Five years into their experiment with municipal consolidation, current and former elected officials in Princeton are ready to declare it a success as the rate of growth in property-tax bills has slowed and the delivery of services has seemed to improve even with a streamlined workforce.
“It’s so much better now,” said Liz Lempert, who serves as mayor of the consolidated community. “There’s no comparison,” said Chad Goerner, who was mayor of Princeton Township before the consolidation.
The merger of the 12,000-resident Princeton Borough with the surrounding 16,000-resident Princeton Township was New Jersey’s first municipal consolidation in over a decade when it went into effect on January 1, 2013, creating a new municipality that now covers a swath of more than 18 square miles that includes Princeton University. Delivering $3.9 million in gross savings, according to municipal records, the merger came on the fourth try over several decades for such a consolidation even as the school district that serves the two communities had already merged into a regional district.
Under unified government, police officers can now race to emergencies without having to waste time checking jurisdictional boundaries. But there are also fewer total members in the combined force; the number of sworn officers dropped from 60 to 54, according to municipal records. In all, the total workforce was reduced from 229 employees to 204 because of the consolidation, according to the records. Additional indirect savings will be accruing as the two towns won’t have to cover long-term pension benefits for employees who are no longer on the payroll.
$3.9M in savings
Meanwhile, residents of the township — where the merger seemed to initially be more popular — also now have municipal trash pickups because of the consolidation, a $1.1 million cost that was covered by the broader $3.9 million in gross savings. There have also been other, more subtle improvements, like winning recognition for a neighborhood’s historic significance, the local officials said.
“That’s one of the overlooked advantages of consolidation, the service delivery,” Lempert said.
Of course, another big part of the discussion is what has happened to local property-tax bills after five years of consolidation, especially as leaders from both parties in the State House frequently point to shared services and consolidation as the keys to solving the state’s plague of high property taxes.
To be sure, property-tax bills in Princeton are higher today than they were before the merger officially went into effect. But the average property-tax bill for the entire state has also gone up over the same period, and experts regularly caution that municipal consolidations aren’t a panacea for high property taxes. (School boards and county governments also account for a sizable share of the average, $8,690 New Jersey property-tax bill.)
Still, Princeton residents have seen the rate of growth in their property-tax bills slow since the consolidation went into effect in 2013, according to a NJ Spotlight analysis of tax data compiled by both state and local officials. Bills were rising at nearly 20 percent cumulatively in both municipalities over a five-year stretch before the merger started being implemented in the 2000s, but the rate slowed to just over 10 percent for the five years spanning 2013 and 2017, the analysis showed.
The municipal share of the local property-tax bill has also stayed steady at the same 21 percent since the merger, and the rate of growth in the overall municipal levy has also slowed, from over 16 percent in both Princetons during a five-year period before the merger, to 11 percent between 2013 and 2017. The statewide average for the same five-year period was 8.8 percent.
They had talked about merging since 1950s
“It’s not easy, but I think we found that it makes theoretical sense and practical sense, too,” Lempert said of municipal consolidations when asked what advice she would give to other local leaders who are considering a merger.
Elected officials had talked about merging the two Princetons going back to the 1950s, but the effort that resulted in the eventual consolidation started in earnest just a few years before the merger’s 2013 start. This time around, a task force was set up and it held some 160 meetings to go over issues like staff size and trash collection. The proposed consolidation was also put on the ballot, so residents could weigh in, and the idea of merging the borough and the surrounding township was eventually passed comfortably in both communities.
Goerner, the former mayor of Princeton Township who has written a book about the merger, said part of its success was due to a diligent review and analysis of data — making the case that consolidation would be a winner based on the numbers. Goerner went to the library to study all the prior consolidation efforts, going back over several decades, to learn why they never made it to the finish line. He also realized the merger would ultimately have to be sold to residents with a campaign-style effort that was managed “just like if I was running for office,” he said.
