Opinion: Historic consolidation of Princetons is worth celebrating as official merger nears

Many said that it couldn’t be done. But one year ago, something historic happened: Princeton Borough and Princeton Township residents voted for the first large municipal consolidation in New Jersey in more than 100 years.

While moving from 566 to 565 municipalities in New Jersey on Jan. 1, 2013, may not sound like a big deal, the savings and promise that consolidation holds for Princeton and, ultimately, for New Jersey, is worth celebrating.

We have set a path to savings that exceed our consolidation commission’s estimate for 2013 and beyond. In addition, we have uncovered areas of savings that we did not focus on during the study process — from our operating budgets, employee benefits and cost avoidance through more efficient use of joint real estate.

Consolidation may not be the solution for all municipalities, but it is certainly worth considering for some. It has the potential to create a more sustainable budget that can survive under the state’s 2 percent municipal budget cap without drastically reducing a surplus or cutting valuable services. The savings projected for Princeton for 2013 are at least 40 percent greater than the original estimate ($2.26 million vs. $1.61 million) made by the Joint Shared Services and Consolidation Commission (JSSCC), the body that studied the consolidation.

The JSSCC put in place a three-year plan in which, by the end of year three (full implementation in 2015), it estimated approximately $3.2 million in annual savings. Based on updated benefit calculations and staff reorganization, it is now projected that, if the new governing body follows the JSSCC recommendations, the merged towns can reach $4 million in annual savings.

In addition, the Transition Task Force has announced that because of attrition and earlier staff departures resulting from consolidation, we stand to save roughly $705,000 in 2012. This savings will offset a large part of our transition costs and put us on the path to realizing our savings sooner.

These annual savings result from eliminating duplicate positions and repurposing personnel where appropriate. In addition to those savings, we are also uncovering areas of cost savings that were not analyzed by the consolidation commission, such as our joint operating budget. Our operating budget for 2013 has the potential to be reduced because of the elimination of duplicative department needs (no need for two municipal audits, etc.) and savings on health care benefit costs, because the merged towns will now both be under the state health plan.

Furthermore, consolidation has left us with additional space options, as we have combined our municipally owned real estate. This has allowed us to consider moving one of our municipally supported nonprofits, Corner House, into one of our municipal buildings, as opposed to building a new facility or renovating another building to house it. For years, Corner House has had to operate out of a substandard facility, and the municipalities had contemplated expensive building construction and/or temporary housing that would have resulted in significant costs to our taxpayers. As a result of consolidation, we can better manage our space needs and save money.

Why aren’t other towns looking into consolidation more expeditiously? The main obstacle remains our elected officials, who still cling to home rule. It’s easy to understand why: Consolidation brings fear of losing control and giving up town identity. However, the Local Option Municipal Consolidation Act (2007) has new provisions that make mergers more feasible.

The act allows towns to apportion debt (each town is separately responsible for the debt it incurred prior to consolidating), they can develop advisory planning districts to help preserve neighborhood character and, perhaps most important, they can allow ordinances and service districts to continue within their pre-consolidation borders, allowing many identity-related concerns to subside.

Without consolidating, like many other towns in New Jersey, the Princetons would have been under continued budget pressure and residents would have continued to see staff and commensurate service cuts.

It’s always easy to point fingers, cling to the hope that things will magically change and keep studying shared services without having the political will to enact them. All the while, many towns are spending down their savings or cutting services to try to stay under the 2 percent cap.

I believe in New Jersey and I am optimistic. Our success in Princeton has certainly sparked more discussion throughout the state, and open-minded elected officials and residents from other municipalities have reached out and want to continue this effort in New Jersey.

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

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