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Vote Was Perhaps Easiest Piece of Merging the Princetons

First in an occasional NJ Spotlight series looking at the merger of the Princetons.

In some ways, getting voters in Princeton borough and township to agree last year to merge may have been the easiest part of the process.

Since January 31, the Transition Task Force working to implement the consolidation has held 38 full or subcommittee meetings. That’s an average of four meetings a week.

In just nine months, the two communities will become one. There is a lot that needs to be done by January 1 and virtually no model to follow -- New Jersey’s last municipal merger, in 1997, was of Hardwick and Pahaquarry, which had a population of just seven in a township comprised largely of land in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

“The task is daunting,” said Liz Lempert, the deputy mayor of Princeton Township who was a member of the Unite Princeton campaign that worked for passage of the referendum, ultimately supported by three-quarters of voters in both municipalities last November.

Lempert was one of five people involved in the consolidation who discussed the effort last Wednesday during a forum in East Brunswick hosted by Courage to Connect, a nonprofit promoting consolidation in New Jersey.

A few actions already have occurred.

The basic question of a name – Princeton – and form of government – borough, with a directly elected mayor and six council members – have been decided.

And the former 23 voting districts that spanned the borough and township were redrawn and reduced to 22 for the combined community by the county board of elections last December. In some cases, these new districts cross current municipal boundaries, trying to incorporate areas commonly considered to be neighborhoods.

Right now, groups are focusing on the most critical topics in specific areas: communications, facilities, technology, finance, personnel, public safety, public works, and other departments, boards and committees.

“The subcommittees are all up and running and have identified priorities,” said Mark Freda, chairman of the Transition Task Force.

The groups are focusing on those items that have to be in place before January so the borough will be able to operate. Staffing levels are crucial, said Freda, adding, “We do not need to know what will be the colors of the police car.”

In many ways, merging the Princetons should have been easy: The communities are very similar and they already have a regional school district and regional planning board, the only one in the state. They also operate joint commissions for health, environment, recreation and human services, and a local library. Still, officials took nothing for granted.

The governing bodies of both municipalities agreed to form a joint study commission. It looked at both the benefits of merging departments -- police and public works -- or full consolidation. With a budget of $120,000, $37,500 of which was a state grant, that commission hired a consultant, the Rochester, N.Y.-based Center for Government Research, to draft reports outlining current government jobs and costs in both municipalities and options for sharing services or merging.

Anton Lahnston, who lives in the borough and chaired the Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission, said using the nonprofit consultant further helped the effort, given the character of the Princetons, home to the Ivy League university and several other schools.

In May 2011, the commission released its recommendation to consolidate, estimating an annual savings of $3.16 million. Two months later, the governing boards voted unanimously to put the merger question on the ballot.

Bernie Miller, a Princeton Township committeeman and member of the commission, said the openness of the process and its pro-active outreach was crucial to passage. “It is impossible to overestimate the value and work that went into community engagement,” he said.

Supporters also formed a group called Unite Princeton to promote the referendum’s passage, something that had not been done in the previous failed efforts during the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s. According to its filing with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, the group raised more than $18,000 and spent close to $16,000, including mailings and a website.

“The anti-consolidation forces are very motivated to get out their message so it’s important to get other citizens involved who are in favor to present the other side,” said Lempert.

Since the vote, officials have been working on the actual consolidation process. They estimate the cost to transition to a united Princeton at $1.7 million, exclusive of any staff buyouts or early retirements. The combined Princeton is able to spread that cost over five years, with New Jersey agreeing to pay the cost for the first year.

The Transition Task Force has enlisted CGR to help its efforts and the group is assisting eight subcommittees in setting priorities and establishing deadlines for completing specific tasks. It also hired its own attorney to give unbiased legal advice.

“Consolidation is something we are going to realize over an extended period, but for us to have the ability to make that happen … we have to do things that are statutorily required,” said Chad Goerner, mayor of Princeton Township and a member of both the consolidation commission and transition task force.

These top priorities include: writing standard operating procedures for what will be the combined police department, a plan for allocating space for departments, a common set of benefits for workers, and a plan for severance or buyouts for those workers who may not be hired by the new town.

In the meantime, department heads in both communities have been talking about how they operate to help in the blending of offices.

The work remains public, following the state’s open public meetings and records acts. A website includes background, a list of all meetings, agendas and minutes, links to news articles, and a way to contact task force members.

“It’s very very much about let’s have a very public, transparent process,” Freda said.

