One state, twenty one counties, five hundred and sixty-six municipalities and six hundred and twenty one school districts. Government and bureaucracy at every level.
Maybe, in a Jersey kind of way it all makes sense.
The reasons for this abundance of towns and school districts- and the relentless property tax problem that comes with them-are as varied as the landscape. Some communities grew up around big cities of New York and Philadelphia. Others began as ocean side resorts, or as stage coach stops. In some places, people sought out of home where drinking wasn't allowed, or where playing golf on Sunday was. Some school districts were formed to ensure racial segregation.
Historians say there was no grand plan in making this a state that has more municipalities per square mile than any other, groups just acted on their own interests, and the state didn't get in the way.
The late Alan Karcher, a speaker of the state assembly in the 1980's, was once moved to write that by the end of the twentieth century, the boundaries of New Jersey towns looked like "A web woven by a spider on LSD."
Politicians will only address the subject of consolidation in hushed tones, because history shows that the mere mention of this is politically explosive, butting up against the deep affections that New Jersey residents have for everything local.
What we are seeing today is practicality colliding with tradition. Consolidation efforts do not take into consideration the community strength that needs to be dealt with.
Karcher, in a book on home rule in New Jersey, noted that the creation of towns like cranberry-formed in part because residents wanted the right to sell liquor to passing travelers-took many twists and turns as towns kept cropping up until the 1950's.
In 1876, for example, South Amboy's predominately Irish Catholic population had gained control of local politics. English and German residents, mostly protestants didn't like that, so they created their own town; Sayreville.
When business executives in Camden County were prevented from playing golf on Sundays because of the blue laws, they got governor Edward I. Edwards to support the creation of an eighteen hole town in 1921. Today, Tavistock remains. Population; twenty four.
In 1839, New Jersey had 1408 school districts-one for almost every rural school house. In 1894, the legislature ordered that districts follow municipal boundary lines, and the number of districts dropped by more than half.
But in Bergen County, 30 districts were used as the basis to form new towns, because wealthy areas were unwilling to share funds with poorer neighbors, and white residents did not want their children attending school with minority students.
Some say these racial and class boundaries, formed years ago, still exist.
Every municipality and school district, plus the 21 counties relies on property taxes to pay for their operations.
It works that way because New Jersey historically had a very weak state government.
When the states latest constitution was adopted in 1947 law makers in Trenton did not have the cultural or economic resources to set the standards for how we should be governed. A local property tax made sense given their local needs. There was a sense of place. People were in charge of themselves.
In many respects, they still are, but there's a hefty price tag.
The average property tax bill in the state last year was nearly $7500.00. The average home owner uses about 6% of personal income for property taxes. The national average is 3.5%. 44% of all tax revenue in New Jersey comes from property taxes, compared with a national average closer to 30%.
Governors have long tried to recommend change. In 1954, Governor Robert Meynor and the legislature developed an incentive aid program that led to the creation of 69 regional school districts, mainly for high school. It was the beginning of the “Sputnik Era" and educators wanted rural districts combined to provide better science and math classes.
New Jersey now has 80 regional districts, but over the last 25 years only three new ones formed, while two others dissolved.
Over the past half century there has been only two municipal mergers-in 1997 when tiny Pahaquarry in Warren County became part of Hardwick because there wasn't enough eligible residents to fill the town counsel.
In effort to regionalize Princeton Borough and Princeton Township failed three times in the 1990's until finally approved.
New Jersey developed as a series of places and communities, substitute the word community for municipality and it begins to make more sense.