Speaker wants tough town merger measures

April 29, 2008 6:11:56 PM PDT
A top New Jersey lawmaker wants to make it tougher for lawmakers and voters to reject town mergers. A new state commission is weighing which towns should merge to try to cut the nation's highest property taxes, but the Legislature can reject the commission's recommendations.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. said Tuesday that he wants to amend the law to make it impossible for the Legislature to override the commission's proposals.

Roberts also said the state should be able to chop state aid from towns that reject mergers.

"We need to give real teeth to the commission's work so its recommendations are not simply dismissed out-of-hand," said Roberts, D-Camden.

New Jersey property taxes average $6,800 per homeowner, or twice the national average. The state has 21 counties, 566 municipalities and 616 school districts.

The commission mulling town mergers held its first meeting earlier this month. Its goal is to find ways to save money by reducing the number of local governments.

"Choosing to continue ignoring these problems will eventually leave us with hundreds of municipalities that are as charmingly colloquial as they are wholly unaffordable," Roberts said.

Local officials said they oppose stripping aid from towns that reject mergers.

"We must oppose a proposal which would, on the one hand, allow the voters to express their will, but, on the other hand, inform those voters that they will be punished if their will does not comport," said Bill Dressel of the state League of Municipalities.

History shows New Jersey voters often balk at merging communities.

Voters in South Orange and Maplewood rejected studying whether the two Essex County municipalities should merge. Princeton Borough and Princeton Township voters rejected a merger three times.

The state has had only two town mergers since 1952, when Vineland and Landis merged. Pahaquarry and Hardwick merged in 1997 simply because Pahaquarry was down to seven residents and couldn't run a government.