Home rule vs. merged services: Mayors speak out

Perhaps it was an example of comic relief before the mayors and legislators at Wednesday’s N.J. League of Municipalities meeting got into the nitty-gritty – and particularly unfunny – topic of high property taxes in New Jersey.

As attendees collected their visitor tags from the table, they also were supplied with a 12-inch measuring stick, dubbed “Home Ruler” – serving municipal government in New Jersey since 1915.

The state’s notorious reputation for having too many municipalities, the last count being 566, yielded a book by former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher in the late 1990s, “Multiple Municipal Madness,” and numerous organizations stressing the need to consolidate and merge.

Home rule seems to be, at least based on conversations with some mayors, the preference of both elected officials and mayors.

Michael Blunt, the mayor of tiny Chesilhurst, a 1.5-square-mile Camden County town of approximately 2,000 residents, said merging with another town is out of the question.

He said the town was set up by the Roosevelt Administration as a work camp, and it’s a predominantly African-American town. Merging with another municipality could pose some “cultural issues,” he said.

Blunt attended the meeting, asking state officials if it would be possible to have the snow removal budget line item be exempt from the 2 percent property tax cap issued by Gov. Chris Christie as part of the “tool kit.”

“The amount of snow we have had has expended a  lot of our budgets,” he said. “For most towns, their resources are gone.”

The town initially budgeted about $15,000 for snow removal, but it has thus far spent more than $30,000, Blunt estimated.

The town had an agreement in which the county would provide the salt. However, Blunt said the county ran out of it, and he had to purchase additional amounts from a private contractor.

While preserving Chesilhurst is important to Blunt and to the residents, he is, and has been, open to sharing services with neighboring municipalities.

Chesilhurst shares a municipal clerk with Lawnside, a tax collector with Clementon and various emergency services with Winslow Township.

Another mayor, Gary Passanante of Somerdale, also in Camden County, said the most important thing for residents is having municipal services delivered promptly.

He, and the officials of the neighboring towns Magnolia, Stratford, Laurel Springs and Hi-Nella are studying the idea of combining their respective police forces as one regional police department. That department would serve all four towns.

The towns have been studying the idea for two years, made possible by the now-defunct SHARE grants by the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARC), which is part of the Department of Community Affairs.

Another mayor, Joe Scarpa of Rochelle Park, also said he’s for sharing services, but he would never think of merging his 1-square-mile town with another town in Bergen County, which has 70 municipalities.

“I’m not going to eliminate my town,” he said.

Having been in elective office for 20 years, a feat for which he, among others, was recognized Wednesday by being inducted into the league’s Hall of Fame, Scarpa said he believes shared services are effective.

The nearby, and much larger town, of Paramus has been a good partner in that regard. They share a public works director, gasoline purchases, a dispatcher, and garbage and recycling services.

Home rule vs. merged services: Mayors speak out