By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
On the first day of 2013, Mayor Liz Lempert proclaimed that the historic merger of the borough and the township that took effect that morning would succeed, a model for not just the state but the entire nation to follow.
“Today, with the beginning of our newly consolidated government, we turn the page and start a new chapter,” she said to an overflow crowd inside a packed meeting room in the Witherspoon Hall municipal building.
But so far, no other communities in New Jersey have replicated what Princeton has done. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what then to make of the refusal of more than 560 municipalities in New Jersey to follow suit?
To local advocates of consolidation, they say change is difficult, especially in a state where home rule is so strong. To them, the benefits of consolidation are hard to miss.
Nearing the start of year four as a single community, officials this week touted the financial benefits of the union — even as one councilman said the merger was rushed and should have been spread out over a longer period of time.
In a report to council, Councilman Patrick Simon and resident Scott Sillars, head of the volunteer Citizens Finance Advisory Committee, showed that in 2015, the town will save $2.29 million due to consolidation. Mr. Sillars said that’s based on having 23 fewer employees on the municipal payroll than when there were two towns.
“I think it’s worked as exactly as expected. I’m very pleased where things are. We’ve done a great job,” Mr. Sillars said Tuesday of the merger.
The savings, though, could have been more than that, according to their presentation. Municipal officials decided within the past three years to grow the size of government to the tune of $436,000 and by expanding residential trash pickup at a cost of $714,000. Also, the town is paying back $483,516 in costs related to merging.
Mr. Sillars said there is a level of service that people in town require, and that the increased spending — on creating the municipal customer service department Access Princeton and other steps — was justifiable.
“I remember a lot of the discussions we were having before we were consolidated was do we eliminate services or do we raise taxes. It’s much better to have a little bit more flexibility that we’ve gotten with consolidation,” said Mayor Lempert on Monday.
As she prepares to run for re-election in 2016, consolidation is likely one of her selling points to voters. Consolidation advocates like her have and continue to stress that the merger was not just about saving taxpayers money but also providing the community with a better government.
“The thing that I said all along is how do we create a better service environment in Princeton,” said Anton Lahnston, the former chairman of the Consolidation Study Commission, the group that had recommended the merger.
“I think that we are accountable to the public and the voters for voting for consolidation. I think it is our responsibility as stewards of their funds to report back to the public which direction consolidation is going,” Councilman Lance Liverman said Tuesday.
But in the view of one official, Princeton still needs to make the case for what it did in a community where some remain skeptical of forming one town out of two. Councilwoman Jo S. Butler said Tuesday that there are lingering feelings in the former borough, where she resides, that the level of government service is not up to what residents enjoyed when the towns were separate.
“It’s not just for residents but our obligation to other communities that might be looking at this,” Ms. Butler said in terms of demonstrating how consolidation has worked.
She said the merger worked in Princeton because the two towns had similar population sizes and that they were about in the same shape financially in terms of how much debt they were carrying. She believes that if one town were in significantly worse financial shape than the other, people would have been reluctant to go along.
But why have no other municipalities done likewise?
Mr. Lahnston, who has visited about 12 towns over the past three years to share the Princeton story, pointed to the strong passion for “local control.”
“I know it’s very strong, you can’t make that go away,” he said. Along those lines, Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller called it “very hard to give up turf.”
Princeton, as the community is legally known, was birthed Jan.1, 2013 — the product of a merger that voters in both communities approved in 2011 at a referendum. Three previous attempts at merging had failed, but this one was hailed as a success that Gov. Chris Christie and others touted.
“I think in some respects it’s been outstanding,” Mr. Lahnston said. “I’m very proud of what’s been accomplished.”
Even though the physical and administrative work of bringing two staffs together happened, officials are still trying to complete other details.
For instance, Ms. Crumiller said officials have “barely made a dent” in melding land use ordinances from the former borough and the township. She said officials need to “get on the ball for next year.”
Looking back, Mr. Liverman said he thought the merger should have been spread out over a longer period, three years, rather than have officials and staff “rush” to get it done in one. Bringing together municipal agencies, like the police and public works departments, under one umbrella required more time, he said. He said he believed it was “too overwhelming” to make that happen in so short a time.
Yet he also said consolidation is “great” and that he would encourage other towns to follow suit.
For his part, Mr. Sillars noted that the then-two towns already had consolidated recreation and health departments and a library that both communities supported. He said that meant officials did not have to work on every issue leading up to the merger.
Mr. Lahnston, echoing what Mayor Lempert has said, sees Princeton as a model for other communities. He said state government needs to provide towns with financial assistance to help them pay for third-party consultants and to defray consolidation-related costs.
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer