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Sharing A Town Hall? Dumont, Bergenfield Crunching Numbers First

A citizen climbs the steps at Bergenfield's grand old municipal building.
A citizen climbs the steps at Bergenfield's grand old municipal building. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Dumont rents space on West Madison Avenue for its municipal offices these days.
Dumont rents space on West Madison Avenue for its municipal offices these days. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

BERGENFIELD AND DUMONT, N.J. — Bergenfield and Dumont are waiting for the results of independent studies before they resume talks on building a joint municipal complex.

Neither side is saying talks are off the table.  Just that nothing is progressing right now.

"We did conduct a preliminary joint study. Dumont has to make a decision whether or not they’re willing to build on our property," said Bergenfield Borough Administrator Cory Gallo.

"We think it makes good sense and we would like to move forward," he added. "But in order to vet through the process, we have to evaluate our building. It’s close to 100 years old. Any building this old is going to have issues."

Bergenfield officials want to find out exactly what they're faced with regarding repairs.

So they issued a Request For Proposals for an architecture firm to evaluate the situation.

Meanwhile, Dumont officials are waiting on a study they commissioned at the end of December with RSC Architects in Hackensack. They want to know what it would cost to tear down the boroughs' condemned town hall and build a new municipal complex at 50 Washington Ave.

"We want to evaluate having our own municipal complex that would house town hall and the police department," said Dumont Borough Administrator Raymond Herr, noting he wasn't sure where discussions stood on a joint municipal complex.

"No one said they’re not going to do it  (a joint complex) ," Herr said. "But nothing is progressing."

Dumont was forced to close its borough hall after it was condemned by the Bergen County Department of Health Services for unsafe conditions. Herr said he didn't work for the borough at the time.

Bergenfield and Dumont are in the unique position of having town halls just blocks apart.

Dumont already borrows Bergenfield's court and uses the county's health department.

Dumont officials now operate out of rented space on West Madison Avenue. The police department is working out of trailers in the parking lot of the old borough hall.

The preliminary study showed a new, joint complex built at Bergenfield's current town hall site at 198 Washington Ave. would cost about $23.7 million.

"Everyone wants lower taxes but also wants their individuality," said Bergenfield Mayor Norman Schmelz.

"It might take pressure from the state before there's any real action," he added. "It's not easy to deal with 565 distinct individuals."

Courage to Connect NJ hopes to change the mindset of each town standing alone.

Gina Genovese, the organization's founder and executive director, said with 565 municipalities -- 70 in Bergen County alone -- there's too much overlap in services that amount to waste.

"New Jersey is facing a property tax crisis. It takes the average household eight to 10 weeks to pay their taxes and that’s not a great direction to continue in," said Genovese, who spent 11 years as the mayor of Long Hill.

"It should be more about affording New Jersey than keeping your town exactly the way it was for 120 years," she added. "We have to get to a point where we have leaders who have the courage to make change."

Genovese said that since her group formed in 2009, Princeton Township and Princeton Borough were the first municipalities to fully merge in 2013.

"I don't think anyone in either town noticed their town government changed," Genovese said. "People don't go to town hall anymore."

She said as older municipalities face aging, dilapidated buildings, officials have to look to what a municipality's needs will be years down the road.

"We could be looking at a virtual town hall years from now," she said. "We have to be thinking what's next, what's ahead of us, and force our leaders to think in that direction."

Courage to Connect NJ is a support system for governing bodies interested in merging services. Genovese said they get a lot of inquiries but it takes time before anyone takes the plunge.

"It took Princeton four times on the ballot," she said. "It's either the people aren't on board or the governing body isn't."

A merger, even sharing a physical space such as Begenfield and Dumont proposed, goes beyond shared services.

"Shared services can be hard to juggle. You can have four towns sharing one guy," she said, noting in Long Hill, she shared 18 services with neighboring towns.

"It's more efficient when there is the actual merger of departments like DPW and police."

More information can be found about Courage to Connect NJ on its website .

The Bergenfield mayor and council meets again Thursday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m..

The Dumont mayor and council meets again Thursday, Jan. 17 at 6:30 p.m.

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