Princeton’s Progress: The Case for Municipal Consolidation

For those who favor municipal consolidation, the merger of the two Princetons is the very model for a modern New Jersey.

Mayor Liz Lempert
Liz Lempert, first mayor of the newly-consolidated Princeton Township, in Palmer Square, formerly part of Princeton Borough. Says Lempert of the consolidation: "We're trying to set realistic expectations."
Photos by David Michael Howarth

It took four attempts over nearly 60 years, but the two Princetons are finally one. The merger of Princeton Township and the smaller Princeton Borough on New Year’s Day is being hailed by proponents of municipal consolidation as a model for local government reorganization throughout the state. Others are not so sure it was worth the effort and expense.

Virtually all of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities are struggling to pay for increasingly expensive services while operating under the 2 percent annual cap on property-tax increases the state legislature imposed in 2010. To control costs, many have begun looking at consolidating services or entire municipalities. Camden County recently introduced a countywide police force. Somerset and Bergen counties are investigating similar moves. Hunterdon County is exploring the possibility of consolidating its 30 school districts, while at least three sets of towns—Scotch Plains and Fanwood; Loch Arbour and Allenhurst; and Mount Arlington and Roxbury—are in various stages of possible consolidation agreements.

For guidance, some are turning to the leaders of the Princeton effort, who in recent months have been attending panels, issuing white papers and writing op-ed pieces that detail what they describe as a remarkably smooth transition from two towns to one.

“Princeton has opened a lot of eyes across New Jersey and the country. Now we have living, breathing proof that it can be done,” says Joseph Stefko, president of CGR, the consulting firm that directed the Princeton merger. “From the perspective of local government, and also for the taxpayers, this is one of, if not the, most significant thing to happen in New Jersey in a half century.”

Stefko’s words, and the self-congratulatory statements of other proponents, strike those who worked to defeat consolidation as inflated and premature. Alexi Assmus, a leader in the now-defunct opposition group Preserve Our Historic Borough, says the promise of savings did not take into account new expenses, such as transitional costs and expanded trash collection. “What economies of scale do you really have at the municipal level?” she asks. “I never accepted this argument.”

Opponents further believe that services will inevitably be diminished in the new combined Princeton, which now numbers close to 30,000 residents.

In Princeton, as in all municipal mergers, the elimination of redundant jobs is expected to provide most of the savings. The 267 employees who worked for the two municipalities dropped to 250 in the combined Princeton, according to town administrator Bob Bruschi. Eliminating those 17 positions—including the former township’s police chief and administrator and the former borough’s clerk, each of whom retired prior to the transition—accounts for a projected savings in the municipal budget of close to $3 million a year, which will be reflected incrementally over a three-year implementation period. Princeton’s 2012-2013 municipal budget is $61 million.

Taxwise, the impact has been somewhat less impressive, with a drop in the municipal property tax rate of just 1.7 cents per $100 of a home’s assessed value in the current budget. For the average homeowner, this translates to about $126 in annual savings, according to Princeton’s finance director and deputy administrator, Kathy Monzo. Princeton residents nevertheless face higher tax bills for the coming year due to increases in county and school taxes, which together account for about 78 percent of the overall levy.

“To expect that we could lower people’s tax bills by 10 percent when [municipal expenses] make up just 25 percent of the total tax bill would be impossible,” says Liz Lempert, who was elected mayor of the combined Princeton in November 2012. “We’re trying to set realistic expectations. We recognize that other towns are watching us, and we don’t want to oversell it.”

But opponents say Lempert and others did exactly that by stressing tax savings in their pro-merger campaign. It made an enticing proposition at a time of broad economic uncertainty.

“It was like the perfect storm,” says Kate Warren, who successfully led the campaign against consolidation when it was put to Princeton voters in 1996. “The economy was bad, and they were promising so much. And this time they had the government leaders coming out in support, whereas last time they were silent.”

Active participation by officials of both municipalities—made possible by a 2007 change in state rules regarding the makeup of consolidation committees—was one of several factors credited with tipping the vote in favor of consolidation in 2011 after similar referendums had failed in 1953, 1979 and 1996. Other contributing factors included the hiring of an outside consultant (at a cost of $144,000, paid for by the two communities, supplemented by a $38,000 state grant); a well-organized campaign by proponents who blanketed key neighborhoods and adroitly utilized the Internet; and an ever more ethnically diverse population of young professionals who are less wedded to tradition. The referendum ultimately was approved by voters in November 2011.

