It’s easy to dismiss the successful consolidation of two New Jersey municipalities that share a name–Princeton township and borough–as well as a Zip code, an affluent citizenry, similar debt loads and real estate taxes, 13 shared services including a library and school district, and a political culture that seems so, well, forward-thinking. What possible relevance could the Princetons’ experience have for other budget-stressed communities, given the always fractious politics of local-government consolidation and service-sharing?
But the Princetons’ path to consolidation wound through a six-decade history that includes four failed attempts, and it holds a number of lessons for those embarking on similar paths. In Princeton, as elsewhere, politics long defined the consolidation debate, but the combination of the recession and high property taxes were being felt acutely in this “doughnut” and “hole” pair of local governments. Authorized under a 2007 New Jersey law enacted to encourage shared services and consolidations, the Princetons’ Joint Shared Services and Consolidation Commission examined the costs and benefits of consolidation and, after countless meetings airing the question in public settings and small groups, recommended consolidation. In November 2011, voters in both the township and the borough decisively approved consolidation ballot questions. This past Jan. 1, after a 13-month implementation process led by a transition task force, a new mayor and council took office and the new Princeton came into being. How are things going so far? Early reports suggest that onetime implementation costs are running above what was budgeted but that annual, recurring savings are coming in higher than anticipated, bringing projections that municipal real-estate taxes will be reduced by 5-7 percent and perhaps by as much as 10 percent. Considering how many services were already being shared, this is significant. The onetime costs will be likely recaptured within six months. What are the lessons worth taking to the next consolidation process? First, don’t assume that one defeat closes the issue. In New Jersey, changes in state law provided for creation of a commission by interested governing bodies without requiring an early referendum. This sequencing meant that the final, political phase of the process was framed as much by fact-based analyses of costs and benefits as by more political or emotional considerations.