TWW is NOT the Money-Maker Trentonian’s have been Led to Believe

The State of NJ has found that Trenton Water Works carries a $12M surplus but that it employs 1/3 of the staff needed to properly run the utility.   The Jackson administration’s own proposed but never passed budget for 2018 estimates a $3.15M surplus that they gleefully carry forward into the municipal budget as revenue.

So, what gives?

If you look at the proposed but not approved budget, you also find that in 2017, the city budgeted $9.3M for staff but spent only $6.3M in salaries.  Additionally, they underspent $221K on social security because they didn’t have the people for whom they budgeted.

So really, the $3.1M surplus is all because the city didn’t spend what even it thought it should on TWW.  And of course, we know how that turned out:  Brown water, pink water, low pressure, boiled water etc.

To figure out the rea situation we need to dig deeper.

The State says we have 1/3 the employees we need.  Let’s take that at face value because we really don’t have a more reliable source for needed staffing levels at this point.

In 2017 we spent $6.3M on salaries, ~$1.7M in statuary benefits expenditures (SSA, Pension, unemployment) and $1M in sick pay and vacation.  That’s a total of $9M in staffing costs.

If we need three times the workforce then we’ll spend three times the staffing costs, or $27M.

For 2018 the city proposes to budget a total of $13.5M (salary, statutory benefits + vacation/sick pay).   Therefore, if we had proper staffing levels we would need to spend $13.5M more ($27M – $13.5M = $13.5M).

That $3.1M surplus quickly turns into a $10.4M deficit.


But wait there’s more!


The FY 2018 proposed budget lists 38 projects that need to be done to make the water utility safe.  They total in value up to $98.9M.  I have no doubt that these are needed but included in the budget only after the State began to take a serious interest.   Nonetheless, this $98.9M represents a large capital exposure.

The city has $16.5M saved up towards the $98.9M, so that leaves an exposure of $82.4M.  That’s a lot of money that we don’t have.   The projects will have to be paid for with debt.   I don’t know the city’s borrowing rate, but let’s assume its 8%. If you work out the math, that comes to a debt service (interest + principal) on that $82.4M of $9.6 over the next 15 years.   That’s another $9.6M added to our deficit!

So now it’s not a $10.4M deficit, it’s a $20M deficit.

TWW isn’t a money maker for the city of Trenton.   It’s getting ready to be a big money loser.  And guess what, that means your rates are going up, a lot. Our current revenue for TWW is only $54M.   If we need to spend another $20M so our revenue will have to increase 40%.   That’s punishing.

To say we should sell the thing is a complex proposition.

The proposal on the table in 2007 was to sell off the distribution system in the suburbs for $100M.   That could have retired a lot of debt.  We’d have lost some revenue but would still be selling water to the buyer.   That was one option.

We could sell the whole thing.  Perhaps we’d get some money out of it but at least we wouldn’t be exposed to the predicted yearly deficits AND importantly we wouldn’t be exposed to the risk of things going wrong (i.e. a Flint situation).

There are lots of options to reduce our exposure to losses, bad service, contaminated water, bad management, corrupt employees and all the other things that have plagued us via TWW over the years.   But the first thing Trentonians need to put behind them is the notion that Trenton Water Works is a money maker and an asset worth having.

Running TWW well is NOT strategic for the city of Trenton.

A well-run water utility won’t attract new homeowners, it won’t improve school performance and it won’t stop crime.   Those are the activities on which our government needs to focus.

There are smart advisors who can work out a good deal for Trenton, but first voters need to at least entertain the notion that Trenton Water Works isn’t the key to Trenton’s future success.

The truth about home-ownership in Trenton

For the past 28 years, home-ownership in Trenton has been on the decline.  This isn’t me saying this, it’s the U.S. Census Bureau who tracks this statistic for all American cities.

Since 1990, home-ownership in Trenton has declined by 5,500 units or 35%.  In 1990 the housing split was 51% home owners and 49% renters.  By 2016 the split is 37% home owners and 63% renters.

This picture should scare the living daylights out of anyone who owns a home in Trenton.  It’s very possible that you may be the only one left to turn out the lights when Trenton closes.

Most people would say home-ownership is good for a city and its residents. I have no reason to dispute that.  It only makes sense that a homeowner would be more vested in the state of their home, the cleanliness of the area around them and the future of the city.

This idea is borne out by research conducted by J. Eric Oliver in his book Local Elections and the Small-Scale Democracy. Mr. Oliver found that homeowners voted in almost double the proportion than did renters.  Let me say it again, homeowners vote at double the rate of renters.  According to his statistics, 70% of homeowners will regularly vote while only 40% of renters cast a ballot.   This makes sense as the value of a homeowner’s largest investment is directly tied to the fortunes of a city.

Trenton politicians run against this trend.

