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.
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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.
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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
PRINCETON — “Savings” was the battle cry during the campaign for consolidation of the Princetons.
Proponents argued that the unified town would spend million less annually compared to the separated borough and township and reduce the tax burden, while opponents of the merger pooh-poohed the projected benefit as too little and too uncertain.
With the two municipalities now combined into one as of Jan. 1, the actual figures are starting to firm up — and it appears that the savings are real, and they are greater than consolidation planners projected last year.
The one-time cost to combine the towns is also higher than projected, but is being offset by contributions from the state and Princeton University and possibly by the earlier-than-expected departures of some employees.
When proponents were trying to sell voters on consolidation, they touted the expected annual savings at $1.6 million, which did not count various one-time costs.
When Chad Goerner was first elected to the Princeton Township Committee in 2006, his priority was to finally merge the township with Princeton Borough — a cost-cutting move more than 50 years in the making.
In 2011, voters approved a combined Princeton. That, plus a year planning the complicated shrinkage from two municipalities to one, was the heavy lifting.
And Goerner, now the township’s mayor, is walking away in victory. Imagine that: a politician who makes a promise, finishes the job and goes home before the applause. Goerner didn’t run for mayor of the combined Princeton. His last day is Dec. 31.
Princeton is a small win in the fight to shrink New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes. It’s the most obvious solution: cutting government costs by cutting government itself.
It’s also the most difficult: For all the complaining about taxes, New Jersey likes its towns as they are, despite the expense. Look at the Princetons again, where the first official proposal to merge was made in 1952.
The barriers to complete mergers are considerable. Neighboring towns don’t necessarily have similar tax rates or, for instance, police contracts. When towns merge, taxes for some homeowners will go down, but others may go up. And employee contracts will merge at the highest pay grades, not the lowest.
Sharing is the more likely path to savings. State leaders, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), are pushing this. Sweeney has a promising plan, which threatens to cut state aid from towns that refuse to share services. The bill has promise, as long as lawmakers find a way to stay within civil service rules.
Consolidation isn’t the answer to all of New Jersey’s tax woes. The key, Goerner says, is trying: “It’s not a silver-bullet solution,” he says. “We need elected officials who are going to think outside the box, and not just about their own provincial dominion.”
The TTF, a group of community members and representatives from the municipalities’ governments, has worked over the past year to make sure consolidation runs as smoothly as possible.
Voters in both the Borough and Township decided to consolidate their governments and form a single Princeton in November 2011. The vote came after a yearlong study by the Consolidation Study Commission, which published a report predicting consolidation of the two communities would save about $3.3 million per year, representing about 5 percent of the combined municipal budget.
The TTF’s work revealed the municipality may realize some of its savings on policing a year earlier than expected. The Consolidation Study Commission originally endorsed a plan to reduce personnel costs in the local police force by gradually scaling back the number of sworn officers from 60 in 2013 to 56 in 2014 and finally to 51 in 2015.
Instead, the TTF found there were already four vacancies on the police force this year, meaning the headcount is already down to 56. No officer has been asked to retire early, according to Joseph Stefko, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Research, a nonprofit government consulting organization contracted by the Borough and Township to aid in the transition. The TTF recommended the new town council review the needs and services of the police force sometime in mid-2013 to determine if the original projected headcount reductions will be carried out according to the original plan.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Princetonian. To continue reading, click here
An Inquirer poll this fall showed that New Jersey residents are increasingly in favor of municipal consolidation and shared services. It may not be clear to elected officials attached to “home rule” in a state with 566 municipalities (soon to be 565), but the residents are right.
A year ago, the residents of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, where I’m the mayor, approved the state’s first large municipal consolidation in more than a century – a move expected to save millions and improve services. In fact, we’re already enjoying the benefits.
When Hurricane Sandy struck Princeton, the two municipalities responded in a completely coordinated fashion for the first time. We established an emergency operations center staffed by police, fire, public works, and other staff from both towns.
The police were able to coordinate more effectively in prioritizing coverage of the whole area, while the public works departments marshaled their resources to open important roads more quickly. We launched coordinated communication through social media and reverse 911. This single response was a dramatic improvement over our separate responses to previous storms.
But such improvements aren’t the only rationale for consolidation. We are also on a path to savings that exceed our consolidation commission’s estimates.
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