It's easy to dismiss the successful consolidation of two New Jersey municipalities that share a name--Princeton township and borough--as well as a Zip code, an affluent citizenry, similar debt loads and real estate taxes, 13 shared services including a library and school district, and a political culture that seems so, well, forward-thinking. What possible relevance could the Princetons' experience have for other budget-stressed communities, given the always fractious politics of local-government consolidation and service-sharing?
But the Princetons' path to consolidation wound through a six-decade history that includes four failed attempts, and it holds a number of lessons for those embarking on similar paths. In Princeton, as elsewhere, politics long defined the consolidation debate, but the combination of the recession and high property taxes were being felt acutely in this "doughnut" and "hole" pair of local governments.
Authorized under a 2007 New Jersey law enacted to encourage shared services and consolidations, the Princetons' Joint Shared Services and Consolidation Commission examined the costs and benefits of consolidation and, after countless meetings airing the question in public settings and small groups, recommended consolidation. In November 2011, voters in both the township and the borough decisively approved consolidation ballot questions. This past Jan. 1, after a 13-month implementation process led by a transition task force, a new mayor and council took office and the new Princeton came into being.
How are things going so far? Early reports suggest that onetime implementation costs are running above what was budgeted but that annual, recurring savings are coming in higher than anticipated, bringing projections that municipal real-estate taxes will be reduced by 5-7 percent and perhaps by as much as 10 percent. Considering how many services were already being shared, this is significant. The onetime costs will be likely recaptured within six months.
What are the lessons worth taking to the next consolidation process?
First, don't assume that one defeat closes the issue. In New Jersey, changes in state law provided for creation of a commission by interested governing bodies without requiring an early referendum. This sequencing meant that the final, political phase of the process was framed as much by fact-based analyses of costs and benefits as by more political or emotional considerations.
Second, understand that savings and improved services are achieved through systematically reimagining what new general-purpose government services should look like, not by cobbling together "sound-alike" departments and cutting by some pro-rata share to capture redundancies. For the Princetons, early savings estimates rested on expectations of the need for fewer public employees, but as planning and implementation moved forward it became evident that reorganization of services could achieve additional savings through improved deployment of public-works and fire and police personnel.
Third, good analytics are critical to addressing in a neutral, systematic way the complex "what-ifs" and to lend credibility to claims of savings and efficiencies as well as costs. The Princeton commission relied on outside expertise, the Rochester, N.Y.-based Center for Government Research, to systematically examine every aspect of consolidation, from the form of government to be adopted and treatment of debt service to the financial impact of mergers and reorganizations of departments. "I am convinced that two towns cannot do this without this kind of approach," says Ingrid Reed, a longtime Princeton Borough resident who is retired from the faculty at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Finally, analytics may dispel but cannot transcend emotional issues around community identity. The smaller borough vote, which had been the stumbling block in three of the four past ballots, was debated in terms of "walkable village versus suburban sprawl." But the 24 months of public meetings and transparent analyses, an open process accessible via the commission website, tipped the scale. "We had to respect the notion of 'borough-ness' and work with it rather than ignoring it," recalls Anton Lahnston, the chair of the commission.
For other municipalities thinking about consolidation, a recent report from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs assesses both the exceptionalism and the broad applicability of the Princeton experience. While the Princetons may have had a head start with already shared experiences, the scale of cost savings without loss of service suggests even greater payoffs for other localities.