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Tensions High at Fanwood Hearing on Consolidation

Residents voice concerns about petitions, representation in hearing.

Tension ran high in the second hearing of a potential consolidation study as Fanwood residents questioned the petition process and voiced concerns about the grassroots organization that submitted an application for consolidation between the borough and Scotch Plains.

The hearing, which was held as per requirement of the application, ran more than two hours as more than 70 people filled a room at 200 Forest Road to discuss whether or not consolidation would help or hinder Fanwood.

The hearing was mediated by Assistant Director of Local Government Services Christopher Vaz who attempted to organize a meeting filled with outbursts. The meeting was led by a panel made up of members of Courage to ReConnect Scotch Plains-Fanwood, the state branch, and Princeton Mayor Chad Goerner, who recently consolidated his township with Princeton Borough.

Any comment in support of consolidation — of which there were few — were met with skepticism as residents asked if Fanwood’s interests were considered in the petition process, and why the borough would begin consolidation while it is currently in negotiations with Scotch Plains for shared services for the police department to save costs.

But Gina Genovese of Courage to ReConnect reiterated several times throughout the meeting that the hearing was purely to discuss the option of a consolidation study — a $50,000 to $75,000 report that would be funded through ReConnect’s Scotch Plains-Fanwood chapter. Consolidation would not be up for vote until a thorough investigation.

“We are not forcing consolidation,” she said. “It should be organic."

Genovese cited Princeton as an example of a successful consolidation—a process that took almost 18 months to implement. Princeton is currently in a transition phase, with the full consolidation to take place in January 2013.

Goerner of Princeton said residents voted to consolidate after decades of discussion, and the result has given Princeton approximately $3.4 million in annual savings thanks to shared services, elimination of duplication and shared equipment. He said that Princeton township and borough was the first such consolidation in the country.

Goerner admitted there were unanticipated costs associated with the merger, as well as some concerns with town identity, but, overall, he said he is pleased with the result.

In Scotch Plains and Fanwood, the expected savings per year is $2 million, said Fred Lange, founder of Courage to ReConnect Scotch Plains-Fanwood, with $200,000 savings in Fanwood’s budget. This means a savings of $125 per household in Fanwood a year.

By adding the towns' population together to equal approximately 30,000, the towns will be eligible for more state funding and grants that they weren’t previously, Goerner said.

Those numbers, some residents said, should be the selling point of the consolidation petitions, which residents complained didn’t circulate throughout the borough, and representation on the Re-connect board, they said, missed dedicated Fanwood persons.

Lange said he had difficulty finding volunteers to distribute petitions, at which the room erupted in defense of Fanwood’s mobilizing efforts, with residents saying that if the cause was presented to them and they believed in it, they would rally.

There are five members from Fanwood on the ReConnect board – a volunteer organization meant to distribute petitions – even though only one board member was at the meeting.

That raised red flags as residents cried that the grassroots organization has no ties to Fanwood and does not represent the borough’s best interest. Residents also questioned the effect of the merger on the borough’s identity, reassessment processes, and tax levels as well as Scotch Plain’s role, as that town seems largely in favor of the consolidation.

There were 354 petitions signed in Fanwood, satisfying the 10 percent requirement of Fanwood residents needed for the application to be accepted. The application will be presented in front of the local finance board.

If the requirements are met, the next step will be to establish a 10-person consolidation committee to analyze the study conducted to help the public understand the savings that may or may not occur. After the study is completed, a voting referendum will be issued and the people will decide whether or not to consolidate.

The ReConnect board as well as the mayors from each of the towns would appoint those positions.

Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr joined in the meeting, along with members of the borough council, to show her disapproval of the consolidation efforts, saying that the borough has been in talks to create a shared service agreement between Scotch Plains and Fanwood that will save the borough money. Twenty-six percent of the budget is allocated to police, she said.

“We would react if we felt this for years,” she said, with her comments ending in a round of applause. “There was no dialogue about the consolidation, no dialogue about the petition process. I can be painted as anti-this, but I am supposed to represent the will of the voter.” 

