Mark Freda, a former Borough councilman and former emergency services director of Princeton Borough, was unanimously elected to lead the consolidation task force Tuesday night. Princeton Township resident Scott Sillars was chosen to be the vice chair.
More than 60 people attended the first task force public meeting at the township municipal building. Many were Borough and Township employees. The task force discussed the possibility of offering an early retirement program to employees, and also considered whether to hire an architecture firm to work on office space planning for the consolidated Princeton.
The task force voted to table the proposal to hire KSS Architects, with Freda and others suggesting the task force members review organization charts and other information before voting on the proposed $27,500 contract.
“I don’t know how deal with space for an organization when I don’t know what it is yet,” task force member Jim Levine said. “I’ve been on this task force 40 minutes into its life, and I’m being asked to sign off on a space study that has huge implications…What if the task force decides not to follow the consolidation commission’s recommendations?…I don’t know about the head counts of departments, the timing, the speed, or what any of the agencies look like. Moving forward with KSS is putting the cart well before the horse.”
Resident Kate Warren questioned whether the towns had to accept bids for the architecture contract. Borough administrator Bob Bruschi said the contract is considered a professional service, so it is exempt from public bidding rules.
Bruschi and Township Administrator Jim Pascale said they have been meeting regularly with department heads since the day after voters approved consolidation, and that department heads have been able to find efficiencies beyond the consolidation commission’s recommendations. Pascale said work has been divided in to three areas: organizational charts, transition costs, and other savings achieved through consolidation.
“There are many hidden costs that need to be addressed,” Pascale said. “From the color of police cars and deciding what to do with that, there are all kinds of costs along those lines as we transition in to one community. Department heads have made a tentative list of issues.”
Pascale said consolidation will achieve savings other than in just personnel costs, for example the two finance departments will merge and only one audit will be needed instead of two. He said hiring an architect to plan office space was a top priority.
“Goal No. 1 is to start putting bodies in offices in township hall, borough hall, and the recreation complex,” he said. “We will need expertise. I met with KSS. Bob (Bruschi) is comfortable with KSS. We don’t have a lot of time to solicit proposals.”
“Another priority is the early retirement incentive program,” Pascale said. “The consolidation report eliminated 18.5 positions. The law that created the ability to consolidate also has a provision where you can humanely reduce the size of staff through an early retirement incentive program.”
Pascale said the towns would need to file an application with the state to get estimated figures for what an early retirement incentive program would cost. The state does not have an in-house person to calculate the numbers. The state Department of Community Affairs representative to the task force, Eugene McCarthy, said the two Princetons would probably have to foot the bill for the cost of the actuary.
Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner said the task force needs to evaluate all the options when making staff reductions. “We might not want to consider the early retirement program once we see the numbers,” he said. “We need to look at the issue from a cost perspective, understanding what other options available. That is the key critical issue before move forward.”
Some members of the task force and the public urged the task force to develop a detailed timeline outlining and prioritizing all the tasks that need to be completed for the merger.
Goerner said the task force should hire a project management consultant to guide the municipalities through this process. The task force has a preliminary budget of $50,000, which is being funded equally by both Princetons. The money can be used to hire consultants, lawyers or other support staff.
During public comment, resident Henry Singer urged the group to come up with “a plan for a plan.”
“You need to know what all the major tasks are, and the work streams,” Singer said. “That should be your No. 1 priority.”
Singer cautioned the task force not to waste any time or underestimate what needs to be done. He also said in terms of personnel, the task force will need to consider differences in work cultures when merging departments. He said it is time to put the designations of township and borough aside when selecting volunteers for positions. “We need to go forward as one community and chose the person with the right skills,” he said.
Goerner cautioned the task force that its job is not to reinvent the wheel. “The commission established very strong guidelines,” he said. “People are looking to us to achieve saving or improve upon them. Things may change slightly, but reinventing the wheel is not really what our charge should be.”
He recommend that everyone on the task force review all the consolidation commission documents on the Center for Governmental Research’s website. A similar website will be set up for the transition task force.
Consolidation Commission Chairman Anton Lahnston offered to provide task force members with information and support. The commission is still meeting the third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the township municipal building.
“We want to support you. Please use us,” Lahnston said. “Be true to the plan, the road map from the commission. The voters voted for the plan in approving it.”
Lahnston also recommended that the task force use the commission’s consultant, the Center for Governmental Research, as its project manager. “They really helped the commission,” he said.
A representative from the union representing public works employees, the Communication Workers of America, expressed interest on serving on a subcommittee to assure a smooth transition for the two public works departments. Kristin Appelget from Princeton University also offered the University’s support in terms of providing resources, data and other information.
The task force will hold its public meetings on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the township municipal building. The next meeting will be held Feb. 8. A task force quorum requires a minimum of three members from each municipality in attendance. Ultimately the decision making authority still rests with the governing bodies of the two Princetons. Joint governing body public meetings have been have scheduled where the task force will report on its progress. A preliminary task force written report is due in April. The task force term ends June 30 of 2013.