Voters in the two Princetons made history tonight, deciding the time was right to become one by approving consolidation in both the borough and the township.
Borough voters approved the merger by a vote of 1,385 to 902 , according to unofficial results that do not include provisional ballots.
Township voters overwhelmingly approved the merger by a six-to-one margin, voting 3,542 to 604 in favor of consolidating, according to unofficial results.
The crowd at Conte’s went wild when the results were posted, as people cheered, jumped up and down and clanged glasses in celebration.
“When we wake up tomorrow, we are just Princeton,” said Township Committeewoman Sue Nemeth.
“It’s a good day to be a Princetonian,” added Township Committeeman Bernie Miller.
No one looked happier than the chairman of the Consolidation and Shared Services Commission, Anton Lahnston, who spent several hundred hours over more than a year working on the consolidation issue with the other members of the commission.
“I spent so many sleepless night wondering what else we could have done to make it happen, but we did it,” Lahnston said, as he stood on a chair and addressed the crowd. “Thanks to all who kept the faith.”
An elated Township Mayor Chad Goerner shook hands and hugged people in the crowd. “I’m so happy this day has come,” Goerner said. “Finally, Princeton is a leader in the state of New Jersey.”
A citizen group called Unite Princeton ran an aggressive pro-consolidation campaign that picked up momentum in recent weeks. Supporters spent the last few weekends canvassing neighborhoods, and lawn signs supporting consolidation could be seen on many residents’ lawns over the last several days.
The victory was applauded by consolidation advocates across the state like Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, who issued a statement on the consolidation victory and said it offers hope for other municipalities in the state.
“The Princetons became trailblazers tonight in the municipal consolidation movement, and Courage to Connect New Jersey believes this is first in a long line of municipal consolidations that will take place in New Jersey over the next few years,” Genovese said. “More and more citizens are becoming empowered and recognize that they do, in fact, have a voice when it comes to streamlining and strengthening local government.”
This the fourth time in more than 50 years that borough and township voters weighed in on the issue of consolidation.
In 1953, both towns voted against merging. In 1979, the township voted overwhelmingly yes, while the measure failed by 33 votes in the borough. In 1996, township residents again overwhelmingly voted in favor of consolidation, while the referendum failed in the borough by a 360-vote margin.
In addition, there was a referendum on establishing a consolidation study commission in 1991. It passed in the township, but failed in the borough.
This time around, in a tough economy with property taxes skyrocketing, many residents saw consolidation as a better option from a cost-savings perspective.
Some residents said consolidation would also bring less redundancy because many services are duplicated. One township resident said the township and borough do not save enough money as separate municipalities. He added that consolidation should also be applied to all New Jersey counties in the future.
“It’s time, I live on a split street and it’s confusing to figure out which public works go where,” said one borough resident. “I’d like to have my street have one municipality telling us who’s coming and what’s being done.”
“We can come together and erase the invisible line that separates us,” another voter said. “I can only see the positives that will come out of consolidating.”
“I voted against it last time, but I see what’s happened since then, and this time I’m all for it,” one borough resident said.
Other borough and township residents who voted against consolidation said the case for merging was too weak. A citizen group called Preserve Our Historic Borough argued the cost savings would not be achieved and the borough would lose its identity.
“I don’t think there’s enough information to justify it, there’s a lot of unsupported stuff,” one voter said. “I’m not willing to change it if it isn’t broken. There were points made that may have been valid, but they weren’t strong enough.”
A top reason some borough residents wanted to remain on their own was a fear that merging into a bigger township could overwhelm them and take away their voices.
“The borough will lose representation, I’m running for council and I want my voice heard,” one resident said. “My intuition is telling me the more power for the right wing, the better the chance our taxes will be raised. I’ve lived here for 30 years, why change something that works?”
“I disagree with the way both governments are doing things,” one voter said. “Why bring them together?”
But many residents said they already consider themselves one, and municipal boundaries only make things more difficult.
“I’m so tired of trying to figure out whether or not my neighbor lives in the township or the borough,” said one resident. “We all live in Princeton and that’s all that matters.”
“Doughnuts are good for eating but not for living in,” another said.
Rider Student Journalist Megan O’Connell contributed to this report.