@Issue: Can municipal marriages work?

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Chad Goerner, the former Princeton Township mayor who was the driving force behind the successful consolidation of the Princetons — after six previous consolidation attempts failed — has published a new book, “A Tale of Two Tigers,” that describes how it was done, and what more needs to be done to make it easier for municipal mergers to occur elsewhere in New Jersey. He responded to a number of our questions aimed at better understanding the consolidation process, the pitfalls and the rewards.

 

Princeton had some built-in advantages that made it a better candidate for consolidation than some other communities. It already had a regional school district, planning board, health commission and other joint entities. And the township and the borough shared a common name and a world-class university. How important are any of those things to getting buy-in from public officials and residents? What are the ideal conditions for a successful merger between two towns?

We did have some advantages, namely the regional school district and a history of sharing services. However, I would argue the single, most important factor for success in any shared service or consolidation effort is open-minded elected officials. Without elected officials who are willing to think about innovative, creative solutions, it will be hard for any shared service, regionalization or consolidation effort to move forward. We need elected officials to stop pointing fingers at the state, other towns or other scapegoats and find solutions using the tools that are currently provided for in state law — even if that means they might lose some local control, because in return they will most likely be gaining better services for their residents at a lower cost when they share them with their county or other towns. We also need a state government that is organized and proactive to help foster more municipal shared services and mergers.

In your book you cited a 2007 state law, the Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act, that helped facilitate consolidation efforts in the Princetons. What were the two most important features of that legislation?

The local option law was important for Princeton, because it allowed for a more flexible creation of the study commission. Specifically, the act allows for the apportionment of debt (i.e., each town is responsible for its pre-consolidation debt), service districts, phase-in of consolidation, and neighborhood conservation districts. Many elected officials that I’ve come across think that they would be responsible for the other town’s debt under consolidation, and that’s not the case under the local option law.

Despite the Princetons’ success in achieving consolidation, no other two towns have been able to emulate that success. Are there any towns that have begun the process and seem likely to consolidate in the near term?

The school districts of Lambertville, West Amwell and Stockton consolidated into a single K-12 district in 2014. Mount Arlington and Roxbury have formed a citizen-driven commission (under the aforementioned Local Option Municipal Consolidation Act) and are moving forward with their study. There was also another commission that was formed by citizens of Scotch Plains and Fanwood to study consolidation but they ended up having difficulty gaining funding for their study and the local governments weren’t willing to help them.

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What do you see as the most important impediments to further municipal consolidations in New Jersey?

Essentially, the impediments are at both the local and state levels of government. Locally, elected officials are often the biggest obstacles because they do not want to give up control. This is why you have seen citizen-based efforts in Scotch Plains and Fanwood and Mount Arlington and Roxbury. Many citizens do not know that under the local option law, they have the power to form a consolidation commission and force a referendum. At the state level, we need to have a more proactive and encouraging state government to provide incentives and guidance.

It has been four years since the two Princetons officially became one. Are there any aspects of the consolidation that you may not have anticipated, either positive or negative?

I haven’t seen any negative results and surprisingly additional positives have resulted from consolidation. The gross savings from consolidation have exceeded the consolidation commission’s original estimates and the town has found ways to leverage its real estate assets by relocating a non-profit which it supports to the old Princeton Borough building in lieu of building a new facility for them, savings millions of dollars. Perhaps most important: the town has officially created a historic district in a neighborhood that previously spanned both municipalities and that probably never would have happened with the two towns being separate. The result is that the neighborhood’s character will be preserved, allowing for a diverse town housing stock and encouraging socioeconomic diversity. This is a win that we never would have had if we were separate and it has a real positive impact on the community.

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A group walks on a tour at Princeton University in Princeton. (Photo: AP)

The consolidation vote passed easily in both Princetons, but there were pockets of opposition, particularly from the police departments. Are there any elements of the community that initially opposed the merger that remain opposed?

I believe you will always have residents that were part of the organized opposition who will be opposed to consolidation, but they can’t really argue with the financial results and even more importantly, their fear-mongering was completely unfounded. They worried about losing representation on the new governing body, but in actuality there were more former borough residents on the consolidated governing body. The police in the township were initially opposed, sending a letter to all township residents asking them to vote against consolidation, but the now-consolidated police force is an example for the entire state in terms of its pro-active outreach and efficient and effective delivery of service to the community.

