It’s 2017. Where would you rather go to interact with your government, a grandiose building with marble stairs and mahogany desks OR, Facebook.
The State of New Jersey is proposing to spend over $300,000,000 to renovate the State Capitol building. Following suit, the City of Trenton is preparing to renovate its own City Hall building, which appears to have fallen into disrepair due to bad planning, neglect and misuse.
These will be exorbitantly expensive real estate investments. To keep the State’s Capitol building project in perspective, $300,000,000 spent to subsidize private development in Trenton would increase its tax base by 15%. That kind of money would revitalize the city.
The more important concern is that we’re thinking about spending vast amounts of money to perpetuate government processes that are over 200 years old. In 1790 when the NJ State Capitol was built and even in 1907 when Trenton City Hall was built, our needs were much different. Government was smaller and less powerful. A big imposing building that would intimidate the public was needed to project power. Today governments project power through taxes and force.
Do we still need intimidating government structures? Should inertia be in the way rethinking and improving our government?
Let’s take this opportunity to build a better government.
Since the time Trenton City Hall was built, cars, phones and the Internet have become widespread. In 1907 citizens likely needed a centralized place to meet and do the business of government. But that’s simply not true today. In fact, by limiting City Council meetings, records retrieval and permit application to a physical activity ONLY conducted at City Hall, we’ve made government less inclusive and inconvenient. City and State meetings are essentially small private affairs that go unattended.
Let’s turn this around and use 21st century technology to do it.
- Every meeting can be webcast.
- Residents could attend from their homes or office via phone or computer
- Participation could be managed with modern webcast technology allowing for typed, audio and video interaction
- Transcripts, documents, public polls and votes could be made automatically available
- Facebook is already a better place for civic debate than any government building
- Records can be made electronic
- Most records are (or should be) electronic today
- With just a little effort we can make birth certificates, tax records etc. available online and eliminate office space for storage and clerks for retrieval
- Gone would be OPRA requests to get basic government information
- Permits can be submitted online
- There is no government fee or permit that has to be submitted in person
- Processes would be faster and leave a clearer paper trail
- More office space and clerks could be eliminated
- Politicians don’t need marble floors on which to talk politics
- If a State or City politician really wants to talk politics, let them do it over coffee
- Or let them use modern, efficient shared office space (our representatives aren’t full time employees after all).
- Better yet, they can use audio-conferences, email and chat like the rest of us.
We’re contemplating spending millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to perpetuate a style of government which is archaic, inefficient and exclusionary. Instead, let’s spend a small fraction of that to reinvent government to be closer and more responsive to the people.
Let’s tear the buildings down and start over. Or, if our state capitols and city halls need to be preserved as relics of an ancient form of government, then let’s spend the money out of the museum budget.
Mayor Jackson gave his state of the city address last night. He highlighted quite a few things the city is doing and congratulated his staff on their hard work. What he did NOT do, nor has any Mayor of Trenton in the last 15 years done, is to give numbers that back up successful results.
Several years ago, the Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee which I led, agreed on 5 basic measures of goodness for a city. Since then I have been reporting on these indicators as an objective way to gauge our progress in Trenton. It’s not enough, to say we did something, or are working on something or want something to happen. Rather, the results are what matter.
All five of the following are “lagging” indicators, meaning they represent the past, but they are objective and widely used measurements collected in a consistent way across the state and nation. There’s no hand-waving with these numbers.
- Crime levels as measured by the Uniform Crime Report
- Population growth as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau (in the case of Trenton, every year)
- Graduation rate as measured by the NJ Department of Education
- Median Household Income as measured by the U.S. Census, and
- Economic success as measured by our Tax Base
Crime is slightly up but murders were down
The 2015Uniform Crime Report represents 18 months of Mayor Jackson’s tenure.
- Uniform Crime Reports for 2015 are 3048
- This is an increase from 2014 of 3%
- Murders were down from 32 in 2014 to 17 in 2015
Holding the rate steady would give the City a C, but since the murder rate declined so drastically I’m giving it a B.
Source: NJ State Police
Trenton is losing population
Trenton’s 2015 census estimate is 84,225 residents. This is a slight decline of from 2012’s estimate of 84,349.
Losing population is a crippling situation to be in. It implies that our economy is shrinking, we’re not a desirable place to live and that our property values are going down. Since 2010 Trenton’s population has decreased -.8% while New Jersey’s has increased 1.9%. In a growing state, Trenton is shrinking.