A member of the state Division of Local Government Services also attends all Princeton meetings “to answer questions that might arise,” said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs. “The division also coordinates other state department assistance. For example, if the Princetons need help regarding tax tables or merging police department services, the division will ensure Princeton officials are connected with the appropriate state officials to get the assistance they need.”

The task force is drawing heavily on the work done by the consolidation commission and its 300 pages of reports.

“We made it pretty clear we want the recommendations of the consolidation commission to be guidelines, but they are just that,” Goerner said. “As they [the task force] go through the process, they may have other suggestions.”

“We are not bound by what the consolidation commission recommended, but realistically, it would not make sense to go too far off what they recommended,” Freda said. “The expectation from the public is that things are going to go along a certain path. I’d say what we’re doing is fine-tuning.”

And all of the task force’s work is just a suggestion, as all decisions are going to be made by the current township committee and borough council. “All we’re doing is recommending processes and structures,” Freda said. “It’s up to the two governing bodies to make the decisions.”

The hardest decisions to make?

“If you’re recommending a process that is going to end up with someone losing his job, that’s a tough thing,” Freda said, “but there are cost savings the public expects.”

The personnel subcommittee is doing that work now, seeking to determine optimal staff sizes and reconciling policies and procedures. Some decisions are being made for the governing bodies, as both the township administrator and township police chief recently announced their retirements.

“In some ways, we are already ahead of where we are supposed to be in January of 2013,” Lempert said.

The personnel subcommittee is studying organizational charts for all departments in both communities and some possible models for combined services -- in the case of the police department, for instance, a model that includes somewhere between 51 and 60 officers. Police officials have told the group they want to keep staffing levels at the current 57 officers.

The streamlined government structure would group services under one administrator into five categories -- police, court, administration and finance, community development, and community services. Suggestions for dealing with redundant positions include attrition, layoffs with a severance package or a state-approved early retirement program.

It also is weighing advice received by its attorney on the newly combined municipal court and about dealing with several specific positions, including the clerk and tax officials who have tenure rights.

“The recommendations of the Consolidation Commission contemplate a smooth transition and a continuation of the municipal staffs, with some downsizing,” according to a letter from attorney William John Kearns Jr. “The new mayor and council will have to decide on the individuals to fill the positions … In this circumstance, some layoffs will take place in order to carry out the consolidation plan approved by the voters.”

Lahnston said state law requires that in the process of “harmonizing salaries” when combining the staffs of municipalities, the higher pay must be used for equivalent jobs so no one gets a salary reduction. While that could diminish savings, it will not be too problematic in the Princetons because the pay scales are not dramatically different.

Personnel decisions are the next hurdle. “We have to have some clarity,” Lempert said. “The staff knows what the process is going to be. It’s important to me that we treat everyone fairly.”

Meanwhile, the finance group is looking to track costs and compare plans against the savings estimates, as well as drafting a preliminary budget and working to combine existing debts into one amount for the new community.

A 2007 update in the law sought to help communities agree to merge by allowing them to determine the best way to pay off existing debt -- either by having the new municipality assume it or requiring people in the communities that incurred the debt to pay it off as a separate assessment.

Because the debt loads in each municipality are similar, the new municipality will assume all the debt, which will be paid by all taxpayers.

An information technology subcommittee is looking into integrating systems, including applications, email, anti-virus and other software, determining which to use and what upgrades may be needed.

The task force’s attorney also is working with the two municipalities’ attorneys on regulations and ordinances that may be in conflict and need to be reconciled.

For instance, each community has a different form, and a different fee, for dog licenses -- it’s a maximum $11.20 per dog in the township and more than double that in the borough, which also has a “potentially dangerous dog fee” of $700. The borough also has vastly different parking ordinances, including meters and permits for residents and guests.

Technically, the process the Princetons are undergoing does not follow all the state rules for consolidation, Freda said. For instance, the law gives the power of hiring staff to the new governing body, but following that particular rule would be impractical, if not impossible. The new council won’t be seated until Jan. 1 and the new government needs to be running by then, as well.

“Realistically, we have to make those decisions soon,” Freda said. “We have to do this by June or these people are going to jump ship. We are going to do things that just make sense.”

The expectation is that the new council will maintain the staffs chosen by the two separate governing bodies.

Freda said lawmakers need to revamp the laws, which mostly date back to the 1970s, to make it more attractive for municipalities to consolidate. “The process does need to become less cumbersome,” he said. “Now, it’s a discouragement.”

The state is going to be looking to the Princetons’ experience for help with any laws that need changing.

“We are forging a new path here,” Goerner said. “That may mean we sometimes may encounter a tree or a rock in the way. It’s going to be our job to reduce that tree to a sapling, that rock to a pebble.”

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