Princeton Borough and Princeton Township combine to become Princeton

And then there were 565. Municipalities in New Jersey, that is. One fewer than on December 31.

As of January 1, 2013, Princeton borough and township became one Princeton, using the borough form of government. The new mayor and council were sworn in as part of a celebration that included a “Consoli-Cake” and tours of the former township municipal building, which now houses most government offices for the combined Princeton.

The municipal consolidation is the first in New Jersey in 15 years and it took two very similar communities, one of which completely surrounds the other and which already shared a regional school district and planning board, four tries over six decades to accomplish.

“It’s gone amazingly well,” Robert Bruschi, Princeton’s administrator and the former administrator of the old borough, told a gathering of citizens last month to discuss the status of the merger.

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That’s due in large part to all the work done last year by the Transition Task Force, and the roughly 18 months prior by the Joint Shared Services and Consolidation Commission. That commission recommended the communities consider merging. Both municipal governing bodies agreed unanimously to put consolidation on the 2011 ballot and it passed comfortably in both.

For the past year, dozens of people worked on the numerous tasks that needed completing in order to make the two municipal structures into one. The task force and its subcommittees held some 160 meetings to hammer out suggested staff sizes, hiring parameters, trash collection, and almost every other function of government. These were some 33 tasks, resulting either in recommended actions to be taken by the separate municipal governing bodies, which generally concurred, or the suggestion that the new council should handle the matter.

Joe Stefko, president of the Center for Government Research, the consultant that has worked with the Princetons since mid-2010, told the crowd at the December meeting that the process was very collaborative and that all involved had worked very hard.

“There was a lot to be done, and not a lot of time to do it,” he said in unveiling the task force’s draft final report.

What resulted was a relatively smooth process that is going to wind up costing a little more than anticipated but is also yielding more savings, at least initially, than had been expected.

The consolidation commission had estimated roughly $1.6 million in savings this year. That estimate has been increased to at least $2.3 million, according to the report. Some of that is due to an accelerated saving of staff costs — $705,000 last year — due to the decision not to fill some vacant positions, including four police officers.

“We’re going into year one ahead of the game,” Stefko said.

There will still be savings in the long term, although it’s unclear whether those will meet or exceed the consolidation commission’s early estimates. For 2015, the commission estimated $3.6 million in savings; the report now says that will range between $2.6 million and $4 million.

Those are savings from staffing only — ranging from 10.5 fewer positions last year and this year to 22.5 fewer in 2015. In addition, the report states that the task force’s finance subcommittee has identified between $350,000 and $400,000 in other savings that can be incorporated into the 2013 budget.

Bruschi noted there are savings that do not need staff cuts, for instance, in the information technology area. The existing IT staff from the township can handle the duties for the merged Princeton, which will no longer have to pay for the contracted tech services that the borough used to fund.

“So there is a net savings,” he said.

One-Time Transition Costs

On the other hand, the one-time cost of the transition is estimated to be about $1 million more than the $2.5 million originally anticipated. The major increases: about $250,000 in employee separation costs, for which the commission had not provided an estimate; $580,000 for building modifications, which had not been anticipated; and $344,000 for legal costs, $160,000 more than expected.

Additionally, there are about $1 million in what the report calls “coincidental costs,” work that would have had to have been done anyway and so were not a direct result of the merger. That includes some $600,000 for upgrading and combining the 911 dispatch and radio system, which the consolidation commission had estimated would cost $220,000, and $438,000 to move the Corner House, a joint agency of both Princetons providing drug and crisis counseling, which had not been anticipated.

Stefko noted there are several ways to pay for transition costs, which can be spread over five years. The state has agreed to pay 20 percent; Princeton University has contributed $500,000 toward the effort; and there are the budget savings, including the unanticipated $705,000 in 2012, as well as the continuing annual savings of at least $2.6 million.

While costs and savings can often make or break a deal when communities consider consolidation, several people who attended the meeting on the final report seemed more interested in what would happen to trash, food waste, and leaf collections. These are expected to be roughly similar to what was offered in the borough, with township residents getting municipal trash pickup for the first time — now they have to contract privately — and Bruschi promising the cost of the collection of food waste would drop.

