In South Jersey, shared services have been helping save money for many towns. Barnegat Township and Ocean Township have cooperated on several initiatives from waste management to sharing an administrator. Atlantic County is working on a central dispatch for 911 calls — an important component in emergency response, especially in the wake of Sandy.
Other towns continue to make progress. But we need to do more.
New Jersey is a state with 566 municipalities (soon to be 565) and even more school districts. Elected officials blinded by “home rule” may not see it, but there is certainly room for the ultimate shared service: Consolidation.
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.
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 an automated phone calling 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 consolidationcommission’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 utilizing 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 consolidation 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.
Consolidation may not be the solution for all municipalities, but for some it is certainly 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. However, under the Local Option Municipal Consolidation Act, there are new provisions that make mergers more feasible. Towns can now apportion debt (each town remains separately responsible for the debt it incurred prior to consolidating). Towns can develop advisory planning districts to help preserve neighborhood character, and perhaps most important they can continue ordinances and service districts within their pre-consolidation borders, allowing many identity-related concerns to subside.
Without consolidating, the Princetons, like many other towns in New Jersey, would have been under continued budget pressures, and residents would have continued to seestaff and 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 has certainly 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 silverbullet 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 is proof.
Chad Goerner is mayor of Princeton Township. Gina Genovese is executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps citizens and elected officials work through the municipal consolidation process.