By Andrew Bruck
Fix New Jersey’s fiscal crisis? Streamline its 566 towns. Or so say the Good Government types.
“Let us have consolidation,” explains Nathan Horton, former counsel to the City of Orange, in an interview with the New York Times. “It would be economy in more ways than one.”
“New Jersey is in desperate need of a better allocation of the fiscal and governmental responsibilities,” notes the state’s County and Municipal Government Study Commission, “for the planning, financing, and performance of the functions and services provided by its local government systems.”
But consolidating municipalities is easier said than done. The first quote dates to 1895; the second to 1968.
Ever since New Jersey began carving up its towns into hundreds of smaller units in the mid-nineteenth century, local reformers and budget-conscious residents have been trying — unsuccessfully – to stitch them back together. But with New Jersey facing one of the most severe budget crises in its history, calls for consolidation have grown louder.
The question is not whether New Jersey should fix its broken system, but whether it ever will. The reasons for inertia are manifold; the barriers range from procedural and political to philosophical and psychological. Much of the hesitance to enact real reform stems from a fanatical devotion to home rule, a concept former governor Brendan Byrne once described as “New Jersey’s religion.”
Home rule embraces a nostalgic vision of small town Americana and satisfies a committed group of local politicians who don’t want to give up their titles or their salaries. Since 1952, the small and almost-entirely-indistinguishable communities of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township have held seven separate votes on whether to merge. All seven proposals have been rejected.
But the momentum is shifting. There are three reasons to believe that — finally — the Garden State will embrace a simpler, more sensible municipal structure:
• New Jersey is broke. Even more broke than usual.
• New Jersey has a Governor who is deadly serious about ending the state’s fiscal crisis.
• Consolidation supporters have started organizing.
For the first time, a statewide advocacy group exists to push for mergers and to counter the misinformation spread by entrenched local interests. Gina Genovese, the former mayor of 9,000-person Long Hill, has founded Courage to Connect NJ, which is educating voters on the benefits of connecting multiple towns under a single government structure.
Genovese and her team have been touring the state citing similar examples, arguing that you can eliminate a municipality without eliminating its sense of community. Genovese’s brand of grassroots organizing is exactly what the current movement needs and what previous attempts lacked.
Only time will tell whether the latest push to consolidate will prove more successful than the well-intentioned efforts of 1895 and 1968. In a state with a bureaucracy as sprawling as its suburbs, change comes slowly, if ever. But there’s reason to be optimistic, and that’s not something you hear a lot in New Jersey these days.
Andrew Bruck, a Montclair native and graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, is a lawyer in New York City. Until recently, he served as a law clerk to Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Previously, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Stanford Law & Policy Review.
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