By DON STINE
A proposed merger between neighboring Loch Arbour and Allenhurst is moving forward and a public meeting on the issue will be held Thursday, Jan. 9.
“We have made substantial progress,” Loch Arbour Mayor Paul Fernicola said earlier this week.
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.
“This public meeting will determine if we move forward, depending on the feedback we get from residents,” Fernicola said.
The Jan. 9 meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at firehouse on Hume Street in Allenhurst.
If the application is filed, then three public meetings will be held, one in each municipality and a final joint meeting between both towns. The Jan. 9 meeting does not count as one of the three required meetings.
After the public meetings, the two governing bodies could keep their consolidation plan the same or make some amendments or revisions based on more 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. The application calls for this referendum to be held in April.
The merger proposal has been discussed for almost two years. One of the drawbacks to the process, however, was Superstorm Sandy, which left both Allenhurst and Loch Arbour wondering about what reimbursements they would get from insurance and state and federal disaster relief agencies for damage to public property and related costs. Since this amount of money was still unknown, it stood in the way of a joint fiscal impact analysis for both communities.
“But we moved ahead and we did the fiscal impact plan,” Fernicola said
The Dec. 20 letter to residents said some key points in the plan are that Loch Arbour would become property in Allenhurst and the borough would receive the additional tax revenue. The current Allenhurst Board of Commission would not be changed but remain with the same members.
“Loch Arbour would cease to exist and we would become part of Allenhurst,” Fernicola said.
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.
If the consolidation plan goes through, tax bills in Allenhurst would drop by 21 percent and would remain steady for the next 10 years, or from an average tax bill of $12,000 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.
Fernicola said these are estimates and that factors such as inflation and cost of living increases would probably have to be factored in at the time.
Under an agreement 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. Allenhurst is a sending district relationship to Asbury Park. But few borough children go to Asbury Park schools.
Allenhurst’s school tax rate is traditionally low because most of its children are privately schooled. Loch Arbour is a 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.