Towns find obstacles to saying 'I do' to mergers

In this April 9, 2009 photo, people walk past antique shops and arts and crafts stores in the historic Borough of Chester, N.J. State officials would like Chester Borough and Chester Township to merge but two previous attempts at mergers failed. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)

CHESTER, N.J. -- It's a response to the recession and dwindling state aid that seems deceptively logical: Neighboring towns can merge into one to streamline services and save money.

Problem is, it's rarely done, though the concept is being studied in many states, including New Jersey. But to make it work, towns have to be willing to reduce staff and services, and they risk losing their identities and their independence -- and few seem to be willing to do that.

In Utah, officials have discussed making one city out of five towns north of Salt Lake City, and the eastern Massachusetts towns of Hamilton and Wenham have studied a merger. In Idaho, a proposed union of the resort towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley was scrapped last month after strong resistance from residents of Sun Valley, a world-renowned ski resort.

Some New Jersey lawmakers believe they've found a solution in having their cash-strapped state act as an ersatz for towns looking to merge.

The state is offering to pay for studies and give a property tax credit to homeowners whose taxes would rise. The aim is to save money and escape Gov. Jon S. Corzine's plans to slash aid to more than 300 towns with fewer than 10,000 residents.

If that doesn't work, these towns risk losing state aid.

"Whenever we've tried to bring people to the altar it hasn't worked; what we need is a few shotgun weddings," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton, who wants "doughnut hole" towns -- small boroughs surrounded by larger townships -- to share services or merge within the next decade.

The small towns of Chester Borough and Chester Township, nestled in the rolling hills of west-central New Jersey, provide a good example of the problems in making these forced marriages work.

Relations between the two towns are friendly. Children in both towns attend the same schools and check out books from the same library. A single fire company handles calls for both towns. They pay for other services separately, including police and a total of two mayors and 10 council members.

The fact they are separate exemplifies what many see as a critical problem in a state where 566 municipalities vie for a shrinking pot of state aid and homeowners suffer property taxes that are double the national average.

Chester Township Mayor William Cogger called the issue "the 800-pound gorilla in the room" -- are towns willing to study a merger in earnest if it means one might disappear?

"From a sociological standpoint we're one community ... but if the economics don't work, the merger won't work," Cogger said.

Several pairs of New Jersey towns, including the two Chesters, already are studying mergers. Sussex Borough and Wantage Township, in the northwest corner of the state, could put the question in front of voters this November.

The weight of history is against them. There has been only one successful town merger in New Jersey since the 1950s, despite numerous attempts. That occurred in 1997 in Warren County when Hardwick Township absorbed Pohaquarry, population 7.

Previous attempts at town mergers in New Jersey have failed for any number of reasons; sometimes, as in dating, one town is just not that into the other.

Old-money Princeton Borough, home to Princeton University and $4 lattes, three times has voted down a proposed merger with surrounding Princeton Township, home to office parks and McMansions, the last time in 1996, despite some evidence that it would have derived the greater economic benefit. Opponents spoke of maintaining the borough's small-town atmosphere and having a greater say in local government.

The Chesters have been down the aisle before, too, but four studies and two votes in the 1970s and 80s failed to produce a merger.

Bob Romeo, owner of the Renaissance Barber Shoppe in the borough, has noticed opinion divided along demographic lines: Longtime borough residents tend to be anti-merger, while newer arrivals to the township often aren't even aware there are two towns. Those in between could swing a vote either way.

"Some people say they're afraid if we do it, more people would move here," said Romeo, whose front door faces a main street where several businesses have closed. "But is that a bad thing, especially for these businesses that are struggling?"

Earl Snook, chairman of the commission looking at a Sussex-Wantage merger, said he understands people are worried about losing a town's identity, but "I say you have to change with the times. You have to look at saving money somehow."

Tiny Corbin City, population about 500, also seems a prime candidate for a merger. Once a home to shipbuilders and sea captains along the Tuckahoe River, it sits about 20 miles southeast of Atlantic City on the northern edge of Upper Township, which has about 11,000 residents spread across 68 square miles. A state-funded study on a possible merger is under way.

The towns already share library, ambulance and fire services, and Corbin City's children attend school in Upper Township. The only service offered solely by Corbin City is trash removal, according to Mayor Carol Foster, one of two full-time municipal employees.

"I don't think there's a simpler consolidation than this one," Foster said. "This could be a very important pilot program."

Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo didn't sound as hopeful, noting that his constituents could see their taxes rise to pay for schooling Corbin City's students, who currently pay tuition as a sending district to Upper Township. They also would have to pay for them to attend neighboring Ocean City High School along with Upper Township's students.

Gusciora, the assemblyman, said residents who complain about New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes can't have it both ways.

"People scream about property taxes, but when there's a realistic way to deal with that, everybody either shrugs their shoulders or finds an excuse not to do it," Gusciora said.