Small Towns in N.J. Told to Merge or Face Cuts

Faced with chronic budget woes, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is taking aim at what some call "multiple municipal madness" — the large number of individual towns and school districts in the state. He's threatening to cut off funds to some towns if they don't merge with their neighbors to save money.

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New Jersey's governor, John Corzine, has a problem. His state has a crushing $32 billion debt, and the highest property taxes in the nation. So Corzine has a plan to cut down government spending. He wants every New Jersey town with fewer than 10,000 residents to merge with other towns. Many small town residents hate this idea, as Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: Around these parts it's called multiple municipal madness. New Jersey has 566 towns, half of which have less than 8,000 people; 616 school districts, some of them too small to have any actual schools. Governor John Corzine says that pushes property taxes up so that each town can pay for police chiefs, fire chiefs, city managers, and school superintendents.

Governor JOHN CORZINE (Democrat, New Jersey): We have too many levels of government. We need to find ways to reduce the number of governing units so that we can deliver the same services while we take advantage of economies of scale.

SOLOMON: Corzine is proposing to cut off state funds to every town with less than 5,000 people and cut state aid in half to towns with less than 10,000. It's not quite as drastic as it sounds because these small towns don't get that much in state aid.

But the proposal has hit a nerve. One mayor has started a recall petition against Corzine. Many others, including Mayor Nancy Martin of Helmetta, have formed an organization to fight consolidation.

Mayor NANCY MARTIN (Helmetta, New Jersey): Maybe he should have just looked at the overall picture and not just targeted small municipalities. How does he know that they don't run more efficiently, because I can almost guarantee we run more efficiently than many of the larger municipalities.

SOLOMON: Martin says Helmetta, population 2023, saves money by only hiring part-time, lower-paid employees who don't receive benefits. Like many tiny towns it pays a neighboring school system to educate their kids but maintains a school board and a few administrative positions. A lot is accomplished with volunteers, folks like Fran Nardowitz, who coordinates services for a retirement complex in Helmetta.

Mayor MARTIN: You tend to know everybody in a small town. The police department knows us. You know, the school system. We're in Spotswood, but we know who are students are from here. And it's just, I think, the camaraderie of a small town, you just know the people.

SOLOMON: It's school board election day in Helmetta. Voters arrive in a slow trickle and everyone seems to know each other.

Unidentified Man: How are you?

SOLOMON: The election volunteers ever hold Buddy, the Yorkshire Terrier, while his master votes.

Unidentified Man: We hold the babies and change their diapers too.

SOLOMON: Property taxes tend to be lower in small towns like Helmetta. But small town taxes are creeping up, mostly due to school costs. So even Helmetta boosters like Charles Bohinsky(ph) see the benefits of merger.

Mr. CHARLES BOHINSKY: You're going to lose that personal touch, but we don't have a library, we don't have a youth activities building. You don't have a lot of the amenities that the East Brunswicks, the Monroes have. We can't afford them. That's why we don't have them.

SOLOMON: Even if Corzine is able to cut small town aid, which much be approved by the legislature come July, it won't force consolidation of midsize towns, where much of the duplication in police chiefs, fire chiefs and other department heads exist. But he's hoping that as those midsize towns annex their smaller neighbors they'll see their property taxes go down. If that happens, Corzine hopes, residents in New Jersey towns of all sizes will begin to demand mergers instead of fighting them.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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