A step closer to municipal consolidation

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:34

    Members take first vote to let residents decide about joining forces, By Tom Hoffman SUSSEX - When Vice Chairman Sal Lagattuta requested a motion Monday night for a vote by the Sussex-Wantage Consolidation Study Commission on whether to recommend that the two towns consolidate, it was like a scene out of a movie. The church bells from the nearby First Baptist Church of Sussex began to toll as the clock struck nine, concluding a full year of studies and meetings by the 10-member study group. In the end, the commission did recommend — by a vote of 8 to 1 — that a municipal consolidation was worth considering. Study commission member and Wantage Township resident Art Jacobs cast the lone dissenting vote while the group’s chairman, Earl Snook, was absent due to an illness. “It doesn’t sound like this is to Wantage’s advantage to do this,” said Jacobs. “I can’t really see where Wantage taxpayers are benefitting.” But the other study commission members believe there’s enough value in a consolidation for residents of the two communities to make that decision. “What was important to me was to give the public an opportunity to vote on whether this has merit,” said study commission member Wayne Dunn. “Separately we will survive (as two independent towns) but together we will do better,” said study commission member Edward Meyer. Not so fast Still, a municipal consolidation between the two towns isn’t a done deal just yet. Before the matter is offered to residents of the two towns on a November ballot, the consolidation study commission will vote a second time in late July or early August to determine whether to recommend a municipal merger based on the amount of aid the state is expected to appropriate towards transitional costs, said Lagattuta. The study commission was required to vote on May 18 under state guidelines, he added. Some projects would be funded According to a report delivered by Lagattuta at the meeting Monday, the state has offered to provide up to $650,000 out of $2 million in transitional funding requested by the consolidation study commission. Some of the approved earmarks would go toward new town logos and signs, new stationery, the deployment of a townwide communications system and for moving and integrating electronic equipment used by the two municipalities. Lagattuta said he was told by New Jersey Department of Community Affairs representative Marc Pfeiffer that a request for $100,000 in severance payments for affected municipal employees might be possible, if needed. The state may also potentially provide $200,000 toward municipal planning costs should a merger occur and up to $300,000 to offset the costs of two new ambulances and a fire truck, said Lagattuta. However, the state said it wouldn’t pay for the construction or modification of a new municipal building since it doesn’t want to get involved in new capital expenses, said Lagattuta. The state is also holding off on granting the two towns some $750,000 in tax re-evaluation funding for now. “We suggested the state reduce our debt load,” said Lagattuta, noting that DCA’s Pfeiffer found the idea “plausible.” “The issue is whether both towns can continue successfully into the future independently or whether they can join as one,” said Lagattuta. Depending on the outcome of the study commission’s next vote, the decision will rest in the hands of Sussex and Wantage residents in November.