In Princeton, All Together Now

A funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box in New Jersey last Tuesday on Election Day: voters in Princeton Township and Princeton Borough broke with tradition and chose to consolidate into a single municipality.

In today's tough economic climate, with municipalities struggling to balance local budgets, could the actions of a few thousand voters in two New Jersey towns mark the beginning of a new state and regional trend toward shared services and consolidation? There are thousands of governmental entities in the tri-state region, including 900 on Long Island alone. Many of them are ripe candidates for some type of consolidation.

There are both costs and benefits to consolidation. Over the next year, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, with combined budgets last year of about $65 million, will be spending upward of $1.6 million to complete a merger of their governments. But this will produce an estimated annual cost savings of at least $3 million, with the possibility of more.

There are other ways the new "Princeton" stands to benefit.

Municipal services are likely to improve. For towns that find themselves in the two Princetons' current situation - sometimes referred to as "doughnut towns" where one municipality completely surrounds another - police, public works, permitting and other services typically have redundancies. And residents are often confused about which municipality to turn to. Consolidation should allow the new municipality to provide more efficient and enhanced services, from fighting fires to plowing streets.

Beyond services, government at the elected and managerial levels may become more responsive and effective now that Princeton has a single governing body. Residents of the "Borough" and the "Township" will now be politically what they already mostly were in actuality, one community, with a historic, vibrant downtown and a world-renowned university. Princeton's new governing body, which represents a larger number of people and has one voice rather than two, should have greater clout at the state level.

Tax savings are also expected. More efficient government could translate into tax savings for Princeton residents of $200 to $240 a year. In a state that has the nation's highest property tax rates, this is particularly welcome.

Princeton's success in approving consolidation contrasts with the failure of many if not most such efforts. The two Princeton towns had failed to consolidate three times previously over the past six decades. In New Jersey as a whole, the most recent merger in the state took place 14 years ago.

Mergers tend to fail because despite the very real possible benefits of consolidation, voters often worry that they will lose familiar local services and get lost in a larger municipality. (It's true that Princeton's consolidation plan calls for the elimination of 15 government positions, including nine police officers.)

Such concerns are valid and worth parsing out. In Princeton, a joint commission formed in 2009 studied the costs and benefits of consolidating. It recommended consolidation and enumerated the benefits described above. The commission also aimed to address the concerns of residents, putting forth recommendations to create a government that represents the voice of all of its citizens and provides effective and efficient services to them while reducing costs and lowering taxes.

This didn't prevent a heated battle on the decision. As a resident of Princeton Borough, I received anti-consolidation flyers before Election Day warning of the threat of increased crime and painting a picture of curbsides littered with trash. In the end, each resident had to make their own choice about the future of this town. Now that the decision has been made, all interested eyes will be on Princeton as it makes this unusual transition.