If Princeton residents vote to consolidate the Princeton Borough and Township this November, they can expect to receive aid from the state to cover 20 percent of the transition costs, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced on Friday. Christie also endorsed the consolidation measure and announced his support for pending legislation that would allow municipalities in the process of consolidation to spread their transition costs out over five years.
The legislation, which the state legislature is expected to pass, would allow municipalities in the process of consolidation to sell bonds to cover a much larger portion of their transition costs than they were previously able to cover.
“I’m pleased that they’ve actually come out and given us something throughout this process because we were planning on receiving nothing. It’s really a benefit to consolidation efforts statewide,” said Township Mayor Chad Goerner, who has been done negotiating for transition aid with the governor’s office for several months. “It’s a bipartisan issue from my perspective. I am a Democrat, [Christie]’s a Republican, but we agree on issues of common importance, and this is one of them.”
Goerner served on the finance subcommittee of the Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission, which prepared the plan for municipal consolidation. The commission predicted that consolidation, when fully phased in, would result in savings of $3.2 million per year, and that the municipalities would incur a one-time transition cost of $1.7 million.
The new municipalities would capitalize on almost all of this cost through bonds and would pay back the bonds over five years. “Interest rates right now on bonds over a five-year period of time are very negligible,” Goerner said, noting that the municipalities would not incur a materially higher cost by bonding.
Several months ago, the commission applied to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Division of Local Government Services for state aid to cover all or part of these transition costs. Along with his support for the legislation, Christie announced that the DCA would provide grants covering 20 percent of merger costs to municipalities undergoing consolidation.
“[The commission] had prepared a plan assuming absolutely no transition assistance whatsoever, so the grant of 20 percent actually will allow us to realize the savings from consolidation even faster,” Goerner said.
The $1.7 million figure includes expenses such as moving costs, new software and new equipment needed by the consolidated police department, Commission Chair Anton Lahnston said.
Christie encouraged the Princetons to consolidate as an example for other small municipalities in the state. New Jersey has 566 municipalities, many of which are very small. These initiatives are part of an ongoing effort on the part of the state to encourage municipal governments to consolidate and reduce costs.
“The residents of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough have an opportunity to streamline their local governments and achieve significant savings now and into the future,” Christie said in a press release. “My view has always been that sensible, locally driven consolidation must be supported by state government, and that is exactly what we are doing by proposing common-sense changes to how municipalities absorb the one-time costs of mergers and incentivizing voter-approved consolidations with grants to assist with those expenses.”
“Obviously more [aid] would have been better, but we’re very happy that we’re getting that, and it’s going to mean that we’ll see some savings that we’ll be able to return to the taxpayers in the first year of consolidation,” said Peter Wolanin ’94, co-chair of the pro-consolidation citizens’ group Unite Princeton.
On the other hand, Kate Warren, spokesperson for the anti-consolidation group Preserve Our Historic Borough, said in a statement that she finds Christie’s announcement and its timing “suspect.”
“It is one more attempt to make the Princetons the state “poster children” for consolidation,” Warren said, asking, “From where will the newly promised grant money materialize?”
The municipal boundary currently crosses through some of the dormitories in the south campus, including Forbes College, Whitman College and Scully Hall. In the affected dormitories, some students must vote in the Township and some must vote in the Borough. Confusion over this in previous years, Wolanin said, has caused students to go to the wrong polling place and not be able to vote.
“There were literally hundreds of students, probably, who were disenfranchised and didn’t get their votes counted in 2008,” Wolanin said. “It’s very difficult to inform students about which polling place they need to go to because of the split.” In a consolidated municipality, it would be possible for the entire main campus to lie in one voting district. That way, “it would be much easier for students because they would always have a single polling place regardless of which dormitory they lived in,” he said.