Planet Princeton

Statement on Consolidation to Borough Residents from Councilwoman Jo Butler

I want to speak most directly to those Borough residents in the anti- consolidation camp and, perhaps, to those on the fence. As a member of the governing body, I have a perspective that is unique, and I’d like to share a couple of thoughts that I think have been overlooked.

I get the Boroughness.  Every person who lives in the Borough sacrifices to do so.  We give up a larger house, a bigger yard, a house in better condition, a house with air conditioning, privacy, or a garage that actually accommodate cars.  Why?  A number of reasons, but included in them: We want to have sidewalks; we want to be able to walk to town; we want to be able to walk to the Dinky or drive to Princeton Junction in less than 10 minutes.  I walk every morning with a neighbor.  We hang a hard left and head into town.  We are following the progress of the new Speer library; we catch the kids on Mercer waiting for the bus; we note the comings and goings of the merchants on Palmer Square; the disappointing untidiness of the merchants on Nassau St.; and we do a lot of monitoring of garbage – folks in apartments illegally dumping trash into municipal containers, garbage left in Harrison St. Park and exposed garbage from Qdoba.  We like seeing the same folks out every morning.  It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we like the vibrancy, the life.

When we moved here, it was important to me that my kids could do some things for themselves—that I didn’t need to drive them everywhere.  It was important to me that I could get my car serviced at Larnini’s and walk to and from the station without imposing on my neighbors.  I wanted to be able to walk to the Dinky to meet my husband in NYC.  Does that mean I have different values than the folks in the Township?  I don’t’ think so.  I think of values as being quite big – honesty and commitment to family.  But I do recognize that there may be lifestyle differences.  Do the differences rise to the level of causing me to vote against consolidation?  I don’t think they do.

This vote has come a very difficult time because we are also considering major development along Alexander St., a street now being referred to as a Gateway.  I would contend that this is a gateway to the Borough that happens to be located in the Township.  And I am disappointed that our colleagues in the Township have not been willing to hear in any meaningful way the concerns of the Borough officials, the Borough residents or even the Township residents who value the size and walkability of our central business district.  And why should they?  In these difficult economic times, it has, in many ways, become a race for ratables.  If the University has their way, the Township will gain the ratables from the Dinky station parking and from the Wawa – which I intend to boycott when and if it is no longer in the Borough.  They will gain the ratables from the bars and restaurants, the childcare and new housing all slated to line our major artery, our lifeline to the hospital.  I believe that this Potemkin Village planned for Alexander will have negative ramifications for our central business district, for our traffic, and for our accessibility to the Northeast Corridor and the hospital.  Does it rise to the level of causing me to vote against consolidation?  What I hold out hope for is that in a combined community, those like minded residents in both the Borough and the Township will have a voice that is currently being ignored.  I know that there are many residents in the Township who understand the critical economic importance of our link to the Northeast corridor, of having a vibrant, organic central business district.  I hope that in a consolidated community, all the elected officials will act in good faith and let the voters find their new collective vision and voice for the future of our town.

But here are the things that tip the scales for me:

One is the dirty little secret I haven’t heard discussed by the commission: our legal bills.  We all talk a good game about shared services.  Largely, they work.  We know they are the right thing to do for our community.  But what you don’t see behind the scenes is the incredible amount of manpower and energy required to make it work.  And there is always a little bit of tension between the agencies that report to the Borough vs. ones that reports to the Township.  You saw that with the swimming pool,   It is no accident that the votes against the pool came from members of Borough Council because the Recreation Department falls under the Township. Frankly, it is tiresome and unproductive. Every joint contract we sign involves two mayors,  two administrators, two engineers, two clerks, two resolutions or ordinances and two lawyers.  And sometimes we take legal action against each other!  It doesn’t serve the larger community well.  It isn’t a good use of anyone’s time or money.  There is so much more we could be doing.  (Rest assured that should consolidation fail, on Wednesday morning, each Mayor will be on the phone to the respective municipal attorneys giving the go ahead for legal action against the other municipality.)

