Municipal Consolidation: NJ & NY Governments Urged to Study Issue

As we move toward the end of 2012, municipalities across New York and
New Jersey are dealing with the aftermath of a devastating hurricane
and significant budgetary pressures. Many are struggling to determine
how to deliver better services at the same or lower cost as tax
revenues remain stagnant.

Couple this with a 2-percent budget cap and our municipal governments have their own localized version of the "fiscal cliff."

New York and New Jersey each have their own issues with municipal
government inefficiency. New Jersey has 566 municipalities and more
than 590 school districts. New York has more than 10,521 taxing
districts resulting in a lasagna-like layer of multiple tax bills and
resultant inefficiency.

What's the solution to this morass of home rule? Both states have
taken action in making it more feasible for residents and/or elected
officials to consolidate towns and school districts.

Before he became Governor, Andrew Cuomo passed the N.Y. Government
Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act to allow citizens to
effectively consolidate or dissolve local governments. In New Jersey,
the state Legislature passed the "Local Option Municipal Consolidation
Act" in 2007 making consolidation more feasible for many New Jersey

So, what's the hold up? The main obstacle remains our elected
officials who still cling to home rule. It's easy to understand why -
despite saving money, consolidation brings fears of losing control and
giving up town identity. Yet, the new laws that are in place in both
states make it possible to achieve consolidation without losing
identity or town character. Princeton Borough and Princeton Township
put that to the test one year ago.

In the Princetons, there have been multiple attempts at consolidation.
It was studied virtually every decade in the last 50 years,
ultimately culminating with Princeton Borough leaving Princeton
Township at the altar by voting down the referendum. Many said that
it could never be done.

However, one year ago, something historic happened. Princeton Borough
and Princeton Township residents went to the polls and approved the
first large municipal consolidation in more than 100 years. The
savings and promise that consolidation holds for Princeton and
ultimately our region is startling.

The Princetons have set a path to savings that exceeds their own
consolidation commission's estimate for 2013 and beyond. In addition,
they have uncovered areas of savings that they did not focus on during
the study process: through zero-based budgeting in our operating
budgets, harmonizing employee benefits, cost avoidance by better use
of joint real estate and more.

The merged Princeton's projected savings for 2013 as a result of
consolidation are at least 40 percent greater than the original
estimate ($2.26million versus $1.61million) from the consolidation
commission. Furthermore, they now project that if the new governing
body follows the commission's recommendations, they can reach
approximately $4 million in annual savings at full implementation in
three years.

This is a result of eliminating duplication and repurposing personnel
where they deemed appropriate. In addition to those savings numbers,
Princeton officials also uncovering areas of cost savings that were
not analyzed by the consolidation commission. The operating budget
for 2013 has the potential to be reduced due to the elimination of
duplicative department needs (no need for two municipal audits, etc.)
and employee benefit savings.

Consolidation may not be the solution for all municipalities in New
York and New Jersey, but for some it is certainly worth considering.
It has the potential to create a more sustainable budget that can
survive under the states' 2% municipal budget cap without drastically
reducing surplus or cutting valuable services.

In fact, it has the potential to enhance services as Princeton
illustrated during the response to Hurricane Sandy.

When Sandy struck Princeton, the two towns responded for the first
time in a completely coordinated fashion. With the merger of the
Borough and the Township fully underway, they established an Emergency
Operations Center that was staffed by the police departments, the
public works departments, fire and EMS personnel and other staff.
Police were able to coordinate more effectively in prioritizing
coverage for the whole town, while the Borough and Township public
works departments marshaled their resources collectively to open up
critical roadways more quickly.

This single, coordinated emergency response was a dramatic improvement
compared to the response coordination conducted separately by the
towns in previous storms.

While consolidation is not a silver-bullet solution for everything
that ails us, it certainly is one tool in the municipal toolkit that
should be moved to the top shelf. The success in Princeton is proof.

Chad Goerner is the mayor of Princeton Township and an architect in
the merger with Princeton Borough. Gina Genovese is executive director
of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a non-partisan, non-profit
organization that assists citizens and elected officials through the
municipal consolidation process.

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