Princeton Approach to Setting Priorities is a Model for New Leaders

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Joseph StefkoElections bring change – an opportunity to “reset” the policy agenda. Any newly elected governing body brings with it new policy priorities – some collective priorities shared by multiple members, and some unique ones espoused by individual officials.

The key challenge of any new governing body is effectively managing those priorities. Doing it well positions a new government to deliver results; failing to do so invites distraction to the governing process, treating all issues equally and encouraging less-than-strategic governance.

The challenge was magnified in Princeton, New Jersey this year. Its transition to a new governing council in January coincided with the launch of a newly consolidated municipality, the state’s most significant in more than sixty years. Thus in Princeton, the new ideas and priorities that typically accompany new governing bodies existed alongside consolidation-related issues and transition matters that, in some cases, required more urgent attention. Read more »

Marrying the Princetons: Saying “I Do” was the Easy Part

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Joseph StefkoAnybody who has followed the local government consolidation issue knows the difficulty of enacting significant, large-scale change. Old habits die hard, so it is no surprise that the procedural challenges to municipal restructuring are often daunting. Ever powerful are the inertia of the status quo and the “leap of faith” required on the part of voters to be convinced it’s possible to get to greener pastures.

Such is the case in New Jersey, where history hasn’t been kind to the municipal consolidation movement. In the time between a 1934 New York Times article lamenting the state’s inability to streamline its local government structure and today, just two consolidations occurred. In January, the number grows to three as the Township and Borough of Princeton merge following an affirmative 2011 referendum. Read more »

What Recovery? State and Local Governments Not Sharing in the Economic Optimism

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Joseph StefkoAt long last, we’ve been treated to a streak of positive news on the U.S. economy.  Job growth continues, with 227,000 added in February and 900,000 over the past five months; the application rate for jobless benefits now stands at a four-year low; and the unemployment rate has fallen from 9.0 to 8.3 in a year.  And while the sharp decline in the unemployment rate appears to have slowed in the past three months, there’s even a silver lining there as more people resumed their search for work in the face of a better employment outlook (about 500,000 in February).  It’s tough to argue that’s anything but good news.

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Two Cities, Two States and a Bruising Battle for Control

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Joseph StefkoWelcome to the main event!

In this corner, leaders of cities, long accustomed to controlling their destinies! And in the other corner, state governments, anxious to protect the rest of the state from the city’s crisis! It’s a battle playing out in two major communities – Michigan’s largest city and the capital of Pennsylvania – and has the potential to rewrite the book on state/local relations.

Let’s review how we got here. Read more »

Princetons Say “I DO”

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Joseph StefkoIn 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. Read more »

To merge or not to merge: Breaking down a community’s debate on consolidation

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Joseph Stefko

Over the years, CGR has provided analytical guidance to countless communities exploring the issue of municipal consolidation.  Of all the things that make those communities unique – their density, services, cost structure, geography and more – one aspect of the merger discussion has been omnipresent: The potential benefits or drawbacks of consolidation are very much in the eye of the beholder.

Some residents – perhaps most – focus on the dollars and cents: “What impact would consolidation have on my property taxes and, by extension, my wallet?”  This is clearly understandable, especially given the current economic and fiscal environment in places like NY, NJ, OH and MA where CGR has completed such studies. Read more »

Taking Action When Fiscal Storm Clouds Threaten

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Joseph StefkoThe fiscal crisis club has a new member: the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Faced with staggering debt payments it simply can’t afford, the capital city is weighing its options.  And none of them are particularly pleasant.  Does the city file for bankruptcy?  Does it make use of Pennsylvania’s Act 47 fiscal emergency program and avail itself of state oversight?  Does it raise the property tax levy to an unimaginable level to resolve its structural budget gap?

The unfortunate reality is that Harrisburg isn’t alone.  Hardly.  Local governments across the country, many of which were struggling long before the economy collapsed, have witnessed their fiscal wherewithal stripped to the bones in the past year.  Just Google “city fiscal emergency” and watch the lights dim as you click the search button.  Los Angeles has proposed closing all non-public safety operations two days per week.  The word “receivership” has been uttered in Detroit and Toledo.  And layoffs and programmatic cuts are pending in cities from coast to coast.

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