Imagine Burlington County without the towns of Bass River, Beverly, Bordentown City, Delanco, Fieldsboro, Medford Lakes, Pemberton Borough, Riverton, Springfield, Washington, Woodland and Wrightstown.
Some already have.
Nearly 200 of New Jersey’s 565 towns would disappear (12 in our county), merged with other communities, to help lessen residents’ tax burden as one of a number of ideas being discussed by the Economic and Fiscal Policy Working Group, led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford.
The bipartisan panel of legislators — including Sens. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, and Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Evesham; economists; tax experts; academicians; and people from the public and private sectors — is analyzing such topics as the state and local tax systems, school districts and regionalization, property taxes, the pension system and government services as ways to make New Jersey more affordable.
We’re clearly not ready for this yet, but don’t be shocked if one day — along with statewide school regionalization — it is a reality. It is an issue that needs to be looked at seriously.
The proposal would be for towns with populations of less than 5,000 to merge with an adjacent community, a more drastic extension of shared-services agreements. Princeton Borough and Princeton Township did it in 2012, but no one else has jumped on that bandwagon.
Sweeney has said that consolidation is the most logical way to cut down on the cost of government and reduce taxes. Now he has an organized panel behind him.
When we consider the idea of town mergers as individuals, it’s appealing, because we’re all fed up with taxes, especially here, where we pay the most in the country.
But when we consider it collectively as a community, we like it less, because we don’t want to sacrifice services or risk seeing a decline in them.
Although more and more towns are sharing municipal services, none want to give up their identity to become part of a larger municipality. Such is the power of home rule.
What would it mean, for example, if Delanco — which already sends its students to Riverside High School — was absorbed by Riverside? One could argue it makes sense. But the town presumably would lose its name. How many residents would go for that?
And what would happen to its municipal employees such as police officers and Public Works staff? Would they keep their jobs? Salaries and health benefits are the biggest expenditures in any budget, so without staff reduction, how would taxes go down? At what savings would residents support such a move?
When talking dollars and cents, it seems logical enough. But there’s an emotional component, too. That’s where it gets tricky. Some of those police officers and Public Works staff are friends and family members. Who wants to see them lose their jobs? When municipal offices are moved one town over, how does that affect such vital services as trash and yard waste collection and police and emergency response times?
The same applies to calls for school regionalization, which also weighs heavily on tax bills.
Sure, as taxpayers, we blanch at paying six-figure superintendent and principal salaries. But as parents, we don’t want our kids getting lost in a graduating class of 500 at a regional school. And our modestly talented sons have a better chance of making the football team playing for a small school.
New Jersey is the fourth smallest state, with 565 municipalities and 523 school districts. By comparison, Colorado has 271 municipalities and 180 school districts, Florida 410 municipalities and 95 school districts.
It’s something to think about. Which is precisely what Sweeney’s group is doing.