For continuing to lose population in growing state, Trenton gets a D.
Source: US Census Bureau
Graduation rates have improved
The Trenton school district’s 2015 graduation rate was 68.63%. This is an improvement over 2014’s dismal graduation rate of 52.95%
Just about 2/3 of Trenton kids are graduating now. That sounds better but still 1/3 don’t graduate high school which is appalling and continues to explain the high level of lawlessness in the city.
It can be argued that fixing the schools isn’t a prerequisite for revitalizing the city. The easiest target market for new residents is the millions of people without kids. However, failing schools don’t help.
For a big jump in graduation rates though, Trenton gets an A.
Source: NJ Dept. of Education
Incomes in Trenton are down again
Median Household Incomes in Trenton are down again to $35,647 (2014 numbers) from $36,662 (2013). These are the latest numbers we have but represent a disturbing trend in Trenton. Not only are we losing people, but evidently we’re losing higher income people. This is disastrous for an economy that is largely based on retail spending. Furthermore, 28% of people in Trenton live in poverty.
New Jersey’s median household income is more than double Trenton’s at $72,062.
For having shrinking incomes, a 3rd year in a row in a wealthy state, Trenton gets an F.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Tax Base is down
Trenton gets an “incomplete” on this grade as it no longer bothers to publish its tax base information on the city web site. The version published there is almost 2 years old. So I went digging for another source and found our tax base (for 2015) published on the Dept. of Community Affairs web site. It gives our tax base as $1,996,653,658 (just under $2B). This would be down from the $ 2,036,287,800 I reported last year based on the January 1, 2015 City Tax list.
As we can see the numbers are inconsistent, but since they’re all that are available, I surmise that our tax base has in fact shrunk. To fix Trenton’s budget we need to be adding roughly $100M a year in taxable properties instead we lost $40M in value.
As a comparison, Hamilton’s tax base is over $5B and tiny Princeton’s is over $6B.
For a shrinking tax base that will lead to higher taxes I give Trenton an F.
Source: Department of Community Affairs
Is the city turning around? Nope!
- We’re in pretty much the same situation we were in last year
- There are some development projects but they aren’t paying taxes yet
- People are still moving away.
That’s not progress.
Let’s imagine the City of Trenton was managed like a company. Many have pondered this notion including a few of our Council members.
Of course no one really thinks cities and companies are the same thing. I certainly don’t. But I do know that a few basic business principles apply to any organization.
At the top of the list of basic tools is “managing by objective (MBO)”.
Managing by objective is when you give your employees targets to hit and compensate them with a bonus or raise for reaching or exceeding them. Sounds pretty basic doesn’t it. Many, if not most management level employees in this country work under some form of MBO plan.
Not in Trenton city government.
We not only do not have objectives; our administration has proposed a 15% raise for the city’s top brass in the face of management failure after failure. Some of the most egregious of those are listed below.
- Trenton’s tax base has been stagnant and our tax rate has gone up not down.
- Was asleep at the wheel while payroll taxes were stolen – ~$5M hit to the budget.
- Operated without an approved budget for both of its fiscal years.
- Hired an incompetent IT firm.
- Messed up the swimming pool contract and wasted money to hire a new contractor.
- Stole a Christmas Tree from a city park.
- Set a new record in spending on lawsuits
- Oversaw a downgrade of the city’s credit rating.
- Epically failed to plow the streets during our one snow storm in 2016.
The Business Administrator made the pitch for his and the Mayor’s raise by suggesting that it would otherwise be tough to attract talent. City Council is being asked to consider ONLY this pay hike as a solution.
But consider the argument.
Our Mayor spent $100s of thousands of dollars to get the job he’s got and he knew the salary going in. All of the employees knew their salaries. It’s as if a salary pay hike were the only possible improvement the administration could think of to make Trenton a great place to work.
I can think of plenty of ways to make working in Trenton City government attractive.
How about setting objectives for the city and its departments?
People love having clear goals in their job. Great companies are great because their employees are fixated on common measures of success. For instance, should top city execs be working towards objectives for increasing our tax base, lowering crime rate, increasing the population, improving our per capita income, increasing the graduation rate and lowering taxes?
What if we gave bonuses tied to meeting or exceeding those objectives?
