In their fourth time to the altar, the two Princeton, New Jerseys—township and borough—said “I do,” and agreed to merge. With the vote, Princeton becomes the first municipal merger in the State of New Jersey in nearly 60 years. (Well, not the only. There was the 1997 consolidation of Pahaquarry, population = 7). Unlike the three previous attempts—the latest in 1996—voters in both the Township and the Borough agreed to join their governments.
In retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the vote passed. These two communities already share more than a dozen critical public services, major community assets, and a history and profile recognized the world over. Working together – indeed, working as “one” – has long been ingrained in the two communities.
What is surprising, however, is the overwhelming support which the vote received. Unofficial results showed a stunning plurality: 85% in the Township and 63% in the Borough. Why was this outcome different? A series of critical factors were at work.
- The Commission. The appointed group of Borough and Township representatives that shepherded the study process brought the community into the conversation. It listened to the desires and concerns of residents throughout, and made every effort to address those issues in its final plan. Countless hours meeting with neighborhood groups, block clubs, PTOs and institutions across town served to establish a two-way dialogue between the Commission and community from the very beginning of the process, and helped to inform the final consolidation plan in important ways.
- The Economy. Across the country, state and local governments continue to face their greatest fiscal challenge in generations. Although Princeton is more prosperous than many of its peers, recurring revenues struggle to keep pace with recurring expenses. The challenge of maintaining essential, high-quality public services at an affordable cost has sensitized residents to the pocketbook impact of local government.
- The Track Record. Themes of inter-local sharing and cooperation resonate with Princeton residents. Shared services already include public health, sewer, fire, human services, animal control, library and recreation. In the end, voters concluded merger wasn’t an “experiment,” but the logical next step in a relationship that has been strengthening for decades.
I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s quip that “this isn’t the end… it’s not even the beginning of the end… but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The difficult work of studying consolidation and developing a viable plan now transitions to the implementation process. There is real work ahead. Implementing this kind of transition in a deliberate, careful and transparent way is critical to ensuring that Princeton realizes all the potential benefits the Commission’s plan identified. The governing bodies and implementation task force will need to work diligently, and the public will have to hold its newly elected officials accountable for the plan voters overwhelmingly endorsed.
Fortunately, the Princetons’ long history of working together on so many shared services and major community issues of shared importance gives the implementation process a leg up from the start. A transition process like this is never without hiccups, of course. But Princeton is as well-positioned as any to realize the full benefits – financial, operational and other – that this merger is capable of producing.
Princeton is accustomed to being a model community that others look to. It further burnished an already stellar reputation yesterday.
Joseph Stefko, Ph.D. is Director of Public Finance at the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) in Rochester, New York. He directed CGR’s development of the consolidation plan for Princeton, NJ.