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Town-merge study turns to South Jersey

The state commission created to persuade tiny municipalities to either merge or share services is getting ready to name names in South Jersey.

The state commission created to persuade tiny municipalities to either merge or share services is getting ready to name names in South Jersey.

After a year of laying the groundwork, the Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARC) yesterday began focusing on "doughnut hole" communities - those completely ringed by another municipality.

LUARC Commissioner Robert F. Casey gave a presentation on 26 possible mergers involving North Jersey doughnut hole towns - those with populations of less than 10,000 - and their neighbors. He included several "almost doughnut holes," or communities more than half surrounded by another town.

Mergers have come under greater scrutiny over the last year after Gov. Corzine began advocating for them as a way to reduce taxes and continue providing essential services. Tiny towns have mostly resisted, but are warming up to the idea of sharing more services, including police, as they struggle to make ends meet.

New Jersey has 566 municipalities, the most per square mile in any state.

Jack Fisher, LUARC's chairman, said the commission did not have the authority to force mergers but would make strong recommendations on which communities should blur their borders to save tax dollars and provide better services. For example, some small towns that do not provide 24-hour police coverage could if they combined, he said.

Casey, a municipal consultant who served as a town manager and administrator in about 15 townships, including Mount Holly, said he was creating a list of communities that "should be examined further to see if they should be merged."

Casey's report yesterday was the first phase of his study and focused only on North Jersey. He plans to present a similar analysis of South Jersey communities at the next meeting, at 9:30 a.m. May 28, at a LUARC meeting room at the Department of Community Affairs in Trenton. The meeting will be open to the public.

Swedesboro, Gloucester County, and Merchantville, Camden County, may be among the tiny towns to be discussed.

After pairing towns, Casey examined their geography, common roads, demographics, taxes, and potential savings in a merger. Casey said at least one-third would not be a good match.

For example, Casey said, a marriage of Andover Township and Andover Borough might not work because the borough gets free service from the state police and would not realize any savings by joining with the township.

But a merger involving Teterboro, which has 18 residents, and neighbors Moonachie and Little Ferry might work well, he said.

When the report is finished, LUARC will debate which proposed mergers are worth a statistical study. By fall, LUARC expects to notify the communities that would benefit from a change in structure.

"We're going to reach out to them with factual data, and we will tell them the state will give you money and underwrite the sharing of services," Fisher said. "A lot of good stuff will come out of this effort."