When the non-profit organization Courage to Connect NJ holds its third annual seminar at Princeton University on June 5, Princeton’s successful consolidation will be the focus of the day. And now that the town is assured of the 20 percent reimbursement for consolidation costs that Governor Chris Christie pledged during a visit to Princeton nearly two years ago, the lineup of Princeton officials taking part in the day’s sessions is especially relevant.
Mayor Liz Lempert learned last Thursday that the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) would provide $464,000 to help offset costs of the merger between Princeton Borough and Township, which went into effect the first day of this year. By October, the town should expect $350,000, which is to be used for the 2013 municipal budget. The balance will be forwarded by the end of 2013, after proof is provided that transition expenses were reasonable, necessary, and one-time in nature.
“The State is pleased to have provided Princeton with support to make the merger possible,” the letter from DCA to municipal officials stated. It also noted that hundreds of hours of DCA staff were allotted to Princeton to smooth the consolidation process, as well as develop a plan to reassess property in the merged towns.
According to Ms. Lempert, budget savings this year that are related to consolidation exceeded the projections of the Consolidation Commission by 40 percent. At its meeting Tuesday, May 28, Princeton Council will be considering an amendment to the budget that will lower the tax rate an additional cent. A public hearing on the budget will also be held that night. But should the amendment pass, the Council won’t vote on the budget until the June 10 meeting, because they are not allowed to amend and vote on the same night.
This interview with Executive Director Gina Genovese originally appeared on Keystone Politics.
Can you give us a quick description of what Courage to Connect NJ does?
Courage to Connect NJ is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that is a resource for elected officials and citizens to learn about municipal consolidation, the 2007 law, and what is necessary to form a consolidation study commission, and to look at consolidation in their own towns.
What have you been working on recently?
Well, we had a lot of elected officials reach out to us around the state, and in some places we’d make some headway, and eventually one town might stop it. We’ve met with citizen groups around the state and had some success – we had the first successful citizen petition to form a consolidation study commission in Scotch Plains and Fanwood. We’re working with citizens in Roxbury and Mt. Arlington. Now since the Princeton Township and Princeton Borough consolidation, we’ve had many more elected officials come forward, and we’re working with them, and I think that you’ll see a lot of progress, as a result of the Princeton success.
What types of citizen groups tend to be interested in this issue?
Well it’s interesting, some citizens will be upset about either taxes, or that they’re losing services and then they start talking, and a group eventually forms, sometimes they ask Courage to Connect NJ to go in and conduct a presentation and we give them an overview of what’s happening in the state, we give them an overview of the options towns have now facing budgets and economic restrictions, and show them they have the power to do something about it. And out of that usually comes the nucleus of 8 or 10 residents that want to work together to make a difference.
The municipal consolidation cause had a pretty significant victory with the merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough. What has the process been like for them since they voted?
It’s interesting because for the first few years, all I heard around the state of New Jersey is that consolidation is never going to happen, and obviously on November 8, 2011 with the successful vote, that was a major milestone in the state of New Jersey and in the history of consolidation. But what they did in 2012 was really the historic experience that we need to learn from. And that experience is the implementation of consolidation. You have joint governing body meetings, and how two governing bodies work very hard and diligently in one year to ensure that there’s going to be one town at the end of that, and it’s going to be successful.
What lessons did your organization learn from that campaign and how have you applied those lessons to your recent work?
That’s one of the reasons why we’re having the seminar on June 5 at Princeton University. We’re going to host a seminar where you’re going to hear from the Mayor, you’re going to hear from the Councilwoman, the administrator, and the firm that actually did the report, and that’s when it becomes real. That’s when people can learn from the experience and hear it from the people that did it. And that’s what we have to do in New Jersey is build on that success. It definitely has changed the consciousness around consolidation in New Jersey because of their efforts to work hard and make it a success.
What does the elections process look like? How did they decide what to do about political representation?
One of the processes of the study commission is to figure out what form of government you want, whether you’re able to do wards or at-large, how large you want your governing body to be. And so the Princetons actually got the borough form of government which is a Mayor and Council and everyone’s at-large. And they had their election this past November to elect the new governing body. And now they have staggered elections so some of them are coming up in a year, some are coming up in two years, and then all the rest will be up in 3 years. They have a whole process on how to do that so it’s a pretty smooth transition.
Did incumbents have to run against each other from the two towns?
Yes, I think a couple of them did. A Councilwoman challenged the Mayor, a challenge from the other party, but basically I think it was a smooth transition. What was funny was at the first reorg meeting they all had to pick out of a hat how long they were going to be elected for, whether it would be one, two or three years. It’s the exact process you would use if you were changing from a township to a borough form of government.
The political messaging on this issue can be tricky – what do you think consolidation advocates should avoid doing? Is there anything that advocates do that you think is unhelpful?
Well you know even though I’m an advocate, I do not believe in forced consolidation or making people do it. I think that that’s the wrong approach. When governments talk about a carrot and a stick and trying to force people to do this, I think that that’s absolutely the wrong approach. I think we’re coming to a time when we have to have some innovation in our local governing bodies and how we’re going to deliver services. But I think it’s important for people to educate others that are interested in talking about the subject, and make sure they come along in this process because it might take a while. Just ask questions and talk about let’s all work together to make a better system, both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
What can we look forward to at the Princeton event on June 5?
We’re really trying to grow and build on our successes in New Jersey so when you have a win like we had in Princeton, I think it’s important that other people around the state and the region to come hear from the people that did it and learn the lessons they’ve learned, and share the different ideas about how you could potentially do it better. And also share that maybe some of the fears around consolidation were maybe not as valid as somebody had thought previous to the success of the Princetons. I think this can change the way many look at consolidation.
This article originally appeared on Newsworks
When the merger of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township was proposed, advocates said it would result in more efficient government and lower tax bills.
Now that the merger is complete, those same advocates are touting the town’s first consolidated budget as proof that they were right.
Based on the merger, property owners in the newly combined municipality of Princeton will soon do something few in New Jersey ever experience: Open their mailboxes to find that their municipal tax bills have either gone down or stayed the same.
In this case, the municipal tax rate is going down 1.5 percent.
Princeton officials say they’ve achieved this decrease by cutting 26 staff positions, which totaled more than $1 million in salaries. They’ve also saved $600,000 by asking city employees to kick in more for their health benefits.
Savings in the budget proposal vindicate what merger advocates have been saying all along, according to Kathy Monzo, Princeton’s deputy administrator and director of finance.
“The consolidation commission projected that at first, and then the transition task force did the same,” she said. “This is just proving them all right.
Despite employee cutbacks, Monzo says the consolidation hasn’t caused a reduction in municipal services.
“In the first year, I think the Princetons did extraordinarily well,” said Gina Genovese. As executive director of Courage to Connect, she pushes for New Jersey towns to take advantage of the 2007 law that allows neighboring towns to study the possible effects of consolidation.
“I think that the writing’s on the wall,” said Genovese. “Changes have to be made in order for us to offer our services and not have it become more of a burden on our taxpayers.”
Cherry Hill and Merchantville are two towns that have recently considered merging. But will Princeton’s success now convince them to tie the knot?
“No, not at all,” said Cherry Hill spokeswoman Bridget Palmer.
Cherry Hill officials balk at the cost of studying and planning a consolidation, Palmer said, adding that the town has saved money through more traditional means of streamlining government.
As for Princeton residents, before they start making big plans for the tax windfalls, they should think twice. Taxes for the Princeton school district and Mercer County are still going up.
Listen to the full report below:
PRINCETON — The savings that encouraged the former borough and township of Princeton to merge into a single town started to appear last night as the town introduced a $61 million budget and announced a tax rate decrease of just under 1 percent.
The budget is the united town’s first and roughly $3 million less than what the 2012 combined budgets were for the former township and borough.
Taxpayers will also see a slight decrease in their municipal tax rate. Whereas both towns paid roughly 47 cents per $100 of assessed property value last year, the new rate will be 46.3 cents, thanks to the merger.
“We’re paying less money in 2013 … than we were in 2009,” town administrator Bob Bruschi said. “We’re in a pretty strong financial position.”
The consolidation of the former borough and township was pitched to Princeton taxpayers as a way to save money, thin staff and maximize services.
Click here to continue reading this article in the Times of Trenton
This opinion-editorial article by Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert originally appeared in The Star-Ledger.
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.
Click here to continue reading this article
Now united Princeton seeks $460K from state for consolidation costs, but reimbursement amount is unclear
This article originally appeared in the Times of Trenton. Click here to read the full article in our news section.
PRINCETON - Paving the way can be a bumpy ride sometimes.
There are the accolades and the state spotlight for being a leader, and then there’s difficulty of blazing a trail into uncharted territory.
Princeton traveled that rocky road as it consolidated last year from two towns into one.
Princeton officials hope that their struggles and lessons will serve to inform the next town that attempts the same thing — especially when it comes to financial support from the state, which promised in late 2011 that it would reimburse 20 percent of consolidation costs.
The town has discovered that the promise had all of the clarity of a concept written on a table napkin.
Three weeks ago town officials met with the state Department of Community Affairs and handed over a list of consolidation costs totaling $2.4 million. Princeton officials assumed that they’d be eligible for a repayment of around $460,000.
But despite Princeton’s itemized list of consolidation costs, there are no real guidelines on what exactly is a consolidation cost.
Does the $190,000 spent on information technology count? What about the $77,000 for new police weapons? Or the $340,000 in legal fees?