If I’m an aspiring economic development director, I’d love a chance to put my plans in to place and profiting from my effort. I’m sure most citizens wouldn’t mind at all if a Department Head made a big bonus based on our property tax rate going down.
What if we got rid of our residency requirement?
It’s just common sense that a high performing local employee from a neighboring city would be wary of uprooting her family to move from East Windsor or Princeton just to take a job 7 miles away in Trenton. What company forces their employees to move 7 miles in order to take a job?
What if we improved working conditions?
This is a broad category but do we really think Trenton is the best organization on the planet to work for? Does it provide a transparent management environment? Are goals clearly communicated? Do customers (i.e. citizens) respect the organization? Do we provide employees modern tools like E-Government? Do departments have ways of measuring success, for instance citizen satisfaction?
Handing out raises beyond the 1-2% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is just throwing money away. We need to be smarter than that. Trenton does need to attract top performers, but they need to be the kind of people that are OK with tying rewards to success.
What can you do?
Trenton’s leaders are immune to this kind of thinking as is evidenced by City Council’s positive vote on an ordinance to grant the administration’s salary increase request. Every member of the pubic that spoke at the meeting was against it, yet our Council voted for it anyway.
A group of petitioners has set in motion an effort to overturn the measure should it succeed on its second reading in two weeks on September 15 (all ordinances in Trenton need two successful votes). The petitioners are asking citizens to sign an e-petition in advance of the vote to provide an indication to Council on the likelihood of a petition fight. If the ordinance passes, the petitioners will have 20 days to collect just over 800 signatures. The e-petition will make that task easier.
Trenton isn’t doing so well and it hasn’t for a long time. Economic activist like me have tried in vain to recommend sound fiscal policy that would “right the ship”, but no one’s listening. Why not?
Well, to understand why, voters have to look within themselves.
How would you feel about a politician who only talked about tax policy and zero based budgeting? Boring right? Well, what about a politician who stood in front of a podium and talked about how the city funded a park clean-up, or a books for kids program, or Meals on Wheels.
Why you’d think that person was pretty nice. And so it goes. Trenton political policy over the years has been all about handing out turkey’s at Christmas, funding block parties, giving city land to non-profits and doling out other people’s money to this charity or that (depending on who’s in favor). The Pork Roll festival doesn’t happen once a year, it’s an everyday event in Trenton.
Trenton and most other poor cities are awash in this kind of money. It comes from grants including Community Development Block Grants and private money. Sometimes it comes straight from our tax dollars and the money the state gives us. But none of it has anything to do with fixing our economy. And, fixing Trenton’s economy is the only thing that matters. Spending every single dollar including the dollars we allocate to managing CDBG funds should go to reducing our crime rate and stimulating new investment.
Every second our elected and non-elected politicos spend on spreading the pork around, is time wasted.
So look inside yourself. Do you want our political class making you feel warm and fuzzy or do want crime to go down, our tax base to go up and then hopefully, our tax rate to go down?
We need to all get a little cranky about how Trenton, the State and the Federal government spend our money. As Trentonians we need to tell the State and Federal government what we really need, not what will make a local charity and its supporters feel good.
We need to focus like a laser beam on boring ole economic policy. We need to run basic services better than any other city in the nation. We need to have the most aggressive approach to crime prevention ever imagined.
If you hear a politician talk about anything else, they’re blowing smoke up your butt.
Trenton “peaked” decades ago. My cursory research into the city’s history points to a high point either the late 1920s when the city’s population was around 140,000 or perhaps in the 1950s when much of America was enjoying a post war boom. However, since then broad, and well known economic and social forces have conspired to challenge industrial cities like Trenton.
Some cities have responded to the challenge and have reinvented themselves. We know about Savannah, Pittsburgh and to some extent Cleveland and Cincinnati. Cities in the South like Winston-Salem and Richmond managed their way through the change. It can be done. Trenton didn’t do it.
Instead of revitalizing, Trenton has sunk to lows unimaginable in America’s new suburban townships. We’ve squandered millions of dollars on publicly owned hotels and parking garages. A Mayor has been sent to a Federal penitentiary. Our graduation has sunk to below 50%. Below 50%! Our murder rate has flirted with being the highest in the nation. We’ve had almost $5,000,0000 stolen from right under our noses. Our water has been unsafe. Our taxes are the highest in New Jersey. We’ve lost population. Over half of the land in the city is tax exempt. We’ve closed our libraries. Our City Council has failed to provide oversight and occasionally Council meetings turn in to fist fights. The list goes on.
