The South tried to leave the North. Staten Island tried to leave New York City. Quebec tried to leave Canada. Secaucus tried to leave Hudson County.
Lost in the mists of time, Secaucus’ serious late 60’s secession attempt has been largely forgotten. However, the reasons for the secession attempt still resonate with local residents. In many ways, Secaucus still feels itself to be a town apart from Hudson County.
Separate identity confirmed by Bergen links
There are many ways in which an outside observer could confuse Secaucus with its more suburban western neighbor, Bergen County, rather than with densely urbanized Hudson County. Secaucus’ streets are tree-lined, not skylined. Most people live in houses, not apartment buildings or two-family homes. Cars are parked in personal garages, not parking garages.
This suburban sensibility creeps into practical reality. Secaucus’ scholastic sports teams, cable television channel system, and public library are all linked to Bergen County, not Hudson.
Paul Amico, Secaucus’ mayor from 1964 to 1992, remembers the issues that led the town to try to make appearances reality.
“When you looked at the budget back in the mid-1960’s, a very large portion went to the county,” he said. “The budget situation was very tough. We weren’t getting any new ratables right away, so homeowners would have to pick up the tab. We had to hunt around to see what we could do for the town.”
One of the first things that the Amico administration tried to do for the town was file a lawsuit so that Secaucus would not have to pay funds to Hudson County to support the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City.
“The county had no right to use county funds to supplement the hospital,” Amico said. “We won a victory on that matter. It became no longer an allowable thing.”
Encouraged by this success, Amico began to look across the Hackensack River.
“The makeup of Secaucus is very much unlike most of Hudson County,” he said. “It’s much more like Bergen County. We did some analysis about what taxes were like in other counties, and Bergen County had the lowest. Bergen County would have accepted us back in 1969. They liked the fact that we were predominantly independents at that time, and Bergen County was Republican. We had a non-binding resolution that approved secession by 90 percent. But looking back on the situation, it didn’t take much for us to realize that it was never going to happen.”
Bergen dream derailed
Amico detailed some of the reasons why Secaucus’ secession attempt fizzled out.
“There were a lot of complications involved,” he said. “We have a lot of county institutions along County Avenue. There were sewer lines and services to be split up. But if we decided that we were going to Bergen County, Jersey City, North Bergen or Kearny would have wanted to go there too, all for economic reasons. That’s not going to happen. Nobody in the state Assembly was going to pick up the ball.”
Florence Rainone, 77, was born and raised in Secaucus. She remembers Secaucus’ famous pig and vegetable farms, as well as the demise of the farms following the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike in the late 1940’s.
An influx of Hoboken natives into Secaucus in the 1960’s led to further changes, including an infusion of Italian-Americans into what had been a primarily German and Polish town. For Rainone, development and demographic shifts aren’t what led her to sit on a town secession committee after being appointed by Mayor Amico.
“It was Hudson County government that really got us going,” she said. “We knew we were starting to have higher ratables, so therefore we were going to pay through the nose for everything. We got no break at all. In Secaucus, we felt that we had to get out of this county. Hudson County was the most corrupt county, and it still is. Our contributions to the Meadowlands Commission also played into it. We were getting no benefits, and Bergen County was right next door. Parts of Bergen County, like Carlstadt, Lodi, Lyndhurst, and North Arlington, are not even as nice as Secaucus.”
Rainone was clear in her feelings as to why Secaucus was ultimately unable to walk out the door on Hudson County.
“The Democrats had enough votes in the Assembly to stop it, and the Hudson County Democrats had an awful lot of clout back then and even now. They deliver more votes.”
Could it happen again?
One prominent Hudson County Democrat spoke about the chances of Secaucus ever trying to secede again in the future.
“In 2006, there is no reason for Secaucus to leave Hudson County,” said Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. “If you were to look at Secaucus’ standing in the county with regard to ratables, our county tax rate has actually been going down. Also, rumors of secession have never led to results anywhere in the state of New Jersey. Communities from Essex County, Camden County, and even Bergen County would love to secede and go to a county with fewer problems, but this will never happen. More importantly, towns need to work with county government and attempt to control expenses and find ways to finance better services. Quite frankly, I’m not so sure that Secaucus would have a tax benefit by being in Bergen County anymore. Right now, taxes are lower in Secaucus than they are in Bergen County. I don’t know what the advantage would be. After all, we can’t pick up Secaucus and carry it across the river. I don’t think that secession is a practical solution to problems.”
However, former Mayor Amico wasn’t so sure.
“Anything is possible,” he said. “There is still a hold-over of anti-county feeling in Secaucus.”
Florence Rainone agrees. Her role in the Secaucus secession movement led to her becoming interested and involved in local politics. She served for 12 years on the Secaucus school board and ran for town council. She seemed ready to jump into the fray once again.
“You might be able to get secession passed faster than getting rid of double-office holding in this state,” she said. “I’m afraid that they’re going to try to merge our fire department into the North Hudson Fire Department. I can’t see that. We’re too far away. I don’t want anything to do with Hudson County, and I think that most people would feel that way. I’d like to see us try to secede again. We’re either going to wind up like Hoboken, or going downhill. It could go either way. In the meantime, we don’t want to share expenses with you. Leave us alone.”