Lempert, who was a member of the township committee before the merger occurred, said the two communities were already sharing many services when consolidation was being considered, and the school district that serves the same area had also already been regionalized. But merging into one community improved upon the shared-services agreements by streamlining the process of governing, which has impacted the level of the services, she said.
For one, a popular community policing unit was brought back into service as part of the merger, she said. The police department is also responding more seamlessly to emergencies across the new, 18-square-mile municipality.
The plowing of roads after a major snowstorm has also become more efficient without the municipal boundaries, which saw the former borough form a virtual hole within the middle of a donut. There was also a successful effort to establish the traditionally African-American Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as a historic district, which occurred in 2016, Lempert said.
The idea of consolidating towns — there are 565 different municipalities in New Jersey — is not a new one, and a string of governors have tried to encourage more mergers going back decades. In fact, former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine warned lawmakers in his final State of the State address nearly a decade ago that “until we reform our state’s antiquated structure for providing local government services, a home-rule system dating back to the 17th century, we’re never going to get the job done.”
Yet Princeton was the first merger to happen since Corzine’s parting message, and it was the first to occur in New Jersey in more than a decade even though state law was changed in 2007 to streamline the process. (The state also contributed $464,000 to help cover some of the costs associated with the Princeton merger.)
Certainly, the Princeton effort had some advantages going in, including two police departments whose officers were already represented by the same union, said Marc Pfeiffer, a former deputy director of the state Division of Local Government Services who now serves as the assistant director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center. There was also a base of research and interest in merging that had been established over the years by the prior efforts to consolidate even if they weren’t successful. Maybe most importantly, Pfeiffer suggested the residents were also willing to become one community culturally.
“For a municipal consolidation to happen, you have to have a number of different things in the two communities that align,” he said.
Property assessments, union contracts
On the other side of the coin, many issues can complicate a consolidation effort, including things like matching up property assessments and employee-union contracts. More broadly, a study that Pfeiffer and Raphael J. Caprio, the director of the Bloustein research center, conducted several years ago determined the small, rural municipalities that are often thought to be largely inefficient and prime candidates for consolidation were actually spending less per-capita than the state’s bigger cities. One factor the report highlighted was many small communities use the State Police to handle their local law-enforcement services, cutting out a big expense that larger municipalities face.
But it’s the smaller communities that are expected to soon be put in the crosshairs for possible forced consolidations in a report due to be released this month by a task force of fiscal and economic experts that was asked earlier this year to review all aspects of government spending in New Jersey by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has named two former municipal-government officials as “shared-services” czars in the latest push from the governor’s office to push shared services and consolidations.
What’s generally been lacking in previous state efforts has been a willingness to put significant state dollars behind those initiatives. In fact, Corzine at one point during his tenure sought to force more shared services and mergers by changing the municipal-aid formula in a way that would have punished small communities.
New York offers incentives
Gina Genovese, the former mayor of Long Hill, has been trying for years to foster more local-government consolidations as the leader of the nonprofit Courage to Connect NJ. She holds up incentives that are being offered in neighboring New York as an example of what could be done in New Jersey.
A few years ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration put up $70 million to encourage more local-government efficiency, and also launched a $20 million “municipal consolidation and efficiency” award. Brookhaven in Suffolk County was just named the winner of that award earlier this year. Providing that type of state funding is something that New Jersey should emulate if officials are serious about encouraging more mergers, Genovese said.
“I’ve been up to Albany,” she said. “They are light years ahead of us.”
In Princeton, the costs associated with the 2013 consolidation totaled more than $2 million, covering things like an updated emergency-dispatch operation and the legal costs of harmonizing borough and township ordinances. In the end, the state picked up about 20 percent of Princeton’s consolidation costs, under existing state incentive policies. The rest came from local taxpayers, eating into the gross savings.
Genovese is now working with officials in Roxbury and Mount Arlington as the two Morris County communities have been studying a consolidation of both the municipal governments and the schools, but she complains that “nothing has come from the state.”
“This is an opportunity for the people in Trenton to really put their money where their mouth is,” she said.