What can Syracuse and Onondaga County learn from other consolidations

PRINCETON, N.J. (WSYR-TV) - Whether you know it or not, our community is at a key moment in time that could impact generations to come.

The recommendation from the Consensus Commission on modern government made earlier this year would instantly make Syracuse the second largest city in New York State if voted on and approved this November.

However, there seems to be a variety of opinions on forming a new metropolitan government— joining the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County into one entity.

NewsChannel 9’s Jeff Kulikowsky traveled to Princeton, New Jersey, which was facing a critical crossroads much like us, and six years ago two Princetons decided to become one consolidated government.

According to former Princeton borough administrator Bob Bruschi, the word Princeton was used to describe Princeton borough and Princeton township interchangeably.

The 16.5 square mile Princeton township and the 1.8 square mile donut hole in the middle of it, Princeton borough, were more at odds thought than acting together, despite gradually sharing more and more services over the years.

“The friction between the two governments was an incredible waste of time and money,” said Scott Sillars of the Princeton transition task force.

Others in the two Princetons agreed, but for the past 60 years, attempts at consolidation were marked by fighting and three failures at the ballot box.

“The property taxes had gotten to the point where people were seeing families having to leave town,” said Liz Limpert, Princeton mayor.

Aided by a change in state law in 2007 making consolidation easier and two willing governments, the Princetons were on their way to another referendum.  This time, in November 2011 it passed overwhelmingly in the township and convincingly in the borough.

2012 was their transition year, and it was no easy task. 

Bruschi remembers the brand new transition task force working to meld the two governments together in just 12 months—.including sorting out differences in unions and benefits for employees of both Princetons.

"Looking back after the transition, we clearly saved everything and more that we said we were going to save but we're also in a better situation,” said Chad Goerner, former Princeton township mayor.

First year post transition, the area saw $1.3 million in savings and a one percent reduction in the tax rate, and by nearly three quarters of a million dollars, Princeton exceeded its promise of $3.2 million in annual savings by the end of year three.

With major institutions in town, Mayor Lempert says it has provided better working relationships.

"Whether that's a school district or Princeton University or our businesses, it’s easier for them and easier for us to collaborate when there's only one government,” Lempert said. “It also gave us flexibility for some of the big capital costs too.”

Lempert says one of the bigger consolidations, DPW, qualifies as a success in her book.

There has even been unanticipated savings— right across the street from the current municipal building is an old school.  It housed a non-profit and it was in need of some very expensive renovations or a new building, both at taxpayer expense.

Instead, they went just up the street and put the non-profit in the newly vacant borough municipal building, saving a tremendous amount of money.

Looking back, those closely involved admit there are lessons learned.

"Instead of setting up a completely separate transition task force with new members from the community, it would have benefitted us to just try to convince the consolidation commission to continue on through that transition year,” said Goerner.

"If I could go back in time and change one thing, I would have tried to stay away from the January 1st  ‘we're all going to be together thing’ and try to phase in more, we did this with some but phase in more of the operations along that transition year,” Bruschi said.

Princeton is still working through things like creating one set of ordinances for every Princetonian to follow.

"Most of the problems that we have are problems that we would have had had we not consolidated but we're in a much better position to address them now,” Lempert said.

Goerner even wrote a book to document Princeton's struggles to consolidate and also to outline how it accomplished this historic move so other communities could use it as a model on how to create a modern government.

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