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Bergen County Politics
County exec urges mergers of towns
Friday, February 8, 2008
Last Updated Friday February 8, 2008, EST 6:24 PM
BY OSHRAT CARMIEL
STAFF WRITER
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Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney called Thursday for a dramatic reorganization of local government, urging the state to encourage -- with financial incentives -- the merger of towns with fewer than 10,000 residents.

By that standard, half the municipalities in Bergen County -- 35 -- would be eligible to become, say, Allenwick, Demarkill or Ho-Ho River.

"The surest way to significantly lower homeowners' property taxes is to merge small towns and reduce administrative overhead," McNerney said in his State of the County address before a small crowd of county officials and state legislators at the EMS Training Center in Paramus.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that merging towns is a volatile and emotional proposition -- fraught with political danger for the mayor or council members who suggest it.

But McNerney, who oversees a county of 70 municipalities -- the most of any county in the state -- pledged to lobby Trenton for carrots large enough to make such mergers worthwhile.

He proposed a state pilot program that might offer multiyear property tax freezes and the doubling of a homestead rebate for residents of a new town created by a merger of neighboring towns.

If the carrots are large enough, and the reduction of the average property tax bill dramatic enough, McNerney reasoned, residents who would normally resist mergers might actually demand them.

"During a five-year transition period, as the new town comes into existence, all municipal, county and school taxes should be frozen at current levels, with the state agreeing to supplement the towns and school for any justifiable financial increases as the merger proceeds," he said.

By the time the state's incentives expire, McNerney said, the newly created towns would see savings from the efficiencies they created.

"A business administrator making over $100,000 a year to manage a town of 5,000 residents could easily oversee a town with double the number of residents of a merged municipality," McNerney said.

Exactly half of the county's patchwork of municipalities have populations of less than 10,000, according to 2006 census estimates. McNerney's proposal would ideally entice all of them to at least think about merging.

But McNerney's proposal would have to surmount two daunting political realities.

The state, mired in its own fiscal crisis, would have to find the will to shake loose millions of dollars to offer as incentives. And veteran mayors, wary of cost-saving platitudes from Trenton, would have to agree to give the idea a chance.

"I have learned in politics to let the proposal come out and see exactly where you're going to save the money," East Rutherford Mayor James Casella said.

"I shouldn't be so flip and say, 'No, it's not going to work.'

"Let's see if it's going to work. But the bottom line is: How much savings?"

State Sen. Robert M. Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, who attended McNerney's speech, said he might propose a bill that would offer tangible inducement for towns to merge.

"If there's some real money, if individual taxpayers are seeing a couple hundred dollars off their tax bills, you're giving officials some political cover to do some really audacious things," Gordon said.

But he also acknowledged any such bill would face an uphill battle.

"Given we're in a fiscal emergency right now, I think it would be a challenge," Gordon said.

"Anything we can do to hold down the cost of duplicative government is worth looking at," said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck.

"Are we in a position that involves spending more money?" she added. "No."

McNerney has tried to make a name for himself as a cheerleader for shared services. It was a campaign theme when he ran for re-election in 2006, touting the merger of Fairview and Cliffside Park public works departments as a hallmark of his effort during his first term.

But Thursday, against the backdrop of a difficult budget-balancing season for the county, McNerney was acknowledging that more dramatic solutions are needed for real property tax savings.

"We have more towns than any other county," he said after the speech. "We have to take the lead on this."

It was, after all, an 1894 tax incentive from the state Legislature that created 23 boroughs in Bergen County during one summer. Now, McNerney said, it would take similar incentives to undo the result.

His speech comes as McNerney awaits confirmation to a nine-member state panel that will study government consolidation.

His nomination by Governor Corzine is being stalled by Weinberg and state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, who have placed a senatorial courtesy hold on it. Senatorial courtesy is a tradition that allows senators from a nominee's home county to delay or derail a nomination without explanation.

Weinberg said Thursday she is not opposed to McNerney sitting on the state panel.

Instead, Weinberg said her support will come once other senators from Bergen offer their support to some of her favored nominees.

E-mail: carmiel@northjersey.com

Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney called Thursday for a dramatic reorganization of local government, urging the state to encourage -- with financial incentives -- the merger of towns with fewer than 10,000 residents.

