and borough) and a new state task force recommendation that towns with fewer than 5,000 residents be required to merge may have revived the notion of community consolidation as a tool to ease New Jersey's ceaseless fiscal crisis.
Ironically, Hi-Nella — local lore attributes the name to the original developer's wife, Nella, or to mean high place in the Lenni-Lenape language — was among five smaller towns created in 1929 after the breakup of the much larger Clementon Township.
But Hi-Nella's mayor still isn't buying the idea that joining forces will create efficiencies and yield a break for taxpayers.
"Guarantee me that merging won't raise our taxes," said Dobbs, 85, who is "absolutely" opposed to any merger, even one involving adjacent Stratford, where he was born at "the next farm up the road" in 1933.
He and I chatted beneath the shade of a massive catalpa tree in front of his 300-year-old, 29-acre Warwick Road property, where he grows hay and boards the occasional horse. Hi-Nella, he smiled, is like Mayberry.
"We have people who have lived here most of their lives. This is a nice little town, and people here like it. They like how it operates. And they don't want what they've lived in to be torn up."
Nostalgia for the state's "home rule" tradition is one thing, and economic realities are another, said Gina Genovese, the indefatigable executive director of the nonpartisan merger advocacy organization Courage to Connect NJ.
She said the Garden State’s crazy quilt of 565 boroughs, townships, and cities and about 700 public school districts is simply not sustainable. She understands and respects that people have affection for their hometowns, but said Garden State residents also need to “get beyond the micro” and consider the aggregate costs of all these local governments.
"People are at their wit's end right now," Genovese told me. "They're really distraught. A lot of it is tied to pensions — if we reduced administrations by merging schools and towns, we would lower the pension obligations.
"It's all intertwined. There's a hunger out there for someone to address this issue, and they can't see elected officials really trying to [cut] property taxes," she said. "We're like an ATM for them."
Genovese said neighborhoods, not municipal boundaries, are what count for most people, and she's right: Many South Jersey folks identify where they live by traditional place names such as Marlton, Turnersville, or Blackwood, rather than the incorporated townships of Evesham, Washington, and Gloucester.
Other residents cite their mailing address or local post office as synonymous with their town, which explains why residents of the archipelago that is Haddon Township often identify themselves as living in Westmont, Oaklyn, Haddonfield, or elsewhere.
With only a handful of businesses, no local school, and few if any landmarks other than a water tower bearing its name, Hi-Nella can seem invisible to outsiders. Blink, and you might well miss it.
"People go through Hi-Nella without even knowing," the mayor said.
Nevertheless, Hi-Nella is a neighborly sort of place, a compact and eminently walkable collection of leafy streets with a pretty park in the center.
Well-kept Cape Cods and other, mostly 1950s-style houses sit close together on streets with Native American-inspired names, and the borough's online newsletter, the Smoke Signal, features stories about birthdays and holiday parades.
The Hi-Nella Fire Company has long been an essential civic, as well as public safety, institution. And if you make a reservation before Christmas, Santa Claus will climb down from his fire truck and personally visit your children, borough clerk Phyllis Twisler said.
"I asked for a little town, and this is what my Realtor brought me to 19 years ago. It's cute," said Debbie Stecker, a Triton Regional High School teacher who was walking her dogs around Earl W. Schilling Memorial Field on a sunny morning last week.
Politicians "are always talking about mergers. I don't know what their problem is," said Dominic Palese, Hi-Nella's retired police chief.
"This town is good. I can't complain about it. They run this town like they would run their own household," said Palese, who moved from Camden to his home in the heart of the borough in 1967.
"If I had kids, I'd like them to grow up here," said personal trainer Zach Blome, 22.
Blome also said a merger with, say, Somerdale would not be a bad idea.
Given the geographic proximity and similarity among Hi-Nella and its neighbors, such a consolidation may well make sense.
But before Trenton starts requiring separate communities to become one, a visit to distinctive places like Hi-Nella, where a genuine sense of community seems alive and well, would certainly be in order.