At first glance, there seems nothing odd about the campaign literature Mount Arlington Councilman Lee Loughridge and his running-mates successfully used two years ago. It says, “Stop Merger … Fight for Lower Taxes.”
Candidates always say they’ll “fight” to lower taxes.
The “merger” referenced in the literature is a proposal to combine relatively tiny Mount Arlington (population 5,000) with much larger Roxbury (population 23,000) with an eye to saving money. A commission representing both municipalities has been meeting for more than three years to explore the idea.
And Loughridge is one of its members.
The notion of a study commission member with a history of opposing precisely what that panel is charged with objectively reviewing rankles Craig Heard, the Roxbury businessman who chairs the group.
At this week’s meeting, Heard spoke of “daggers” being thrown (figuratively) in the panel’s direction. And he acknowledged the obvious.
“We all get politics,” he said.
Heard probably gets more of it than he wants.
For years, various officials, public interest groups and countless newspaper editorials have commented negatively about a state that has 565 distinct municipalities and even more school districts than that. Why not combine some towns and school districts and maybe – just maybe – significantly reduce the highest property tax burden in the nation?
Chris Christie talked about it when he get elected.
And so has Phil Murphy. The new governor, in fact, has appointed two former mayors from each party to figure out how to do it.
They’d be well advised to visit the Roxbury-Mount Arlington study commission to see how hard the process is. Keep in mind that the towns border each other and are similar demographically. And Mount Arlington kids already attend Roxbury High School.
Before this week’s meeting, Heard was in Trenton where he successfully secured the state’s approval to extend the commission’s study period until next July. If all goes well, the commission will come up with a merger proposal, detail the projected cost savings, and put it on the ballot sometime in 2019. Approval from voters in both towns would be needed to implement the plan.
That may be difficult.
Heard said the state gave the panel extra time over the objection of Mount Arlington.
Loughridge suggested after the meeting that he’s merely representing the views of the public in his borough. He said that when he and his running-mates campaigned door-to-door, many residents quickly volunteered that they didn’t want a merger.
There is history here.
About 10 years ago now, the late mayor Art Ondish proposed abolishing the Mount Arlington police department and contracting with another town for service. The idea was quickly condemned by those who said they liked the “feel” and identity of their own police force.
This refrain is heard often – a traditional, almost mystical, belief that public services are delivered more efficiently if a police car or DPW truck carries the town seal.
The most perplexing thing here is that many residents who worship home rule seem oblivious to the need to reduce property taxes.
A preliminary estimate is that a merger would save about $3 million. Meetings among the commission and various departments in both municipalities and school districts have been ongoing.
But here’s where Heard got some push back from his own town. That would be from Roxbury Councilman and commission member Bob DeFillippo.
DeFillippo said it may be ill-advised to talk about the projected savings of a merger because the figures are still being explored. He said touting millions of dollars in savings may be just as premature as reflexively saying “no merger.”
Heard seemed taken aback, He noted that the commission must discuss issues publicly.
“There are millions of dollars to be saved,” Heard said. “I’m going to keep saying that.”
DeFillippo said afterwards that he has an open mind on the merger and wants to see the commission’s final report.
Now the commission has another year to produce that report. But that’s hardly the end. A public vote would still need to take place.
The consolidation commission has been around for three years, but the movement to bring it about started three years before that.
So we’re already at six years.
Why is it so hard for some people to realize New Jersey just has too much local government? And that is a main reason why property taxes are so high.
Six years and counting seems like such a long time to prove the obvious.
After all, people want property taxes reduced, don’t they?