A question often asked during meetings about consolidation is, “Where has this been done before and what can we learn?” With some guidance from the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) contact was made with Seneca Falls New York – a community that voted in March 2009 to consolidate and on Dec. 31, 2011 will complete its transition to consolidation.
Seneca Falls and the Princetons have some differences. Princeton has 30,000 residents, Seneca Falls, 8,000. And Seneca Falls is the reverse of Princeton in that the larger population is located in the “Village” (75%) and not in the Town outside the Village (TOV), which is 25%. The consolidation process in Seneca Falls had another important difference. As mandated by NYS Village Law, only village residents were allowed to vote. Although our towns are not identical, consolidation in Seneca Falls focused successfully on many of the same issues that Princeton is discussing. It is worth hearing about a few of their experiences and it is instructive to reflect upon the developments in another community.
- Police Service — Degradation of police services was the biggest concern in Seneca Falls Village from day one. Much energy went into investigating detail, developing options and presenting them to the public. The Commission developed three options and, of course, some rejected all choices. In the end the Commission endorsed the one-town police option, and the transition is going smoothly.
- Impact on Taxes — Some Village residents expressed a belief that the tax benefits were overstated and could not be realized. They stated that the process would degrade their services and would not reduce their taxes. The reality – and very good news — is that the tax savings for village residents during 2012 will be greater than the Commission anticipated.
- The Village’s Historic Heritage — Loss of identity was an issue early on in Seneca Falls. The Village is the birthplace of women’s rights and the home of the Women’s Rights National Park, the Women’s Hall of Fame, and suffrage pioneers. There was great concern that the Village would experience diminished credibility and historic significance. The Commission had to work through those concerns and gradually mitigated them. The larger community will remain “Seneca Falls” and the historic district will remain — as will the Historic District Commission. The Village’s history is secure.
- Maintaining Service Levels — Public Safety, one of 5 subcommittees, received the most attention from residents. Beyond normal anxieties, concerns about degraded trash pickup and street maintenance/snow removal surfaced as well. However, resident concerns were displaced over time by well thought out town-wide service proposals. Maintenance of current levels of essential services was one of the Seneca Falls Commission’s key success criteria.
- Recognizing the Need for Change — There is a minority in Seneca Falls — a very vocal minority –that want things to stay as they are. They say, “It isn’t broken, don’t change it.” The majority of citizens understood that by uniting they were able to find efficiencies, maintain or improve their municipal services, and find savings to pass onto taxpayers.
What can the Princetons learn from Seneca Falls?
While Princeton and Seneca Falls are unique, the road to consolidation has many commonalities, whether we look at services, cost savings or the desire to change. If Princeton consolidates, we will be a leader in New Jersey, but will be following in the footsteps of communities in other states that have successfully united. If we are to avoid rising taxes, we must change how we provide services and look to successful communities like Seneca Falls for inspiration.
Phillip Dressing, Chairman of the Seneca Falls Village Dissolution Committee
Anton Lahnston, Chairman of the Princeton Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission