Trenton’s 15% raise for the City’s top brass is a bad idea

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.

Link to Petition to oppose Trenton’s 15% salary increase for top management

How Pork makes Trenton Roll

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.

We can change the government if it’s not working for us

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.

Link to 1962 Commission Report

Link to 1962 Ordinance Forming our new Government

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.

Funding Government Mistakes

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.

We’ve become numb to “Losing”

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?


Taking out Trenton’s Trash

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.

Education

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.

Suggestions

  • 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)

Operation

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.

Suggestions

  • 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

Enforcement

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.

Suggestions

  • 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

Trenton’s 2015 Report Card

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

Trenton is adrift because it operates without a budget

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.

Priority Based Budgeting Process (from 2012)

Letter to the Editor on Trenton’s proposed marketing campaign

Times writer Jenna Pizzi brings voices to the debate over a marketing campaign for Trenton that, for the most part, miss the mark. (“Trenton officials plan $105K marketing campaign to rebrand city to tourists, businesses”, March 21). I would prefer to see this conversation rooted in the broader discussion on how to revitalize our city.  Instead, the article misses several important points on the role of branding vs. marketing and at least one voice that has been discredited in the history of Trenton’s revitalization.

Since my issue is with the use of quotes in the article I’ll review the main ones point by point.

“The mayor was very interested in developing a campaign that rebrands us and allows us to determine what is our own identity,” said King-Viehland. “Now is the time for Trenton to determine what it is.”

No problem with branding as a goal.   One would have thought the Trenton250 plan would have done this.  But it didn’t do a great job.   What we really could use is a branding strategy to evolve our brand identity in advance of a marketing campaign.

Product companies do this in parallel with developing products all the time.  An easy to understand example is Apple with its iMac, iPad and iPod.  Years ago the company decided that it wanted a series of products centered on the “self” that would work together.   They settled on a “look and feel” and naming ahead of delivering the product and spending money on marketing.   The branding drove the development effort long before it drove the marketing campaign.

If that’s what this $105,000 is for then hopefully the contract winners will be working on helping neighborhoods and business district establish sub-brand identities under Trenton’s umbrella brand.  My block is preparing define our own sub-brand right now and a fair question is how it might fit with other similar efforts in the history.  However, from what’s been said, I don’t believe this is the focus of the contract.  Instead the city is jumping straight to spending $30K on creative and $75K on a campaign on targeted support for private events.   Classic cart before horse.
“The problem with Trenton is that it has always been, in my mind, the perception rather than the reality,” Prunetti said. “Their perception is wrong.”

Well Bob, Trenton is among the national leaders in homicides per capita.   We have the second lowest per capita income in the State.  Our tax rate is the highest in the State.  I believe, Mr. Prunetti that our reality is a problem and you are delusional.

I’m from North Carolina whose State motto is “Esse Quam Videri”, which means “To Be Rather than to Seem”   It’s taken from a work by Cicero on the value of having virtue rather than just seeming to.   Mr. Prunetti’s could be  “Seem rather than be”.

And finally we should all realize that Mr. Prunetti not only claimed 15 years ago that an arena, a ballpark and a hotel would form an economic triangle that would revitalize Trenton.   It was a delusion then and just ridiculous now.   Furthermore, the notion that Mr. Prunetti represents businesses that would move here is misguided. He represents businesses that are already in the region. I’d rather hear from a relocation consultant that advises businesses on where to move.  What do these people think of a marketing campaign?

“If you are trying to turn around a negative image it is a tougher sell,” McCarty said. (marketing professor from the College of New Jersey) “That is true with anything in marketing. I do think that Trenton may have some difficulties in this arena, the same way that Atlantic City has and so on. It is not to say it can’t be done.”

I’ll be fair about this quote and say that Mr. McCarty is saying that turn-around marketing is difficult.   His underlying opinion seems to be that a turn-around marketing campaign for Trenton would have a tough time accomplishing a useful goal, but that anything’s possible.

With that I agree.   If we believe Mr. McCarty then we should classify this proposal as risky and unlikely to succeed.  In fact, turn-around campaigns are generally very expensive (think BP spending all that money on the Gulf Shore).  $105,000 is a drop in the bucket and not sufficient for a turn-around campaign.

Darrell Bartholomew, an assistant professor of marketing at Rider University, said he sees Trenton as set apart from other struggling cities like Camden because it has much more to offer in the way of historical attractions, museums, arts and tourism opportunities.

Mr. Bartholomew, is saying that Trenton is special.  That’s what everybody says, but the use of the quote implies that because we think we’re special, we’re not really such a turn-around case as Mr. McCarty thinks.

I’m here to tell Mr. Bartholomew that every city is special in its own mind and that despite all our specialness and I’m including all of the great festivals we produce, that we still aren’t revitalizing.   If he needs some help analyzing the situation I can lead him to some good source material

“In Trenton they have to do something physical. They can’t just go out there and run new ads,” said Roger Brooks, CEO of his own community marketing and tourism firm. “They have to do something that makes Trenton pretty cool.”

