Op-Ed: Logic of Princeton Consolidation Flawed

By Peter Marks

Marvin Reed, Princeton Borough’s mayor from 1990 to 2003, is one of the people a neighbor describes as the “growers”.

Mr. Reed has been outspokenly unsentimental in his plans for Princeton Borough and seems to believe that our destiny is to become a regional hub — which is to say a small city, complete with an urban transit system, densely packed residential neighborhoods, and mid-rise and high-rise office buildings.

He would have us believe that the only way to save the Borough is to eliminate it.  Future revenues, he warns, are likely to be constrained.  Belts need to be tightened.  Our profligate governments must learn to be “frugal”.

We are assured, by Mr. Reed and by others of similar stature, that the issue is a question of simple logic.  The lines that divide Princeton will be erased — with the result that redundancies will be eliminated and decision making will be less constrained by citizen advocacy groups.  Our leaders tell us that nothing of importance will be lost which was not already at risk.  We are even promised modest tax reductions.

The pro-consolidation arguments are reminiscent of the beguiling logic of the growers circa 1990, the year that Mr. Reed was first sworn in as mayor.  New downtown development (higher and denser) was to lead both to stable property taxes (by creating new revenue streams) and to limited vehicular traffic (by creating a more compact, pedestrian friendly downtown).

Things have turned out rather differently.  As mayor, Mr. Reed did succeed in transforming large portions of downtown Princeton.  The changes are most obvious in the southern end of the Witherspoon Street corridor.  Structured parking and mid-rise, mixed-use buildings sprouted from surface parking lots.  The height of the library was increased to three stories.  Approvals were granted for construction of grand, multi-story residences on top of the Hullfish North parking garage.  Many of those changes were controversial.  All were advanced at least in part on the basis of promised tax relief.  And Borough revenues did in fact increase — but so did Borough spending and Borough property taxes.

During Mr. Reed’s term , the Borough’s municipal budget increased from $12,363,155 to $19,448,475 (i.e. by 57%).  During the same period, the Borough’s average residential tax burden increased from $5,506 to $10,559 (i.e. by 92%) — and Borough traffic became still more congested.

Nobody should have been surprised by those results.  The logic that drove the consolidation of Princeton’s two school systems had previously proven to be materially flawed.  The Borough, with its stable to declining student body, was to have benefited from a cost apportionment based on student population.  After the two school systems had been combined, however, New Jersey’s courts overturned the town’s agreement on apportioning consolidated costs — with the result that Borough school taxes rose more quickly after consolidation than they would have had the Borough retained its own school system.

I predict we will also find the supposed logic of municipal consolidation to be flawed — fatally so for those of us who prefer a small, leafy town.  As a wise neighbor has observed, public services are not manufacturing processes.  Per unit costs do not fall with increasing volume.  Government services are delivered not by machines, but by people.  Setting aside transfer payments, the only way to serve more taxpayers, or to provide more services to existing taxpayers, is to increase the number of government employees and/or to increase the number of hours worked by existing staffs.

Because there are few if any economies of scale in the provision of government services, it is highly unlikely that a consolidated Princeton would find itself able both to trim payroll costs and to maintain the full range of existing services. The Consolidation Commission acknowledges this reality in its findings.  Yes, we are promised $3.1 million of annual savings — but fully two thirds of that total is represented by gradual reductions in the staffing of our combined police force.

Other savings are projected to come from reductions in senior management — reductions which we are asked to believe can be achieved at the same time that department sizes are doubling.

It is obviously true that Borough and Township costs could be reduced if Borough Council and the Township Committee were willing to trim the size and scope of our governments.  I certainly would support such a move.  But why should we believe that the elected representatives of a consolidated Princeton will have any greater enthusiasm for trimming staffs than do our existing governing bodies?

I do not deny the wisdom of the more “frugal” municipal government now advocated by Mr. Reed, but consolidation seems to represent less a means of reducing spending than a means of avoiding hard budgetary decisions.

What then is the real driving force behind the consolidation movement?  Given the strong support of Princeton University and its expansionist ambitions, we can infer that loosened zoning controls are a likely result — perhaps the principal result — of dismantling the Borough as an independent entity.

We are told that consolidation will result in increased “efficiency”, but the efficiency proponents have in mind is not economic efficiency but rather a streamlined decision making process.  Put another way, the goal is not budget savings, but a reduced ability on the part of Princeton’s citizens to slow or stop controversial projects.  Citizen petitions can be nuisances, but they are the essence of democracy — which works most successfully when governments and the populations they govern are small.

As Mayor, Mr. Reed chose to ignore a petition signed by nearly 1,000 Princetonians.  As a private citizen he goes a step farther, advocating the elimination of an entire governing body, and with it the existing structural impediments to accelerated redevelopment of downtown Princeton.

Which brings us back to the “growers”.  Some studies for Alexander Street envision not a row of stately trees, but a row of 10 story buildings as the gateway to Princeton.  Borough Council and its designated representatives on the Regional Planning Board have thus far blocked the University’s scheme to unify its campus by eliminating the Dinky and choking off Alexander.  Borough representatives are also questioning some of the University’s other large scale development proposals.  There is no evidence of similar doubts among members of the Township Committee and its representatives on the Regional Planning Board.

Would we really prefer not to have had the Borough’s opposition to such radically transformative development schemes? Do we really want to eliminate the one governing body which has shown any willingness to slow the urbanization of downtown Princeton?

If we do eliminate the Borough as an independent entity, can we blame anyone but ourselves if we wake up in five or ten years to discover that our historic downtown neighborhoods have been replaced by parking garages, office towers, and apartment complexes?

Peter Marks is a Republican candidate for Borough Council.

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