CtoCNJ helps "connect" towns looking to consolidate

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.

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