Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 17
 
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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The “C-Word” Takes Center Stage at Joint Meeting

Ellen Gilbert

Princetonians turned out in droves on Monday night for a joint, working-session only, Borough Council — Township Committee meeting on consolidation. In a presentation entitled “How Municipalities Organize to Deliver Services,” N.J. Division of Local Government Services Deputy Director Marc Pfeiffer walked the representatives of the two municipalities and a standing-room-only crowd along the admittedly rocky road to unification.

Emphasizing changes enacted by the state in 2007, Mr. Pfeiffer, a former Princeton resident who participated in the 1995-1996 Consolidation Commission, suggested that the process could be easier this time around, with more flexible laws that recognize differences among municipalities, look at likely tax increases, and address the question of municipal debt load by suggesting that each municipality maintain its debt obligations after consolidation.

New laws like the “Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act,” he said, provide “a framework for making it happen” by offering aid for feasibility studies and implementation costs, and binding arbitration or fact-finding panels to deal with disputes. Of particular interest to Princeton, where two police forces exist side by side, is whether there is legal protection of the seniority, tenure, and pension rights of law enforcement personnel.

Homeowners whose property is taxed at a higher rate due to consolidation would receive protection through fixed state funded credits which would remain with the homeowner until the property is sold, Mr. Pfeiffer reported, adding that tenants in rental properties that are revalued would receive a rebate if they are eligible under the existing tenant rebate law.

Mr. Pfeiffer emphasized the importance of “open, candid discussions of objectives and how to achieve them,” urging those present to “include everyone who has a stake in the matter, hold public hearings, address concerns about loss of local control when a service is provided by another existing department, define standards of performance, and determine complaint handling procedures.”

The process should be incremental, he noted; not everything can be done at once. “Pay attention to perceptions,” he counseled, “address and resolve them. Keep the focus on constituents’ needs and how best to meet them.” He concluded by observing that “there’s not a lot of assumptions that can be made up front. You’re going to find out things you didn’t know before.”

Although there have been “many studies on consolidation,” Mr. Pfeiffer was able to report only one actual consolidation to date, although, he noted, there are “several efforts underway.”

In his comments after Mr. Pfeiffer’s presentation, Borough Councilman David Goldfarb said that he had participated in the ’95-’96 consolidation discussions, and suspected that the evening’s cautionary comments could be traced back to that effort. He suggested that “we act in a way that will get us to the next stage, without using the ‘c- word’ that will upset everyone.” He went on to express concern about the absence of any discussion regarding mechanisms ensuring that the Borough would continue to receive parking and hotel tax revenues.

“That’s a definite maybe,” Mr. Pfeiffer responded, saying that he was unfamiliar with the Princetons’ specific agreements, but that “the law provides for flexibility.” Borough Council member Andrew Koontz seconded Mr. Goldfarb’s concerns about these revenues, adding that it was “an eye-opener” to learn that property taxes might actually increase as a result of consolidation, when “conventional wisdom” had historically suggested the opposite.

Former Borough Police Chief Mark Freda spoke in favor of a single police force that “would be more attentive, more flexible, and more effective overall.” He cited a handout he recently distributed to Council and Committee members showing that the current 95 positions occupied by both police forces could be reduced to 74, with the annual budget of $7.5 million lowered to $6.5 million.

“I liked what David said,” observed Borough resident Jenny Crumiller. “It’s a process with steps, and we don’t need to argue during the first couple of steps. I hope we can move forward after this meeting.”

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