PENNSAUKEN - Joseph J. Roberts Jr., speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly, yesterday rolled out plans to greatly expand the powers of a commission whose job is to push some of the state's 566 municipalities into mergers or shared services.
Roberts wants the so-called LUARC commission to forward bold recommendations directly to voters, who would decide on mergers in special, binding referendums. This process would bypass legislators, who might be inclined to set up an "end run" around politically unpopular mergers, Roberts said.
"I fundamentally believe that what matters most to the people of the state is the way services are delivered," he said. He said residents want reliable trash pickup and solid police protection, and they don't care who provides it.
Roberts made his remarks at a forum sponsored by the Camden County freeholders and attended by more than 100 mayors and other officials. The forum, held at the county-operated boathouse on the Cooper River, aimed to get local leaders talking about ways to share services.
Mergers became an especially hot topic after Gov. Corzine and the Legislature cut state aid to small communities as a way to control the state budget. Initially, Corzine proposed taking away all aid for the smallest of communities, but later restored some aid following an uproar.
Jack Fisher, chairman of the Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission, said he anticipates another uproar when the group makes its recommendations.
"We need some bold initiatives to break out of the pattern we've been in for years and years," he said.
Fisher said he was committed to getting the job done, no matter how difficult.
Joseph V. Doria Jr., commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, also said the state needs to get tough.
"We have communities that are the hole of the doughnut," he said, describing tiny towns surrounded by larger ones. "There's no need for those small communities."
LUARC, created a year ago but only seated this spring, was given marching orders to conduct an exhaustive study and then file a report with the legislature on laws needed to make mergers happen. Its mission has been compared to the BRAC commission that studied and recommended the closing of military bases.
But Roberts now says the commission's mission should be expanded to include a study of small and mid-size communities and to span five years or more. Those changes would need to be approved by legislators, but Doria, a former speaker of the Assembly, said that when the speaker introduces a bill, it usually passes.
Roberts also said he wanted to change the name of the commission - which he said was too clumsy - to the Karcher Commission, after the late Assembly Speaker Alan J. Karcher. The late speaker wrote a book,
New Jersey's Multiple Municipal Madness,
which discusses the problems of a state bogged down with a myriad of municipalities, each with a police department, fire department and school system, no matter how impractical it is for each to operate.
"LUARC was designed to take a thoughtful, creative, critical look at the fragmentation," said Roberts.
Roberts is also proposing that state aid be cut for municipalities that don't want to go along with the recommendations.
"If they want home rule, the state shouldn't have to prop them up," he said.
Reaction from the mayors was mixed.
"So, if we don't go along with you, we don't get any aid?" asked an angry Mayor Meridth Dobbs, of Hi-Nella, a tiny Camden County community. "We feel it's about identity, and that we can do it [run the government] cheaper."
But Mark Armbruster, mayor of Clementon, another small Camden County town, says shared services are the way to go. "Someone has to make the hard decisions," he said.
Armbruster said there were too many fire companies and that mergers would save money and deliver more efficient services.
"I had to buy an $800,000 fire truck that I didn't need last year," he said.
Doria, a former mayor, sympathized.
"There are more pieces of fire equipment in Bergen County than in all of New York City. And Bergen has 700,000 to 800,000 people and New York has eight million. But here, every fire company wants a new truck."