Letters to the Editor: Consolidation is Common Sense and More

Consolidation is Common Sense

To the Editor:

Princeton was once the nation’s center of common sense. John Witherspoon taught Scottish common sense philosophy at the university and it had a great influence on our constitution. What would Witherspoon think if he could come back today?

Because he dared to settle on Cherry Hill Road, the poor old doctor wouldn’t even be able to vote in the neighborhood named after him. In 1894 it had been partitioned in a dispute over school funding and his home was now in a different municipality. Though the school issue was finally settled in 1966, some folks still insist in 2011 that the partition must remain permanent in order to preserve the historic town.

The old man might wonder how cutting the heart of a town in half preserves it. He would see that as many historic neighborhoods are on one side of the partition as on the other. And almost as many citizens live in the historic core on one side as on the other. They live in the same kinds of houses, send their kids to the same schools, and share many of the same services. Over the years they have had to put up with confusion and complications about sidewalks, sewers, street paving, snow removal, emergency fire and medical services, and trash removal. The good doctor would have a hard time seeing any common sense in all this.

Oh, he’d be told, boundaries really don’t matter. They always divide something. But he would see little common sense in a boundary that requires 12 residents living in community housing at Harriet Bryan House to vote in one municipality while their 58 fellow residents vote in another. And so many student bedrooms are split at Witherspoon’s beloved university that in the year 2000 even the U.S. Census misreported where they live. This matters, Witherspoon would opine, because under the constitution the census count is used for legislative apportionment and those same numbers are used to allocate federal and state funds, no trivial matter.

He might be told that we have found ways to work around these problems—why we have 13 shared services! Well, Witherspoon might suggest, if you share that many services, what’s the common sense in having two governments? Why not put the town back together, cut costs and red tape.

Ah, he might be told, but that means we would have fewer officials representing the historic core. Well, Witherspoon might respond, if you remove the partition, citizens in the united core would have sixty percent of the votes and you would be better off because you would not have to negotiate with another governing body about downtown matters.

Be sensible, the old doctor would insist. Take down that imaginary wall in the middle of town and put the boundaries back out in the Millstone River (Lake Carnegie) and open fields where they’ll do less harm! The geese won’t care.

Ralph Widner, Princeton Borough

Borough + Love + Township = Princeton

I would like to publicly thank the Borough and Township members of the Consolidation Commission for their service in studying, once again, whether to combine our two municipalities. Once again, the recommendation is yes, with 4 Borough members and 5 Township members in favor. Amazingly enough, the motives of these duly appointed Commission members are being impugned in public. In addition, as they now take the time to present their findings at numerous neighborhood meetings and focus groups, they are denigrated as “marketers” for wishing to help people understand their thinking. Why would a public study group who has come to a conclusion not wish to explain that conclusion? The l996 commission, of which I was a member, omitted this post-report process in the mistaken belief that the community would read our report from beginning to end and absorb our reasoning. This Commission is doing the right thing and should be applauded.

I am also puzzled by the arguments against consolidation that hinge on the notion that people in the Borough are, to a person, “different” from Township people in some inexplicable way that creates different priorities. In my 47 years living in both the Borough and the Township, the downtown was the center of my life, and I loved it. Yet fears are being raised that Township residents would run amok over the area and change its enchanting character forever – oh my! high rises! intense development! But: I ask you to look at reality. At the monumental size of the hospital in its final incarnation. At the claustrophobic housing development at the bottom of Palmer Square, which will now be low-ratable rents because the condos aren’t selling. Does anyone else miss Toto’s, Farr’s, Hall’s, Urken’s, the diner, the bakery, the Prince Theater, the Clothesline, Saks for women, Langrock’s, Logan’s bookstore, Davidson’s, LaVake’s, Clayton’s, Bellow’s, and LaHiere’s to name a few of the delightful establishments of my early years here? They created a true “downtown” that provided us with everything we needed for daily life. They’re gone. What were the Borough’s own priorities iin these past years?