However, the people of Trenton are not helpless. We can take control of this problem and provide the ultimate fix.
We can tear down our form of government and start over!
In 1962 Trenton did just that. The Trenton Council at the time formed a citizen’s commission to study the problem of whether the current form of government was appropriate for the times. That group took a year and developed a very considered opinion that “no, it wasn’t”. They therefore recommended that the City adopt the now familiar, Strong Mayor form of government as outlined under the Faulkner Act of the State of New Jersey. The Faulkner Act spells out several different forms of government including a strong Mayor, a weak Mayor and a City Manager approach. So no, we’re not locked in to what we have now which spells out 7 council member (4 of them At Large), a Mayor and a Business Administrator. We can decide that this isn’t working for us. The evidence (population decline, tax base decline, income decline relative to the State, graduation rate decline and high crime rates) would suggest that it hasn’t “worked” for some time.
One of three things can happen:
1) The Trenton City Council can take action to form a citizen’s commission to look in to the matter and if needed propose a change. The change, if recommended would be voted on in a city referendum. This process would take about a year.
2) Citizens can form a committee on their own to force the creation of the citizen’s commission. This action would be similar in scope to Trenton’s recent recall ballot measure, our Pay to Play ballot initiative and smaller ballot measures to simply stagger terms in office for City Council
3) We can do nothing and hope for the best
The most interesting of the several options under the Faulkner Act is the Council – Manager form of government. This would allow our elected City Council to hire a professional manager. Typically, this is used in smaller cities where the local talent pool isn’t likely to produce a professional city administrator. The upside is that we can give this “employee” goals, they can be selected from a national pool of candidates with resumes and the Manager can be fired if they aren’t doing a good job. The downside is that, much like a school superintendent, the positions is very political and the manager serves at the whim of City Council.
It’s worth thinking about. Much has changed in Trenton since 1962. We’ve gone downhill. Our city’s population has radically changed, the industrial economy has collapsed and the Internet economy has been established. Not much has changed in Trenton’s government.
Activist like myself and Kevin Moriarty have talked openly about mounting such an effort. Others have voiced support. But like the recall, it’s a big effort, especially if our City Council stands in the way of at least considering a change. We assume they and the current administration will resist even thinking about it. But that shouldn’t stop the long suffering citizens of Trenton.
Voice your support for the idea of considering a change to our form of government. Let us know. From where I sit, it’s much easier to lead if you know you have support. Better yet, let our City Council know that you want to consider a Faulkner Act change. A Council action to form the commission will immeasurably simplify the effort by avoiding a costly public referendum.
On Thursday May 5th, Trenton’s City Council will vote on an administration proposal to sell a bond (i.e. take out a long term loan) to pay a debt to the Internal Revenue Service caused by our payroll company (IPS) having stolen employee payroll taxes. The amount of money is large, $4.7M so paying for it out of Trenton’s current funds is impractical.
As of this writing neither the public, City Council nor I know the proposed term of the bonds (I assume 15 years), whether this is all that Trenton will owe (do we owe the State of New Jersey money?), will we recover money from IPS (the thief) or even how did this happen? The City of Trenton has been stingy on letting taxpayers know what’s happened to their money. That’s too bad but blogger Kevin Moriarty has done a great job writing about it and actually researching what’s going on.
I’m hopefully calling this a mistake because our administration shouldn’t have been so lax in its supervision of IPS. It was a mistake to renew IPS’ contract even after the city was warned that IPS hadn’t been paying payroll taxes to the Federal Government. Kevin’s research is turning up facts that potentially make this worse than a mistake, but for now I’ll chalk this up to plain old bad management in City Hall.
Reinvent Trenton mostly restricts itself to the economic issues and that includes how we use the budget as a policy tool. So when a proposal (as vague as it seems) gets floated to fund a large $4.7M mistake made by the current administration over the next 15 years, in order for future voters to enjoy paying for a current problem, I take notice.
Responsible money managers know as a basic fundamental tenet that long term debt should only be used to fund long term assets. We fund new water treatment facilities, new garbage trucks and even new hotels with long term debt (i.e. bonds). We do that in our personal lives as well, our houses and cars are funded with long term debt, but not our clothes and food.
