In Merchantville, Camden County, a group of concerned residents are moving their community toward long-term sustainability by proposing that their town seriously look at connecting to Cherry Hill.
With just 3,800 residents in slightly over a half mile, Merchantville has been struggling to maintain its municipal services. This year, although the operating budget was slashed, there was no decrease in taxes. The town’s ability to deliver basic public services in the future seems unsustainable.
Merchantville resident Bob Stocker, never would have considered connecting to Cherry Hill a year ago. But within the last year, he saw that trees aren’t being trimmed, roads aren’t being plowed and municipal equipment is falling apart. “We see the writing on the wall about diminishing services with higher taxes,” says Stocker.
Looking at a bleak future, a group of 20 residents formed Merchantville Connecting for the Future and created a petition to prod the governing body into voting for a feasibility study to connect to the adjacent community of Cherry Hill. By connecting with Cherry Hill, members of Merchantville Connecting for the Future believe they would have better, more affordable services and a quality public education for their children.
Within a few weeks this nascent group collected over 700 signatures on their petition. When Merchantville Connecting for the Future presented their petition to the mayor and borough council, they were surprised by the response.
“We did not anticipate the level of pushback we received. Even though 9 out of 10 residents presented with the petition, supported us, we were told by the council that we do not represent the pulse of the community,” stated Loredana Rubini who spoke in favor of the petition.
The council was critical of the proposed study – even in the face of decreasing state aid and increasing costs. Where will they find the funding to provide services to their community?
Can a study to determine the value of a possible merger be so threatening that it should be stopped? Is there no value in weighing the benefits and downsides of connecting with Cherry Hill? Cherry Hill has given all indications that it is interested in looking into the feasibility of connecting with Merchantville.
Merchantville Connecting for the Future realized that they needed help in moving their initiative forward. They found that there was an organization that would support their efforts. They contacted Courage To Connect NJ(CTC-NJ), a non-partisan, non-profit organization to guide them in their next steps.
After meeting with CTC-NJ, Greg La Vandera of Merchantville Connecting for the Future stated “We now have a better understanding of our rights and how we should proceed. We look forward to partnering with CTC-NJ to educate the public about this issue and provide the funds for a study.”
When their first petition was created, Merchantville Connecting for the Future didn’t know they had the power to place a feasibility study on the ballot without the approval of the local governing body. Courage To Connect NJ informed them that they just needed the support of the people. They needed a concise petition signed by registered voters to place the question of a study on the ballot.
This minor misstep will not stop Merchantville moving forward. They took a courageous first step. The next will be easier. With a new petition, they can place this initiative on the ballot without the approval of the council. This committed group of people will make it happen.
This coalition does not want to lose Merchantville. They want to save it – save their property values, save their ability to provide services and strengthen their schools. They want Merchantville to maintain its identity, just be served through Cherry Hill’s municipal structure.
Many residents of Merchantville realize that their town will not lose its identity if it connects to Cherry Hill. They understand that the Merchantville Town Birthday, the Merchantville Car Show and the Historic Society House Tours will still continue. Their postal address will remain Merchantville, NJ 08109.
Merchantville Connecting for the Future’s next petition will be the first time New Jersey residents have banded together to use the legislation in the 2007 Municipal Consolidation Act which gives the voters the same power and rights as elected officials.
Courage To Courage NJ is honored to be supporting the efforts of Merchantville Connecting for the Future. They are pioneers in this grassroots movement. As Margaret Mead memorably stated, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
All across the state residents can begin building an efficient, streamlined local government structure in New Jersey. The actions of the residents of Merchantville can inspire communities across the state. This is democracy in action. The power lies with the people to create this new structure and save our communities.
Courage To Connect NJ was founded to educate the public about “Home Rule” and show them that they have the power to change the structure of their local government.
Courage To Connect NJ is available as a resource to any grassroots organization with similar goals.
Join the change. Visit www.CourageToConnectNJ.org and the Merchantville Study for Consolidation on Facebook.
Gina Genovese, a former mayor of Long Hill Township, is the founder and Executive Director of Courage to Connect New Jersey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.