What has the financial and tax impact of the consolidation been? At some point, in terms of the fiscal benefits of the merger, won’t the law of diminishing returns set in?

At the end of 2015, the gross annual savings at full implementation in Princeton was $3.9 million. This is an annual savings and has effectively “lowered the baseline” in the town. The result has been a slower tax growth rate than virtually all towns in Mercer County through the full implementation year of 2015. While the future is an unknown, I believe that the capital savings through shared purchases, shared real estate and the coordination of police services will continue to add significant savings compared to if the towns stayed separate. There are only diminishing returns if one ignores the original benchmark: two separate towns doing the same thing year in and year out and delivering worse service levels. That’s the real benchmark here.

What have been the chief benefits of consolidation other than the financial ones?

The biggest advantages of consolidation aren’t just the initial financial savings from the combination of departments and services. They are unified planning and a single, unified response in service delivery (police, public works) and emergency response. Unified planning allows for improved placement of development within the unified community to encourage development, manage traffic and lessen sprawl. Unified response was critical for the combined Princeton in its response to superstorm Sandy. With Sandy, we were able to marshal our resources more effectively to clear roads and coordinate communication with affected residents. With Hurricane Irene, the year before, the towns operated in a disjointed fashion with mixed results. The contrast under consolidation couldn’t have been more clear. Many of these areas also provide additional savings for the town through shared capital expenditures for public works equipment and improved coordination of real estate resources.

Traditionally, police unions have been one of the biggest impediments to consolidation efforts. What impact has the merger in Princeton had on police department wages, benefits and job security? Were there layoffs in the departments?

We were able to reduce the number of total police in the combined department, saving about $2.1 million per year. We were able to make many of the staff reductions through attrition and retirements, and based on existing state law there were not any significant changes to wages and benefits. Basically, we created a more efficient and more effective police force for our combined towns.

Your book lists a number of things the state should be doing to help facilitate municipal mergers. What are the two most important?

We need financial incentives to encourage towns to look at shared services and consolidation. Not just a handout to fund a study, but payments in a series of phases that encourage towns to actually get through the study and implement the consolidation or shared service. New York State has a Municipal Restructuring Fund that works in this manner and it has been quite successful in getting towns moving on mergers and service sharing. Finally, we need an advisory commission appointed by the governor and working under the Department of Community Affairs to serve the citizens’ commissions that have been formed to study consolidation. This commission could serve to promote consolidation and service sharing and at the same time advise towns that have formed a commission and help them move the effort forward.

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The marriage of the two Princetons has been a happy one that has benefited both partners. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Have you had the ear of any state lawmakers or current gubernatorial candidates about legislation that would facilitate consolidation? Are you in any way optimistic that some of those changes may take place? And do you foresee any other municipal consolidations in the state in the next decade, with or without passage of additional legislation?

The gubernatorial race has been a bit lackluster and has not given me a great deal of optimism that either will effect improvements in shared services or consolidations. Neither of the frontrunners have offered any real plan to address New Jersey’s fiscal mess — and shared services and consolidation are a part of that solution. So far, I think this race leaves the door open for an independent candidate, as it seems many voters are not happy with the current offerings.

In terms of legislation, on Thursday I was on hand to see the Assembly vote on A2921, which will add additional flexibility to consolidations in the future. This bill has had support from both Republicans and Democrats. I believe that Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s S2 bill was initially promising as it provided the commission I had discussed above with the power to force shared services and encourage consolidations. However, the legislation is so watered down now that if a town is sharing animal control, it is exempt from the commission looking at it for shared police or consolidation. We need to be honest with our residents. Significant savings come from police and public works shared services and consolidation (especially school districts). And we need elected officials who are willing to do the right thing for their community in the long term and put aside their short-term ambitions to retain control.

Chad Goerner wrote the original proposal for the two Princetons, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, to form a consolidation and shared services study commission, and he helpd structure the process by researching Princeton’s several previous consolidation failures. Goerner is first vice president — Investments for UBS Financial Services in Princeton.


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