Residents agreeing with Mahr included Donna Goldstein who advocated for the finance board to “nip this in the bud” as the borough focuses on the shared service agreement. Goldstein said that the borough could revisit consolidation in the future if deemed necessary.

Mentioned at the meeting was a non-scientifc Patch poll on consolidation that, as of July 10, showed support for the consolidation across the two towns, with 301 of 559 reader votes (53%) being cast in support of a merger. Twenty-two percent (124 voters) said they were absolutely opposed to such a merger, and 134 voters — or 23% — said they'd like to hear more about the proposal. The poll is still active and can be found

The third and final public hearing in the series will be at 7:30 p.m. on July 16 at the Scotch Plains Town Council Chambers. 

Michael Lewis July 11, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Someone used another example last night, but if size were the only measure of good governance Staten Island (my counter to Ms. Genovese's Woodbridge) would be paradise by the Arthur Kill. Mr. Goerner remarked that - were any anticipated savings from a consolidation not achieved - the answer would be to vote the elected politicians out. If THAT were so easy to do, the problem might not exist to the extent that it does in the first place (to say nothing of the State Supreme Court, which is a major unelected cost driver).
bgporter July 11, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Michael -- sorry that I didn't get to say howdy at the meeting last night. With all due respect here, the argument you're making (whether Staten Island or Newark as was mentioned last night) is a classic strawman -- unless I've missed something, no one at all has suggested that it's true that larger municipalities are in and of themselves better. In general, I'd say that the evening overall was notable for its xenophobia, sloppy thinking, and logical fallacies (my personal favorite, paraphrased: we should oppose any efforts to create a study that would create a cost/benefit analysis because there is no study that already indicates significant benefits. If you look in the photos above you'll see my evident discomfort at the cognitive dissonance I was dealing with). A question that I haven't heard asked yet that you probably understand better than I. We know that the largest part of our local taxes are sent straight to the school district. We also know that Fanwood and Scotch Plains pay those taxes at different rates according to a formula that bounces off my head when I try to understand it. As a consolidated town, how would that portion of Fanwood's tax bill be affected? My understanding is that Fwd currently pays more per assessed property value than SP does. I look forward to reading future Patch stories about this, but I see no reason to attend any more of these meetings.
FanwoodMom July 11, 2012 at 03:01 PM
“We are not forcing consolidation,” she said. “It should be organic." If the residents of both towns vote in favor of a consolidation, then and only then will I believe that consolidation was organic.
Holden MaGroin July 11, 2012 at 05:57 PM
I'm Holden MaGroin and I believe I might have said "hello councilman Marcus" to bgporter last night. Was that you in the maroon shirt? I'm very sorry to both you and the councilman if I made a fo paw.
bgporter July 11, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Maroon indeed. Sorry for the missed connection.
Holden MaGroin July 11, 2012 at 07:31 PM
Now don't take this as an attempt at courtin, but that teenie little picture when you post had me thinking that you had an older Martin Mull thing going on. I just clicked your photo to enlarge it, hoh boy, do I need glasses. I'm too sorry for not recognizing you. Perhaps I will develop the courage, and you the stomach to attempt one last merger meeting. I mean the towns merger for all you rude thinking people.
haljalikea kick July 11, 2012 at 08:00 PM
A few things became clear at this meeting 1. Seems Fanwood residents are not being adequately informed or represented - most indivuals that spoke were known Fanwood community leaders or frequent volunteers New comers always welcomed but not when they claim to be speaking for the majority of residents & no one seemed to know who any of the Fanwood Courage to ReConnect members were - only one was present. 2. No one,not even CTRC ,Mr Lange knows how/who will pay the possible $75K study fee? 3. Princeton Mayor claims consolidation cost exceeded their original anticipated amount, a few numbers were thrown around, so I would not want to misquote , but where would SPF try to recoup any of the possible excess in consolidation costs? Article on CTRC website states Princeton University gave $500K to help their town& borough consolidate . 4. Most of SPF local taxes are spent on school budget or sent to Union county, we are already working on combining police forces. Why not just finish with sharing services ?
