In a state known for its small municipalities, the smallest of the small are two Camden County boroughs that don't have enough residents between them to fill a school bus.
Tavistock (population 8) and Pine Valley (population 19) are historic relics, golf clubs posing as towns. Each has a mayor and borough commissioners, a clerk, solicitor, tax assessor, tax collector and school district, though neither has any schools. Pine Valley even has a police force of seven.
New Jersey, home of the nation's highest property taxes, is contemplating consolidating some of its 566 municipalities, 616 school districts and 486 local authorities to try to save money. Gov. Corzine has urged voluntary mergers and service-sharing, while some legislators are calling for mandatory consolidations.
The issue returns to center stage in Trenton today as the Senate is scheduled to consider a bill to establish a commission to recommend which local governments should be consolidated.
Twenty-six municipalities in New Jersey have fewer than 1,000 residents and an additional 49 have fewer than 2,000 residents. (After Tavistock and Pine Valley, the smallest municipality is Walpack Township in Sussex County, with 35 people, followed closely by Teterboro in Bergen County, an industrial community adjacent to Teterboro Airport, with 50 residents.)
In South Jersey, some of the other smallest municipalities are Cape May Point (241 residents) and West Wildwood (448) in Cape May County; Fieldsboro (522), Washington Township (621) and Wrightstown (748) in Burlington County; Hi-Nella (1,029) and Audubon Park (1,102) in Camden County; and Newfield (1,616) in Gloucester County.
The towns are so small they often have trouble finding enough candidates to run for school board or borough council, and most of their school districts exist only to send students to out-of-town schools. But they are as protective of their domains as any metropolis.
Leaders of 14 small towns and school districts rallied in Metuchen earlier this month against the efforts to compel merged services.
"I don't see where we'd save anything" by consolidation, said John Ott Jr., who spent 18 years as mayor of Pine Valley and is now one of three borough commissioners. "What would we lose? Our independence. And name me one place where big government is efficient."
The state's tiniest two towns are early 20th century creations, both focused on the golf courses that are their raisons d'etre. But in other ways, they're very different.
Pine Valley Borough, created in 1929, is home to Pine Valley Golf Club, whose course is often rated the best in the world. In fact, Pine Valley Borough is Pine Valley Golf Club. Only the 1,000-plus golf club members are allowed to own one of the 22 homes in town, and the only way to get to be a member is to be invited. The only road into town is unmarked.
Tavistock Borough, by contrast, is a bustling place, because its country club is a favorite venue for banquets, weddings and meetings for neighboring communities. Much of Tavistock's appeal is that it serves liquor, while nearby Haddonfield, Collingswood and Haddon Heights don't. The borough was created in 1921, carved out of Haddonfield by golfers who wanted to dodge the borough's ban on Sunday golfing.
New Jersey had a boom in new towns in the early 20th century, as growing townships were sliced into smaller fiefdoms, with their own governments and schools. At least 97 of New Jersey's municipalities were incorporated between 1900 and 1930.
"We do need to start looking at some of our smaller communities . . . because services could be provided in a more efficient manner," said Camden County freeholder director Louis Cappelli Jr. But he noted that "once they're established, it's hard to get them to go away."
Assemblyman Robert Gordon, a Democrat from Fair Lawn who was a member of the joint legislative committee on consolidation, said little towns such as Pine Valley and Tavistock had to be willing to consolidate or share services or property tax relief is a pipe dream.
"If we continue on the course we're on, New Jersey will become unaffordable for a lot of people," Gordon said. He said he remained "cautiously optimistic" the Legislature would pass measures to give towns incentives to consolidate. But he said he recognized there were "major impediments."
"Which police chief gives up his job? Which fire chief? Which mayor?"
Cappelli said Tavistock and Pine Valley were not typical examples of small municipalities because of their golf course connections. He said, though, he saw "no reason for Pine Valley to have its own police force . . . that makes no sense."
Efforts at consolidation are a tough sell, because local communities of any size, are loath to lose their control, independence or identity. The last successful merger of two municipalities in New Jersey was in 1952. Cappelli said, "New Jersey residents want to maintain their local identity while reducing government spending. And without sharing services, it's hard to achieve property tax relief."
Pine Valley, with property valued at $34 million, collected $552,680 in taxes last year, about 80 percent of that from the golf club. It spent $411,907, with its biggest expense a police force of four full-time and three part-time officers. Its school district is responsible for five students, who attend nearby parochial and public schools. The deputy borough clerk - a former manager of the golf club - doubles as the school board secretary and the special-education coordinator. The borough received $94,470 in state aid, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.
The police force is necessary, Ott said, to protect the golf course from vandalism and to look after homes that sit empty when residents winter in Florida.
Tavistock, whose property is valued at $16.5 million, collected $255,044 in taxes last year. It had a municipal budget of $107,800, and received $44,153 in state aid, according to the state Department of Community Affairs. Its school district has one student, who attends Haddonfield schools. Tavistock paid Haddonfield $16,195 for police, fire and other services.
Tavistock's longtime mayor is George Buff 3d, scion of the founding family of Penny Plate Inc., a pie-plate manufacturer in Cherry Hill. His fellow commissioners are fellow country club member John Aglialoro and club greenskeeper Thomas Grimac. Buff did not return phone calls.
"They're a part of our community, even though they maintain their own identity," Haddonfield Mayor Letitia Colombi said. "They pay us a stipend for police and fire, their sewage goes through our sewer lines."
George Wolf, the general manager of the country club and a former Tavistock resident and borough commissioner, said that "if other boroughs were able to do what we do, combine and share services, it would be more efficient. If they all have to have their own police and fire forces, it becomes expensive. Why can't they consolidate forces to eliminate layers of service?"
Cappelli said some other small municipalities were also sharing services; he cited the merger of police forces by Collingswood and Woodlynne and by Audubon and Audubon Park. In Ocean County, Long Beach Township provides police dispatching services for Beach Haven borough.
But most New Jersey municipalities, of all sizes, have shown little interest in consolidating. Pine Valley's Ott said small towns weren't likely to go away: "We like it this way."
Even as he defended the little borough's independence, though, Ott complained of the cost of state-mandated requirements.
"There's too much government in New Jersey," he said.