We are not talking about the Rape of Troy here. This is consolidation: a coming together, a good idea agreed upon by many reasonable people in the Borough and Township. We are separately too small to be two communities, with two administrative buildings, two Public Works departments, two Police Forces, two attorneys, etc. Consolidation will achieve savings and efficiencies and lead to a larger set of resources with which to secure the future vibrancy and charm of the downtown we all care about.

We can be a BLT:  Borough + Love + Township = Princeton. Or we can just be toast.

Vote Yes! for Consolidation on November 8.

Casey Lambert, Princeton Township

Another Inconvenient Truth

With this letter, I end a lifetime tradition of lack of involvement in local government. I never felt strongly enough about any particular issue to make the effort.  However, the debate regarding Consolidation has not only captured my attention, but has forced me to take a position.  I have a few friends who are very vocally against Consolidation, and while I respect their passion I cannot agree with them on any point other than my concern for Princeton.

For the last 8 years I have been running a private company with $1.2 billion in sales and 5000 employees.  For the better part of this year, my company has been preparing for how to handle what we believe will be a long period of slow growth.   While we continue to make investments for the future, we are looking hard at our expense base asking questions like “do we really need to do everything we have been doing?”

In my world, any opportunity to save 3.5% would be met with near giddy enthusiasm.  To a lay person, 3.5% may seem paltry.  But in mature organizations such as my company or any local government, a 3.5% decrease in expenses is ridiculously difficult to achieve.  The Consolidation Commission has concluded that the INITIAL savings on consolidating the two governments could be as high as high as $3.2m or 6%.  Opponents of consolidation have questioned this number and have suggested that such savings would only be $1.9m or 3.5%.  In my world, 3.5% would be a no-brainer.  But in my experience, there is usually more savings AFTER a consolidation when there is even greater flexibility to review expenses from the bottom up.  I believe the $3.2m or $1.9m in savings (whichever you choose) will be just the beginning.

As hard as times currently feel, they are likely to stay this bad (or get worse) over the next few years.  This means property values are likely to stay relatively flat (and in many cases, decline).  Additionally, support from Federal and State sources will also decline.  Sadly, as in business, even though revenues may be under pressure, expenses will certainly grow.   Most of our local expenses are labor related and will grow by set formulas.  Unfortunately, the rest is just math— slowing revenue coupled with rising expenses equals the need for more money— this is the real “inconvenient truth” of the next few years.

For the last couple of years we have been protected from these increases because our towns wanted to keep our taxes down and used surplus cash to fund the shortfalls.  But that surplus cash is running out.  When it does run out (if not sooner), our taxes will go up.  And because we have been insulated the last couple of years, the tax increases are likely to be meaningful.  As taxes continue to rise with property prices staying flat, Princeton will become less affordable to many people.

There are other options.  We could increase the number of new taxable properties.  Opponents of Consolidation within the Borough quickly mention the new units in Palmer Square and the other units which will come in the old hospital building.  But ironically, many who want to preserve our historic Borough might then find themselves needing more development which will come with greater and greater compromises since the Borough really doesn’t have the space. Additionally, new “taxable” properties don’t come without increasing expenses either.  There will likely be more kids to educate and new owners will require all the services the rest of us enjoy, all which come at a cost.

Even with Consolidation, we likely face financial pressures in this town greater than those seen in more than a generation.  I don’t believe Consolidation makes our problems just disappear.  But I do believe that Consolidation represents our absolute best option to slow down expense increases.  To me the alternatives represent a much greater threat to “our historic Borough”— increasing property taxes which make Princeton less affordable to many or increased development which will make it less of the town we all love.  Neither option is acceptable to me and that is why I am now “involved”.

Dinni Jain, Borough Resident

One Comment

  1. 1.2B sales, 5000-employee company in the cable tv industry where there are economies of scale is very different from a 100-plus employee municipal government. The Police Department is regulated — evidence needs to be tracked in and out, SOPs and standards are needed to ensure police work is done consistently and can hold up in a court of law. Very different arena than a large corporation.

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