Morris Township plans to merge its municipal court with four other towns to save money. Can mergers with Morristown be far behind?
“The Township is always looking at shared services, if it would benefit the Township,” Township Administrator Tim Quinn said on Friday.
Already, Morristown and the Township share a school district, library and zip code. Because the Township encircles Morristown, police and firefighters from the Township often must traverse the “hole in the doughnut” to answer calls. Why not just merge these services with Morristown?
Melding police departments would be “a difficult task,” according to Tim, the Township’s former police chief. Starting with something smaller, like recreation programs, might make sense, he suggested.
“We’re always open to that kind of conversation,” said Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty. “I exhaust all avenues when looking to save taxpayers money and still provide great services.”
If the state Superior Court grants its blessing, the Township’s municipal court will move to Madison by Jan. 1, 2014, in a joint arrangement including both Chathams and Harding.
By eliminating its court personnel–four people including Municipal Judge Robert Nish–the Township expects to save taxpayers upwards of $120,000 a year in salaries and benefits.
Court operating costs for the other participating towns would be reduced by adding the Township to the mix, Tim said. Some Township court employees might be re-hired for the regional operation, he noted.
Morris Township’s committee approved the court merger this week with three “yes” votes. Committeemen Dan Caffrey and Bruce Sisler abstained.
An escape clause in the four-year deal was the clincher, said Township Mayor Peter Mancuso.
“We have the ability with six months’ notice to get out of the joint court. If we are not getting the return we hoped for, we can start over,” Mayor Mancuso said. And potential mergers with Morristown? “I see nothing on the horizon,” he said.
Overtures about merging courts were made a few years ago by Morristown Administrator Michael Rogers, who said he got no response from his prior counterpart in the Township.
Nor were there any Township inquiries to Morristown before Madison was chosen, Michael said. Because Morristown’s municipal court is so busy–the busiest in Morris County, he believes–moving it to Madison is not an option. Rather, Morristown would like to welcome a neighboring town to share its courtroom, Michael said.
Municipalities around the state, meanwhile, are closely watching the progress of Princeton, which consolidated Princeton Borough and Princeton Township this year.
The same idea has received casual mention around Morristown and Morris Township over the years. But serious differences have kept consolidation from gaining traction.
Morristown split from the Township in 1895 and is a Democratic enclave with sizable minority populations. The Township is solidly Republican. Morristown is home to many shops, restaurants, and tax-exempt houses of worship. Traditionally, the Township has had a more residential flavor and enjoyed lower property taxes.
These neighbors have tried shared arrangements before. The Township opted out of the Colonial Coach bus service for seniors in 2010, citing budget constraints. Last year, Morristown ended a combined animal control program because of operational differences.
Separately, Morristown and the Township farmed out their police dispatching to Morris County, saving substantial costs of communication gear and personnel.
Both municipalities now are exploring how to extend a sidewalk across their border on James Street.
“We’ve done projects together in the past,” Michael Rogers said. “This isn’t new for us.”