June 25, 2014

Mercer County Mayors Agree on One Thing: Trenton Needs Help

While focusing on issues in their individual towns, mayors from Mercer County agreed yesterday that helping to solve problems plaguing the city of Trenton is high on their lists of priorities. Leaders of seven municipalities С from Princeton, Hightstown, Pennington, Hopewell Borough, Hopewell Township, East Windsor, and West Windsor С took part in a roundtable discussion Tuesday morning at Mercer County Community College. The program, “Meet the Mayors,” was sponsored by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“The city of Trenton is critical,” said Pennington Mayor Anthony Persichilli, who grew up in the state capitol. “If there is anything we can do to help, and I’m not talking about money, I think it’s our responsibility.”

Janice Mironov, Mayor of East Windsor, agreed, as did Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert. “It affects all of us, and it’s important that we focus on it as we move forward,” Ms. Mironov said. Ms. Lempert said it is curious that development is encouraged in Princeton, where there is not much available land; rather than in poverty-stricken Trenton, where there is available land and buildings that could be renovated.

The mayors were asked what keeps them up at night. “Trying to get reasonable services for reasonable costs,” responded Steve Kirson, mayor of Hightstown. With 5,500 residents, the town that many pass through on their way to the New Jersey Turnpike is “the smallest big city in the state of New Jersey,” Mr. Kirson said, adding he would like to see more people spend time in the town rather than just driving through. “I’d like to make it a destination community,” he said.

West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said he is focused on the pieces of property in the township that still need to be developed, including the Princeton Junction train station, where a transit village has been planned for years. Activity on the project is starting, he said.

Among Ms. Lempert’s worries are keeping Princeton’s downtown vibrant and not allowing “Mom and Pop” stores to be overrun by chains. “It’s about how to keep that sense of place, keep the town affordable and keep it diverse,” she said. “Consolidation has helped. We’ve lowered the municipal portion of people’s property taxes. But the question remains, how do we change and stay up to date and innovative without losing the core of what makes us special?”

Asked for a more detailed description of how consolidation has been working, Ms. Lempert called it “a great thing for Princeton.” In addition to lowering taxes, she commented that the municipality works better under one government than it did under two. “We have a smaller police force, but we have more officers on the street. We have a dedicated safe neighborhood unit and a traffic unit,” she said. “It has made a difference in police interactions with the community.”

The fact that Princeton Township and Borough had already been sharing many services and support of the merger by Council members are factors in its success. “I can’t imagine it happening unless you have the support of elected officials,” Ms. Lempert said. “There is a lot of work involved.”

Whether Princeton’s consolidation is serving as a blueprint for other municipalities in the county is another matter. Mr. Kirson said he is skeptical. Ms. Mironov said there would need to be demonstration of significant financial benefit for East Windsor before any kind of consolidation could be seriously considered. “The state needs to provide incentives for this,” she said. In Hopewell Township, “residents are not supportive of the idea at the moment,” said Mayor Vanessa Sandom.

“We’re interested in taking a look [at shared services] on a county-wide basis,” said Mr. Persichilli. “But when you keep costs low and quality high, people are happy and don’t talk about it.” Ms. Mironov added that “more is not always better,” citing the fact that East Windsor pulled out of county-wide recycling when they found a less costly provider on their own.

Asked about parking issues on Nassau Street and how they are affecting businesses, Ms. Lempert said it is a continuing problem, and Princeton Council is working on harmonizing the former Borough and Township ordinances on parking into one. An option being discussed with shop owners is a shuttle service that would ferry employees, and possibly visitors, to a remote parking location.