By Liz Lempert
Local governments everywhere are faced with a tough challenge: how to manage increasing costs — especially for health care and pensions — without cutting back on important services or burdening residents with always-ballooning property taxes
Before our historic merger at the beginning of this year, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township did what many other communities have been doing to get by: We shrank the size of staff (by nearly 20 percent through attrition over the past seven years), we cut back on services and we dipped into surplus.
For a few years, those efforts helped to stem the tide of rising property taxes. But if we continued down that road, eventually our surplus would dry up and we’d cease being able to provide the services that our residents want and expect. Worse, we would face the prospect of raising taxes and decreasing services.
Consolidation of the two Princetons paved the path for a better way.
With a single government, we are now delivering better services at a lower cost. At the end of three years, when consolidation is fully phased in, we expect to save approximately $3 million annually — a conservative estimate.
For this year, we are already exceeding projected savings by 40 percent.
A merged Princeton is better. Trash collection is now offered to all residents. Before consolidation, township residents had to pay for private hauling. The new, leaner public works department now has the staff to refurbish the benches along Nassau Street in the downtown. A more efficient deployment of equipment and manpower has also resulted in quicker snow removal and cleaner streets.
Service has also expanded under our consolidated police force. Through attrition, we have reduced the size of the combined force from 60 to 54 officers, with a force of 51 officers expected by 2015. Savings represent $2 million of the $3 million we expect to save annually.
When we had two separate departments, we needed two chiefs and two administrations. Now with one department, we have a single command structure and more flexibility in deploying officers.
Surprisingly, despite the smaller force, we are putting more cops on the street. Since Jan. 1, many have remarked that our police are more visible than ever. The concern raised during the consolidation debate — that combining and shrinking the force would lead to reductions in police services — has largely disappeared.
Restructuring the police department has also enabled us to reinstate a dedicated safe neighborhoods unit. Community policing — working cooperatively with residents to proactively identify and resolve issues — is core to the department’s mission, and every officer is trained in community policing techniques.
By having a dedicated unit, the force can spend more time to develop relationships with residents, schools, businesses and community groups. The new unit recently launched a resident survey to identify areas of concern in the community to improve service.
One of the remaining symbols of the past is the old township and borough police cars, which we chose not to repaint with the new logo to save money. They are a visible reminder that we are not erasing our past by consolidating. Rather, by combining resources, we have found a way to reuse and repurpose.
Consolidation has moved Princeton from being forced to choose between diminishing services or higher taxes to a promising future with opportunities to enhance services and save money.
I encourage other communities in New Jersey to look at Princeton’s experience and consider whether consolidation might work for them, too.