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Vol. LXV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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The Pros and Cons Of Consolidation Aired at Meeting

Anne Levin

The ongoing debate about consolidating Princeton Borough and Township continued at a joint meeting of Borough Council and Township Committee last Tuesday, September 27 at Borough Hall. Following a statement by Consolidation and Shared Services Commission Chairman Anton Lahnston, several residents of both municipalities expressed their views on the merger. The consolidation question will be on the ballot for voters November 8.

Mr. Lahnston presented consolidation as an opportunity for unifying resources. He addressed issues posed by people opposed to it, calling them “myths and misstatements that make voter education difficult.” His use of the word “myths” was challenged in some later statements by residents.

Dan Preston, who is president of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, spoke in favor of consolidation. Mr. Preston said he thinks much of the concern of those against the merger is “about the notion that there are two township voters to every borough voter,” he said. Looking at the percentages of gubernatorial and congressional elections in 2009 and 2010, he found that residents of both municipalities vote overwhelmingly Democratic and share the same values. “In campaigns, I’ve knocked on doors in both the Borough and Township,” he said, and attitudes are the same. “I don’t care which side of the line you are on,” he said. “People are very much like one another.”

Borough Republican Committee Chairman Dudley Sipprelle, who is a candidate for Council, said he has done his own share of door-knocking. “People are telling me they are against consolidation and some of them are Democrats,” he said. “In a community that prides itself on diversity — gender, economic, and racial — the one group that has never quite figured into the diversity element is Republicans. We are disenfranchised, and will continue to be disenfranchised.”

Mr. Sipprelle also expressed concern about the Consolidation Commission’s recommendation to keep the Borough form of government in a merged Princeton rather than switching to another model, such as the ward system. With consolidation, the current system of Borough Council and Township Committee with 11 elected officials would switch to one body with six officials. In a combined municipality of almost 20 square miles, this would be inadequate, he said.

Borough resident Alexi Assmus, active in the anti-consolidation organization Preserve Our Historic Borough, commented that there is “an inexorable logic to municipal consolidation” -- either higher taxes or fewer services. Citing the Commission’s statements that with the merger, the savings would be $3.2M, she said that figure does not include the $1.2 million cost for extending trash collection to the Township. The projected tax savings also does not inlcude the $1.7 million in transition costs estimated by the Commision, which is an unreasonably low estimate and does not include costs for employee time necessary to rewrite, revise and approve rules and regulations and SOPs needed for police work, she said.

Borough resident Ken Fields was not pleased at the idea of offering different levels of service depending on current municipal boundaries, saying it would be a form of discrimination. Councilman David Goldfarb, the only elected official not to express support for consolidation, said that while the downtown area would maintain its current garbage and brush services, the levels of service would depend upon location in the Borough. Township Mayor and Consolidation Commission member Chad Goerner urged people to look at the issue from a holistic perspective. “If we look at trash collection only, then we don’t have much to talk about,” he said.

Consolidation supporter Van Williams, a Borough resident, applauded the commission for its study of the issue. But the ultimate responsibility rests with voters. “We will be the ones who elect the officials. We will be the ones who take this blueprint and hold those elected officials accountable,” he said, adding, “We can be more effective as one community.”

Borough resident Jim Firestone said he likes the current system of checks and balances that currently exists between the two municipalities. Mr. Firestone called Princeton University “the 800 pound gorilla across the street,” and said he was pleased when the Borough stood up to them. “I’m worried that consolidation will create one-stop shopping for the university,” he said. “When are they going to pay taxes like we do? I like the fact that the borough holds them accountable. I don’t like the way the Township does not.”

Several members of Council and Township Committee spoke in favor of consolidation at the end of the meeting. Among them was Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, who said she supports the idea this time, in contrast to the last time it was proposed in 1996, because her concerns have been addressed. “Things are quite different this time,” she said. “I’m convinced that the services Borough residents have come to expect will not be diminished one iota.”

The next joint meeting will take place October 26 at Township Hall.

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