Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Heed success stories of consolidation efforts

By Chad Goerner, Former Mayor of Princeton Township

One year ago, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township residents went to the polls and approved the first large municipal consolidation in more than 100 years -- a move that will save millions and improve service delivery for the soon-to-be combined towns.

In Morris County, where Roxbury and Mount Arlington are beginning to explore ways to save money by coming together, consolidation would also greatly improve the coordination of emergency services -- a critically important issue that will only take on greater importance as New Jerseyans recover from the wake of superstorm Sandy.

When Sandy struck Princeton, we responded for the first time in a completely coordinated fashion. With the merger of our two municipalities fully under way, we established an Emergency Operations Center that was staffed by the police departments, the public works departments, fire and EMS personnel and other staff.

Police were able to coordinate more effectively in prioritizing coverage for the whole town, while the borough and township public works departments marshaled their resources to open up critical roadways more quickly.

We launched coordinated communication to all residents of the soon-to-be consolidated borough and township through social media outlets and a reverse-911 system. This single, coordinated emergency response was a dramatic improvement compared to the response coordination conducted separately by our towns in previous storms.

A coordinated emergency response isn't the only reason to look closer at consolidation.

We have set a path to savings that exceed our consolidation commission's estimate for 2013 and beyond. In addition, we have uncovered areas of savings that we did not focus on during the study process: through zero-based budgeting in our operating budgets, harmonizing employee benefits, cost avoidance by better using joint real estate and more.

The savings for the Princeton merger are projected to be at least 40 percent greater in 2013 than the original estimate ($2.26 million versus $1.61 million) from the consolidation commission that studied merger of the Princetons.

Furthermore, at full implementation in three years, the commission originally estimated a total savings of $3.32 million. We now project that if the new governing body follows the commission's recommendations, we can reach approximately $4 million in annual savings.

 These annual staff savings are a result of eliminating duplication and repurposing personnel where appropriate. In addition to those savings numbers, we also are uncovering areas of cost savings that were not analyzed by the consolidation commission.

Our operating budget for 2013 has the potential to be reduced because of the elimination of duplicate department needs (no need for two municipal audits, etc.) and employee benefit savings.

In addition, we've announced that due to attrition and earlier staff departures resulting from consolidation, we stand to save roughly $705,000 in 2012. This savings will offset a large part of our transition costs and put us on the path to realizing our savings sooner.

 Consolidation may not be the solution for all municipalities in Morris County, but for some -- such as Roxbury and Mount Arlington -- it certainly is worth considering.

It has the potential to create a more sustainable budget that can survive under the state's 2 percent municipal budget cap without drastically reducing surplus or cutting valuable services. So, why aren't other towns looking into this more expeditiously?

The main obstacle remains our elected officials, who still cling to home rule. It's easy to understand why -- consolidation brings fears of losing control and giving up town identity.

But under the Local Option Municipal Consolidation Act (2007), there are new provisions that make mergers more feasible. Towns can now apportion debt (i.e. each town is separately responsible for the debt they incurred prior to consolidating), they can develop advisory planning districts to help preserve neighborhood character and, perhaps most importantly, they can continue ordinances and service districts within their preconsolidation borders, allowing many identity-related concerns to subside.

Without consolidating, the Princetons, like many other towns in Morris County, would have been under continued budget pressures, and residents would have continued to see staff and commensurate service cuts.

It's always easy to point fingers and cling to the hope that things will magically change and keep studying shared services without having the political will to enact them. All the while, many towns are spending down their savings or cutting services to try to stay under the 2 percent cap.

Our success in Princeton certainly has sparked more discussion throughout the state, and there are a select group of open-minded elected officials and residents who want to continue this effort in New Jersey.

While consolidation is not a silver-bullet solution for everything that ails us, it certainly is one tool in our municipal toolkit that should be moved to the top shelf. Our success in Princeton is proof.

Chad Goerner is the former mayor of Princeton Township.