None of the 2018 Trenton Mayoral candidates have established a strong position on how to make Trenton attractive for homeownership.   This, despite the overwhelming evidence that homeowners vote in big numbers.   The results shown in the above graph bear this trend out and suggest that previous candidates and Mayors have given scant attention to owner-occupied neighborhoods like Hiltonia, Hillcrest, Mill Hill and Franklin Park.  They’ve been oblivious as Chambersburg and South Trenton have become predominantly rental.Trenton has steadily become less attractive to homeowners during the Palmer, Mack and Jackson tenures.   It seems counterintuitive that this would have happened.

Mr. Oliver’s book suggests an answer to this puzzle.  His research analyzed positions taken by candidates and the factors that drive them in small cities arranged by three characteristics of the city: size, scope and bias.  Size is self-explanatory.  Trenton is on the big side of small cities (< 100,000 in population).   Scope is the range of services the city provides.  Some cities may rely on county or states to provide services.  Some outsource services.  Trenton has a large scope in that most of our services are provided directly by the City of Trenton (water, police, etc.). One notable exception in Trenton is that the school system is quasi-independent.  Bias is how uniformly resources are distributed and is probably the most important characteristic to consider for Trenton.

Bias happens when special interests or political machines can unevenly distribute resources to their own constituents.   In other words, they redistribute the winner’s spoils.  Mr. Oliver gives a New Jersey example in his book that I found illustrative.

“As an example, consider the political importance of a garbage contract for a rich township like Princeton, New Jersey, compared to its impoverished neighbor Camden. With a median family income above $125,000 a year and an average home value of over $1 million, it is highly unlikely that many of Princeton’s 16,000 residents work for garbage companies (although they may own one). When the township hires a garbage company, it is probably importing all its labor and services. On the other hand, a garbage contract for an impoverished place like Camden (with an unemployment rate well over 30 percent) means dozens of good jobs for its residents. When Camden hires a garbage company, its leaders will thus be under considerable political pressure to hire Camden residents and to employ a locally operated firm. Camden officials who decide the garbage contract will, in turn, probably expect continued support from the company and its workers. The garbage contract, simply by virtue of Camden’s poverty, will be a major source of political contestation whereas in Princeton it is simply a contract to be filled.”

Oliver, J. Eric. Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy (Kindle Locations 661-669). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Does that sound familiar?  It should.  You can’t talk about a project in Trenton where someone with an interest in city employment won’t make that argument.  Our Mayor and City Council generally consider whether a contractor will employ city residents and therefore de-prioritize the importance of cost and service.  When they do this, they de-prioritize the interests of home owning taxpayers.

Size matters because voters in a larger city like Trenton are more disengaged than in a smaller city like Hopewell as voters are less personally connected to office seekers, according to Mr. Oliver. Scope matters because a larger city has a lot of money to throw around.  But bias is also a factor as it provides the reason why homeowners can be left out of the political calculus.  In Trenton, homeowners are ignored because a Mayor and City Council can become beholden to special interests (city service providers, affordable housing developers, and labor unions, etc.)) that feed off of bias in our city government. The problem is made bigger by our large scope and is enabled by the relative size of the city and disengagement of its voters.

Is there a way out for Trenton?

Yes.  Let me explain.

If you’re a homeowner in Trenton, then you must know that we are more Camden than Princeton in that special interests not aligned with your own are hard at work.   While all you really want are low property taxes and a high level of city services, including water, police, schools and public works, others don’t share your concern.   It’s natural.

However, even though the ranks of homeownership in Trenton have been decimated, they still vote in higher proportions than renters.  Voting still matters though candidates can and do certainly still lie to us about their vested interests (i.e. who’s funding them now and in the future).

For a candidate to be believable as a pro-homeowner candidate then their platform, fundraising and speeches need to put homeownership front and center. Making Trenton attractive for residential investment must be their only “focus”.   They must stand out as the “homeowner” candidate.

This means trimming non-essential services that don’t directly benefit homeowners.  It means investing more in making it easier to develop and improve property. It means increased school choice. It means more responsive police and public works departments.  It means new economic development. And, most of all, it means that there is a plan for the tax rate to eventually go down.  Trenton’s tax rate is the highest in Mercer County and as high as a mortgage rate.

This is hardcore stuff, but Trenton is in decline and has been for some time.  We are losing population.  Our per household income is losing ground vs. the rest of the state.  And obviously homeowners are leaving.

Voters will have to understand that they have a very real threat  if we continue to elect politicians who can’t or won’t address the issues of homeowners, they will likely never recoup the investment in their houses and  the situation will only get worse.  Taxes will continue to rise as property values decline or stay stagnant.   Services will continue to deteriorate until we hit rock bottom and look even more like Camden or Detroit.
It’s hard to say whether our decline is already too severe to recover from without an existential catastrophe like Detroit’s bankruptcy or Camden’s worst in the nation murder rate.  However, not trying to elect leadership with a real focus on reversing the homeownership trend just isn’t an option.

