- Associated Press - Sunday, March 26, 2017

TRENON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey has so many towns that 75 of them share the same names.

The most popular name? Washington. There had been seven Washingtons until the Washington in Mercer County was renamed Robbinsville in 2008.

Naming redundancy, however, isn’t the problem.

In all, there are 565 municipalities in New Jersey. That’s too many, say Democrats in the state Legislature, who think reducing the number of towns through consolidations could do away with duplication of services and employment - changes that could save money for taxpayers.

A bill that gained its final legislative approval in the Assembly March 16 is designed to provide more procedural flexibility to encourage towns to pursue municipal consolidation. The sponsors include Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, a Monmouth County Democrat who told the Asbury Park Press (https://on.app.com/2ojXnK0) that “trying to get towns to merge is sometimes very difficult. Right now we’re trying to give them as many options as we can.”

But the legislation has an uncertain fate in the hands of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has 45 days to sign or veto it. Christie pocket-vetoed a similar measure without comment early last year.

Christie spokesman Brian Murray said he wouldn’t comment on the governor’s position this time around because “it’s a pending bill.” But Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican from Monmouth County, who joined other GOP lawmakers in voting against the measure, said Democrats during the amendment process this time “made the bill worse. It’s counterproductive. It will discourage rather than encourage consolidations.”

O’Scanlon said Democrats added potentially unaffordable “terminal leave and seniority mandates” for public workers displaced by a consolidation.

Houghtaling said the bill (A-2921) would allow non-contiguous municipalities to consolidate if located within a reasonable distance of one another, and the towns would be allowed to develop their own process for the equalization of property assessments in the new municipality — touted as a way to assure neither town’s taxpayers get the short end of the stick.

Town mergers seemingly had momentum after Princeton Township and Princeton Borough became one in 2013, but no other towns have paired up since then. Over the last 50 years, there’s been only one other consolidation: Pahaquarry, which had only six residents, and Hardwick Township, which had fewer than 1,500, in 1997.

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll at the start of the decade found that more than half of the state’s residents favored reducing the number of towns through mergers. But the poll taken again five years later found a 9-point drop in support, with opposition rising 8 points, to 46 percent.

Chad Goerner, the former Princeton Township mayor who was a driving force behind the consolidation of the Princetons, recently told the Asbury Park Press that the process was smoothed by the towns having a regional school district and a history of sharing services.

“However, I would argue the single, most important factor for success in any shared service or consolidation effort is open-minded elected officials,” Goerner said. “Without elected officials who are willing to think about innovative, creative solutions, it will be hard for any shared service, regionalization or consolidation effort to move forward.”

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com

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