February 8, 2012

Transition Task Force Brainstorms Merger

With the naming of Mark Freda as chairman and Steve Sillars as vice-chairman, the Consolidation Transition Task Force is ready to start planning the merging of the two Princetons. The group held its first organizational meeting last Wednesday and will meet again tonight to tackle such topics as an early retirement program for municipal employees, the proposed hiring of KSS Architects to figure out space planning for merging offices, and other consolidation-related matters.

More than 60 people were on hand for the initial gathering, which was switched from a meeting room at the Township Building to the larger, main meeting hall. Borough Mayor Yina Moore and Township Mayor Chad Goerner led most of the discussion, but will defer at tonight’s meeting and in the future to Mr. Freda, who is a former Borough Council member and emergency services director of Princeton Borough. He and Mr. Sillars were unanimously elected by the task force.

The task force has an initial budget of $50,000, contributed equally by the Township and Borough, for such expenses as hiring independent auditors or consultants. With a preliminary report due April 10, time is short. “This is a very, very aggressive schedule,” said Borough Administrator Bob Bruschi, in his opening summary of the task force’s duties. He and Jim Pascale, who is the Township administrator, said they have been meeting with department heads since consolidation was approved by the voters last November.

The two administrators divided their findings into three areas: organizational charts, transition costs, and the savings that can be achieved through consolidation. Mr. Pascale said that the department heads had been able to find ways to save costs. “There are many hidden costs that need to be addressed,” Pascale said. “From the color of police cars and deciding what to do with that, there are all kinds of costs along those lines as we transition into one community. Department heads have made a tentative list of issues.”

The hiring of an architect firm, specifically KSS, which designed the Municipal Building, was recommended by the administrators to do the space planning involved in merging the offices of the municipalites. “Our goal number one is to start putting bodies in offices in Township Hall, Borough Hall, and the recreation complex,” said Mr. Pascale. “We will need expertise. I met with KSS. Bob is comfortable with KSS. We don’t have a lot of time to go out and solicit bids.”

The money for the services of an architecture firm, estimated at $28,000, would not come from the $50,000 transition budget, but from the money put aside for transition costs. “We don’t have time to have an RFP (request for proposal),” said Mr. Bruschi. “We’re not trying to shove KSS down your throats, but the Township is comfortable with this.”

Task force member Jim Levine urged that the suggestion be tabled until he and his colleagues have had time to consider it. “Moving forward with KSS seems like the cart is way before the horse,” he said. “It just feels like we should have more input.” The group agreed to table the question of hiring KSS until tonight’s meeting.

The members of the task force were urged by several to “follow the road map” established by the Consolidation Commission, which was formed last year to study the consolidation proposal. “I don’t want the task force to get the idea that we’re here to re-invent the wheel,” Mr. Goerner said. “Follow the model of the consolidation commission.” Aaron Lahnston, who chaired the commission, echoed that request. “Be true to the plan,” he said, during the public comment section of the meeting. “The voters voted for it.”

The early retirement incentive program is another priority, Mr. Pascale said. “The consolidation report eliminated 18.5 positions. The law that created the ability to consolidate also has a provision where you can humanely reduce the size of staff through an early retirement program.”

An application must be filed by the Borough and Township with the State of New Jersey to obtain estimates on the cost of an early retirement incentive program. “We might not want to consider the program once we see the numbers,” said Mr. Goerner. “We need to look at the issue from a cost perspective, understanding what other options are available. This is the key critical issue before we move forward.”

During the public comment section of the meeting, Jefferson Road resident Kate Warren asked whether the municipalities must accept bids for the architecture contract. Mr. Bruschi replied that since the contract is considered a professional service, it is exempt from the rules that govern public bidding.

Township resident Henry Sager urged the task force to create “a plan for a plan. It needs to be very clear what you can do as a task force,” he said, adding that differences in work cultures will need to be considered as departments are merged.

Mr. Lahnston urged the task force to consult members of the consolidation commission. “We want to support you,” he said. “Please use us. Call on us. We want to help.” He also recommended that the task force use the commission’s consultant, Center for Governmental Research (CGR), as its project manager.

Kristin Appelget, Princeton University’s director of community relations, offered to provide resources and information. “If there is a subcommittee on town and gown, we’d be interested,” she said.

The task force will hold its public meetings every other Wednesday starting tonight, at 7 p.m., in the municipal building. The group’s term expires June 30, 2013.