Town awaits consolidation reimbursement from state
During the transition process, which spanned 2012, the municipalities estimated $1.7 million in consolidation costs, Princeton Council President Bernard Miller said. This February, the council submitted a request to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs for reimbursement of $460,000, or 19 percent of the final $2.4 million sum, and met with DCAofficials to discuss the reimbursement.
The request for reimbursement outlined a list of total expenses that the two municipalities incurred during the transition period, but town officials said the meeting did not produce a specific agreement and they are still unsure which costs the state will choose to reimburse.
“We have one meeting with them to discuss our request, and we’re hopeful that the state will live up to its promise of 20 percent,” Miller said.
In the 2012 Princeton Township Budget Newsletter, the Citizens’ Finance Advisory Committee had assured taxpayers that “the state has committed to pay 20 percent of the one-time transition costs.”
DCA spokeswoman Tammori Petty told The Times of Trenton this month that Christie’s offer stipulated that only expenses that were “absolutely necessary” for consolidation would be eligible for the 20 percent return.
According to Miller, it was impossible to lay out the exact costs of consolidation when the governor first made his offer because no one knew what expenses would be incurred. Princeton is the first town in the state to consolidate two previously separate municipalities in over half a century.
“Since this was the first merger, there was no guidebook to follow,” Miller said. “We were breaking new ground.”
He explained that the majority of consolidation costs were associated with the modification of facilities in order to accommodate merging departments. For example, he said, the original Borough and Township had distinct police departments — each with approximately 30 officers — that were housed in two separate facilities. But after the merger, the departments consolidated into one dispatch center at the former Township police station.
“We had to modify the police facility at 400 Witherspoon to accommodate a much larger department,” he said.
While the joint departments have no more personnel than the sum of the original two departments, a single facility was chosen to house the consolidated department. Other departments, including the finance department, were subject to similar accommodation fees.
A large percentage of the transition costs was also taken up by legal fees, which amount to $340,000 according to The Times of Trenton. These legal costs were incurred in order to make one set of laws for each district, Miller said.
According to Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, one of the major legal disputes involved the 2012 school board election, which was the last official election to take place between the separate Borough and Township. The election was scheduled for April 2012, after consolidation had been approved, but since the two municipalities had discrete voting districts until June, state law did not specify how the election ought to be carried out.
“We went back and forth with the state trying to get some direction, but since the law wasn’t giving any guidance, we needed to use our lawyers to figure out what to do that wasn’t going to break the law,” Lempert said.
Another example of these legal negotiations was the standardization of dog license fees. Before the consolidation, the Borough had a dog license fee that was substantially lower than the Township’s, Miller said.
He said a more significant discussion was required to rationalize the distinct zoning requirements between the Borough and the Township.
“In many instances, we turned to the state and asked them to walk us through [these negotiations] from the legal standpoint,” Miller said. “The state said, ‘We’d love to help you, but we don’t have the resources.’ ”
In addition to some of the legal expenses, technology costs, including the creation of a common email and telephone system, were also incurred. It is unclear whether the state will consider these costs necessary for the merger.
Although Princeton did not receive financial support from the state during the transition process, they did receive operational guidance from the DCA.
“The state actually had someone working with us all the way through the process,” Miller said. “That individual was not from the financial side, but from the operational side.”
Miller said the state played a very important role during the consolidation process, but he said he hopes an agreement can be made regarding the finances so that future mergers are not met with the same challenges.
“There are other municipalities that are looking at the possibility of merging,” he said. “If [the state] does not live up to [its] promise, then looking at it from a long-term standpoint, other municipalities are less likely to go through with consolidation.”
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