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Vol. LXV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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The Looming Vote on Consolidation Inspires Many Impassioned Opinions

Anne Levin

As election day approaches and citizens of Princeton Borough and Township prepare to vote on consolidation, the Town Topics mailbox is overflowing with letters from writers on both sides of the issue. This week’s Mailbox pages include as many as could be accommodated. Several which are not published in full, some of which come from elected officials, are excerpted here for their imaginative perspectives and illuminating details.

Borough Councilman Roger Martindell writes in favor of consolidation, even though it would eliminate the office he currently holds. The merger would make for a less expensive and more effective local government, he writes, for those who now live or pay taxes in the Borough. It would mean less delay in coordinating the two municipalities and shared agencies, would afford an opportunity to restructure the funding and delivery of services like police and public works, and would create more negotiating power with Princeton University, other towns, Mercer County and the State of New Jersey.

It is fear of change that makes some people fear consolidation, Mr. Martindell writes, using some interesting examples to show that change is natural to social evolution:

“Spurning the opportunities afforded by consolidation will condemn us to the absurdities of life well described in The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, in which a group of cats with stars, set off a lunatic, expensive competition for cat “star” status; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, in which the at-odds-kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis cannot resolve their dysfunction except through the return of two exiled princesses, Rhyme and Reason; and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, in which the Lilliputians suffer generations of strife between those who open boiled eggs on the big end and those who do so at the small end,” he writes.

Another spirited pro-consolidation letter comes from Casey Lambert, who writes about the changes he has seen in the Borough during his 47 years as a resident. “Does anyone else miss Toto’s, Farr’s, Hall’s, Urken’s, the diner, the bakery, the Prince Theater, the Clothesline, Saks for women, Lahiere’s, to name a few of the delightful establishments of my early years here?” he writes. “They created a true ‘downtown’ that provided us with everything we needed for daily life. They’re gone. What were the Borough’s own priorities in these past years?

“We’re not talking about the Rape of Troy here. This is consolidation: a coming together, a good idea agreed upon by many reasonable people in the Borough and Township …. We can be a BLT: Boro+Love+Township — Princeton. Or we can just be toast.”

Anton Lahnston, Chairman of the Princeton Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission, writes a pro-consolidation letter with Phillip Dressing, Chairman of the Seneca Falls Village Dissolution Committee. Seneca Falls, N.Y., while considerably smaller than the combined Princetons, is worthy of examination, they write, because of the recent, successful merger of its Village and Town. The transition to one police department has gone smoothly, tax savings are greater than anticipated, the Village’s historic identity as the birthplace of women’s rights has been maintained, as have levels of service.

“While Princeton and Seneca Falls are unique, the road to consolidation has many commonalities,” the letter reads, “whether we look at services, cost savings, or the desire to change. If Princeton consolidates, we will be a leader in New Jersey, but will be following in the footsteps of communities in other states that have successfully united. If we are to avoid rising taxes, we must change how we provide services and look to successful communities like Seneca Falls for inspiration.”

Borough Councilman David Goldfarb, the only elected official to advocate against consolidation, begins by writing that merging to save taxes is ill-advised. Borough residents would save more by sharing police services. “In either case, the total projected savings would reduce Borough property tax bills by less than one-and-one-half percent,” he writes, “that reduction would come only after several years of transition.”

“Should we consolidate to eliminate squabbling?” he continues. “Disagreements between the Borough and the Township kept the public library downtown and produced a less expensive and more attractive design for the community pool complex. Should we consolidate because we’re all the same? Most Borough residents paid more for smaller homes because they place a higher value on living near the center of town than most of their counterparts in the Township. The Township has more than twice as many voters as the Borough. Who is more likely to be sensitive to the issues that affect the success of the downtown?”

Peter Marks, Republican candidate for Borough Council, finds the argument that consolidation represents the best hope of preserving downtown neighborhoods unpersuasive. “Some of us deny the inevitability of an urban downtown and envision a happier, unconsolidated future,” he writes. “An alternative is suggested by the $2.1 million projected to be saved by eliminating 13 of 79 existing police positions.

“Setting aside the very real questions of appropriate staffing levels, pension obligations, and termination costs, I suggest we ask whether Princeton can afford public servants whose annual per capital cost is $161,538 ($2.1 million divided by 13). It seems obvious that less generous compensation and benefits packages are the only certain path to stable property taxes — and that we can follow that path without abandoning the zoning protections afforded by an independent Borough.”

Realtor James Firestone, a Borough resident who lived for many years in the Township, urges voting against consolidation because the Borough and Township are “definitely different.” The Borough is used to dealing with its large commercial district and Princeton University, but the Township is not. “If you vote to consolidate,” he writes, “it will take a while to get up to speed again with some loss of efficient services and an attentive voice in the affairs at the heart of Princeton.”

Mr. Firestone uses as an example the assessor’s office, which serves both municipalites. Praising former assessors Stuart Robson and Carol Caskey, he has a different opinion about the current person in the post. “When the complicated job of doing two municipalities with an impending revaluation was given to Neal Snyder, our current assessor who last worked in Montgomery Township on cookie-cutter subdivisions, it became harder for an outside without extensive local background to handle the job,” he writes. “His new assistant is also not from Princeton which does not ameliorate the situation.”

Mr. Firestone concludes by saying the only benefit of consolidation he sees is that it creates one-stop shopping for Princeton University. “It’s the coal mining company in the coal mining town,” he writes. “It makes their job easier to get what they want. Perhaps two municipal assessors would have been better so that Princeton wouldn’t be allowed to be on the honor system of assessing themselves. I ask, why have no other New Jersey municipalities consolidated recently? Let’s wait until it actually makes common sense.”

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