Many said it couldn’t be done. However, in November 2011, 61 percent of Princeton Borough residents and a whopping 85 percent of Princeton Township residents voted to consolidate into one town known simply as Princeton, effective in 2013.
The referendum passed with the promise of more than $3 million in annual cost savings, expanded services and a more effective and responsive local government. After three years, it’s become clear that the new town called Princeton has achieved all of this and more — providing a model for the state and spurring other efforts to rein in the state’s layers of government.
In 2010, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township started a consolidation and shared services commission to evaluate the feasibility and desirability of either sharing police and/or public works or merging the two towns entirely. At the end of their work they recommended fully merging the two towns and transitioning to optimal staffing levels at the end of the third year. This would result in annual savings beginning in 2013 of about $1.4 million and rising to about $3.2 million in 2015, the third and final transition year. Would it work?
At the end of the three-year transition in 2015, the estimated gross savings from consolidating were $3.9 million, better than consolidation commission estimates. In the years prior, the town has tracked higher savings than the commission estimate as well. Consolidation savings have undoubtedly contributed to the slowing of the tax growth rate among its peers in Mercer County:
These savings are primarily from staffing reductions by eliminating redundant positions but they have also saved in other areas that aren’t fully quantifiable but clearly tangible. Princeton has optimized re-using its real estate assets and has allowed a government-supported nonprofit to repurpose a municipal building no longer housing governmental staff, saving millions by not having to acquire new space. Princeton negotiated a long-term agreement with Princeton University that provides a higher annual in-lieu of taxes contribution to the combined town than when the towns were separate and it renegotiated union contracts, providing additional budget relief and sustainability.
While savings are an important benefit of consolidation, enhancing services and creating a more responsive government are often overlooked benefits. Princeton now has a much improved response in clearing roads from storms and managing crisis weather events. It has established Access Princeton, a department that exists to be the one stop for “All Things Princeton” and serves as an effective one-stop communication department to help serve residents.
Princeton is on the right track and additional savings may be gleaned through staff attrition in future years. The towns had tried to consolidate virtually every decade since the 1950s, and the 2011 vote was not only historic but also proved that it can be done with the right combination of leadership and community involvement.
Princeton’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. The state Senate recently passed legislation to make consolidation more feasible for more communities in the state. Last week, the bill passed out of an Assembly committee and will hopefully come to a full Assembly vote shortly for the governor’s signature.
Towns like Mount Arlington and Roxbury are exploring consolidation, and the state has set aside funds to help pursue the opportunity. Others like Chester Borough and Chester Township are looking to glean results from their previous study. There’s clearly momentum, but it will take a true movement to continue the progress of reining in multiple layers of government and inefficiency that hamper savings and service delivery of local governments.
Why aren’t more towns looking to consolidate or share costly departments like police? Locally, many elected officials find it politically expedient to point fingers and fear monger to quell any questions about why they aren’t sharing police or looking to find efficiencies by working with another town or towns. The League of Municipalities, the main lobbying organization for local towns, has always shied away from promoting consolidation — mainly because its members are in the “Mayor for Life” club and don’t want to lose their grip on their own home rule. Princeton has proved that it’s not only possible but that it is a model for more sustainable, responsive government. It’s time for our local officials to get some courage.
Chad Goerner is the former and last mayor of Princeton Township, and a lead architect of Princeton’s consolidation effort. He is also a board member of CourageToConnectNJ, a nonprofit that aims to encourage and empower towns to find more efficient ways to run local government.