A proposal to consolidate neighboring Loch Arbour and Allenhurst is being sent to state officials for review and possible approval after more than 100 residents from both towns attended a special public hearing on the matter last week and officials approved it.
“We need a binding plan and we need to start the process. (The state) has to have something in their hands to make a qualified decision,” Loch Arbour Deputy Mayor Alfred J. Cheswick said during the Jan. 9 meeting at the Hume Street fire house in Allenhurst.
Loch Arbour officials unanimously voted that night to forward the draft plan to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) while two out of the three Allenhurst Board of Commissioners approved forwarding the plan at this week’s governing body meeting on Tuesday.
Allenhurst Mayor David J. McLaughlin cast the sole dissenting vote against submitting the plan.
McLaughlin said at last week’s public meeting that this is a “monumental moment” for both towns but that he wants the plan to be “methodically and carefully” looked at.
“I think this is a flawed plan and I am disappointed it is being submitted,” he said Jan. 15 after the Allenhurst vote.
He said about 40 residents attended Tuesday’s meeting, with most against consolidation.
“Those in favor of the plan said we should slow down and go through more due diligence,” he said.
Loch Arbour Mayor Paul Fernicola said submitting the plan will now begin the process of getting feedback from the state; however, three critical aspects of the plan must remain unchanged or the consolidation will not move forward.
The three aspects are that Loch Arbour’s ties with the Ocean Township school system end and that Allenhurst will not be forced to regionalize with the school district either.
Also that Loch Arbour is solely responsible to pay off a $5 million payment to Allenhurst to reduce debt and lower taxes through a special tax district comprised only of former Loch Arbour properties; and that any associated costs of the consolidation including litigation, particularly from the Ocean Township school district, be paid solely by former Loch Arbour residents through the special tax district.
“If the DCA changes any of these processes then (the merger) process will end,” he said.
Fernicola said that should Ocean Township decide to legally challenge the consolidation plan and new school formula then it would have to sue the state, not Allenhurst.
Residents were somewhat split on the plan but most seemed to favor submitting it to see what will happen.
Allenhurst Commissioner Christopher McLoughlin said he supports presenting the plan to the state and exploring it further.
“I think it is important we explore this and that’s where I am at. It will never get to a vote if it is not good for the town but I don’t think it’s a risk to submit the plan. Let’s let the rubber hit the road and see what they approve,” he said.
McLoughlin said the plan has the potential to take Allenhurst out of school regionalization forever.
Commissioner Terrence J. Bolan said he also supports submitting the plan.
“I am sure (the state) may change the plan to some degree but we need to find out. I am against just saying no out of hand. This needs to be explored and we need to get started. And we can always pull the ripcord along the way,” he said.
“My fear is that we will paint a bull’s eye on Allenhurst (regarding possible school regionalization) if we refuse (to submit the plan). If we don’t give this the college try then we raise our profile…and the state may try to stick it to us,” Bolan said.
Allenhurst resident Dennis Sternberg said he is against the plan because he feels it is too risky for residents and had no great benefit for Allenhurst.
“People in our town have been protected and I would like to see this put away for good. I think the risks are just too great to roll the dice and then be sorry,” he said.
Former Allenhurst resident Robert Fernicola, who now lives in Loch Arbour, said the risk is greatest if the state tries to regionalize Allenhurst with another school district.
“The state has the power tomorrow to tell all of the kids they have to be regionalized. We now have the opportunity to go to the state and make sure this doesn’t happen to Allenhurst. This is a unique opportunity like we have never had before,” he said.
Loch Arbour resident Marlaina Loushine, who has three school-age children attending in Ocean Township, said that such children may end up being victims under any consolidation.
“They don’t expect their school district to be ripped out from under them. The plan really needs something to help these children or a grandfather clause that says they can continue in Ocean Township. The real losers are these kids,” she said.
In a Dec. 20 letter sent to both Allenhurst and Loch Arbour residents, the governing bodies said that they plan to present a consolidation application to the state Department of Community Affairs for review and possible approval.
The public meeting was held last week to get input from residents of both towns on such a move.
After the application is filed, three public meetings will be held, one in each municipality and a final joint meeting between both towns with state officials attending each meeting.
After the public meetings, the two governing bodies or the state could keep the consolidation plan the same or make some amendments or revisions based on the public input. Either town would also have the option to totally withdraw from the consolidation plan.
If the state eventually approves the plan, then it will be presented to voters in both towns in a binding referendum that would merge the two municipalities.
Under the plan, Loch Arbour would adopt a $5 million bond ordinance that would be paid off over four years through a special taxing district made up of only former Loch Arbour residents. This money would then be given to Allenhurst to reduce taxes and debt.
If the consolidation plan goes through, tax bills in Allenhurst would drop by 21 percent and would remain steady for the next ten years, or from $11,999 to $9,464.
Loch Arbour’s average tax bill would decrease 31 percent in the first four years and then, when the village no longer pays off the $5 million bond, the average tax bill would decrease by 71 percent of what it was in 2013. This plan results in a 2013 tax bill of $21,783 being reduced to $14,899 for the next four years and then dropping to $6,260.
“There would be a significant tax savings for properties in both communities,” said tax consultant Reagan Burkholder at last week’s meeting.
The Loch Arbour municipal building would probably also be sold off to reduce any debt.
Under an agreement to be approved by the state Department of Education, Loch Arbour would cease to exist and its school children would be treated like Allenhurst school-age children, who attend school in Asbury Park or go to private or parochial schools.
The merger with Allenhurst is seen as one of the only ways to end Loch Arbour’s high school tax rate because of Allenhurst’s sending-district relationship with Asbury Park. Allenhurst’s school tax rate is traditionally low because most of its children are privately schooled. Loch Arbour is consolidated district with Ocean Township and sends its children there to be educated.
Loch Arbour residents saw their annual school tax rise by $1.3 million, or to $1.6 million, about four years ago after the state Legislature enacted the School Funding Reform Act.
The village’s school tax bill, now based on property valuation, has risen to just more than $2 million annually and increased village residents taxes by about $15,000 a year on the average home.
Previously Loch Arbour paid a maximum of $300,000 a year to send its children to Ocean Township schools.
It now costs about $98,000 to educate each of the village’s students in Ocean Township schools whereas the actual per pupil cost in the district is around $13,000 per pupil.