When I ran for office, I said I generally favored consolidation but that the numbers would matter, so I would like to focus on the numbers. I think the Commission did a very thorough job in looking at the numbers.  It wasn’t an easy task, and they didn’t take the easy or most optimistic alternative when looking at consolidated services. In fact, I might contend that they were conservative.  I feel confident that that the projected savings are well  within our grasp.  Any maybe more.  But these aren’t savings that we can achieve individually.  They will come from seizing the opportunity before us – a chanced to rethink our ability to deliver services in a new and enhanced way.  Keep in mind that over 50 percent of our taxes go to the schools, and 25 percent go to the County.  We retain just 25 percent.  It would be  very difficult, if not impossible, to find savings that would translate into ANY tax relief for Borough residents on our own.  There is a minimum level of service and staffing required to run a municipality.  In fact, in anticipation of this possible consolidation that we have tried to avoid adding or replacing employees, and the first time residents have to wait for something, we are hearing about it.

We have held the line on taxes for three years.  We will not be able to do it again for the foreseeable future.  When did $2-3 million annually become an insignificant amount of money?  Please consider the following:.After all the summer debate, we could own a pool free of debt in two or three years.

•       Our investment in technology is nonexistent. Our records leave a lot to be desired.  We need a tickler file, and we need to hire someone to do that.  It is critical, but we have resisted spending the money.

•       We need cold storage for our public works equipment.  It is penny wise and pound foolish to buy equipment that we can’t protect from the weather.

•       As witnessed during Irene, we came close to resembling one of those isolated  Vermont towns. If all the resources of the Township AND Borough had been directed at the major arteries, regardless of whether they were Borough or Township, could we have recovered more quickly? I think so.

•       We have not invested enough in our disaster preparedness.  The Health Commission has some good ideas for convening critical organizations in the community to discuss support for our more fragile citizens, but without resources, it is impossible to do.

•       We have to consider the critical needs of our fire department.  The list goes on…

Consolidation won’t be easy or without sacrifice, but every time I get frustrated I think back to revaluation. I organized a help session at the Library for residents who had just received their new assessments.  We were trying to let them know what the revaluation meant in terms of taxes and how to appeal if that was appropriate.  There was a lovely elderly woman from the John Witherspoon neighborhood who came in with a fistful of papers. As I helped her get organized, I came to realize, and then had to explain to her, that her new assessment meant that her taxes were going from $1500 to $6000 per year.  It was heartbreaking.  So I think of this woman and what we can do for her and others like her.  I want to preserve our Boroughness.  But if we cannot cut our expenses in some meaningful way, we will not be able to hold the line against continuing tax increases.  And if we can’t do that, the diversity of both our communities is in peril.

This statement, submitted by Butler to Planet Princeton, was adapted from a public meeting on consolidation where Butler indicated her support for merging the two Princetons.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Consolidation will make the property tax problem WORSE not better. Or cost the municipal government more rather than giving them some spending money, as you suggest. The transition will cost us alot of money and it is very questionable whether we will see cost savings due to management efficiencies. Larger service organizations without effficiences of scale, like municipal governments, have higher middle management and overhead costs than smaller ones, not the reverse. Of course laying off staff does save money — and we could do that without consolidating.

    The calculations of tax impact of consolidation depend greatly on the assumptions (like 16.5 staff positions cut, no transition costs, no extension of services other than garbage, …) . If one makes different assumptions (one I believe to be more realistic), one predicts tax increases rather than savings. See http://preserveprincetonborough.wordpress.com/financials/

    The research on consolidation suggests this as well. A Wall Street Journal article on studies of consolidating municipalities in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York concludes “ALL FOUND SMALL GOVERNMENTS COST LESS THAN BIG ONES” [my caps] ” and quotes Wendell Cox, the author of multiple studies on the issue: ” ‘ANYONE WHO LOOKS AT THE DATA IS GOING TO COME TO THE SAME CONCLUSION’ [and] ‘In government, the whole idea of economies of scale is turned on its head,’ ” (WSJ, When civic mergers don’t save money, Aug 29, 2011). Research sponsored by the state and Rutgers university shows that “there is no compelling evidence for consolidation” and that the results of “consolidation are not consistently beneficial in terms of long-term financial and political considerations.” (LUARCC report sponsored by Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration, May 2009).

    My experience merging two drug testing laboratories (the larger one with 100 plus employees about the size of our municipal government) has shown me in practice that small service organizations can be incredibly efficient and cost effective — and that larger ones have higher management costs. These labs were regulated — and were governed by SOPs, much like our police departments.

    Look, who ever heard of “Bigger government means fewer taxes.”

    It does sound from your piece as if the government plans to spend the hoped for “savings” from consolidation — rather than give it back to the taxpayer. That is not what is being advertised by the Commission.

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