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.