ROXBURY, NJ – The Roxbury-Mount Arlington Consolidation Study Commission held its final meeting Wednesday, capping a 7-year-long effort to see if combining the two towns would save taxpayers lots of money.
The verdict: It would, but not unless the state changes a 20-year-old law that requires “tax rate equalization” between consolidating municipalities.
The commission found that consolidating the two towns would result in at least $9 million in yearly cost savings and yield property tax reductions between 7.52 percent in Roxbury and between 12.7 percent to 15 percent in Mount Arlington.
However, it also found that those savings would not be realized for Mount Arlington – without action from Trenton - due to an obscure part of the state’s municipal consolidation law. That law requires Mount Arlington’s tax rate to be equalized with Roxbury’s during a consolidation by using a county equalization ratio.
Roxbury recently finished a tax revaluation, aligning tax assessments with property values. But Mount Arlington hasn’t done so in about a decade. If the towns are consolidated, all taxpayers would have to pay the same “consolidated” rate of 2.652 per $100 of valuation (for school and municipal taxes), explained consolidation study commission chairman Craig Heard.
“Under the statute, in consolidations you are required to have an equalization,” Heard said in July, when the problem was discovered. “Mount Arlington’s tax base is much lower than Roxbury’s. It’s going to have to be equalized with Roxbury … The bottom line is Mount Arlington doesn’t achieve a savings once you apply equalization.”
Time to 'Move On'
Any proposed consolidation of the municipalities would have been brought before voters in both towns. But at Wednesday’s meeting, where the commission voted to fold up its tent as of Dec. 31, Heard stressed the panel always said it wouldn't push for such a vote unless both towns were in line for big savings.
“This has been a journey that started in 2012, and the sole mission was to see if there were opportunities in consolidation … to benefit both towns in a significant way,” Heard said. “We didn’t mean 3 percent or 4 percent. We meant in a significant way.”
Heard, a Succasunna resident, said there appears to be no quick way to fix the equalization problem and no sign of interest in Trenton to do so.
“With equalization applied, there no savings for Mount Arlington,” he said. “The statute is flawed … So, it’s time for us to move on.”
Maybe Something a Little Less
Although full-fledged consolidation of the towns is off the table, the commission’s work appears to have initiated discussion between Roxbury and Mount Arlington officials about ways to share more services.
“Although we didn’t reach our ultimate goal of saving taxes for both towns, I’m hoping - as (Roxbury) Mayor (Bob) DeFillippo said - that the shared services option is something he’s very interested in,” said commission member Laurel Whitney. “If what we did here stimulated that then ultimately we reached our goal.”
The commission’s work was seen as being groundbreaking by Courage to Connect, a non-profit organization that pushes for tax savings through municipal consolidation and shared services.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to work with residents from Roxbury and Mt. Arlington that wanted to use a 2007 NJ law to study making both towns and schools more affordable and stronger through consolidation,” wrote Courage to Connect Executive Director Gina Genovese in an email to Heard.
Genovese said the “intent of the law is to give taxpayers the power to show the savings of combining towns,” and she criticized the resistance the commission received from some government officials.
“The lack of support from the state, towns and schools for your effort reinforces why this law was created,” Genovese wrote. “Your commission has gone further than the two previous citizen efforts. So you are all trailblazers. You are the first ever effort in NJ that has studied combining both schools and towns. No one can take that away from you.”