“We always knew this was going to be the most sensitive issue,” Bruschi joked.

Figuring out how to keep providing these services was just one of the tasks facing the two communities as they considered the merger over the last year. While not yet technically one, the two governing bodies worked in harmony to solve many of the issues early in order to facilitate a smooth transition.

By midsummer, workers in various departments in both Princetons already had been shadowing their counterparts to learn how they operated; police in both communities were patrolling together; and Bruschi had been chosen as the administrator of the merged Princeton.

Crucial Cooperation

Stefko said designating governmental leaders early was crucial to help integrate the operations of the two communities to give the new leaders a feeling of ownership, “because then you are dealing with your department.” He said that having departmental workers from the communities work together early on has led to “stronger working relationships.”

In November, voters chose their first representatives. Liz Lempert, former deputy mayor of the township, was elected mayor. Two former township committeemen, three former borough council members’ and one newcomer, also formerly of the borough, were elected to the council. All are Democrats.

Some potentially thorny issues were also decided: details of the severance given to the few workers who lost their jobs, reconciling extra pay and time-off policies, and where departments will be housed. The integration of the police departments actually occurred in early December, and nearly all municipal offices had moved into their new homes by then. While most offices are in the former township building, health, human services, and public works all are based in the former borough hall.

Bruschi said the movement of offices left the communities “a little ahead of schedule,” although some residents of one community or the other were unaware of the moving and wound up in the wrong place. It’s not too inconvenient, though, since the former borough offices are little more than a mile away from what is now the main town hall on Witherspoon Street.

He added that the integration of the police departments could not have been smoother.

“The best test we had was the hurricane a couple of weeks ago. The departments worked seamlessly together,” he told residents last month. “They have been riding together and working in the various communities for the past few months. The only difference you may see is a borough car, or a borough-painted car, show up at your house, or a township car if you live in the borough.”

The new Princeton also has a new logo, chosen in early December from 75 designs submitted in a contest. Displaying a bold green tree on a black background, the logo “will ultimately be one of many ways to make Princeton easily recognizable,” Bruschi said.

Still, there’s more than enough work left for the new council. Among its toughest tasks this year will be reconciling salaries, which may be higher for some positions in one community than in the other, and merging negotiated contracts.

Mark Freda, who chaired the Transition Task Force, said that while officials already have identified conflicting ordinances and brought them into line, others still need to be reworked to cover the entire new borough.

“We don’t know how long it will take,” he said.

All Eyes on Princeton

While focused on the massive amount of work that needed to be done, officials did not forget that the rest of the state, at least, is watching them, and that Princeton’s experience could help others decide whether to explore merging.

Stefko said he hopes the final report will “serve as a real reference point going forward for the community, for the governing bodies and the public, and for other communities that may go through this process.”

Officials involved in the transition also worked with graduate students from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on a report critiquing the consolidation process.

“We’re looking for ways for the transition process to be even richer next time,” said Anton Lahnston, who chaired the consolidation study commission. “To create a roadmap” for those considering a merger, with Princeton as an example, he added.

New Jersey enacted a law five years ago that makes it easier for municipalities to consolidate. Princeton was the first successful case since then. State officials and Gov. Chris Christie have said they are hoping more communities will follow suit.

Chad Goerner, the former mayor of Princeton Township who did not seek election to the governing body of the new borough, called for more local officials to consider merging and outlining the benefits in a series of opinion pieces than ran in newspapers around the state.

In a piece in The Record, Goerner wrote, “Similar consolidation among Bergen County’s 70 municipalities would not only generate the same kind of monetary savings, it would also greatly improve the coordination of emergency services.” “While consolidation is not a silver-bullet solution for everything that ails us, it certainly is one item in our municipal toolkit and should be moved to the top shelf. Our success in Princeton is proof.”

And if municipal officials don’t move consolidation, or at least sharing services, to their top shelves? New Jersey may get tougher on them. The state Senate last November passed a bill that would require towns to share services or lose state aid.

NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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