Some liken it to two people dating. There's a courting period to get to know each other before anyone pops the question.

That may be where officials in Cherry Hill Township and its tiny neighbor, Merchantville Borough, now find themselves.

Several hundred borough residents signed a petition over the spring calling on Merchantville officials to study the pros and cons of a merger.

And this week, organizers were fashioning a more formal petition intended to further prod the town into examining the question.

They say Merchantville is being squeezed by the lack of tax rateables and state aid cuts that will force tough choices. Aid dropped from $715,691 in fiscal 2009 to $557,946 in fiscal 2011.

"I don't see how the town is sustainable," said Bob Starker, a borough resident who has helped lead the petition effort.

"We've been delaying reality and are now at a tipping point where we might have to increase [property] taxes and reduce services," he said. "That's when we circle the drain."

The borough could bring millions of dollars in additional revenue to Cherry Hill, which could easily and more efficiently extend services to an adjacent community of 3,800 people in sixth-tenths of a square mile, Starker said.

Why bear the expense of separate governments, police departments, and school systems - not to mention a host of other services, ranging from trash pickup and stump-grinding to snow removal and road maintenance - residents are asking.

Merchantville Mayor Frank North and Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt have met to discuss the merger proposal and hope the state will fund the study, expected to cost more than $100,000.

"I'm not against [a merger] or for it," North said. "I'm here to do whatever is right for Merchantville and our residents.

"This is something that has to be approved by both communities. It's like going to the prom. If you want someone to go and the other person doesn't want to go, it's not going to happen."

North and Platt both said they needed more information before the communities could decide on tying the knot.

"There is no question in my mind that any time you can eliminate redundancy in municipal services and save taxpayers money, it is the right thing to do," Platt said. "Any kind of consolidation that is done, whether it is a trash contract or municipalities, needs to be done in a thoughtful manner with a benefit for all parties involved."

Even approval of a study to look at the merger question "would be a wonderful example to communities across the state," said Gina Genovese, former mayor of Long Hill Township in Morris County and founder and executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit that educates the public about home rule and local government changes.

"You are looking at a much larger town with a huge capacity that could take Merchantville under its wing," she said. "The last merger was in 1952. . . . Government is like a huge ship, and it doesn't turn fast. You have to answer the concerns and fears of the people. We're just starting that conversation."

For many Merchantville residents, especially those with children about to enter high school, one of the lures of Cherry Hill is its highly rated school system. The Merchantville district now sends its sons and daughters to Pennsauken High School.

"If we were connected to a better school district, like Cherry Hill's, it could elevate property values," said Greg La Vardera, a Merchantville resident and an architect who has worked on the petition drive. "You have people sell their house when their children enter the sixth grade and move," rather than have them go to Pennsauken High.

The high school issue was one of the reasons Merchantville resident Russ Loue placed his house on the market in November.

Loue, who served three years on the borough school board, has a daughter in sixth grade and did not want her to go to Pennsauken, so he began the petition drive in June to explore the merger, not knowing whether he'd remain a resident.

He found a buyer in late June and plans to move to Haddonfield, but he has continued working with residents interested in merging.

"Merchantville is a real gem of a town," said Loue, art department chairman at Lower Merion High School. "But we have a problem and can't tax our way out of it. We're pigeonholed. There's no industry in town, and there's a huge amount of churches" not required to pay property taxes.

"Merging with Cherry Hill might be a good possibility," he said. "They're attractive to us - to use a dating analogy - and we want to know them better before we get married."

A merger would bring together two areas that were once part of the same community. Merchantville was incorporated by an act of the Legislature in 1874 from portions of Delaware Township, now Cherry Hill, and Stockton Township.

Reuniting the municipalities could take a while, though. In a letter to borough residents, North said Merchantville and Cherry Hill must seek the voters' approval in a referendum to create a joint consolidation commission to evaluate the merger.

"The results would be presented to both governing bodies and residents," North wrote. The commission "will make its recommendation as to whether [or not] a merger is in the best interest of Merchantville and Cherry Hill.

"The matter, again, would be put to a vote by residents in both communities," he said, and, if approved, "the necessary steps to merge would be taken."

Over the last several years, Merchantville and Cherry Hill have been working more closely. The borough police cars, trash truck, and public works vehicles gas up at a township facility.

The two municipalities also have had discussions about the township's taking over Merchantville's public works department, including trash and leaf pickup, highway maintenance, and snow plowing.

More recently, Cherry Hill has been looking to enter into a trash removal contract that would include the borough and Gloucester Township to share services and save money.

"Municipalities are trying to economize by ignoring borders and creating a critical mass to gain the best possible price for services," said Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Platt, whose township takes in 24 square miles and has more than 70,000 residents.

As far as a merger with Merchantville goes, "ultimately, everybody has to understand that numbers will dictate the course of action."

Still, the possibility of merging is "definitely worth exploring," said Merchantville Councilman Anthony Perno, who is also chief executive officer of the Cooper's Ferry Development Association in Camden. "We have been using budget surpluses and tax increases for the past three years to cover the services in town."

The borough "doesn't have the opportunity to put in a big development somewhere" for more rateables, said Councilman Ted Brennan, a lawyer in Woodbury. "There's not a lot of room to bring in more tax revenues. We have to think outside of the box."

But if that means merging with Cherry Hill, the town will not lose its identity, Starker said.

"My wife and I got married, and she kept her name but we're still married," he said. "We would still be called Merchantville, but our government services would come out of Cherry Hill. We wouldn't lose anything."