Lempert, a member of the old Princeton Township Committee (the governing body) at the time of the vote, actively pressed for consolidation. At a June conference at Princeton University organized by Courage to Connect, a statewide group advocating municipal consolidation, she explained that the merger campaign was aimed entirely at the borough, which was the source of most of the opposition, particularly from borough residents who lived near the downtown.

“The opposition group made it easier for us,” Lempert told conference attendees. “They kept saying consolidation was a great deal for the township. So all we had to do was prove it was a great deal for the borough also.”

Settled by Quakers in the late 1600s, the area was variously known as Stony Brook, Prince’s Town or Princetown before the name Princeton appeared sometime in the 18th century. The name gained resonance after the Battle of Princeton, recognized as a turning point in the Revolutionary War. The area encompassing the two former municipalities functioned as one until Princeton Borough was incorporated in 1813 and became fully independent in 1894 to focus on the needs of the downtown—the so-called doughnut hole, which was fully surrounded by the Township.

When consolidation was broached in 2011, those living in the doughnut hole of Princeton Borough felt—as they had in the past—that they would be the losers in a merger, fearing diminished services for those within the 1.85-square-mile borough once it was subsumed by the 16.38-square-mile township. They also worried about losing the borough’s distinct character. For consolidation opponents, the jury is still out on both fronts.

“The two towns were different,” says David Goldfarb, a former borough councilman and the public official who took the most vocal anti-consolidation stance. “The borough is quasi-urban and the township is not. They should be approached differently, and over time, we’ll regret not being able to address those differences.” Historically, the borough has been the more affluent of the two Princetons, but in recent decades, that has shifted, with median househould income in the township surpassing the borough in the 2000 census.

As for services in the newly combined Princeton, town administrator Bruschi says most are operating smoothly, but admits some, like trash collection and leaf pickup, got off to a rocky start. Prior to consolidation, the township’s 16,265 residents had to privately contract for garbage pickup, while in the borough, trash collection was provided by the municipality. Now municipal trash service covers everyone, though some in the township retain their private carters. Early on, Bruschi says, the trucks were missing entire streets, whereas now, only the occasional house gets bypassed.

For most township residents, municipal trash pickup was a key selling point of the merger, cutting their average annual cost of $400 to $500 for private pickup to $200 (reflected in the property tax bill) for municipal service, according to Stefko. Expanding trash pickup town-wide cost the new Princeton an additional $1.2 million, Stefko admits, but he says, “This added expense was more than offset by the other savings.”

Borough residents now have to adhere to scheduled pickup of leaves and branches, whereas that service was provided on a continual basis in the past. For those living close to downtown, where some lots are as small as one-tenth of an acre, this has proven burdensome.

“They told us we could just store our branches in the backyard until pickup day, but I don’t have a big enough backyard to do that,” says Warren.

Combining the two police departments was the most challenging, and critical, part of consolidation, since it was expected to account for $2.1 million of the anticipated $3 million in annual savings. At the height of their strength, each police department had about 30 patrol officers. By the time full consolidation occurred, the township’s force had been reduced to 24 officers through retirements and resignations—some with buyouts—as downsizing loomed. This eliminated the need for further layoffs, since the remaining force of 54 officers was smaller than what was proposed going into the first year of consolidation. (The force aims to get down to 51 officers by year three.)

Some say the downsizing will reduce patrol coverage. Under one CGR proposal, four squads with eight officers each will work 12-hour shifts. Prior to consolidation, each municipality had four squads of five officers doing 12-hour shifts. Assmus describes this as a 20 percent reduction in the patrolling force. Police Captain Nick Sutter counters that the combined squad is able to respond to calls more quickly. He also says the force has been able to reinstate community policing and traffic units, which the township and the borough had abandoned in recent years.

“Cops are resistant to change, this is the way we are, but we’re getting better at it here in Princeton,” says Sutter. “There have been no huge issues amongst the officers. They get in the car together, they patrol together, they work things out.”

The new police department did hit one serious speed bump. During the transition, Robert Buchanan, the township chief, abruptly retired. David Dudeck, the borough chief, was then chosen to lead the combined force. But less than two months after the merger, Dudeck found himself facing harassment charges from members of the rank and file, who accused him of using inappropriate language and gestures. In April, Dudeck, who had served on the borough force for close to 30 years and as its chief since 2009, agreed to retire. In exchange, the police union dropped its investigation and agreed not to sue. At press time, the department was being led on an interim basis by Captain Sutter, the top-ranking officer. According to Bruschi, no decision has been made whether the chief position will be filled from the ranks, presumably by Sutter, or by a search for an outside candidate, possibly a civilian.

