From the Star Ledger NJ Voices Blog:
In a leafy corner of the state, far from the epicenter of a nasty gubernatorial election, voters from the Sussex County towns of Sussex Borough and Wantage quietly mulled a merger of the two municipalities. And on Tuesday, by nearly a 3-to-1 margin, they said, “No thanks.”
The consolidation seemed to make sense: The towns already share three regional schools, a construction department and a court system and, served by the State Police, wouldn’t have to quibble over police. Plus, the towns had assets (land and utilities) to share. In an unsettling economy, when cutting property taxes is the driving political issue, this one seemed like a rural no-brainer.
“If it wasn’t going to happen here, I wonder if it’s going to happen anywhere,” said Sal Lagattuta, one of the proponents.
According to the Consolidation Study Commission report, the towns — if they merged — could have saved $585,000 in the first year. Future savings could have been greater with even more cost-cutting. That’s a nice chunk of change, but it wasn’t enough to persuade residents to erase a border — especially those in Sussex Borough, population 2,000.
“We were going to be swallowed up,” said Sussex Borough councilwoman Katherine Little, who was against the merger. “Bigger government isn’t better government. Tiny towns are pretty frugal.”
The average municipal tax bill in Wantage — home to 11,000 — would have shrunk only $57, business administrator James Doherty said. The average savings in Sussex Borough would have been approximately $400. Still not enough, it seems.
And maybe that’s the problem with regionalization: To many, it’s not worth the hassle. There are 566 pieces to New Jersey’s jigsaw puzzle, and consolidating some makes long-term fiscal, historical and geographic sense. Gov.-elect Chris Christie is coming around to that realization.
But in most instances, mergers won’t save enough money to persuade taxpayers to change the names of their hometowns or their way of life. Taxpayers need to look at the long-term benefits — more control over development and, if not tax reduction, at least stabilization. Sooner or later, Trenton probably will step in.