It’s unclear, DCA spokeswoman Tammori Petty said this month. That’s because no precedent has been established.
“The Department of Community Affairs has never had such an incident and we are feeling our way through this for the first time,” she said. “Basically the cost must be something that was absolutely necessary to allow for the merger and a competitive, reasonable price.”
The lack of clarity doesn’t have Princeton officials worrying that they won’t get paid, but they do hope the state will establish some good, solid guidelines.
“They’ve talked the talk, now they have to walk the walk,” council President Bernie Miller said. “I don’t think they have had any more guidelines than we did.”
Town Manager Bob Bruschi said he hopes the state will make it very clear what costs are covered under the 20 percent promise. A well-defined policy on reimbursement would encourage other towns to take the same leap that Princeton did, he said.
“It’s a small price, quite frankly, to pay,” Bruschi said. “It’s certainly not going to be the biggest item in the state budget. It’s a drop in the bucket for them,” he said.
Princeton officials said they hope the state is very generous about what it will reimburse, especially because towns are still going to pick up the biggest share of the consolidation costs.
“We hope they take a fairly liberal view toward the cost of transition,” Miller said. “Their 20 percent is a hell of a lot smaller than our 80 percent.”
There were some items that ran over budget, such as the town’s legal costs for consolidation. What was supposed to cost $180,000, ended up closer to $340,000.
But that, in part, was a product of being the first, town officials said.
When the town asked the DCA for guidance, they didn’t get much help, they said.
“They basically said, ‘Look, you guys are doing something that has not been done before; it’s new, so make your decisions,’” Miller said. “So we sought legal guidance from our own attorneys to do so.”
Scott Sillars, chairman of the transitional task force’s finance subcommittee, said he thought the talks with the DCA went well, and that state officials are in the questioning mode, scrutinizing the costs thoroughly. Sillars said he’s confident the state will do the right thing.
Part of that confidence arises from knowing that the state wants towns to consolidate and is aware that their willingness to do so will be influenced by the way Princeton is handled in this process.
“How they handle our transition costs will sort of set the framework for other municipalities. If they squeeze us on transition costs, other municipalities might get the message that the state is little less interesting in taking on consolidation,” Miller said.
Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect NJ, said Princeton is lighting the way for other municipalities to consolidate, but with that come the bumps on the road less traveled.
“That’s one of the huge inhibitors of progress in our governments is that you have to plough the path, and that’s what Princeton is coming up against,” she said. “That’s what makes it history, is doing it for the first time.
Genovese said other communities in the state, such as Scotch Plains and Fanwood, Mount Arlington and Roxbury, and Loch Arbour and Allenhurst, are all considering consolidation.
She said the only way clearer language on consolidation will happen is if communities keep doing it.
“The only way we’re going to do it is to keep doing it, and getting better at it each time,” she said. “I think that’s the only way we’re going to pave the road.”
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.
Click here to continue reading this article in Governing magazine
In the wake of the Jan. 1 consolidation of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, which represented the first merger of a New Jersey municipality in 15 years, Princeton is now serving as a model for other municipalities considering consolidation. With the help of Courage to Connect New Jersey, some of the state’s smaller municipalities are learning about the practical procedures and consequences of consolidation.
Founded by former mayor of Longhill Township Gina Genovese and businesswoman Wendy McCahill in 2009, Courage to Connect is a nonprofit organization that aims to educate municipalities about options to reduce property taxes and government spending. As its name suggests, the nonprofit encourages municipalities to “connect” with surrounding communities through sharing services or consolidation.
Courage to Connect’s present efforts gained momentum after the recent consolidation of Princeton, which is projected to save $300–500 per household per year, according to the Municipal Consolidation Case Study for Princeton.
The disruptive effects of Hurricane Sandy and the state’s budget problems offer some of the most compelling reasons for New Jersey towns to consider consolidation, Genovese said.
As a result of the Hurricane Sandy-related damage, many properties will receive lower valuations and revenue for those municipalities will subsequently fall, former Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner explained. He added that New Jersey’s 2 percent cap on any yearly tax increase is also negatively affecting local government budget. Goerner was named to the Board of Directors of Courage to Connect last month.
“Typically, [towns] are growing at a faster rate than 2 percent,” Goerner said. “So what municipalities are doing is they’re either spending down their surplus, which is like their savings account, or they’re cutting their staff. And that usually means some type of reduction in service.”
Princeton committeeman Bernard Miller said that consolidation and the sharing of services offered numerous advantages that would increase government efficiency.
“Consolidation provides municipalities an opportunity to save on municipal expenditures by reducing duplicative efforts and improving the delivery of services,” Miller said. “Sharing services is better than not sharing services, but consolidation is better than sharing services.”