FanGuy462 July 11, 2012 at 08:40 PM
"BG" for all the cognitive dissonance you were forced to deal with, your well thought out comments to the panel and audience members was enlightening.
I don't want a kick July 11, 2012 at 08:54 PM
I was at the meeting a few weeks ago that was held in Scotch Plains. The Fanwood attorney said something to the effect that the Courage to Re-connect people are not involved volunteers in the community and questioned their intent because of their lack of prior involvement. I now see something similar being written in the comment above. I have a couple of questions and a comment. My question is are we paying the attorney for his time at this meeting? If we are, for what purpose does the town's paid lawyer need to be at this meeting? My comment concerns the now twice referenced phrase relating to known people or frequent volunteers. Because someone has been more active than another, does that give them more of a right or say in their town? I expect to be shouted down by all the defenders of the volunteers and I am not diminishing their impact or contributions. But does that mean they can have more of a say in "nipping this in the bud". If the money for the study is not there, no going forward. If the people vote it down, no going forward. Because the most known active people in town might lose power, NOT a reason for no go forward.
Valerie Dalton July 11, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Some very good insight from posters on this article and the meeting itself. It seems readily apparent that the most vocal opposition to seeing this process move forward is coming from Fanwood; in particular Fanwood elected and professional officials. There are those in Fanwood who have already made up their minds on the potential full consolidation and will do everything possible to see that this never gets to a vote of the citizens in both communities. I suppose that those who have already made up their minds that consolidation is a bad ideaI have nothing to gain by allowing the citizens to vote because from their standpoint nothing good can come from such a vote. That being said, I truly wonder what is movtivating these Fanwood elected and professional officials in their opposition. Is it true concern for the community they represent, or could it be something else? I for one am comforted in the thought that when all is said and done, it won't be the elected or professional officials making the final call on consolidation, but rather the citizens at the ballot box.
Jeff July 11, 2012 at 10:25 PM
All residents have an equal right to their opinion. Looks like folks are suspicious when 'strangers' not know by the community are suddenly taking it upon themselves to speak for the community. That does seem odd. It's common sense that as children we are taught, not to trust strangers. If community folks we know and trust are unsure about this, it makes sense that we all proceed with caution. This might be the best idea since sliced bread but it also could be another dead end waste of time and maybe our money too.
John Harvey July 12, 2012 at 12:53 AM
I was in favor of consolidation years ago. Now I think we should stop all shared services between Fanwood and Scotch Plains including the school district. Let Fanwood be on its own. Scotch Plains should focus an developing partnerships with other towns in Union County. BTW I think that Scotch Plains would be the big loser in the consolidation as the tax mill rate would go up for SP residents.
haljalikea kick July 12, 2012 at 11:47 AM
I do not know about the Fanwood attorney. But Yes- I believe community leaders do have 'more of a right' to speak on behalf of the community that elected them. After hearing about this petition that A lot of residents never even saw, nor signed, you would expect at this meeting , this unknown group of Fanwood residents would be present. If you are claiming to represent the majority of Fanwood and you are not usually involved in community events, then you should have attended this meeting that was advertised to be open to all SPF residents but specifically for Fanwood residents. It would have seemed less 'suspicious'. It is wonderful when more residents step up to help as volunteers. I am just wondering where CTRC looked for volunteers since most of the frequent ones in this town were not asked to help?
bgporter July 12, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Sorry, but I find that idea that we're all equal but the little private club of 'community leaders' is a little more equal to be too Animal Farm for my tastes. It was made very clear by the Donna Dolces and George Weisses of the crowd that if they didn't recognize you, you didn't have much right to be there. (I was also confused when Ms Dolce insisted that she knew 90% of the people in the room, but Mr Weiss accused the organizers of busing people in for the meeting. Also sad that he refused to cover the event for channel whatever it is. Has SPTV been covering the CTRC meetings that have been occurring there?)