This $4.7M payment is a current liability and if we don’t have the funds in our budget we have only two responsible options:
1) change our budget by cutting something, or
2) fund it with short term debt (2 years or so) and raise taxes to make the payments.
Funding this mistake should happen during the course of this administration. Spreading out our pain over 15 years deflects responsibility for this monumental blunder to future Mayors and future generations. As voters and taxpayers, WE are responsible for this administration and this City Council, therefore we are responsible for the pain that our voting decisions have wrought.
Our decisions about how to budget and fund our operations are important. They’re important in both matching priorities to our precious tax dollars and they’re also important in matching the benefit (or pain) of an expense to the actual taxpayers who will receive the benefit, or pain.
I know that none or our elected officials want to burden current taxpayers with this $4.7M mistake. I’m sure that some voters would prefer to kick the cost down the road. However, we are stewards of the financial health of our city. Pushing this mistake into the future is both wrong and unfair to future voters.
Living in Trenton its easy to understand the appeal of Donald Trump’s message.
As a city, we’re losers so often that it just feels normal. So when we hear a guy talk about turning that around and being winners again, or just doing things well (as a government) it’s attractive. You wonder, what would that feel like?
What would it be like if we didn’t have our money stolen, if we could hire a real IT firm, if we could enforce our laws (big ones and small ones), if we had a tax policy that didn’t punish new investment? What would it be like if we could communicate and enforce trash disposal policies instead of seeing it thrown all over our streets?
What would it be like if we didn’t get confused by letters saying our buildings were vacant, our water bills were past due and our taxes weren’t paid when they really were? What would it be like if our water department weren’t running one illegal scheme after another out of their building?
What would it be like if our leaders could be transparent about the city’s issues? What if they didn’t brawl at public meetings? What would it be like if we didn’t have to file Open Records Act forms to get information from the city, what if they just posted it online? What if our Mayors didn’t get sent to Federal prison?
What would it be like if our snow was plowed, our potholes were fixed and our broken sidewalks and streetlamps were restored to their original state?
What would it be like if the only hotel in town weren’t about to close and taxpayers hadn’t spent $65M to build it? What if hockey teams and arena football teams didn’t fail in Trenton? What if we didn’t give away prime real estate to “connected” non-profits that don’t pay property taxes? What if we could have a budget passed before the fiscal year starts? What if we could pay for our own schools? What if they actually graduated most of the kids?
What if the contaminated dirt at MLK school had been dealt with honestly? What if we didn’t invite corrupt developer Robert Kahan in to Trenton? What if we didn’t fall for the Manex ponzi scheme? What if we hadn’t turned the historic Douglass House in Mill Hill Park into a drug den? What if we hadn’t forced the Broad Street Bank to be rent controlled? What if we hadn’t ignored Chambersburg’s concerns before the restaurants left?
What if simple building inspections only took 4 hours (like in Philadelphia) instead of 3 weeks? What if you could communicate with the city through its web site and via email?
What if our property tax rate wasn’t the highest in New Jersey (the state with the highest property taxes in the nation)? What if drunks and drug dealers didn’t infest our streets? What if thieves were actually afraid of being caught?
What would it be like if we could recommend that a friend move to Trenton?
What would it feel like to live in a city of winners?
There is no one living or visiting Trenton who could possibly say we are a clean city. Facebook is awash with complaints about litter, illegal dumping and our general poor appearance. It’s also safe to say that our trash strewn streets don’t win us any points with prospective residential or commercial buyers.
The sad thing about this problem is that our leaders don’t seem to understand it. Rather than focus our limited resources on fixing the systemic problems that cause trash and litter to pile up, they react to the problem with “one-off” fixes.
Organizing litter clean-ups and reporting dumping are reactions to a symptom and do nothing to fix the underlying problems.
There are some easy and perhaps even free things we could be doing to fix our trash problem. They break down as follows:
- Update the City website to provide correct and helpful trash removal information
- Communicate a coherent trash policy to landlords and renters during the Rental certification process
- Enable citizens to instigate sanitation “service requests” using the city’s existing ticketing system
- Give our sanitation department measureable goals
The following expands the general tactics above into specific suggestions for Education, Operations and Enforcement.
There appear to be no publicly available guidelines for putting out residential trash. Special pick-up and recycling explanations are jumbled on the city web site. Citizens seem confused and have mis-information about trash pick-up. We can’t expect citizens to do the right thing if we, as a city, won’t tell them what that is.
