Kevin Riordan: Cherry Hill, Merchantville merger called off

Chuck Cahn is to be sworn in next week as Cherry Hill mayor. Cutting the township's bureacracy is high on his agenda.
Chuck Cahn is to be sworn in next week as Cherry Hill mayor. Cutting the township's bureacracy is high on his agenda. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 07, 2012

The question of whether Cherry Hill and Merchantville ought to merge won't be on the November ballot.

Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn has effectively pulled the plug on a planned municipal-consolidation study that Merchantville Mayor Frank North didn't support earlier.

No study, no public vote; no public vote, no merger. That's state law.

"No one from a Cherry Hill perspective . . . saw the advantage" of proceeding, Cahn says.

North adds: "I think shared services are the thing to do."

Some supporters of reuniting the township and the borough - both were part of a municipality called Delaware Township in the 19th century - believe the consolidation effort is as defunct as, well, Delaware Township.

Others, including a statewide advocate of sparing taxpayers by merging municipalities, say mayoral reticence is not an insurmountable obstacle. "They could do this [study] all in-house and have a third party look at it. It doesn't have to be an expensive process," says Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect NJ.

Formed in 2011, a consolidation commission with five representatives from Cherry Hill (population 71,000), and five from Merchantville (3,800), will remain viable for two more years.

"We decided to suspend meetings, but not disband," says commissioner Richard James, who headed the Merchantville contingent.

"It doesn't make sense for the two [municipal governments] to essentially abdicate their responsibility to their citizens," James adds. "We are actively looking for another organization to fund the study," which could cost from $50,000 to $100,000.

"We got the signatures from voters," says Greg La Vardera of the citizen organization Merchantville Connecting to the Future. "We filed the application. We got the state's permission. We formed a study commission. . . . And now we are stuck."

Although home rule is often cited as the historical reason New Jersey has 566 separate - and costly - municipal governments, hometown politics are surely at work.

Cahn took office in January, succeeding longtime Mayor Bernie Platt, a merger champion. Merchantville's government, North says, was excluded from the process by a grassroots merger group that allied itself with Platt and other political leaders in Cherry Hill.

A merger would give sprawling Cherry Hill (24 square miles) a traditional downtown, and cozy Merchantville (2.4 square miles) a well-regarded school system.

But some fear the borough could lose its historical flavor. And even without a merger, Merchantville could realize its longtime dream to send its secondary-school students somewhere other than Pennsauken High.

Pennsauken is contesting the borough school board's attempt to opt out of the longtime arrangement and switch to Haddon Heights. The mere possibility of a new high-school option may have slowed momentum to merge with Cherry Hill.

Statewide, nostalgia for the fuzzy concept of home rule continues to outweigh worries about the sky-high property taxes that municipal consolidations might ease.

Not counting Princeton Township and Borough, which will become one in January, and the absorption of Warren County's Pahaquarry (population 6) by Hardwick in the mid-1990s, New Jersey's last municipal merger saw the Borough of Vineland and the Township of Landis form the City of Vineland.

That was in 1952.

Cherry Hill and Merchantville have worked harder and come further than any communities outside of the Princetons; it's a shame not to go forward with a study to find out if consolidation could benefit both.

"I still think a study should happen," Platt says. "There could be great savings for both communities."

It's ironic that some in Merchantville who viewed Cherry Hill as the driving force behind a merger now seem happy to watch the township determine what's best for the borough - by refusing to support a simple study.

Whether to proceed with something as momentous as a municipal merger is a decision best made by the voters of both communities.

Not merely, with all due respect, by one mayor. Or two.


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists'

blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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