Trenton’s Irresponsible 2018 Campaign Issues

Notes from the first gathering of Fans of Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger

Members the “Fans of Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger (FOTIB)” Facebook group met in person on November 8, 2017 at Trenton Social to the upcoming municipal election in May 2018.   We created a prioritized list of issues that our candidates should be prepared to have positions on and plans for.   Also, given that the position of city councilperson is so poorly understood, we created a list of virtues the candidates should have.

The group of over 20 activists gathered at Trenton Social included some of the city’s best thinkers and doers, including 3 bloggers.

FOTIB 2018 Election Issue List

Some issues are grouped for with similar or closely related items.  (n) indicates repeated issues, therefore high priority.

New blood/thinking in the governing process (6)

  • Structure of the administration – departments (2)
  • Setting measurable goals
  • Budget before fiscal year starts

Cleanliness and Appearance of City (4)

  • Presentation and upkeep of parks
  • Litter / Dumping
  • Road conditions / lights

Specific plans to attract commercial ratables (4)

  • Processes for assistance to new business
  • Property tax rates for commercial

Change to the governance structure. Currently strong Mayor (2)

  • Staggered Council terms
  • Changing form of government
  • Term Limits

Other Top Issues

  • Accountability to ethical standards
  • How to make Trenton Schools appealing to citizens who send kids out of district
  • Position on current police/law enforcement contracts
  • Police residency options
  • Vacant property plans
  • Position on the State plan for office buildings downtown
  • Workforce preparedness and vocational training.

City Council Candidate Virtues

  • Moral compass (2)
  • Honesty/transparency
  • Knowledge of Trenton
  • Open minded
  • Tenure
  • Understands the job
  • Ability to negotiate / diplomacy
  • Understanding budgets as policy instruments
  • Understanding policy and how government works
  • Ability to creatively solve problems
  • Being available
  • Ability to use technology
  • Follow up
  • Courage to do the right thing

Operating a city without a budget is irresponsible

Usually when families don’t have a lot of money, they get very good at budgeting.  It helps to plan spending so you don’t get surprised later in the month or year.

Organizations budget for that reason, but also to make sure they’ve allocated funding to important initiatives that advance the goals of the organization.   The budget is a central planning document that gets everyone in the organization aligned.   This true for companies, schools, non-profits and most governments.

This should not be news to anyone in America.  Every literate America knows that organizations must have budgets.

And yet, the City of Trenton operates without a one and has done so for years.  It should be no mystery then that we have a sense of aimlessness in our effort to revitalize.

“What?”, you ask, “Trenton does have a budget, the Mayor submits one to Council every year”.

Fellow citizens, that is a charade.  Last year’s budget for fiscal year 2017 (that’s July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017) was not approved by City Council until April 2017.   That’s 9 months into the fiscal year.  For 9 months, we had no budget.

The City Business Administrator is planning to draft a budget for 2018  in October.   That’s four months after the 2018 fiscal year has started.  It will be months before City Council approves it.   Who does that?

It’s not just bad business its in violation of our own City Code.  Our city code is clear: violation of it.

§ 2-78 Budget preparation.

A.  The budget shall be prepared by the Mayor with the assistance of the Business Administrator. During the month of November, the Mayor shall require all department heads to submit requests for appropriations for the ensuing budget year and to appear before the Mayor or the Business Administrator at public hearings which shall be held during that month on the various requests. On or before the 15th day of January, the Mayor shall submit to Council his/her recommended budget together with such explanatory comment or statement as (s)he may deem desirable.

B.  The Business Administrator, with the assistance of the Director of Finance, shall prepare all estimates of non-property tax revenues anticipated for the support of each annual budget.

The City Code, our law, says that the Mayor must submit a budget to Council by January 15 for the ensuing year.  The ensuing year begins July 1.

This timing makes sense.  It gives the Council and the public time to react and for the administration to make changes.

I’ve heard every excuse there is from our city leaders.   The most common one is “we don’t know what the state will give us.”   Do you suspect that any company in America knows its revenues for the upcoming year?  Of course not.  They must estimate.  If things go wrong, they adjust.   But no one wades into a fiscal year without a plan.  No one.

Unless you’re a city government like Trenton.  OR Minneapolis, which also didn’t submit a timely budget and is now being sued by its tax collector.  Is that what it’s going to take in Trenton? Are we going to have to sue ourselves to force our government to act responsibly?

We realistically can’t fix the 2018 fiscal year.  It will be as bad as all the previous Jackson years (though hopefully we won’t have another $5,000,000 stolen).   However, we can avoid re-electing the perpetrators of this debacle.  That includes the current Mayor and any sitting or past council member.   They are all complicit in the mismanagement of our city and our money.

