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Is time up for tiny towns in New Jersey? Some say mergers would save money and lower taxes, but skeptics disagree

Consolidation of New Jersey's small municipalities has long been a target for figures who seek to cut down on administrative waste and reduce the state's high property taxes.

West Clifton Ave., Oaklyn on Friday, June 29.
West Clifton Ave., Oaklyn on Friday, June 29.Read moreMax Cohen

The tiny borough of Oaklyn in Camden County spans just over half a square mile and is home to around 4,000 residents. On a recent hot morning, the borough's administrative office was staffed by two people and the all-volunteer fire department, with its four trucks, was locked up.

It's a quintessential example of the hundreds of small New Jersey towns that are in the scopes of folks who advocate combining tiny towns by forcing them to join with their neighbors.

Under one idea that surfaced from an economic task force headed by State Senate President Steve Sweeney, towns with populations under 5,000, like Oaklyn, would be required to consolidate.

Mayor Robert Forbes is no fan of that idea.

"Smaller municipalities are more efficient with money than larger ones," he said. "We do more shared services than anyone in the area. We know how to stretch a dollar without a burden to the taxpayers."

Head eight miles southwest to the Borough of National Park in neighboring Gloucester County, and there is similar skepticism.

"It's one of those ideas that sounds good on first glance, but I don't know if forcing things at the state level would necessarily work for everybody," said Josh Pitts, the administrator of National Park.

Proponents say merging towns and consolidating services would reap benefits for both municipalities, making government more efficient and saving taxpayers money, while critics say a strict mandate is unrealistic and could end up raising costs.

Many experts say a consolidation mandate would be infeasible and note that in the last half-century there has been only one substantive example of consolidation: the merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough.

For Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, the consolidation was an outstanding success.

"I think people overwhelmingly are happy with it," she said.

Merged in 2013, the newly configured Princeton saved most of its money by cutting down administrative positions in its police department, allowing the town to bring back community policing and traffic safety units. In addition, the town now offers comprehensive trash pickup, an informational call line, and more responsive emergency services.

In all, Lempert said Princeton benefits from annual recurring savings of about $3 million and lower municipal taxes.

Gina Genovese, executive director of the pro-consolidation organization Courage to Connect NJ, said Princeton was an ideal situation because local elected officials in both towns championed the effort. She believes other towns should be encouraged to eliminate government duplication.

"I absolutely think if New Jersey has 300 fewer administrative structures in towns and 100 fewer administrative structures in schools, we're going to save billions," she said.

In New Jersey, 191 of the state's 565 municipalities have fewer than 5,000 residents.

The issue has assumed renewed relevance since federal tax legislation passed this winter limits the deductions of state and local taxes, placing a burden on New Jersey residents who face among the highest taxes in the nation.

As experts in Sweeney's working group brainstormed ways to ease the state's tax burden, consolidation emerged as one of many suggestions.

Sweeney spokesperson Richard McGrath said that although the ideas are still in their initial stages, the need to eliminate governmental waste is clear.

"While some of the ideas such as municipal consolidation need more review and public vetting, there is no doubt that we must be taking actions to reduce costs and find efficiencies in government," he said in an email.

Genovese urged the government to do more to support the long, expensive studies that determine whether a potential merger makes sense.

A taxpayer-led consolidation study in Roxbury and Mount Arlington has been ongoing for almost five years with no government backing, leading Courage to Connect to intervene with a grant. The chair of the towns' study commission, Craig Heard, said it could save $40 million to $50 million over 10 years.

Both Heard and Genovese said they were drawn to the consolidation cause because of a desire to rein in the state's high property taxes and exorbitant school administrative costs.

But Marc Pfeiffer, an expert in local government administration, does not share that enthusiasm for consolidation. Pfeiffer is a senior policy fellow at the Bloustein Center for Local Government at Rutgers University and worked for almost four decades in New Jersey government administration.

In 2014, Pfeiffer and Dr. Raphael Caprio conducted a study analyzing whether New Jersey towns could consolidate their way to property-tax savings.

"What we concluded was no, in many cases, smaller municipalities actually operate cheaper than larger ones do, on a per-capita basis," Pfeiffer said.

Genovese criticized the study, labeling it the "patron saint of the status quo."

"What that report is saying is when 54 percent of New Jerseyans have to work two to three months just to pay their property taxes, that's acceptable," she said. "So what that report is saying is there's no hope for New Jersey."

One area of agreement in the debate is doubt over the practicality of a forced merging mandate for small towns.

Lempert warned against a hard mandate, which she said could turn elected officials against consolidation.

"It's definitely worth investigating for a lot of towns because I think you can have tremendous benefits," she said. "But I'm lukewarm about the proposal to force it upon towns, because in order for it to be successful, you need people who are willing to make it work."

Genovese expressed optimism that taxpayer anger would lead to a tipping point in the state's consolidation debate. And according to Lempert, consolidation benefits towns as well as taxpayers, helping solve the tough choices many municipalities face between cutting services or raising taxes.

"I think consolidation can be a powerful tool to be able to provide more services in some cases at less cost," she said.