So entrenched is the “Home Rule” attitude embedded in the NJ psyche that with 566 municipalities (the most per capita of any state) since 1952 only Pahaquarry and Hardwick have consolidated into a single unit. As Bruck and Pinto concluded in a Seton Hall journal article, Overruled by Home Rule, “Residents tend to develop an attachment to their tiny communities, even if the only thing that distinguishes them from neighboring towns is an arbitrary political boundary. More importantly, however, are local government officials who are crucial for reform efforts but have strong personal incentives to maintain the status quo. Add to this mix the thorny issues of racial and socioeconomic segregation, and the situation is ripe for political gridlock.”
To address this gridlock, in early 2007 Governor Corzine and the legislature created LUARC (the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission.) Based on the federal procedures for closing military bases, this commission was to review the municipalities, periodically present to the legislature a package of municipalities to be consolidated, and then have the legislature vote the package up or down. However opposing legislators added a provision that each municipality to be merged had also to vote favorably on the matter. Guess what? Back to square one.
Over the years even soaring property taxes have been insufficient to motivate towns to consolidate. Then along came our blustering bully governor who by severely reducing funding both to schools and municipalities might have provided the impetus for towns and even school districts to reconsider. It is curious how both Corzine and Christie seem yolked together with separate actions that may yet result in beneficial consolidation.
It is possible for state government to provide further assistance, including additional funding to LUARC to extend education and expertise. However, given the “third rail” nature of the issue, it seems unlikely that the legislature will modify the law to remove the provision requiring a favorable vote in each affected municipality. And such a requirement is not necessarily unreasonable as consolidation has an impact on many parts of each community. Where there is mutual agreement among towns’ residents there is likely to be a more successful outcome.
Because of economic pressures, we may be at a unique moment. However, don’t expect local mayors and councils to advocate for consolidation. Just as Jeff Gardner joined with 25 democrats in Hawthorne to contest the entrenched powers in a primary, so too in the case of consolidation local activists have to learn about the issues, develop an appropriate local rationale, and speak out to community members.
Experts and activists are important but the larger community has to be fully involved. It can be difficult enough within a given town to reach agreement on thorny issues. In this case activists need to work with colleagues in all the towns that might join in any particular merger. To achieve the desired economies of scale five or more towns including possibly a city should join together. Such typically involves finding common ground with people of different socio-economic, racial, ethnic, educational, and religious backgrounds.
In addition to LUARC, there is further help for people who want to end the gridlock. Courage to Connect NJ is one such non-profit organization. Its Executive Director Gina Genevese says, “When residents recognize that their local government is not the sole creator of their sense of community, then we can begin to connect communities through petitions and referendums. Connected communities with one government are more efficient, more affordable and can create better plans for the future.”
The challenge is there and waiting. Aroused activists and experts, who in turn might generate further assistance from state government, have the opportunity to galvanize communities and bring an end to this gridlock.