© 2017 North Jersey Media Group
July 12, 2009
Last updated: Sunday, July 19, 2009, 6:11 PM

Towns turn to consolidation in tough times

Furloughs for workers and forfeited salaries for politicians in Prospect Park.

A two-year wage freeze and increased surplus spending in North Haledon.

A crucial sewer repair project in doubt in Haledon.

Municipal tax increases in all three towns, plus Hawthorne.

The four local governments in Dutch Hills are struggling to make ends meet. But officials say things aren't bad enough for the extreme measures — outright merger, or at least sharing major services — the state is urging.

All over the counties of Passaic, Bergen and Morris, municipalities have been combining some services and sharing resources, and Haledon Mayor Domenick Stampone acknowledged the need in his hard-pressed borough government "to find creative ways to save money."

But most officials are loath to consider merging the biggest departments, like police. And while success stories abound, existing agreements have not been wrinkle-free.

Haledon and Prospect Park merged library and code enforcement services on July 1 and are considering sharing a tax assessor. The library pact would bring $13,000 in payments from Prospect Park to Haledon. But it's been jeopardized by a turf fight between Haledon municipal and library officials over who controls the money — the type of snag politicians fear about consolidation. Now Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah says he would pursue a similar library agreement with Hawthorne if the dust-up isn't settled soon.

The code enforcement merge has gone more smoothly, and Mitch Hanenian — now code enforcement officer for both municipalities — said he was enthusiastic about further service-sharing between the two boroughs.

Prospect Park is paying $18,000 of Hanenian's salary in exchange for his services, which frees up the official who previously had to handle construction, housing, zoning and code enforcement duties. Hanenian said he typically pulls in between $75,000 and $100,000 per year in code violation fees, which — minus court fees — go directly into borough coffers.

In Bergen County, Waldwick and Midland Park will share a court administrator for a six-month trial — something Allendale and Ho-Ho-Kus have been doing for years. Waldwick expects to save $12,500 through the deal.

Three groups of towns — North Arlington and Rutherford, East Rutherford and Carlstadt, and Montvale and Woodcliff Lake (which hope to join with Park Ridge, Upper Saddle River and River Vale) — may merge their municipal courts. When five towns in Morris County did so in February, they predicted savings of $2.7 million over 10 years.

Bogota and Teaneck have been boldest with a proposal to combine police departments, as police costs account for more than a third of Bogota's budget. But most local governments remain hesitant, if not wholly unwilling, to consider such a major merge.

As the state struggles to balance its own budget, Governor Corzine has urged municipalities with populations under 10,000 — such as Haledon, North Haledon, Prospect Park and numerous towns in Bergen County — to consolidate. The carrot is the offer of grants to subsidize consolidation if officials pursue it. The stick is the slashing of state aid if they do not.

"This is the future," Hanenian said. "I believe that, eventually, the smaller towns will share their services because they're going to be forced to, and if they do so they will be rewarded by getting money for their municipality."

But Stampone cautions against viewing that move as a panacea.

"We're not looking to balance our budget on the money we're getting from Prospect Park for the library," he said. "I don't think consolidating or sharing services is always the answer, but when it makes sense, we should pursue it."

Less moderate is North Haledon Mayor Randy George, who called his services among the best in Passaic County and said consolidating would be "doing my residents a disservice" by forcing the borough to subsidize improvements in neighboring towns.

"If another town wants to join me, they have to bring to the table the same stuff I have," George said. "I bring too much to the table to consolidate. My job is to save my residents money and give them the services they deserve."

But with consolidation minimal thus far, the Dutch Hills communities of eastern Passaic County are forecasting even heavier reliance on property taxes.

All four boroughs are increasing municipal taxes this year. Additionally, Hawthorne has projected yearly hikes through 2012, and when asked if North Haledon property owners could expect more tax increases in coming years, George said, "If the governor continues to cut state aid, then yes."

That seems likely, as Charles Ferraioli — auditor for Haledon, North Haledon and Prospect Park — said at a recent Haledon council meeting that state aid was not expected to return to 2007 levels until at least 2014.

