By Chad Goerner
An Inquirer poll this fall showed that New Jersey residents are increasingly in favor of municipal consolidation and shared services. It may not be clear to elected officials attached to "home rule" in a state with 566 municipalities (soon to be 565), but the residents are right.
A year ago, the residents of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, where I'm the mayor, approved the state's first large municipal consolidation in more than a century - a move expected to save millions and improve services. In fact, we're already enjoying the benefits.
When Hurricane Sandy struck Princeton, the two municipalities responded in a completely coordinated fashion for the first time. We established an emergency operations center staffed by police, fire, public works, and other staff from both towns.
The police were able to coordinate more effectively in prioritizing coverage of the whole area, while the public works departments marshaled their resources to open important roads more quickly. We launched coordinated communication through social media and reverse 911. This single response was a dramatic improvement over our separate responses to previous storms.
But such improvements aren't the only rationale for consolidation. We are also on a path to savings that exceed our consolidation commission's estimates.
Due to staff attrition as result of consolidation, we stand to save roughly $700,000 this year, which will offset transition costs and help us realize savings sooner. In addition, we expect $2.26 million in savings next year, at least 40 percent more than the commission estimated. And we now project that if the new governing body follows the commission's recommendations, we can reach approximately $4 million in annual savings, or 20 percent more than initially estimated.
This will come from eliminating duplication and repurposing personnel where appropriate. In addition, we are uncovering savings that were not anticipated, including elimination of duplicative department needs (multiple audits, for example) and employee benefit savings.
Especially given New Jersey's 2 percent cap on municipal budget growth, consolidation can help many towns sustain themselves without drastically reducing reserves or services. Without consolidation, the Princetons - like many other towns in the state - would be under continued budget pressures, and residents would see commensurate staff and service cuts.
So why aren't other towns looking into this more urgently? Elected officials still clinging to home rule are the main obstacle. The prospect of consolidation evokes understandable fears of losing control and identity.
However, New Jersey's Local Option Municipal Consolidation Act of 2007 includes provisions that make mergers more feasible. Now each town can be held responsible for debt incurred prior to consolidation. Towns can develop advisory planning districts to preserve neighborhood character. And they can continue ordinances and service districts within pre-consolidation borders, which should quell many identity-related concerns.
It's easy to study shared services without summoning the political will to enact them. But our success in Princeton has sparked more discussion of consolidation throughout New Jersey. And a select group of open-minded officials and residents want to continue this work.