Merging neighboring Interlaken and Loch Arbour together will be the sole topic of discussion during a special joint meeting of the two small communities to be held on Wed., Nov. 12.
The meeting, which will begin at 7:30 p.m., is being held in the Allenhurst fire department, Hume Street, since neither other town has a large enough space to handle the expected crowd.
Interlaken will hold its regular Borough Council meeting at 6:45 p.m. on Nov. 12 so the council can then get to the joint meeting. There will be no other council meeting in November due to the general election and the League of Municipalities annual meeting.
Opinions were split on the merger at the Interlaken council meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 15 with some members saying there is no need for a meeting right now, while other said it is the right thing to do.
Loch Arbour submitted an independent fiscal study to Interlaken the day before, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, but the matter has been under discussion for some time.
“To me the next step is a public meeting,” Councilman Keith Miller said.
He said that some residents have raised the issue of possible litigation over the merger.
“That can be addressed at the meeting. The process starts where it starts and ends where it ends,” he said.
”It’s a no harm, no foul situation,” Councilman Robert Napoli said “It’s a people’s choice. It will enable a healthy discussion of the facts and this is, at least, an opportunity to present a case to us.”
Napoli said that more meetings with borough staff and other professionals will probably be needed after the Nov. 12 meeting.
“We need to get it off the table and into a public forum that will be beneficial to the public. We will never get to the facts if we sit at this (council) table and guess,” he said.
Napoli pointed out that the state legislature has passed legislation that urges the merger of small towns, particularly those without their own schools. Neither Loch Arbour or Interlaken have a school.
Councilman Jonathan Cohen said that he doesn’t think a meeting is warranted at this time.
“Loch Arbour already went to Allenhurst and asked them to go to the party- and they said no,” he said.
Councilman William Handerhan said he supports the meeting.
“The meeting is only some (of our) time. Wouldn’t the public be more informed?” he said.
Handerhan said he believes that the Interlaken merger proposal has nothing to do with the previous Allenhurst proposal.
“This has nothing to do with Allenhurst, it has no effect- that’s not what we are trying to do. I think we should have the meeting,” he said.
Handerhan said he also doesn’t understand why this issue has “become so combative.”
“It’s just a meeting and at some point we have to have a start,” he said.
Councilman Mervin Franks said he wants more information.
He also said that that a merger may result in a lawsuit from the Ocean Township Board of Education. Loch Arbour sends its students to the Ocean Township school district.
“I don’t have enough evidence to support a meeting,” he said.
Council President Robert White said he believes the fiscal study is the same that was presented to Allenhurst, only varied to reflect Interlaken.
“They are using the same formula…and we are not Allenhurst,” he said.
White said the report still leaves “a lot of open issues” with him. He said that just receiving a fiscal report is not a mandate to hold a public meeting.
“We should have more (in-house) discussion and the council should come up with the information we need. We should come up with a list of what we are looking for, educate the residents, and have some information,” he said. “I think we need the meeting but we don’t have to rush to the table.”
Mayor Michael Nohilly was absent from the meeting.
During the public session, Loch Arbour Mayor Paul Fernicola said the merger would result in a 24-percent tax decrease for Interlaken property owners for the first 10 years of consolidation- or an estimated annual savings of $2,000.
He said the current fiscal study was prepared solely for Interlaken and that any potential litigation would be paid for by Loch Arbour.
“This (study) was done specifically for Interlaken- it has nothing to do with Allenhurst,” he said. “We need to have an open dialogue so both towns can discuss this in public. That is where this type of dialogue is to take place.”
Fernicola said the joint meeting also gives both towns an opportunity to bring in professionals and, possibly, some state officials.
Some residents attending the Interlaken council meeting said they don’t see any harm in holding the public meeting while others questioned why Allenhurst rejected Loch Arbour’s past proposal and why the borough would want to take on the responsibility of the Loch Arbour Beach Club.
But, in the end, all six council members voted unanimously to approve holding the Nov. 12 meeting. The fiscal study can be viewed at www.Interlakenboro.com.
A merger with an adjacent town is seen as one of the only ways to end Loch Arbour’s high school tax rate.
A proposal to consolidate Loch Arbour with Allenhurst was presented about a year ago but, after much debate and public comment, the Board of Commissioners eventually voted not to pursue the plan for various reasons.
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 about $2 million annually and had 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 was recently costing 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 close to $15,000.