Chad Goerner — the former Princeton Township mayor who helped lead the successful campaign to consolidate the former Borough and Township in 2012 — has now written a self-published book on the process and on the 60 years of unsuccessful consolidation efforts that preceded it. “A Tale of Two Tigers: Princeton’s Historic Consolidation” is intended as a road map for other municipal and state-level politicians and officials to navigate the often controversial process of turning two towns into one. Goerner gives a presentation on his book at Labyrinth Books on Sunday, May 7, at 3 p.m.
Goerner’s parents — a bookkeeper mother and father in real estate — were uninterested in politics, but Chad’s involvement began at an early age. As a high school student in 1992 he and a friend worked on Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign and effectively ran his northern New Jersey campaign headquarters.
After college at George Washington University, Goerner moved to Princeton in 1996 for work. A decade later, he decided it was time to get involved in local politics. “Entering the second term of the Bush presidency and living in Princeton it was just very clear to me that I needed to get more involved,” he says, “because another four years of the Bush administration was going to impact the social and cultural fabric of our state and also the country. It was a difficult time.”
At the time, Goerner notes, the Princeton Community Democratic Organization had a club-like reputation and was generally hostile to outsiders, but newly elected PCDO president (and current council member) Jenny Crumiller was beginning to change that. When a vacancy arose on Township Committee, Goerner eventually won in the primary against establishment favorite Scott Carver, a former PCDO president.
Excerpts from “A Tale of Two Tigers” follow:
Local governments across the country are responsible for responding to emergencies, protecting their citizens, repairing roads, and even licensing dogs. In many cases there are simply too many local governments to deliver these services efficiently and effectively. While this is a national problem, New Jersey and neighboring New York are particularly struggling with how to deliver efficient and effective services in light of stagnant tax revenues, increasing costs of goods and services, and their states’ two percent spending cap.
New York and New Jersey both have their own issues with municipal government inefficiency. New Jersey has 565 municipalities and 599 school districts. New York has more than 10,521 taxing districts resulting in a lasagna-like layer of multiple tax bills and resultant inefficiency. What’s the solution to this morass of home rule? Both states have taken action to make it more feasible for residents and elected officials to consolidate towns and school districts. Success has been led from the bottom up in New Jersey, with Princeton being the first major local government merger in over a century. In New York State, however, the governor’s office has been proactive in encouraging more local government mergers, service sharing and innovation from the top down.
In 2011, after six decades of failed attempts, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township consolidated to form a single town. Many visitors to Princeton have no idea that the town used to be two separate towns. Residents themselves may know this, but many of them are even unaware of exactly where the borders of the former Princeton Borough and Township began and ended. Because of the many failed efforts and the successful 2011 effort, Princeton offers local governments a unique case study on what can go right after a lot of trying and failing.
Epilogue: Furthering Government Efficiency
Consolidation celebrated its third anniversary at the end of 2015. The two municipalities not only stayed together, but also succeeded together.
The blended town of Princeton achieved all of the major promises of consolidation and more. It provided a model for the state and spurred other efforts to reduce the state’s layers of government. Phased in over a three-year period, each year’s savings exceeded the consolidation commission estimates including the final transition year where the gross savings was $3.9 million. Consolidation savings contributed to the slowing of the town’s tax growth rate. Since the merger, Princeton has had a lower tax rate growth than its bordering towns in Mercer County.
. . . These savings were achieved primarily from staffing reductions by eliminating redundant positions. It is on track to save more money in the future through staff attrition. Furthermore, the municipality saved money in other areas that are hard to quantify but clearly tangible. Princeton optimized its real estate assets by allowing a government-supported nonprofit to repurpose a municipal building no longer housing governmental staff; this saved millions by eliminating the need to acquire new space. Princeton as a united body negotiated a long-term agreement with Princeton University that provided an annual in-lieu of taxes contribution that was greater than the combined borough and township contribution in the year prior to consolidation. The town also renegotiated union contracts, providing additional budget relief and sustainability.
While savings are an important benefit of consolidation, equally beneficial and often overlooked is a more responsive government providing better services to the residents. Princeton now has a much-improved response in clearing roads from storms and managing crisis weather events. It has established Access Princeton, an effective one-stop communications department to respond to residents no matter what their needs.
After over 50 years and a myriad of consolidation attempts, the 2011 vote was historic and proved that it could be accomplished with leadership and community involvement.
Princeton’s success has been noticed. Towns like Mount Arlington and Roxbury are exploring consolidation. Others like Chester Borough and Chester Township are looking to make positive changes based on their previous study and have agreed to share police services. There’s clearly momentum, but it will take a true movement to continue the progress of eliminating multiple layers of government and inefficiency that hamper savings and service delivery of local governments in New Jersey and around the country.
Princeton’s consolidation has been a shining example in government efficiency and cost savings. The consolidation momentum should be marching forward statewide — with financial incentives and strategic assistance from the governor, the legislature and open-minded local elected officials. Although consolidation never can serve as a cure-all for all of the state’s financial woes, local government can be re-invented for cost savings, improved services, and strategic planning. The success in Princeton is proof.