Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 13
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
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Consolidation Chair Reflects on Progress, Explains Route to Recommendation in May

Dilshanie Perera

After the monthly meeting of the Joint Consolidation and Shared Services Study Commission last week and the Princeton Future community discussion last Saturday, Anton Lahnston summarized the group’s progress, and what it will take to get a question on November’s ballot.

Mr. Lahnston, who is the chair of the joint commission, explained that currently the body’s main focus is to carefully consider the options available to them for sharing services or consolidating. “The conversation is really in its first round,” he said.

Each subcommittee is focusing on its subject area, which includes: full municipal consolidation, the police departments, the public works departments, finances, and community engagement.

The Public Works Subcommittee is primarily dealing with staffing as opposed to facilities at present, while the Police Subcommittee is “looking at some of the options and issues regarding equipment, technology, potential staffing structures, and the similarities and differences between the operations of the two police departments,” Mr. Lahnston noted.

The major issue concerning the Finance Subcommittee is what to do with the existing municipal debt in the Borough and the Township. The two options involve either combining the debt or separating it by municipality. With the discussion ongoing, Mr. Lahnston said that the commission has “a very complete analysis from DCA (the State’s Department of Community Affairs) and CGR (the commission’s consultant, the Center for Governmental Research), but it isn’t clear at this point which is the better route.”

“The difference between the two and the impact is almost negligible,” Mr. Lahnston said about the municipal debts. “That actually makes the decision a little more difficult.”

“We’ve been told several times by residents, and not only with respect to the finance question, to keep things simple. The voters want to be able to understand what is taking place. I respect and value that and I think we all do,” Mr. Lahnston observed, adding that “you want people to have confidence in what you’re doing and you need to be able to communicate it clearly.”

Regarding the recombination of debt, Mr. Lahnston asked, “Which one do we feel communicates the kind of intention and philosophy of fairness? That’s very important.”

In the commission’s engagement with the public, including community and neighborhood groups and other organizations within the municipality, Mr. Lahnston noticed certain recurring themes. Residents are concerned about creating savings while also maintaining the current levels of services. Conversations about the resulting form of government in a consolidated municipality often come up.

“People will, in some cases, refer to the ‘Borough-ness’ of the municipality, and we’re trying to get a better sense in conversations with residents in both the Borough and the Township to understand what they mean,” Mr. Lahnston said. One goal is to gain insight into how residents themselves understand their municipality and what they expect from it. “We’re really engaging in the various neighborhood meetings, and engaging with individuals.”

Using the baseline report as its foundation, the Consolidation Commission is working overtime to analyze what options for sharing would be best for the municipalities. “We’re working toward having some clarity on the options and our recommendations — not necessarily final, but closer —  by our public meeting on the 11th of May. That’s a big benchmark,” Mr. Lahnston said.

“Then the move is to finalize the recommendations so they can then go to the Township and the Borough sometime between the end of May and the middle of June,” he added.

The municipalities would then need to review the proposal, discuss it in public, make any adjustments, and agree on the wording of the referendum by August 25.

“If in fact what came out of the commission’s work was a request for a referendum on the ballot in November, [the two preceding months]would see a lot of public discussions,” Mr. Lahnston explained. “We’re very careful to note that if in fact the vote in November says yes to consolidate, that puts in place a process that would take several years, with the first year being very critical.”

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