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Sunday, March 23, 2008; Page A03
MOONACHIE, N.J. -- Driving down County Road 503, if you blink, you might miss this borough.
There's East Rutherford, then Carlstadt, then Moonachie, then -- whoosh-- faster than the car radio can play the latest hit single, you're in Little Ferry, the next borough over. That's four boroughs in one song. You pass through Moonachie during the refrain.
That's too small, says New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D).
Corzine, who presided over mergers and acquisitions as chairman of Goldman Sachs, is telling hundreds of New Jersey's smallest towns and boroughs that they are too small to exist. Multiple layers of government are financially wasteful, he says, and the littlest towns and boroughs need to merge with their bigger neighbors to achieve economies of scale.
Corzine's incentive -- more like a hammer -- is a threatened cutoff of state aid. Under the governor's proposed budget, the state's 323 towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 people would face drastic cuts if they do not consolidate. Towns with populations between 5,000 and 10,000 people would see their aid sliced in half. Those with more than 10,000 would have their aid frozen at 2007 levels. And those such as Moonachie, with fewer than 5,000 people, would get zero state funding. Zilch.
But in little boroughs such as Moonachie (pronounced "moon-AH-key"), small is exactly how they like it, and the residents and their locally elected officials are fighting back. "It's so unjustifiable," Moonachie Mayor Frederick Dressel said. "I was in a depressed mood for the last week and a half over this."
Under Corzine's plan, Moonachie would have to merge, perhaps with Carlstadt and East Rutherford, to get any aid at all.
Dressel argued that rather than being wasteful, small boroughs such as his are actually more efficient than state, county or even big-city governments. Like all small-town elected officials, Dressel, a retired machine designer, is a part-time mayor working with a part-time council. He has no secretary. There are only a few full-time staffers at Moonachie Municipal Hall, and most of them have double or triple duties -- such as the licensing officer who is also the borough records keeper.
He thinks the governor is singling them out because they are, well, small.
"It's easy to pick on us: We have the least political clout," said Dressel, who has been mayor since 1984. "The fact that we have to tighten our belt -- I've been doing that for 24 years! In small towns like ours, you see there's nothing monumental there."
With New Jersey facing a $3 billion budget deficit, Corzine, so far, has been impervious to the entreaties of the small towns. "There really is a fiscal crisis," Corzine told a recent meeting of municipal officials, according to local news media reports. "I wish I could say there wasn't or it didn't exist, but it does."
New Jersey's plethora of incorporated municipalities -- 566 in total -- is a common feature of the Northeast. "It's just something that has evolved from colonial times," said William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities (and no relation to the Moonachie mayor). "People like that sense of community. They like their sense of home town. Bigger does not mean better."
The towns and boroughs all have a mayor and a council, a municipal building, a fire station (usually staffed by volunteers), an elementary school with a principal, and a handful of police officers with the name of the borough inscribed on the side of the car. They put on their own Fourth of July parades, with school bands and firetrucks rolling down the main streets.
Many are suburban bedroom communities, for New York in northern New Jersey, or Philadelphia in the south.
That sense of smallness is what longtime New Jersey residents like and why so many stay close to the town where they were born.
"It's the small-town atmosphere," said Jack Nagel, who runs a shop in Moonachie printing promotional logos and slogans on T-shirts, cups, bumper stickers and just about anything else. "People in Moonachie are very comfortable with the police department. We know the mayor and council members." He added, "The fear of losing that small-town identity is greater than the savings that would be found."
That fear, and anger at not being consulted in advance, seem to be stoking the opposition to the merger plan. The governor is facing no less than a revolt of the small towns. At stake, say the small-town boosters, is a tradition, a way of life and the very definition of democracy, which at its best should be the government that is closest to the people.
"We're not a town; we're a home town," said Edward G. Campbell III, the mayor of Gibbsboro, with 2,500 people and 840 homes on 2.2 square miles. "Home rule is deeply rooted in New Jersey."
Campbell cited several examples of how small boroughs can be more cost-effective than bigger towns. Gibbsboro pays a single trash collector $10 an hour for garbage collection and shoulders no costs for health insurance or a pension. It hires police officers straight out of the state academy and pays them $12.50 an hour; they usually stay two years in the borough to get on-the-job experience before moving on. The borough has no sewer utility worker; instead, it made arrangements with an area plumber to do repairs, and every resident has his phone number.
Some mayors are angry because they said they are already cooperating with their neighboring towns, and now the threatened aid cutoff to the smallest jurisdictions may disrupt those ongoing agreements.
The borough of Collingswood, for example, has an agreement with tiny Woodlynne nearby to provide police protection and to let Woodlynne students go to its high school. But if Woodlynne, with 2,700 residents, loses its state aid, the hamlet would not have any money to reimburse Collingswood, so the services would have to stop.
"They've dropped a house on us," said Collingswood Mayor James Maley, a lawyer. For the smallest towns facing cuts, he said, it "just makes these towns destitute."
The battle has prompted some gallows humor. A blog called "New Jersey: Politics Unusual" speculated on possible new names for merged towns. For example, if Hillsdale, Mount Airy and Clinton merged, they could rename their new town "Hillary Clinton." And Ho-Ho-Kus could merge with Hoboken and become "Ho-Ho-Ho."