It’s easy to ask: If past referendums for municipal consolidation in Princeton were defeated, why should this year’s ballot turn out any differently? It’s a good question. But there’s also a good answer: We’ve learned, we’ve grown, we’ve changed.
From past experiences such as ours and that of other municipalities, the state has significantly broadened and liberalized the consolidation statutes to make it less complicated to combine municipalities.
Admittedly, there has not been a rush to reform.
But Princeton is one of the few New Jersey towns that has tried to respond to the state’s initiative to become more efficient. The town has studied merger before, but this time, following new options and with a bit of state financial assistance, we have gained something from a full-scale professional study that included elected municipal officials as well as their administrators. Through the participants’ candid, practical advice, the resultant study shows how best to redeploy staff in a more direct, coordinated system.
Based on the new state law, a merger need not change unique aspects of each sector. Existing ordinances can remain in effect for up to five years, with the possibility of continuing them. Past debates over who leashes dogs and who doesn’t, who parks on the street overnight and who doesn’t, who has to build sidewalks and who doesn’t aren’t needed. Separate sections of town can maintain and enjoy their differences even as they forge a more cohesive management to face leaner days ahead.
And, as the study has shown, the different sectors are more alike than they were before. The township has become much more committed to enhancing the town’s attractive center. The borough has become more of a partner in preserving vanishing open space at its periphery.
The recent Census showed similar population mixes in the two sectors. The demographics of race, ethnicity and income are much more alike. Their tax rates are practically identical. Potential savings from combining departments and services are quite similar. We can gain together — not at one or the other’s expense.
Both municipalities face tough challenges:
• More efficient, less costly policing should be combined into one department. As it becomes more and more expensive to put patrols on the street, it becomes more and more important to employ them where the most activity occurs. Traditional sharing methods neither split personnel nor costs as efficiently as can be accomplished through true merger.
• Fire and emergency services need to be reorganized along with major construction or replacement of outworn facilities. It is unrealistic to expect that future volunteers alone will be able to do this for us.
• Neither government houses its public works staff and equipment very well. Without consolidation, both municipalities face higher costs for new facilities and upgraded specialized equipment.
• Townspeople expect far better access to public officials — web sites, electronic communications, on-camera meetings and contact during emergencies. We expect public information to be online and attractively organized for us to access when we need it. There’s no reason for one town to have two IT systems.
A better managed single government can better deliver for us without duplication of costs.
I am proud of one of our community’s most recent accomplishments: the rebuilding of our public library. As Princeton Borough mayor, I presided over many of the decision-making meetings. I heard what people said. There were borough residents who insisted that the library had to remain downtown. But I also heard township residents stand up and say, “That location is the center of my town, too.” And yet, there were some borough and township voters who said it was more convenient for them to pick up and drop off books at the alternate location, the Harrison Street shopping center.
Regardless of who favored which location, it wasn’t a borough vs. township thing. We were able to work across borough/township boundary lines and agree. The result today is obvious: one wonderful community center in the middle of town.
State budget caps, revenue shortfalls, municipal and school aid cutbacks have all conspired to squeeze local property taxpayers. For all its appearance of affluence, Princeton, like most New Jersey local governments, can no longer cope with ever-rising property taxes.
Towns like ours with so much highly priced real estate can no longer expect much in state and federal aid to balance our tax bills. To do it ourselves requires us to streamline local government into one frugal entity with management as tight as possible. We in Princeton can no longer afford separate township and borough governments.
It’s time for Princeton residents to pull it together. It’s time for them on Nov. 8 to vote “Yes” for Princeton consolidation.
Marvin R. Reed is a former mayor of Princeton Borough.