Whether that includes showcasing urban development in a particular area, investing in a project to revitalize an area or highlighting the historic assets of a municipality, the community must determine the identity and why people should come visit, work or move to an area, Brooks said.

“The question is really, what do you want to be known for when you grow up?” Brooks said.

Finally a mature, head’s up and clear perspective.  Thank you Jenna for including it.  What he’s saying is that we need to really figure out our brand and perhaps implement policy that supports that notion.

Trenton250 tries to say something about a vision and what we want to be. I think it’s a garbled vision but it’s what Trenton paid a consultant lots of money to develop.  So are we using it?

Trenton First: A Premier Economic and Cultural Center Built on Arts, Industry, and Education

If this is what we’re using for our branding vision then I believe we’ve got trouble.    Very few economies in this country are actually built on arts, industry or education.   There are a few arts communities in the U.S. two of which literally started as artist havens, Santa Fe and New Hope.   It would be a ballsy move to go that direction and I don’t think that’s what the City is thinking of.   Industry left the U.S. for the most part 30 years ago, so I don’t know what that’s all about.   The Education angle is a bit more interesting but it also seems the longest of long shots given that we’re so far down on the education pecking order.

So what are we doing here?

Clearly I don’t support a publicly funded marketing campaign for 2015.   I might support one in the future but only after reading a cogent and believable revitalization plan that has measurable goals, budgets and tactics included.  In the meantime I would really appreciate the media’s help in bring clear thinking voices to bear on the business of revitalization in the City of Trenton

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I don’t send Letters to the Editor to papers anymore.   I’ve had bad experiences in the past and besides its more useful in my mind to have the discussion on the Internet.

SoBro in Trenton isn’t such a far off dream

For several years various individuals and groups have played around with the notion that the 300 Block of S. Broad could and should be much more than it is.   It’s a compelling notion.

The block is one of the most trafficked in the city and has some great historic building stock.  It’s part of the Old Mill Hill Historic District and as such is adjacent to the second most prosperous neighborhood in the city (in terms of median income).   It’s near downtown, the train station and the arena so it’s easy to find.  It’s home to the venerable Mill Hill Saloon, the hip and trendy New Trenton Store and Studio and the new Whitaker condo development.  The block has a lot going for it.

However the block struggles.  Half of the retail store fronts are empty.  Foot traffic is light and too much of the foot traffic we do have is up to no good.   Furthermore none of the individuals and groups that have tried have managed to generate sustained momentum past the talking stage.

Can anything make a difference on the 300 block of S. Broad?

It could take just a few investors with common cause to turn the area around.  I’ll be upfront and say that I’m already one of them as the only owner / occupant on the block.   Because of that I’ll take a position on what this common cause should be.

We have plenty of retail and rental space catering to a demographic short on money and not particularly concerned about style.   As has been written many times on this blog, Trenton can’t revitalize its economy on the back of this demographic.  Instead we’ll need to attract childless, young people with disposable income.  That is, the much sought after millennial.  This is exactly the approach HHG is taking in its new Roebling Wire Rope District project just 3 blocks away.

Just four new businesses catering to the millennial market could put us on the right track

Trenton Social owner, TC Nelson, has it right when he proposes to call the portion of S. Broad between the Sun Bank Arena and Market street, SoBro, including the 300 Block of S. Broad.   This branding is a play on well-known SOHO district in New York and conjures up images of trendy clothing shops, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants catering to young hipsters.   Of the 20 or so retail spaces on the street, three businesses are already going after that group with varying degrees of success.   But success loves company.

If just four new businesses opened in SoBro it could provide the critical mass necessary to turn the area into a destination for millennials throughout the region looking to escape the strip mall and avoid the pricey streets of New Hope.   If a walk from Trenton Social to Mill Hill saloon could include a stop at a gallery, shopping for Trenton made gifts at New Trenton, a coffee and desert and who knows maybe even a comic book, then I’d say we’d have something.  With targeted retail like this, SoBro would become not only a destination to visit but also a place in which to live.   When that happens the virtuous circle of revitalization will have begun.

Some city government “help” could go a long way

Everything is hard in Trenton and for something good like the birth of SoBro to happen we might just need city government to lean forward and help.   When I say help I don’t necessarily mean provide funding.  Instead, it would be nice to think that if an investor group got organized, the city would send a representative with authority to act to come to a meeting and ask “What can we do?”

I’d say there is plenty the city can do.  Keep being aggressive with abandoned property fines and enforcement.  We need to force the derelict owners on the block out.  Help us find a way to keep the streets and sidewalks clean.  Make sure street lighting is maintained.  Be helpful in making the permitting and inspections processes easy

The problem may not be so big that it can’t be solved for modest amounts of money