County officials react to secession possibilities

BERKELEY HEIGHTS — The fact that one of the 21 municipalities in the county is looking into seceding is a topic that raised the ire of county officials, especially freeholders.

It is not as if no one has tried to withdraw from county government before. As recent as ten years ago, six towns in Essex county made a good try, but in the end they did not succeed. On the plus side, the fact the issue became public actually worked in their favor, gaining the ear of county officials who eventually resolved some of the issues that previously could not be resolved.

However, initially Essex County officials reacted negatively towards the move, suggesting these municipalities would not be successful. Union County freeholders reacted similarly, expressing why they felt such a move would not fly in this county.

“There are so many reasons why Union County should stay together the way it is,” said former chairman Al Mirabella, adding that secession is a very difficult process.

Freeholder Dan Sullivan agreed with Mirabella, but brought up how much the county has done for Berkeley Heights over the years. Including not so long ago when this municipality called on the county for their help in preventing the state from riding roughshod over them.

At a freeholder meeting where withdrawing from the county was the topic of conversation, Sullivan explained it was the county that stepped in to help Berkeley Heights oppose a proposed exit on Rt. 78 and Diamond Hill Road.

“We helped halt that project based on Berkeley Heights strong opinion on the issue,” the freeholder said, suggesting any further move to move toward secession was foolish.

“The issue of secession speaks to the kind of silly nature of the whole discussion,” Sullivan said, adding “because at the end of the day, no one is going anywhere.”

The freeholder, who is not running for reelection this year, also pointed out that he felt the county was “an easy target.”
“It comes up all the time and really has no where to go,” Sullivan added.

Freeholder Bruce Bergen, an attorney that is new to the board this year, said yesterday that while he is an elected official, it is difficult to not apply the law in this particular situation.

“Realistically it’s just not going to happen,” he said, but noted the municipality is entitled by law to pursue the matter. Whether they succeed, he said, is an entirely different issue.

“New Jersey law at the state level has very tight control,” he added, pointing out that from a legal standpoint the process has to be difficult or every town would try to withdraw when not in agreement with their county government.
“It would be pandemonium,” Bergen said.

Union County Public Information Director Sebastian D’Elia looked at secession from a local point of view and explained what would happen if secession was easy.
“It would create chaos in municipalities,” he said, explaining the towns would become free agents who would begin to join with like minded municipalities.
“This would cause a collapse of urban municipalities, create a block of wealthy municipalities which would start a chain of events that would undermine local and county government,” D’Elia said.

D’Elia said although many people think it’s the county’s fault that one town is paying high county taxes, it’s a actually the state who sets the rate. The solution?

“It’s time for statewide property tax reform,” he said, adding that the way things are right now “are so misdirected.”
“If towns began trying to withdraw from the county you would have lawsuits from all the towns who have to assume the tax load,” D’Elia said.“Think of the litigation there would be.”