Berkeley Heights Considers Leaving Union County In Pursuit Of Lower Taxes

BERKELEY HEIGHTS – Dissatisfied with the way Union County spends its tax dollars, Berkeley Heights leaders plan to put the question of seceding from the county on this year’s election ballot.

Councilman Robert Woodruff raised the issue last fall, and Mayor Joseph Bruno says it has nothing to do with politics, even though the township government is uniformly Republican and Democrats hold all nine seats on the Union County Board of Freeholders. Instead, it’s about a difference of opinion over what government should be and how it spends taxpayer dollars.

Union County shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars to run golf courses and hospitals when they could be sold and turned into tax ratables, according to the mayor. Nor can taxpayers afford costly decisions like the one to give county employees lifetime benefits.

Berkeley Heights currently sends $14 million per year to Union County in taxes. According to Bruno, they’d only pay $7 million if they were part of neighboring Morris County. He says that he was elected to do what’s best for the citizens of Berkeley Heights, and he believes that they should get to choose if they want to remain a part of Union County.

The Township Council has yet to pass a resolution to put the question on the ballot, but they are expected to do so by late July or early August. Residents will have opportunities to present their input at upcoming council meetings.

No matter what Berkeley Heights voters decide in November, it is unlikely that the township will actually leave Union County. The move would still have to be approved by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the state Legislature and receive the governor’s blessing.

Though the odds are against success, Bruno asks, “Why can’t it happen? Somebody has to be the first one.” He added that at worst, the talk about secession will at least bring attention to the issue of how money is being spent by Union County government

While township politicians are seeking tax savings, secession could prove quite costly.  There are a number of county-owned and maintained roads running through the township, including Springfield, Plainfield, Mountain, McMane, and Glenside avenues and Diamond Hill, Valley and Horseshoe roads, according to county spokesman Sebastian D’Elia. The township’s newest park, Snyder Avenue Park, a large piece of Watchung Reservation, Horseshoe Road and Passaic River parks are all county parks and Runnells Hospital is a county facility.

While no definitive study has been done, D’Elia said that the cost of compensating the county for those properties “could be in the tens of millions… and probably much more.” He noted that Union County has spent $11 million on Snyder Avenue Park alone through its Open Space program.

Bruno said that any issues related to compensation would have to be worked out and suggested that Union County could keep ownership of the parks and operate them through a shared service agreement, which could be paid for using part of the township’s tax savings.

D’Elia sympathized with Berekley Heights leaders’ desire to offer property tax savings to their residents, the Union County spokesman says that secession is not the answer. “While we would all like to have and support lower property taxes, it is an issue that must be dealt with through serious statewide reform rather than chaotic, arbitrary measures that would create more problems and pit community against community,” he said.

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