Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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Princeton Future Hosts Meeting On Consolidation

Ellen Gilbert

Consolidation is without question the subject du jour in Princeton, and it’s likely to remain a hot-button issue until November 8, when residents of both municipalities get to vote for or against it.

Recent developments include an endorsement of Princeton consolidation from Governor Chris Christie; a letter jointly signed by both Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman and Township Mayor Chad Goernor, encouraging people to vote for consolidation; and still another letter from Borough Council Members Jenny Crumiller, Roger Martindell, Barbara Trelstad, Council President Kevin Wilkes, and again, Mayor Trotman, also voicing their support for consolidation.

Saturday morning’s three-hour Princeton Future meeting on Saturday morning focused exclusively on consolidation. The Princeton Senior Resource (PSRC) will host a “Discussion on Consolidation” on Wednesday, October 19 at 10:30 a.m. in the Suzanne Patterson Building, behind Borough Hall.

“The residents of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough have an opportunity to streamline their local governments and achieve significant savings now and into the future,” said Mr. Christie in his announcement. “My view has always been that sensible, locally-driven consolidation must be supported by state government, and that is exactly what we are doing by proposing common sense changes to how municipalities absorb the one-time costs of mergers and incentivizing voter-approved consolidations with grants to assist with those expenses. I believe these efforts to consolidate in Princeton can be an example for other municipalities seeking savings and efficiencies under the two percent property tax cap.”

To facilitate the Borough-Township merger in Princeton and encourage other municipalities to follow suit, Governor Christie is proposing legislation that will allow those municipalities opting for complete consolidation to spread one-time costs associated with the process over a five-year period. In addition, a grant from the Division of Local Government Services, within the Department of Community Affairs, is intended to provide consolidating municipalities a grant to cover 20 percent of the cost of implementation, representing the entire first year expense of the five year period proposed under the legislation.

The Mayors

“We recognize that this is not the first time that consolidation has been considered in our community, but this time we did some things differently,” said Ms. Trotman and Mr. Goerner in their letter, which will be printed in full in the October 12 Mailbox. “Unlike in 1996, we included elected officials on the study commission and we were aided by an independent consulting firm that analyzed our municipal operations to identify potential savings and efficiencies.”

“It is unusual for elected officials to recommend eliminating their own jobs,” wrote Ms. Trotman, Ms. Crumiller, Mr. Martindell, Mr. Wilkes, and Ms. Trelstad in their letter (see this week’s Mailbox), which was not signed by Council Members Jo Butler and David Goldfarb. While Ms. Butler has publicly endorsed consolidation, Mr. Goldfarb, who was a member of the Consolidation Commission, has expressed reservations about the merger.

“You elected us, we have carefully considered the matter, and we offer you our collective opinion to the best of our ability,” wrote the four signers. “We hope you will follow our advice by voting for consolidation on November 8.”

The agenda at the Saturday Princeton Future meeting, which was held in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library, included presentations on different aspects of consolidation, followed by 25-minute question and answer sessions. Although Ms. Trotman was listed, Borough Council member David Goldfarb took her place in a joint presentation on “The Form of Governance” with former Township Mayor Bernie Miller. Other sessions considered the implications of consolidation for public works; for the police; and on “finance and taxes.”

“We were all over the map,” observed Princeton Township resident Carol Golden in describing the commission’s efforts to tap into ideas from “many stakeholders and constituents,” while also making the process as “open and transparent as possible.”

Opponents of consolidation handed out fliers to meeting attendees as they entered the library Saturday morning. “Consolidation will result in so many additional costs and demands on employee time (restructuring, rules and regulations, capital spending, procedural and labor relations, legal fees, additional services …) that we will be swamped with higher taxes and snarled services,” read a statement from the group that calls itself Preserve Our Historic Borough. Another document cited losses in representation, revenue, and public services as reasons why Borough residents are against consolidation.

“People have been asking us to help them understand this,” said Borough resident Alexi Assmuss in a later interview. “One of the pieces of misinformation I have been trying to correct is that the savings to the municipality under consolidation will not be $3.16M, but will be instead $1.98M. Also, on the fairness question of financial benefit to Borough and Township taxpayers with consolidation, the calculation shows that Township taxpayers will receive more than triple the financial benefit.” More information from those opposing consolidation can be found at http://preserveprincetonborough.wordpress.com.

Borough mayoral candidate, Republican Jill Jachera, who had previously expressed concern about the efficacy of the merger, said on Saturday that she is now going to vote for consolidation. She attributed her change of heart to Mr. Goerner’s presentation on finances.

Although they were offered separately, the presentations on Saturday morning often returned to similar themes. In addition to financial savings from streamlining government offices, these included increased leverage in negotiating with Princeton University, and the unwieldiness of opting for shared services without consolidation.

Township resident Valerie Haynes and Borough resident Alice Small described their “eye-opening” tours of current public works facilities in both municipalities, describing them as “inadequate for services being provided.” They recommended timely upgrades, and also noted the financial efficiency of a shared public works department.

In one of the more contentious conversations, Princeton Township resident William Metro and former Borough Council member Ryan Lilienthal talked about the advantages of a shared police department. Mr. Metro acknowledged that both the Borough and the Township currently have “very good” police departments, with some similarities, as well as different strengths that would be tapped into by consolidation.

Speaking of emergency services, Mr. Metro observed that “it gets a little bit confusing” when people in the area call 911. The reasons for this include the existence of not two but three current emergency systems (the Borough, the Township, and the University), as well as the variability that comes from making cell phone calls in different neighborhoods. Opponents of consolidation expressed concern about slackening service that they believe would result from a reduction in numbers of police officers. Those in favor cited large-scale emergency preparedness and speedier response times.

“It’s an achievable road map for restructuring,” observed more than one presenter as the morning wound down. “Look at the long-term considerations,” said Mr. Goerner.

The final report on consolidation can be found at www.cgr.org/princeton.

An RSVP for the Princeton Senior Resource Center program on consolidation is requested, but not required; call (609) 924-7108.

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