September 20, 2023

A Decade After Passage of Consolidation, Princeton Celebrates, Remembers, Reflects

By Anne Levin

It took several attempts over nearly six decades, but Princeton Township and Princeton Borough were finally consolidated into the municipality of Princeton on January 1, 2013.

The 10th anniversary of this milestone is being celebrated on Thursday, September 28 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. with a public party at the municipal complex. Everyone is invited to hear remarks from State Sen. Andrew Zwicker, Mayor Mark Freda, and Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, followed by live music and refreshments.

Many of the people who worked to make consolidation a reality will be on hand. Prominent among them is Liz Lempert, who was the first mayor of the newly consolidated municipality, and served in the post until 2021.

“Every step along the way was effortful and it required an enormous amount of work from elected officials, municipal staff, and citizen volunteers,” she said in an email this week. “Chad Goerner [former Princeton Township mayor] in particular deserves a huge amount of credit for moving the initiative forward in a thoughtful, open, and methodical way.”

Was the merger a success? Yes, Lempert said. “Consolidation has saved taxpayers significant money (well over $3 million a year), it has led to expanded services, and in many cases improved services — including stronger emergency preparedness and faster, coordinated response. Obviously, consolidation doesn’t solve all our problems, but it puts us in a much stronger position to focus on the challenges facing our community and work collectively to address them.”

To make the merger happen, the Borough Council and Township Committee agreed to do a study of the possibilities of more shared services and full municipal consolidation. Both entities had to approve funding for a consultant, as well as details of how members of the Consolidation Commission would be chosen. Anton Langston headed the Commission and did “a remarkable job,” Lempert said.

“They looked at every department in the Borough, and every department in the Township, created a baseline report, and then analyzed what could be achieved by in some cases sharing services or fully consolidating,” she said. “They also held something like 40 community outreach meetings to hear from the public about concerns and ideas. The Commission ultimately recommended full municipal consolidation, and it was in large part due to the strength of their work that voters in both the Borough and Township overwhelmingly supported the

While no other successful mergers have taken place in other New Jersey towns since 2013, interest has been expressed. “You have to remember that Princeton’s consolidation effort really started in the 1950s,” said Lempert. “There were a series of failed referendums until the successful passage in 2011 [made official in 2013]. Part of the Princeton example is that it can be a very long process. The Borough and Township had 13 shared services between them at the time of consolidation. Sharing more and more services may be an aspect of Princeton’s path to consolidation that other towns follow. At some point, the bureaucracy and politics involved in managing all those shared services stops making sense, and full consolidation seems like less of a radical jump.”

What made the 2011 attempt work was the fact that elected officials played a major role, and most were open to the idea. Lempert has been asked by citizens of other communities about forcing a referendum through a purely grassroots effort, but she believes the commitment of government leadership is essential to making such a merger work. Retaining a good consultant is key. “And of course, it’s vital to listen to the community,” she said. “Especially to those who are opposed to consolidation as well as members of the municipal staff, and attempt to directly address their fears and concerns.”

Lambros, who chaired the committee planning the September 28 event, regards consolidation as transformative for Princeton. “I think it’s really worth celebrating,” she said. “It’s a milestone for our town, but also really historic. We’re a stronger town as a consolidated town, financially and operationally.”

Lambros said that over the 10 years since consolidation went into effect, municipal staff has become 10 percent smaller, resulting in savings of more than $2 million for things like salaries and health benefits. Princeton has earned a triple-A bond rating from Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, “which is very rare,” she said.

After opening the celebration, Lambros will turn the microphone over to Freda and Zwicker. All of those involved in the efforts will be named and thanked, along with those who were Council members at the time. “And we will do something special for Liz, but it’s a surprise,” she said.

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