As Princeton looks to a New Year, it also marks a landmark: one year as a consolidated municipality. New Jersey’s absurd number of self-governing municipalities (565 at the last count) reduced by one on Jan 1, 2013 when Princeton Borough and Princeton Township united to form ‘Princeton’. But this isn’t the first time Princeton has seen a consolidation. Can you name the other two consolidations that have taken place in recent decades? What are their successes, what is the unfinished business, and how does it impact walkability?
The process of consolidation in Princeton could be argued to have begun in 1965, with the approval of a merger of the Township and Borough School Boards into a single regional public school system. Reports from that era demonstrated the strength of opinion in favor and against this early consolidation (one letter writer described proponents of the school board merger as ‘fanatics’). Today, it is hard to imagine operating separate school boards. Princeton’s public school system is generally regarded as highly successful. Nonetheless, there is still unfinished business from the consolidation. After the merger was approved, the new School Board constructed John Witherspoon Middle School, and moved classes there from the old Township school at Witherspoon Street and Valley Road.
JW Middle School has done great, but nobody ever figured out what to do with the old, redundant school building. Almost fifty years on, the School Board finally decided this month to investigate how much it would cost to demolish the crumbling structure. As the largest recipient of Princeton’s tax dollars, the School Board is rightly considering how to balance taxpayers’ interests alongside educative needs and the wishes of those who would like to see the old building preserved. The story is sure to run and run, but we would like to see part of the site redeveloped as housing, including an affordable housing element.
Princeton’s second consolidation was in 2010, when, after centuries of independent operation, our local fire companies consolidated operations out of the Mercer Engine Company No. 3 firehouse. Response time has improved, but the firefighters want more space. The town has appointed a task force to examine ways to expand the firehouse- potentially bringing Princeton First Aid and Rescue Service onto the same site by expanding onto part of the old school building (see above) next door. But this raises the possibility of putting more land out of taxable use, and of incurring significant public spending in a town where taxes are already very high. It also risks making this part of Witherspoon Street- directly opposite Community Park School- very dangerous for pedestrians because of the number of trips from emergency vehicles.
If we accept that Witherspoon Street is the right place for emergency services consolidation, then modernization of the facility must be paid for by selling the two redundant firehouses and the PFARS site on Harrison Street and Chestnut St. All of these sites are in walkable locations, and would return substantial revenue to the emergency services coffers, especially with flexible site zoning.
Princeton’s municipal consolidation has not yet yielded anything like the cost savings that some local residents anticipated. As reported by Planet Princeton earlier this year, the vaunted $3 million budget saving was in fact just $700K because of double-counting for shared services. Princeton has subsequently issued a new bond for ~$1 million, which will add to municipal taxes and which paves the way for further municipal spending on construction of an expensive cold storage facility at River Road. Consolidation savings were completely wiped out by increased county and school board levies, meaning that Princeton residents got a substantial tax increase in this year after consolidation. That is hardly going to inspire other municipalities which are considering merging together.
Economies resulting from consolidation are still largely unrealized. But consolidated Princeton should consider other ways to make municipal finances more resilient. Princeton’s Planning Board must revise the Housing Element for the consolidated municipal Masterplan to make it pro-Smart Growth . For decades, Princeton has limited housing at walkable sites in the town, driving up the cost of housing and pushing middle-class families out of town. These policies have resulted in massive destruction of green spaces to provide housing at car-dependent exurban sites. Apart from the increase in traffic caused by car-dependent housing, study after study after study has shown that allowing walkable, mixed-use development provides the greatest return in terms of tax revenues. Zoning to allow such development must be a priority.
There is a strong case to be made that the process of consolidation in Princeton has not gone far enough, and that further consolidation should be targeted involving other municipalities or even all of Mercer County. Such talk is likely to make municipal officials’ hair stand on end, as there is still much work to be done to deal with the after-effects of Princeton’s consolidations to date. As seen with the consolidated School Board, it sometimes takes decades for the full effects of consolidation to play out. Princeton’s consolidations are working, but we still need to be proactive to make sure they achieve their greatest possible effect.
What do you see as the successes and failures of consolidation? Do you think municipal consolidation was a good thing? What should be the priorities for 2014? Have your say in the comments section below!