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.”