“There were a ton of very difficult decisions that needed to be made, and Chief Dudeck made a number of those decisions,” says Bruschi who was reluctant to discuss the specifics of Dudeck’s departure. “Let’s put it this way: We wouldn’t be where we are today if he didn’t make those decisions.”

While Princeton’s relatively smooth transition might inspire other communities, it is not a typical case. For starters, the township and borough already shared a name—an important emotional factor. They also shared 13 services prior to consolidation, more than any other two municipalities in the state. These included fire, social services, recreation, sewer, regional planning, public health and animal control. Furthermore, the Princeton public school system, which includes four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, has been merged since 1966. And, of course, Princeton’s two municipalities shared a world-class university that over the years has contributed a great deal of wealth and prestige, as well as the occasional influence over how both municipalities functioned. The school’s 500-acre main campus spreads across 184 acres of the former borough and 316 acres of the former township, giving the school a significant voice on issues of land use, public safety and other factors that affect the 7,900-student campus.

Princeton University took no official stand on the proposed merger, but Anton Lahnston, chairman of the former Consolidation Commission, says it was commonly understood that the school would prefer to deal with a single governing body rather than two. Prior to the vote, graduate students from the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs worked with the commission to research the issue of consolidation. After the vote, the university offered its expertise to the transition committee and governing bodies while contributing $250,000 each to the former township and borough to help defray transition costs, according to Princeton University spokesman Martin Mbugua.

As a university town, Princeton boasts an abundance of intellectual capital, producing an unusually active and involved citizenry. This made it easier to staff the various volunteer commissions studying, promoting and enacting consolidation. Lahnston said his consolidation study group held about 70 public meetings over 16 months, first to gather feedback and later to explain how consolidation would work.

“We wanted to be as transparent as possible. We went into people’s homes and met with organizations, letting them know what we were doing and bringing their concerns back to the commission,” recalls Lahnston, whose group posted all its work on a special website operated by the consultancy.

Much remains to be done, from resolving differences between conflicting ordinances to paying off the expenses incurred in the merger. Transition costs were estimated at about $2.3 million, including $600,000 for a new police dispatch system and $250,000 in employee contract buyouts. The transition also requires modifications in municipal buildings; various departments have been divided between the two existing town halls. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs recently agreed to pay Princeton $464,000, fulfilling a promise by Governor Christie to cover 20 percent of costs for any municipalities that go through with consolidation. (The governor’s pledge is included in legislation passed in 2011, but it was never certain that the DCA would fund the payment or how it would calculate the merger’s cost.)

The state has also lent a hand in ongoing contract negotiations between Princeton’s governing officials and the three labor unions that represent about 60 percent of the town’s employees. The parties have spent the last 18 months trying to resolve the differences in the salaries and benefits once provided by the two municipalities. The Policemen’s Benevolent Association ratified a new three-year contract for Princeton’s police in June, giving officers just under a 2 percent annual raise and doubling the length of time it takes new hires to reach top salary, from 6 to 12 years. Negotiations with AFSCME (which represents state, county and municipal employees) and the Teamsters were still under way at deadline.

Salaries for the mayor, council president and members of the council also have been an issue. Upon merging, members of the new town councils were to be paid what borough council members had earned, $7,500 a year—a decrease for those coming from the township, who had been paid $10,000. A proposed pay scale would bring all council salaries up to $10,000, but responding to public criticism, the mayor has recommended tabling the plan. A proposal to raise the mayor’s salary from $15,000 to $17,500 has already been dropped.

Despite the ongoing challenges in Princeton, merger advocates around the state have been energized by the united township’s progress. Since founding Courage to Connect New Jersey in 2010, Gina Genovese, former mayor of Long Hill in Morris County, has seen a marked shift in attitudes about consolidation, though she admits much resistance remains.

“When I first started this effort, everyone said, ‘Gina, you’re nuts,’” Genovese told a roomful of public officials attending the Courage to Connect conference in June. “Now, since Princeton consolidated, I’ve gone back to those people and they say, “I never said that.’ Instead, what they’re saying now is, ‘It happened in the Princetons, but it will never happen anywhere else.’”

Jill P. Capuzzo frequently reports on real estate for New Jersey Monthly.

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