The refrain among officials is that "nothing is off the table" if the squeeze continues. But it remains an open question how dire finances would have to become before more extensive sharing agreements would be considered.

E-mail: astor@northjersey.com

Towns turn to consolidation in tough times

Furloughs for workers and forfeited salaries for politicians in Prospect Park.

A two-year wage freeze and increased surplus spending in North Haledon.

A crucial sewer repair project in doubt in Haledon.

Municipal tax increases in all three towns, plus Hawthorne.

The four local governments in Dutch Hills are struggling to make ends meet. But officials say things aren't bad enough for the extreme measures — outright merger, or at least sharing major services — the state is urging.

All over the counties of Passaic, Bergen and Morris, municipalities have been combining some services and sharing resources, and Haledon Mayor Domenick Stampone acknowledged the need in his hard-pressed borough government "to find creative ways to save money."

But most officials are loath to consider merging the biggest departments, like police. And while success stories abound, existing agreements have not been wrinkle-free.

Haledon and Prospect Park merged library and code enforcement services on July 1 and are considering sharing a tax assessor. The library pact would bring $13,000 in payments from Prospect Park to Haledon. But it's been jeopardized by a turf fight between Haledon municipal and library officials over who controls the money — the type of snag politicians fear about consolidation. Now Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah says he would pursue a similar library agreement with Hawthorne if the dust-up isn't settled soon.

The code enforcement merge has gone more smoothly, and Mitch Hanenian — now code enforcement officer for both municipalities — said he was enthusiastic about further service-sharing between the two boroughs.

Prospect Park is paying $18,000 of Hanenian's salary in exchange for his services, which frees up the official who previously had to handle construction, housing, zoning and code enforcement duties. Hanenian said he typically pulls in between $75,000 and $100,000 per year in code violation fees, which — minus court fees — go directly into borough coffers.

In Bergen County, Waldwick and Midland Park will share a court administrator for a six-month trial — something Allendale and Ho-Ho-Kus have been doing for years. Waldwick expects to save $12,500 through the deal.

Three groups of towns — North Arlington and Rutherford, East Rutherford and Carlstadt, and Montvale and Woodcliff Lake (which hope to join with Park Ridge, Upper Saddle River and River Vale) — may merge their municipal courts. When five towns in Morris County did so in February, they predicted savings of $2.7 million over 10 years.

Bogota and Teaneck have been boldest with a proposal to combine police departments, as police costs account for more than a third of Bogota's budget. But most local governments remain hesitant, if not wholly unwilling, to consider such a major merge.

As the state struggles to balance its own budget, Governor Corzine has urged municipalities with populations under 10,000 — such as Haledon, North Haledon, Prospect Park and numerous towns in Bergen County — to consolidate. The carrot is the offer of grants to subsidize consolidation if officials pursue it. The stick is the slashing of state aid if they do not.

"This is the future," Hanenian said. "I believe that, eventually, the smaller towns will share their services because they're going to be forced to, and if they do so they will be rewarded by getting money for their municipality."

But Stampone cautions against viewing that move as a panacea.

"We're not looking to balance our budget on the money we're getting from Prospect Park for the library," he said. "I don't think consolidating or sharing services is always the answer, but when it makes sense, we should pursue it."

Less moderate is North Haledon Mayor Randy George, who called his services among the best in Passaic County and said consolidating would be "doing my residents a disservice" by forcing the borough to subsidize improvements in neighboring towns.

"If another town wants to join me, they have to bring to the table the same stuff I have," George said. "I bring too much to the table to consolidate. My job is to save my residents money and give them the services they deserve."

But with consolidation minimal thus far, the Dutch Hills communities of eastern Passaic County are forecasting even heavier reliance on property taxes.

All four boroughs are increasing municipal taxes this year. Additionally, Hawthorne has projected yearly hikes through 2012, and when asked if North Haledon property owners could expect more tax increases in coming years, George said, "If the governor continues to cut state aid, then yes."

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