By that standard, half the municipalities in Bergen County -- 35 -- would be eligible to become, say, Allenwick, Demarkill or Ho-Ho River.

"The surest way to significantly lower homeowners' property taxes is to merge small towns and reduce administrative overhead," McNerney said in his State of the County address before a small crowd of county officials and state legislators at the EMS Training Center in Paramus.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that merging towns is a volatile and emotional proposition -- fraught with political danger for the mayor or council members who suggest it.

But McNerney, who oversees a county of 70 municipalities -- the most of any county in the state -- pledged to lobby Trenton for carrots large enough to make such mergers worthwhile.

He proposed a state pilot program that might offer multiyear property tax freezes and the doubling of a homestead rebate for residents of a new town created by a merger of neighboring towns.

If the carrots are large enough, and the reduction of the average property tax bill dramatic enough, McNerney reasoned, residents who would normally resist mergers might actually demand them.

"During a five-year transition period, as the new town comes into existence, all municipal, county and school taxes should be frozen at current levels, with the state agreeing to supplement the towns and school for any justifiable financial increases as the merger proceeds," he said.

By the time the state's incentives expire, McNerney said, the newly created towns would see savings from the efficiencies they created.

"A business administrator making over $100,000 a year to manage a town of 5,000 residents could easily oversee a town with double the number of residents of a merged municipality," McNerney said.

Exactly half of the county's patchwork of municipalities have populations of less than 10,000, according to 2006 census estimates. McNerney's proposal would ideally entice all of them to at least think about merging.

But McNerney's proposal would have to surmount two daunting political realities.

The state, mired in its own fiscal crisis, would have to find the will to shake loose millions of dollars to offer as incentives. And veteran mayors, wary of cost-saving platitudes from Trenton, would have to agree to give the idea a chance.

"I have learned in politics to let the proposal come out and see exactly where you're going to save the money," East Rutherford Mayor James Casella said.

"I shouldn't be so flip and say, 'No, it's not going to work.'

"Let's see if it's going to work. But the bottom line is: How much savings?"

State Sen. Robert M. Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, who attended McNerney's speech, said he might propose a bill that would offer tangible inducement for towns to merge.

"If there's some real money, if individual taxpayers are seeing a couple hundred dollars off their tax bills, you're giving officials some political cover to do some really audacious things," Gordon said.

But he also acknowledged any such bill would face an uphill battle.

"Given we're in a fiscal emergency right now, I think it would be a challenge," Gordon said.

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  1. mjbr24 says: This is an excellent idea. Does Haworth need a police Chief, a captain, and a few Sergeants for 9 cops? Do we need a mayor and town council for 3500 people while Demarest has the same set up? It's time for the Bergen County feifdoms to end. If Rockland, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk can have shared services, so can Bergen. True "towns" can be created with individual hamlets, like Orangetown in Rockland. Pearl River is still PR, just with a Town of Orangetown DPW, Police, School Admin, Paramedics and Court.
  2. Deb says: I like the idea of regionalizing services, but merging towns! Is that really nessesary? I found the list of the towns in the paper, I'm not sure if it is online. Here you go: Allendale Alpine Bogota Carlstadt Closter Cresskill Demarest East Rutherford Edgewater Emerson Englewood Cliffs Harrington Park Haworth Ho-Ho-Kus Leonia Maywood Midland Park Montvale Moonachie Northvale Norwood Old Tappan Oradell Park Ridge River Vale Rochelle Park Rockleigh Saddle River S. Hackensack Teterboro Upper Saddle River Waldwick Washington Township Woodcliff Lake Wood-Ridge I think we should give this idea same serious consideration, once we have the whole story. I myself moved from a town of 38,000 to Park Ridge because it is a SMALL town. I not sure if we were merged with other towns, that I would want to stay in this area.
  3. Terence Connors says: I think this is a terrible idea. I am a life long resident of Rochelle Park and wouldn't trade that for the world and I'm sure many other people in these municipalities feel the same way about their town. More than just being a name it is a part of our identity as well as a legacy to our children and our chidren's children and I for one cannot justify giving it up for a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars spread out over five years, a portion of which will probably be spent riding on New Jersey's ever rising toll roads and in my case the rising price of commuting to New York.

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