- Update City Web site for clarity and completeness.
- This information should be separate from organization information about solid waste
- This should be included on a page with links to similar citizen information on “How to work with the city”
- Publish plain language (English and Spanish) guidelines
- Include the residential and commercial trash pick-up schedules (weekly and holiday)
- Include guidelines for when to put out trash (after 7pm night before pick-up
- Include guidelines on how to bag it (sturdy 33 gallon bags, tied)
- Include any restrictions
- Clearly distinguish between trash and bulk or yard items and provide instructions for all three
- Clarify process for bulk pick-up of items
- Include the citizen’s role in enforcement (below)
- Include street sweeping schedules
- Communicate with residents
- Publish articles on guidelines and enforcement in newspapers, social media and popular email distributions.
- Develop a regular yearly pattern for communication
- Allow Solid Waste employees to use email and computes to communicate with the public (apparently they don’t currently have Internet access or email)
- Guidelines and Fine schedule along with other “how to work with the city” should be mailed or emailed if possible to landlords on renewal of their rental certificates
- Homeowners should receive similar “how to work with the city” yearly via mail or email if possible (NOT via bulk phone)
Overall the operation other than communication doesn’t appear to be that bad. However, there are a few things that would go a long way towards improvement.
- Put public trash receptacle emptying on a 2 times per week schedule
- The inspector should perform regular spot checks to verify good trash pick-up procedures and that trash put-out guidelines are followed
- The results should be published on the city web site regularly (quarterly)
- Give the Public Works Director and Solid Waste Division Head goals such as
- Reduction in citizen complaints
- Satisfactory regular spot checks
- Employment reviews and any bonuses should include achievement of management objectives for these goals
It is not clear at all how enforcement is done in Trenton. There appears to be no way on the city web site to report a trash issue.
- Include trash and dumping issues on a citizen “service request” ticking system
- Tickets should allow posters to include photos, names, building owners tenants, dates of violation addresses etc.
- Solid Waste should reply to ALL tickets with the disposition until the issues are resolved
- Ticketing system should be included on the city web site with links from the Trash Pick-up page
- Phone numbers to call for reporting problems needs to be communicated with other “How to Information on trash”
- Fines need to be clearer
- Fine schedule should be published on web site and mailed to all building owners
- Fines schedule should escalate for repeat offenders (this a tool for forcing sale of abandoned properties as well)
- Fine history should be available for landlords to use in eviction proceedings
- Inspectors should focus their efforts on areas with history of previous violations and citizen complaints
Mayor Jackson has been in office for a full year and the results for Trenton over that time period are promising. Yes, that’s right, I said promising.
The Mayor has been helped by a generally improving economy and a corresponding drop in crime. That said, just like we blamed Mayor Mack for the city’s decline we have to give Mayor Jackson credit for the positive shift in most of our numbers
There are five key indicators of Trenton’s health on which thoughtful people have agreed over the years. Five measurable and mostly 3rd party numbers, that show how well we’re doing. And if all five of these indicators started showing signs of improvement, all Trentonians would notice the city coming back to life. If we could see progress in these five areas we’d have hope again that would be contagious.
The indicators are all well-known statistics that are easily and regularly measured in Trenton. They are:
- Crime levels as measured by the Uniform Crime Report
- Latest data is for 2014 and include 6 months of the administrations term
- Population growth as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau (in the case of Trenton, every year)
- Latest estimate is for 2013 and therefore predates the current administration
- Graduation rate as measured by the NJ Department of Education
- Latest data is for the 2014 academic year and predates the current administration
- Median Household Income as measured by the U.S. Census, and
- Latest estimate is for 2013 and therefore predates the current administration
- Economic success as measured by our Tax Base
- Data is up to date as of mid-year 2015
The following is the 2015 Report Card:
Our economy is gaining wealth!
In 2011 Trenton’s tax base, the value of property on which we can charge a property tax, was $2,009,731,470. By 2014 it has declined to $1,993,783,800. In the last year our tax base has rebounded to $ 2,036,287,800 for 2015. This ~$40,000,000 in new or revalued ratables is a healthy 2% increase in one year.
The implications of this increase are large. At a 4.8% tax rate, that increase in ratables translates into an extra $2M for our city budget or roughly 1% of the total.
We can never have a lower tax rate or afford to spend more money on parks, police and streets unless our ratables keep going up.
