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Tiny Towns in N.J. May Have to Merge

Aid Could Be The Price of Staying Small

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is telling hundreds of New Jersey's smallest towns and boroughs that they are too small to operate efficiently.
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is telling hundreds of New Jersey's smallest towns and boroughs that they are too small to operate efficiently. (By Mel Evans -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008; Page A03

MOONACHIE, N.J. -- Driving down County Road 503, if you blink, you might miss this borough.

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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.

Moonachie is small: about 2,700 residents. That's smaller than some New York apartment complexes. That's just one-seventh of the seating capacity of the arena at Madison Square Garden.

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."

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