Five years later, has the Princeton merger paid off?

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | August 21, 2018 | Politics

Politicians and policymakers looking to lower property taxes have long held out the idea of consolidating municipalities and services to save money. Five years ago Princeton did it, but did it work? NJ Spotlight’s John Reitmeyer took a deep dive into the data and he recently sat down with Briana Vannozzi.

Vannozzi: The Princeton merger has long been held as this sort of shining beacon of an example of what could be in New Jersey, but we’ve been waiting to see if it actually worked. Did it?

Reitmeyer: It’s a good question. I think it depends how we want to look at it. If your expectation was that it was going to cause property taxes to go down, or freeze property taxes, that’s probably unrealistic because in New Jersey, unfortunately for many people, we always see increases. But if we want to just look at it from the numbers, the rate of growth in property taxes for the new Princeton verses the two entities — the Princeton Township and Princeton Borough — has slowed. So I looked at property tax bills over the five years since the merger and compared that to five years in the run up to the merger and measured a rate of growth and it definitely has slowed the rate of growth in property tax bills. Curiously, the rate of growth is higher than the statewide average over that same time frame, but there might be other factors to explain that. So if you’re a Princeton resident, you’re probably not happy that your taxes are still going up, but you’re maybe finding some solace in the fact that they’re not going up as rapidly.

Vannozzi: And it was somewhere around 20 percent, you wrote in your report, that it went up, although the state’s was comparatively less, somewhere around 10 percent. But that growth, as you say, was where we saw the difference.

Reitmeyer: Exactly. They almost cut it in half, which if you’re looking for something significant, and just on the numbers themselves, they found in gross savings almost $4 million. So from before the consolidation to after, if you look at the two budgets combined, they’re about $4 million less. So where in government are we cutting $4 million? And then it brings up the discussion of services — so what are you getting, are you losing something where you find those savings? Though the total amount of employees has dropped, if you talk to the local officials, both in office now and those in office before, they will tell you that the level of services has actually picked up. They were able to restore a police unit that was very popular that they had to get rid of before the merger. Something as maybe trivial as plowing the roads has become a little bit more efficient because instead of having to stop at the borough line, the snow plows can now go through a whole street if it went through both the borough and the previous township.

Vannozzi: Those are tangible things that the residents can also point to as a success.

Reitmeyer: Right, so the other side of the coin is we look at what happened, and for a lot of people the bottom line is, ‘what happened to my tax bill?’ But on the other side of the coin is, ‘what happened to my services?’ So what am I getting for those dollars that I’ve been paying in taxes? And again, if we’re looking for how to hold this up as an example, the local officials will tell you that they had shared services in the past, but the full consolidation has improved those services and taken it to the next step.

Vannozzi: Were there layoffs, though, as a result? Because that’s often the concern when we speak with local officials, that consolidating means layoffs.

Reitmeyer: In this case, it seems like they were able to do everything through attrition, or people who were due to retire. For most towns, and we should say for most property tax bills, the biggest amount of spending comes in the schools. The towns, sometimes, are the third behind county taxes, but in this case they were able to, it seems like, cut their total employees. And police is usually the biggie in a municipal budget, and they were able to reduce the total amount of employees while still being able to, like I said, bring back this one unit. It doesn’t look like there was massive layoffs, which is a big concern. And I should say there was some symmetry in the unions themselves for the separate entities which probably helped when they brought everybody together.

Vannozzi: Gov. Murphy, at least on paper, seems to support looking at consolidation because of the task force he put together. Senate President Steve Sweeney released a report from his commission looking at consolidation. What did that say and how does that play into what we might see moving forward for other towns?

Reitmeyer: The report talked about doing a lot of studies to just look and see where the next prime candidate is. So, it’s been five years since Princeton merged. We haven’t had another one. There’s a lot of reasons sometimes why they don’t work, but sometimes you have to do the numbers to show the residents, to say what are you going to gain. Especially in Princeton’s case, it was two towns that had the same name.

Vannozzi: The same name, that culture there is kept.

Reitmeyer: What if you’re merging two towns that have different names — which name survives? Again, it sounds trivial, but it’s things people care about, so you have to study it and you have to show the numbers and you have to make the case, and that’s what they did in Princeton. They actually looked back, they tried for decades to do this, they found out what didn’t work. Why did it fail in the past and learned from those mistakes and then implemented it almost like a political campaign. They did a referendum and they got everybody behind it.