Because the direction changed I give Trenton a “B” for its much needed increase in ratables. A $100M increase (the rate needed for our economy to reach escape velocity) would garner an “A”.
Our crime rate came down!
The 2014 Uniform Crime Report represents 6 months of Mayor Jackson’s tenure and the leadership of a new Police Director. It’s fair to assume that that change has helped stimulate the 14% decrease in crimes from 2013.
Uniform Crime Reports for 2014 are 2960
- This is a decrease from 2013 of 14% which shows we’re moving in the right direction,
- This is in addition to a 14% decrease from 2012 to 2013.
- Our murder rate was also down a bit from 37 to 32 last year.
There is a direct correlation between population decline and crime
In “CRIME, URBAN FLIGHT, AND THE CONSEQUENCES FOR CITIES”, economists Julie Berry Cullen and Steven D. Levitt found that each FBI index crime leads directly to one person moving out of an inner city, like Trenton. That’s bad enough but high income residents are 5 times more likely to leave due to crime than average. Families with children are 3 times more likely to leave. Finally crime rate is negatively correlated with depopulation, home values and per capita income.
If our crime rate can continue to decline and other positive stimulants are put into play, there may be hope for us yet.
Crime reduction is the 2nd bright spot in this report card and deserves an “A”.
Our people are still leaving the city
Trenton’s 2013 census estimate is 84,349 residents. This is a slight decline of from 2012’s estimate of 84,447.
- Since 2010 our population has declined by 0.7%
- Meanwhile New Jersey’s population has grown 1.4% in the same period
Relative to our neighbors, Trenton has become a less desirable place to live.
Give ourselves a C. The exodus has slowed.
It will take an influx of new residents to begin the process of rebuilding our tax base. We have room to grow. At its peak in the 1920s, Trenton housed 140,000 residents.
Our incomes are still relatively low
Trenton’s Median Household Income is $36,662 (2013). This is slightly lower than the 2012 estimate of $36,727
- This is in stark contrast to NJ’s 2013 median household income of $71,629, which is almost double that of Trenton’s.
- Hamilton’s median household income is $71,724 for 2013.
Income levels are very important to the health of a city as they determine how much money residents will spend, which in turn, determine the attractiveness of a city to retailers and other amenities. While NJ’s median household income is double that of Trenton’s, NJ’s per capita retail spending is three times our rate. This means that retail spending falls off disproportionately to income.
Making Trenton attractive to retail and entertainment business is important as the presence of those amenities makes the city attractive to new residents and businesses but we won’t get new amenities without more spending power in the city. As it stands, Trenton is a relative “non-entity” when it comes to retail spending.
Because we’re grading on a curve and Camden and Passaic are even worse off than we are, Trenton gets a “D”.
Our children are still dropping out of school
The Trenton school district’s 2014 graduation rate was 52.9%.
- This is an improvement over 2013’s dismal graduation rate of 48.6%
- This means that almost half of the students who entered 9th grade in 2009 graduated in 2013.
- There is no world in which this is healthy.
- It can be argued that fixing the schools isn’t a prerequisite for revitalizing the city. The easiest target market for new residents is the millions of people without kids. However, failing schools don’t help.
With 50% of our young adult population grossly under-educated, they are likely to become a drain on the economic future of our city. High school dropouts are more likely than graduates to turn to crime and create a social cost for the rest of us.
There’s no other grade for a city that graduates barely over 50% of its students than “F”.
This is a complicated problem
A city is a complex system. When dollars are invested in crime fighting in one part of the city, street paving may go undone in another. That lack of street paving may have a larger or smaller impact on investment in the city than the crime fighting.
Investment will lead to a higher tax base but not for some time. In the meantime, there may not be enough money to fund basic services and taxes have to be raised.
Higher taxes will devalue the investment, leading to lower than anticipated increases in the tax base.
And so it goes in any economy. 1st and 2nd order causes and effects are at play making seemingly simple policy decisions difficult. This is especially problematic in an environment where the public doesn’t appreciate the non-intuitive nature of such decision-making.
Is the city turning around?
We’ve been in a vicious cycle
- High crime led to depopulation and greater expense in policing
- Depopulation led to higher taxes which drives people away faster
- In a city where almost half of its budget is fixed on debt services and benefit obligations, our inability to fund discretionary budget items such as city services is limited
- Lack of services drives people away even faster thus creating a vicious cycle.
