Merchantville-Cherry Hill merger study a long process

Posted: October 15, 2010

Nobody is sure exactly how to do it - and no wonder.

The merging of municipalities in a state where there are 566 is rare. New Jersey has had only two mergers in 60 years.

So officials and residents of tiny Merchantville Borough and its much larger neighbor Cherry Hill Township are taking it slowly.

Hundreds of Merchantville residents signed petitions over the spring and summer asking for a study, and both municipalities passed resolutions calling for an exploration of the pros and cons.

Now, a citizens group plans hearings this month and next, and the two mayors will meet Nov. 4 with officials from the state Departments of Education and Community Affairs to discuss the issues further.

But there's a long way to go, maybe a couple of years. Even if a study is completed and shared with the public, voters must approve the merger. Then would come the work of bringing together communities that have their own administrations, school districts, and police and municipal services.

"This is a process that will take time; it won't happen overnight," said Bob Stocker, a borough resident who helped lead the petition drive and a member of Merchantville Connecting for the Future, a nonprofit exploring the merger possibility.

"You're creating a new township that would include Merchantville," said Stocker, 36. "Little would change, but we have to explore it to learn more."

Originally known as Delaware Township, Cherry Hill received its current name in 1961, when residents chose it in a nonbinding referendum.

Merchantville long ago was part of Delaware Township. It was incorporated as a borough in 1874 by an act of the Legislature.

Members of Merchantville Connecting for the Future are hoping to reunite the communities using 2007 municipal-consolidation legislation that grants residents the same power as elected officials to pursue a merger.

At the same time, borough officials are exploring the issue and have appointed a committee to seek a study to work with Cherry Hill, which has yet to choose its committee members.

There's precedent for merging. Nearly 60 years ago, Vineland Borough and Landis Township formed Vineland City. And in 1997, Pahaquarry Township, Warren County, population six, was absorbed by neighboring Hardwick Township.

The process of bringing municipalities together, though, is unfamiliar to most officials.

"It's confusing," Merchantville Mayor Frank North said. "When you get too many cooks in the pot, you have a problem.

"But we'll see where it goes. We are trying. It's a matter of taking it step by step the right way, doing it legally."

North said he wanted "to see how much [money] the state will come up with" for the study, which could cost about $50,000. "Then, we have to see how much the towns have to come up with and put out a request for proposals."

Whether or not borough officials are involved, members of Merchantville Connecting for the Future said they would hold hearings in both municipalities. Cherry Hill's hearing could take place as part of a regular council meeting.

The citizens group would then apply for funds from the local finance board of the state Department of Community Affairs for the study, Stocker said. The study results would later be presented to residents, who would vote on the merger.

"This is the first time a citizens group has done this," said Gina Genovese, former mayor of Long Hill Township in Morris County and founder and executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit that favors the merging of towns to achieve savings.

Many of New Jersey's 566 municipalities should consider consolidating to eliminate duplicated administrative bodies and to save money, Genovese said.

"This is the only solution for New Jersey," she said. "With our state teetering on bankruptcy and municipalities desperate to save money, the artificial boundaries separating communities are beginning to crumble.

"We're all trying to work together and include everyone," Genovese added. "We don't believe in forced consolidation. Right now, we're educating people."

Scores of residents turned out last week for a forum in which Genovese presented potential benefits of merging.

The benefits and problems will be discussed next month by North, Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt, and the commissioners of the Departments of Education and Community Affairs. After that, the township is expected to appoint its merger committee.

The idea of the communities' coming together "remains very attractive," said Dan Keashen, a Cherry Hill spokesman. "The mayor is chiefly concerned about eliminating redundancies, using economies of scale, and getting a better price for services.

"But," he said, "we want to make sure we don't rush forward too quickly."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or

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