WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
The residents of both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, N.J., have an important question to answer on Election Day: to be or not to be.
There are no statewide or federal races to boost voter turnout in New Jersey on election day Tuesday, but the hotly contested municipal referendum on whether the borough and township ought to consolidate has inspired local passions and caught the attention of the state.
Three times in 60 years, voters in the tony suburb in Central New Jersey have said ‘No’ to merging Princeton Borough and Township even though conventional wisdom indicates local property tax payers would save money.
More than any state New Jersey, is defined by municipalities and their boundaries. There are 566 of them. (There are even more school districts.) 100 of the state’s towns have fewer than 2,000 residents.
Princeton Borough was formed by an act of the legislature in 1813 after residents complained they were vulnerable to the "riotous," drunken debauchery next door at what is now known as Princeton University, according to Alan Karcher’s book Multiple Municipal Madness.
The locals also wanted to bring to the Legislature's attention "that on occasions there are unlawful meeting of black people at improper hours for the purpose of drinking and carousing, to the manifest injury of the blacks themselves, their masters and employers," according to Multiple Municipal Madness. Evidently a properly drawn municipal boundary was all that was needed to restore law and order.
The Township, which is outside the borough, came 20 years after the borough was established. Last time, in 1996, Township voters voted ‘Yes’ to merge. Those in the Borough voted ‘No.’
"People who live in the borough love the idea of ‘boroughness’ and the historic character of the downtown,” said historian Eileen Morales with the Princeton Museum (in the borough), “and because the township developed physically so much later than the borough, you don't have that same sense of the history of the community in township per se.”
Jeff Aton, a Township resident and candidate for township council, said consolidation of the two municipalities would give locals more clout dealing with Princeton University, which owns major acreage in both towns. Three-hundred years later, Princeton University still looms large for locals.
"A combined Princeton, having one mayor, one strong figure head to have a relationship with Nassau Hall-- that's kind of what got me into this," Aton said.
While walking her dog, Jenny Mitchner recounted her own near life long deliberation on keeping the borough and township separate or consolidating. She has lived in both borough and township and found herself on both sides of the debate. Now in the borough, she's voting to merge.
"I have a friend who lives on the border, and she'll call up the police and they'll say, ‘No that's the borough. No that's the township’” she said. “Nothing gets done.”
In the 1960s, the Princetons merged their school districts. They share a library and several other consolidated municipal services.
"They have the trash figured out,” said Mitchner, who noted the public library is unified and it appears the handling of solid waste is on its way to being consolidated. “I mean that's big---the trash to borough people.”
At the taxi stand, cab driver Henry Aimos adamantly opposes any consolidation. "Separate,” Amos said. “The reason why? You know why? Because when they are separate like that there is competition. They can compete together.”
Kate Warren, a member of Preserve Our Historic Borough, opposes the merger. Eliminating Princeton University students from the equation, there are 12,000 residents in the township compared to 5,000 residents in the borough.
"So we feel we will lose our voice and control of our immediate neighborhood, and the central business district, which is all very walkable within our homes," she said.
Advocates for the merger say it would save at least $3.2 million a year and lower property taxes. Warren said her group doesn't buy it and has state studies that show municipal erging towns in general is not the silver bullet to take out the state's property tax vampire. She says sharing services is where local governments can save money.
"So we don't believe the savings are there. It is certainly not the panacea for property-tax reform that our governors for the last 50 years have been saying will come through consolidation,” said Warren.
Rick Fiori, a barber at Mike's Barber Shop in Princeton borough, said he doesn't see the prospect of reducing property taxes by merging the municipalities as swaying voters to vote ‘Yes.’
"I don't think it is an issue," Fiori said. "When you are riding into town, just look at the size of some of these houses and just think not only could I not afford the taxes, I could not afford to heat them. I think the class structure of this Karl Marx would refer to as the bourgeoisie, geoisie, geoisie.”
Taking a survey in Princeton you can count on at least one respondent reframing the question: borough resident Jonathan Braithwaite found it puzzling that New Jerseyians hold on to 566 towns and 21 counties.
"Well, yes, we need to reassess it," said Braithwaite said. "Instead of paying taxes to the state and federal and a county and a city, if you combine the city with the county, than you have a single local tax base."
If the Princetons merge, it will not be the first time in recent memory a New Jersey town ceased to exist. The last one was 14 years ago -- Warren County's late and great Pahaquarry Township, population seven.