On Election Day, November 8, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township voted overwhelmingly to become one town, Princeton, effective January 1, 2013. This was a remarkable event in two ways. New Jersey has not seen the consolidation of two of its 566 towns in recent memory. And for the Princetons it finally happened after three tries in the last 49 years.

Discussions about whether New Jersey towns ought to, want to, or are able to organize themselves more efficiently through municipal consolidations are often followed by the comment, “If the Princetons can’t do it, how can we expect any other set of towns to do it?” This time the Princetons did do it and did it differently from their other three attempts — in large part because the state legislature and the governor in 2007 created a different and more realistic law to guide consolidations, one that can and should be used by municipalities not only to consider consolidation but simply to learn about and improve their local government operations.

First, a note about my involvement and fascination with consolidation. Before retiring in 2010 from Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics, where I directed the New Jersey Project, I often had to explain New Jersey government and the fragmentation of governments — more school districts than municipalities was part of the story. Together with Professor Henry Coleman and graduate student Naomi Bressler of the Bloustein School at Rutgers, we designed a data set for municipalities to use to assess their potential for consolidation after the new consolidation law went into effect.

More personally, I grew up in the town of Vineland, the first to consolidate in the post-war era. In 1951 Vineland Borough and Landis Township formed the largest municipality in area in the state. A year later, Princeton attempted consolidation unsuccessfully.

Some 27 years went by before Princeton tried again in 1979. I co-chaired that campaign, which, although approved in the township, lost by only 33 votes in the borough.

In 1996, the issue came up again and was championed by my husband, Marvin Reed, then the mayor of Princeton Borough. Again it was defeated in the borough. Meanwhile, two municipalities in Warren County, Hardwick and Pahaquarry — population 7 — merged in 1997. The two Princetons’ success this year was in good part because it was pursued under the new, flexible, and practical 2007 law that grew out of a careful analysis of the Princetons’ unsuccessful attempt in 1996. Here is what the Princetons were able to do:

Rather than holding an election to select members of an independent consolidation commission unconnected with local government, the Princetons chose the option to have the local governments take the initiative and appoint the commission.

Half its membership was made up of the two mayors, the two administrators, and two other elected officials. The other half were citizen members carefully selected in open meetings. The commission’s work too was an open process and fully posted on a special website (www.Cgr.org/princeton). This approach provided valuable input and solid support for the recommendation to consolidate from 11 of the 12 members.

Differences between the two towns — such as one having a dog leash law and prohibition of overnight parking — were resolved by creating districts where these rules applied instead of requiring a change for one town.

Debt, always a contentious issue, can be dealt with by either having the debt remain with the residents of the two original municipalities or, if it is similar in the two towns, simply combining it to become the responsibility of the new community. The Princetons chose the latter.

The ability to retain existing ordinances of the two towns for five years with possible renewal provided stability needed in the short run.

The provision of neighborhood advisory boards to work with the new town’s planning board reinforced the importance of respecting differences in parts of the new town.

In addition to the law, the state shared in the cost of an independent consultant to work with the commission. Within a year, the report was done and submitted to the town. The questions it asked, the analysis of alternatives, and the estimates of the savings to be achieved can be a useful approach for any town that wants to learn more about itself and discover ways to be more efficient and effective — whether or not it consolidates.

The success of the consolidation vote obviously has a context. The Princetons long ago organized to collaborate. They share a common school district. They have the only joint planning board in the state. They run joint commissions for health, environment, recreation, human services, and a municipal library. But they also have separate zoning boards, administrations and town halls, courts, public works departments, and police forces that now will be joined.

They shared successes in joint ventures. The borough (the hole in the doughnut) cooperated with the township to acquire open space for parks and recreation and acts as a growth boundary. Both the township and borough created a downtown (in the borough) mixed-use redevelopment with housing, stores, a garage, and a new library.

Because the Princetons have the long legacy of consolidation attempts, there still are many people who have their battle scars that made them question another effort. And, some voters in Princeton Borough continued to care passionately about “preserving the historic borough.”

But this time, a new generation of leaders took up the cause with a refreshing view: this makes sense. A common refrain was “we are one community, and we don’t need two governments.” People wore buttons proclaiming “Unite Princeton.” An impressive campaign was launched with information tables at the supermarket, door-to-door canvassing, telephone surveys, newspaper endorsements, and more letters to the editor than the local press could handle.

However, there was one big difference this time: the economy. The Princeton community could not afford the luxury of two governments. If the Princetons were to be able to keep property taxes from continually rising and undermining the diversity of residents, it had to find ways to provide the best services at a lower cost — a strategy that the commission report addressed straight on and the new government will have to deliver.

For the skeptics who question whether consolidation can work in New Jersey, there is now a contemporary success story. Now the skeptics will be keeping a sharp eye to see whether the new town of Princeton can deliver on the promises and projections.

While the skeptics are watching, they should get busy and use Princeton’s work as inspiration and information for taking a hard look at how to make their municipalities better, if not actually combined.

Ingrid Reed is a policy analyst who retired from the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University. She resides in Princeton Borough and looks forward to living in Princeton.

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