Although Miller supports consolidation for other New Jersey towns, he noted that Courage to Connect itself may not be enough to push municipalities to examine consolidation.
“It’s beneficial to have an organization out there that is advocating consolidation and providing interested communities with a model,” Miller said. “But I think it’s going to take more than a nonprofit organization like Courage to Connect to be effective in New Jersey.”
He explained that circumstances that may be unique to Princeton were helpful in allowing its consolidation. For example, the Township and Borough already shared 13 services, such as the Fire and Health Departments, prior to consolidation. Moreover, the efforts to study consolidation were supported by two outside organizations: Princeton University and the Center for Governmental Research.
For municipalities that are looking to combine without the help of outside organizations and without many existing shared services, consolidation could mean greater up-front costs and a longer transition period.
According to the Municipal Consolidation Case Study for Princeton, the cost of consolidation for Princeton was about $1.7 million and the projected savings would be $3.1 million per year. The study suggested that even if the cost of consolidation for other municipalities were three times greater than the savings per year, it would only take three years to break even.
Miller also pointed out that another reason for the success of Princeton’s consolidation is that the two communities shared a common name and neither had to give up its name in the process.
This sense of town identity, Genovese said, frequently arises from those opposed to consolidation.
“The primary stakeholders are the residents,” Genovese said. “It’s important for them to understand what their town does and to be able to have a forum that deals with the emotional issues that usually stop the process, which is loss of town identity, loss of local control and, frankly, just a change.”
Others fear that the quality of services will drop after merging. Logan Clark GS, who studied Princeton’s consolidation, said that many municipalities shared the concerns of Princeton residents and are wary of various consequences, like an increase in crime during consolidation.
“In the case of the police, the citizens did not want to have the two municipalities consolidate and notice an upsurge in crime because, due to the consolidation, there was a reduction in police forces,” Clark said. “Or if there was a steep learning curve for Borough police officers to learn how to patrol township areas, and vice versa.”
Courage to Connect is looking to host a workshop in March. The workshop will examine the Princeton consolidation process and allow officials from other municipalities to meet and collaborate with Courage to Connect.
Among those municipalities studying consolidation with the help of Courage to Connect are Roxbury and Mount Arlington, as well as Scotch Plains and Fanwood. New Jersey currently has more municipalities than California, over 60 percent of which have populations under 13,000.
Former Princeton Township mayor Chad Goerner was appointed Wednesday to the board of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit that aims to help municipalities through the state’s process for towns that are consolidating.
“Mayor Goerner’s tenure in office was focused on finding more efficient and effective ways to manage municipal government,” the organization’s director Gina Genovese said in a news release. “Previous commissions had studied shared services and consolidation in Princeton; consolidation was decided as the right path.”
Goerner, who will serve as a volunteer board member, played a central role in promoting and planning the township’s merger with Princeton Borough, which became final on Jan. 1.
“I continue to speak and present on issues concerning municipal government efficiency and have made a concerted effort to make the successful consolidation of the Princetons a model for other towns in the state and the nation,” Goerner said in the release. “Courage to Connect New Jersey shares in the open-minded approach to improving the fiscal sustainability of local government through the full evaluation of consolidation.”
PRINCETON TOWNSHIP, NJ – Former Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner, a leader in the successful consolidation of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough on January 1, was today appointed to the Board of Directors for Courage to Connect New Jersey, a non-profit, non-political organization that assists citizens and elected officials through the state’s municipal consolidation process.
In his volunteer role with Courage to Connect New Jersey, Goerner will use his expertise in municipal consolidation to serve as a resource statewide, assisting those who want to explore the benefits and challenges of municipal consolidation.
“Mayor Goerner’s tenure in office was focused on finding more efficient and effective ways to manage municipal government,” said Gina Genovese, executive director, Courage to Connect New Jersey. “Previous commissions had studied shared services and consolidation in Princeton; consolidation was decided as the right path.”
Goerner was a key leader in consolidating Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, having crafted the proposal that led to the study and voter approval of consolidation in 2011.
“The consolidation of the Princetons was the first large-scale municipal consolidation to occur in the last century in the State of New Jersey,” Genovese said. “Mayor Goerner’s experience will be invaluable in his new role with Courage to Connect New Jersey.”
To encourage the consolidation of his hometown, Goerner was a member of the Joint Shared Services and Consolidation Commission and served on the community’s Transition Task Force.
Under Goerner’s leadership, Princeton Township achieved zero municipal tax increases – the first in at least 25 years – and negotiated the first-ever significant voluntary contribution from Princeton University for local tax relief.
He also created a Citizens’ Finance Advisory Commission to add transparency to the budget process and uncover cost saving opportunities. Goerner also put in place an open application process for the town’s Boards and Commissions and passed a pay-to-play ordinance.
“I continue to speak and present on issues concerning municipal