The data shows some promise!
A bump in our tax base, a decrease in crime and a slight increase graduation are all great. It’s been a long time since 3 of these five important indicators have actually improved.
There is also some promise in the Jackson administration.
The Jackson administration has recently released a strategic plan of sorts that highlights some areas of focus. I’ve not seen details but mostly like what I do see ( 5 things Trenton is focusing on to foster economic development).
The plan includes focus on
- Density, with good words about market rate housing and transparency for developers and some good stories about some upcoming “big” developments.
- Diversity, but what they are really talking about are small business loans for the Hispanic community,
- Quality of Life, what they’re talking about is Homesteading and getting rid of vacant properties, which is great.
- Retail, I don’t know what this focus might turn in to practically but they’re talking S. Broad St., which is great.
- Industry, is the puzzling piece. It flies in the face of reason that light industrial development makes real sense (without big subsidies) in Trenton.
All in all this is a decent report card. My prescription for Trenton after the 2014 election was to get basic government operation in order and make the 2nd year the one were big policy initiatives were unveiled. We started out rocky by operating without a budget for 9 of 12 months. Hopefully that won’t happen again and we see some meat on the bones of the above focus areas.
The 2014 Report Card: We all know Trenton is in Rough Shape
No organization of any size operates without a budget. The budget serves as the main record of a plan of action. For most organizations it includes more than just numbers but also a description of initiatives meant to drive the mission forward. You can NOT find a CEO or Board of Directors of any corporation who would not agree with the above.
In governments, it’s perhaps even more important. The budget serves as the legal check and balance over the spending of the executive branch. It provides the mechanism by which the legislative branch controls the executive. Because of this budgets, could be said to be a core of our democracy.
Organizations and governments that fail to budget, fail, which brings us to Trenton.
Trenton’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30th. However, in recent memory the city has not operated with an approved budget before March. Trenton fiscal year 2015 budget was approved today, March 24th. That’s three quarters of the way through the year. We’ve already spent three quarters of our money without an approved budget. The money that has been spent was spent with an approval process that has less rigor than a formal review complete with public input.
Our budget and therefore our city are adrift and what’s worse NO one in the Administration or City Council seems particularly upset about it.
The Law Director explained why it couldn’t be done any sooner. The City Clerk gave some additional reasons. Basically they are saying that Trenton MUST always and for all time operate without a budget. The democratic process will apply to only one quarter of the year. We will remain adrift.
I can’t accept that and call on The Mayor to fix this problem.
- We may need to seek new State laws. Surely there would be support for allowing struggling cities to have budgets. The Clerk suggested that we need to change our type of school system vis a vis the State, well OK, maybe we should.
- We may need to make guesses about State funding. That’s why they call it a budget. All budgets bake in uncertainty, I fail to see the difficulty in this. The Clerk suggested we not be dependent on the State. Perhaps, but that’s like wishing for world peace. Meanwhile we can budget with only an estimate of State funding.
- We may need do things in parallel. The City Clerk told me that we couldn’t start work until an audit that takes six months is complete. I challenge that notion. Surely Department Directors can prepare their materials and citizens and Council can review and voice their priorities while that is happening.
- We may have to start work on the 2016 budget NOW. We have only three months until fiscal year 2016 begins. I fail to see why the administration and public can’t agree on priorities and contingencies in advance of July 1 so that shortly after the year begins, Council can begin voting. The voting should be the last and most inconsequential part of the process to paraphrase fellow activist Kevin Moriarty.
Several years ago, during the unfortunate Tony Mack administration, I, along with a small band of fiscally minded citizens, formed a group called Fix Trenton’s Budget. Among other things, we researched, developed and presented a new budget process to the Administration and City Council called Priority Based Budgeting. Other cities around the country use it to good effect. It was heavy on public participation, analytic thinking by Departments and timelines. We held public budget education forums and even collected budget priorities from the forums and over the Internet. It went nowhere because the Mack administration and City Council were happy to operate with no real bounds or public input. Let’s hope that is NOT the attitude of this Mayor.
We have it ready to re-introduce to Trenton should the Mayor ask us.
We hope that this Mayor will help re-install the good government and transparency that comes from operating under an approved budget. We hope that we can budget not just for the months of April, May and June but that he will consider the other nine months of the year as also being important in moving Trenton forward.