The state commissioner of community affairs said yesterday that he expects municipal leaders looking to save money to begin merging communities within 18 months.

The comment by Joseph V. Doria Jr. followed the latest meeting of a commission exploring ways to cut the number of local governments. The state has 566 municipalities, the most per square mile in the nation.

"Towns are actually talking about it now," said Doria, who believes "maybe a handful" of combined communities soon could be established in the state. His department is offering funding to sweeten the deals.

The last time two New Jersey towns joined was a dozen years ago.

The glut of towns, Doria said, was "created when larger ones broke apart in the late 19th century and early 20th century over family feuds, and over schools and railroads and other reasons." He thinks the time has come to reverse that.

A year ago, Gov. Corzine and legislators began pushing communities to merge - or to at least share police and other services. They want to reduce the country's highest property taxes by eliminating inefficiencies.

Yesterday, the study commission began dissecting about 40 small communities in South Jersey to decide which ones might be good candidates for consolidation. Later, the Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARC) will gather feedback from local officials and determine whether a merger is feasible in any of those towns.

Among the possible mergers LUARC is focusing on are: Medford Lakes and Medford Township; Riverton and Palmyra; Bordentown Township and Bordentown City; Pennsauken and Merchantville; and Hi-Nella and Stratford.

"This is a great beginning, but much more work needs to be done," said Jack Fisher, LUARC chairman. Municipalities will have the final say on whether they want to pursue mergers, he said.

Dave Wasson, who wants to preserve the small-town feel of his hometown, Medford Lakes, isn't so sure. During the public portion of the meeting, he said he was concerned that residents were being ignored by the consolidation push.

Wasson is leading a drive to recall his mayor for proposing a merger of the borough's tiny police force with Medford Township's much larger department. "Residents from both of our towns are not in favor. The councils are the ones moving forward with this," he said.

LUARC Commissioner Robert F. Casey said local officials are under pressure to trim their budgets because the state has imposed spending limits on them. That's why, he said, they are seriously considering mergers.

Casey said the budget caps are part of property-tax reform. He believes Medford and Medford Lakes would be "a good match" and should consider consolidation to reduce taxes. Medford surrounds Medford Lakes.

Casey analyzed the tax rates of various so-called doughnut hole communities such as the Medfords, and those that are almost entirely ringed by another town. He also examined geographic factors, police staffing, and demographics before presenting preliminary findings to LUARC yesterday.

Some LUARC commissioners and others also want the group to consider whether bad blood or "personality differences" between communities would prevent a consolidation. For example, one official pointed out that tiny Merchantville Borough has sued Pennsauken twice in the past - unsuccessfully - to break an agreement in which Merchantville sends its high school students to Pennsauken. The borough wanted to send its students to Cherry Hill.

LUARC Commissioner Gary J. Passanante said some agreements - such as those between Collingswood and Woodlynne, and Audubon and Audubon Park - have run into difficulties. He pointed to those situations as evidence that mergers might not always work.

Fisher said mergers mean change, and change is not always easy. His goal, he said, is to produce solid data that communities can rely upon to make their decisions.

Some progress is already evident. Currently, a committee of Wantage and Sussex Borough officials in North Jersey has completed a consolidation study and is leaning toward a merger.

In Camden County, five municipalities - Somerdale, Stratford, Hi-Nella, Magnolia, and Laurel Springs - recently applied for a state grant to study shared services and possible mergers.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler
at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.