Michael Lewis July 12, 2012 at 02:11 PM
@ bgporter et al: Sorry for not coming back yesterday. A couple of points: 1) My point about Staten Island was a bit of shorthand for the argument I have been making all along, and which I will argue passionately: The discussion about consolidation should be about more than dollars and cents...points about transparency, accountabilty, responsiveness / ownership of issues, competence, and communication are every bit as important as cost. Mr. Goerner was entirely too glib about the ease with which people can be voted out if expectations are not met, and even competent people occasionally overreach. I believe vigilence is easier on a smaller scale, as are involvement and a broader sense of community which is why we are all here in the first place. 2) So long as someone else is paying for the study, I do not much care if it is done. I do not think it will do more than update the Mason study (police / DPW with other savings being marginal). My concern here is that the process builds up a momentum of its own to the extent that the other points get drowned out. Which is why... 3) Trust in the petitioning process is so important. I actually was approached by an SP Resident I knew and respected about this (could not find a good reason to sign) but I got the sense that there were many who were not. I truly wish there were more of the Fanwood CTRC people there the other night just to explain how they approached people about this. (cont'd...)
Michael Lewis July 12, 2012 at 02:33 PM
(...cont'd) 4) With significant extraneous costs out of our control (PARSA flow-throughs) or outside of the cap (a point about which Mr. Goerner was also too glib), I am also afraid that this potential consolidation is but a first step on longer road. Ms. Genovese seems comfortable with this - I am not. 5)) The point being raised about property tax revaluation is an interesting one. I had asked an (innocent) about the ramifications on flowthroughs to the County Open Space Trust Fund (other towns were getting hit hard by this) and it turned out that a) it has not been done in Fanwood for quite awhile, b) no one seemed happy with the idea. I suspect that this is one area that will have to be explored in depth should this proceed. 6) I do a better job of explaining YTY differences in the school tax rate between SP and Fanwood than I do explaning how equalized property valuations are calculated in the first place - saw an explanation once and my eyes glazed over.
I don't want a kick July 12, 2012 at 02:45 PM
I agree with bgporter and that is the reason for my original posting. haljalikea kick said "I am just wondering where CTRC looked for volunteers since most of the frequent ones in this town were not asked to help?". My guess is that this is precisely the reason they weren't asked. Look at the history of this starting with the Fanwood mayor and council changing the police chief's title from acting to permanent within a week of the first public discussions on sharing services. No way, no how does the mayor want this. I'm guessing that we're paying an attorney to be at these night meetings so that the mayor may find a legal loop hole to stop this asap.
firedup49 July 12, 2012 at 05:40 PM
Again,Thank you Fanwoodians, people that refused to be bamboozled, by any one. I attended all the meetings and the one last night, there were all good questions. As one poster commented and called you xenophobia, sloppy thinking. I would define it as buyer beware verifying the facts and information. Anyone can say I will save taxes, how many times have we heard that.
FanGuy462 July 12, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Mr. Porter, once again I am confused by your post. Ms. Dolce never said that if they didn't recognize you, you didn't have much right to be there. Furthermore, Mr. Weiss’ only point when he made the bussing comment was that he felt that individuals who were stepping up to speak should simply identify themselves fully, which is the custom at town council meetings. I am not really clear on why you are trying to spin this a different way. Also, I would hope in the future that you are more vocal at the meeting rather than slamming people from the comfort and safety of your home.
Quiet one in the corner July 13, 2012 at 12:24 AM
I was there and Mr Weiss accused people there of being ringers if I remember correctly with the mayor laughing right along. He also said that since he didn't know them and he runs the Fanwood TV station, he wouldn't record the meeting. Ms. Dolce (and not Ms Golldstein as reported in the article) did say she wanted to nip this in the bud and why aren't the usual volunteers involved? Mr Porter is not spinning this, his comment is what I observed as well. It would be nice to review the tape, but our known volunteers didn't feel it was worthy I guess.

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