Part One in a Series
The community debate about consolidation continued Tuesday night at a joint public meeting of the governing bodies of the two Princetons, where officials defended their support for a merger.
Consolidation and Shared Services Commission Chairman Anton Lahnston began the forum by saying consolidation presents a great opportunity for Princeton Borough and Princeton Township to unify their resources. He then followed with a litany of claims he said were made by anti-consolidation advocates, which he characterized as “myths and misstatements that make voter education difficult.”
“We did not make the wrong decision as had been claimed,” Lahnston said. “We made the right decision for our community. It was not made because we succumbed to any kind of group thing. I’m personally impressed with the independent thinking and analysis of the commission.”
Instead of borough voters losing their voice as many fear, Lahnston argued consolidation would create a strong, unified voice. And while some say the savings from consolidation are limited, he said the savings would be substantial.
“It’s a myth that the urge to merge came from the township and not the borough council,” he said, adding that both governing bodies unanimously supported putting the issue on the November ballot.
While some residents fear a merged Princeton would have more difficulty dealing with Princeton University, Lahnston argued that uniting Princeton would improve the relationship because the community would speak “with one voice.” He said contrary to what some residents are saying, the cost of trash collection was factored in to the commission’s analysis, that new ratables were looked at but not included because it is hard to guess what the future holds and that transition costs were analyzed.
“It’s a myth that there is no crisis, and no need to change,” Lahnston said. “In reality the worst time to try to change is when you have to deal with a crisis. Now is a good time to work for a better future.”
Residents have actively pursued information about consolidation on the consolidation consultant’s website, Lahnston said, with the site receiving almost 25,000 visits. Documents have been downloaded from the site bout 8,500 times, he said.
More than a dozen township and borough residents spoke during public comment, with most borough speakers expressing concerns about consolidation. Kate Warren of Preserve Our Historic Borough took issue with Lahnston’s use of the word myth to describe the opposition’s claims, saying his choice of words was offensive. She urged voters to think independently and not vote to vote for consolidation just because most elected officials endorse a merger.
Borough resident Rob Dodge expressed concerns that the commission report could contain serious omissions in terms of the cons of consolidating and associated costs. Dodge is familiar with mergers as a business owner, with both experience merging a pharmaceutical company into a bigger one and having his own business acquired by a large company, and said mergers often have drawbacks.
“Larger services often mean more overhead and more middle management,” he said. “They are much less responsive to the individuals they serve.”
Lahnston said the commission did look at transition costs, which could be up to $1.7 million. It is still unclear whether the state will cover some of those costs, and how much, but officials are optimistic they will get at least some funding.
While several residents raised concerns over trash, leaves and brush pick up in a consolidated Princeton, borough resident Tina Clement called focusing on trash “pathetic” and said one of her biggest concerns is having checks and balances in government.
“With consolidation we lose that check and balance,” she said. “We need to really look closely at the university and what they are doing with out town. It’s our town, not their town. We need to stand up and be strong.”
Borough resident Ronald Nielsen said he is concerned about what could happen after the vote if consolidation is approved.
“The winners could renegotiate a deal after it has been agreed to,” he said. “The new government of a consolidated Princeton does not need to not honor recommendations (of the commission). For example, instead of merging the police the entire borough force could be disbanded.”
Borough resident Ben Warren wanted to know how the police staffing figures were reached for a merged Princeton police force, and asked whether the commission looked at other towns in New Jersey of similar size and with similar characteristics such as a downtown and a college or university, for example Mahwah.
Borough Resident Rob Whiteside said the borough and township seem to address issues differently. He used the school budget as an example. When he was a poll worker, he noticed borough residents were more skeptical about passing the budget, with a larger percent of borough residents voting the budget down than township residents.
“If everyone in the borough voted down the school budget in a combined entity, the township yes votes would swamp the no votes,” he said. “There is some difference in how the township votes and a the borough votes. The school budget is the best proxy I can think of.”
One of the few borough residents who spoke in favor of consolidation was Van Williams.
“The commission has been very thoughtful and thorough,” Williams said. “I don’t believe even in corporate mergers you can predict every outcome. The responsibility rests with us. We will be the ones who elect the officials, take this blueprint, and hold officials accountable. I have no doubt that everyone in the audience will be just as zealous in making sure this is done well. It’s the Princeton nature of things.”
Township resident Henry Singer began the public comment session by reviewing the long history of Princeton, which he pointed out did not split in to two separate municipalities until 1894, when there was a dispute over public school funding.
“If in 1894, we had not decided to separate the borough and the township, can anyone think of a single, viable reason why would we consider such a proposition today?” asked one resident.
Thursday: Dem. domination to continue under consolidation? Speakers talk future of politics at joint forum.
Friday: Elected Officials weigh in one by one during joint forum.