Legislation to permit fire district mergers scheduled for Assembly vote

Legislation to permit fire districts to merge is up for a vote before the full New Jersey Assembly this week.

Assembly Bill 3006 would permit fire districts in two or more towns to merge if the board of fire commissioners in each district approves a resolution to do so, as well as the governing bodies of the respective towns. The bill also would permit multiple fire districts in a single municipality to merge if the commissioners and governing body approve the consolidation.

The bill was written by Assemblymen Herb Conaway, D-7th of Delanco, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, last year after Edgewater Park and Beverly expressed an interest about merging their districts.

Edgewater Park has no active fire companies, so the fire district contracts with Beverly to provide protection. Under the current contract, the Edgewater Park district was to pay $278,524 for the 2015 calendar year, according to the district’s budget.

When officials from the two districts investigated merging, they discovered that New Jersey law provided no path for districts to consolidate, even those in the same town.

Conaway and Singleton said their bill would not force any mergers, but would provide a way for districts to consolidate if elected officials choose to pursue it.

Under their bill, once the boards of commissioners approve pursuing a merger, the town or towns involved would be required to prepare a plan that includes a first-year budget for the consolidated district as well as details about how assets and debts will be reapportioned.

The bill requires that a public hearing on the proposed merger be held after the consolidation plan is completed. After the hearing, the governing bodies of the towns involved would be required to vote on a resolution to consolidate the districts.

Unlike a municipal merger, a voter referendum would not be required.

If approved by the governing bodies, the districts would merge following the next fire district election, during which new commissioners for the consolidated district would be elected.

The bill was advanced out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week and is scheduled to be voted on by the full Assembly during its voting session Thursday afternoon.

Conaway and Singleton said permitting fire districts to merge was a way to reduce costs and control property taxes. Burlington County is home to 18 fire districts in 15 towns. Bordentown Township, Chesterfield and Moorestown have two districts each.

“Allowing fire districts to consolidate is a means of reducing costs for municipalities, which ultimately benefits taxpayers,” Conaway said in a statement. “The voluntary, streamlined and transparent procedure for which this bill calls will help districts navigate the consolidation process.”

“Fire district consolidation will yield long-term savings for taxpayers. This legislation will lend some direction to municipalities and those districts that believe this is the best direction for them to take,” Singleton said.

To become law, the bill must be approved by the Assembly and Senate. The governor also must sign it.

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