I have written many times about the budget process in Trenton and its many failing and opportunities.  It’s a source of frustration for me that even after collaborating with some of Trenton’s most knowledgeable citizens to recommend improvements, our city leaders have roundly ignored us.  All we  want is well-run, transparent government that plans for improvement.

Here are a few of the previous Reinvent Trenton Articles on our Budget:

Trenton is adrift because it operates without a budget

Trentonians favor fewer services and lower taxes

Trenton’s Budget won’t fix itself

Trenton’s 2017 Report Card

Governor Christie is trying to throw a lot of money at Trenton.  Notably he wants to build an $18M pedestrian bridge from the Capitol building to the Delaware River.  This report highlights the city’s progress (or lack thereof) in 5 basic measurements.   One has to ask whether that kind of investment will move the needle in improving any of these important measures.

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 up and so were murders

The 2016 Uniform Crime Report represents last year’s crime

  • Uniform Crime Reports for 2016 are 3313
  • This is an increase from 2015 of 8.7%
  • Murders were up from 17 in 2015 to 21 in 2016

Holding the rate steady would give the City a C, but since the both the murder rate and crime index increased I’m giving it a D.

Source: NJ State Police

Trenton is losing population

Trenton’s 2016 census estimate is 84,056 residents.  This is a 1% decrease from 2010’s population of 84,913.

You can’t revitalize a city by losing population.  It implies that our economy is shrinking, we’re not a desirable place to live and that our property values are going down.   New Jersey as a whole is gaining population at a 1.7% rate.

For continuing to lose population in growing state for the 4th year in a row (since I’ve been tracking), Trenton gets an F.

Source: US Census Bureau

Graduation rates have declined

The Trenton school district’s 2016 graduation rate was 66.55%.  This is a slide backwards over 2015’s rate of 68.63% which had been a big improvement over the year before.

Just about 2/3 of Trenton kids are graduating now.  But still 1/3 don’t graduate high school which is appalling and continues to explain the high level of lawlessness in the city.

The State of NJ is spending a fortune on a new school but I’ll guess it won’t fix our problems.   We also have a new superintendent but Trenton is a bit of a revolving door in that regard.     One of these days Trentonians will do the right thing and lobby for school choice, county-wide integration or both.

Because we slid backwards, Trenton gets an D.

Source:  NJ Dept. of Education

Incomes in Trenton are down yet again

Median Household Incomes in Trenton are down again to $34.257 (2015 numbers) from $35,647 (2014).  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.    Furthermore, 28% of people in Trenton live in poverty.

New Jersey’s median household income is more than double Trenton’s at $72,093.

For having shrinking incomes, a 4th year in a row in a wealthy state, Trenton gets an F.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tax Base is up a bit

Trenton doesn’t maintain a current publicly available tax list,  so I’ve to use the Dept. of Community Affairs web site.  It gives our tax base as $2,022,437,610 (just over$2B) for 2016.  This is up  from the $1,996,653,658 I reported last year.   The number includes properties with abatements and PILOTs so I think its likely indicative.

It’s tough to say whether this inconsistent reporting is really indicative of $22M in new investment.   However, I do know that $2B is enough of a tax base to support the city and we need something like four times the tax base to pay for our municipal and school budgets.   We have a long way to go and not too many projects in the pipeline.

As a comparison, Hamilton’s tax base is over $5B and tiny Princeton’s is over $6B.

For a tax base that at least isn’t shrinking but will nonetheless lead to higher taxes I give Trenton an D.

Source: Department of Community Affairs

Is the city turning around?  Not yet!

  • The numbers are about the same as last year
  • If you believe numbers don’t lie then we’re not really improving

If a Mayor and City Council really were interested in progress they would highlight these 5 numbers in every meeting, every State of the City and with the State.    Every dollar spent would be to improve the numbers year over year.   Instead, for the 17th year in a row (since I’ve lived in Trenton) all I get from our government is hand waving.

Link to the 2016 Report Card

Link to the 2015 Report Card

Link to the 2014 Report Card

How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies

I really dislike those books.  The titles are demeaning to people who just want to learn something at a basic level.   But who am I to say; it’s a wildly popular series.   I suppose the title has a little empathy for the person who wants to learn “How to use a computer”, “How to Garden” or “How to do Arithmetic”.
So here I am in year 17 of the Trenton Revitalization Doug Palmer told me was underway.   It’s not! Trenton has steadily slid backwards (based on objective metrics).

And yet the State of NJ, Mercer County and occasionally the Feds continue to throw millions and millions of dollars at Trenton.   We got a hotel, a ballpark, an arena, a Rt 29 conversion, a Light Rail, a Train Station redo, a nursing school, a new Housing Project or two and what do we have to show for it?   Nothing!  We’re still losing population; our tax base and per capita income are still losing ground against the rest of the State.

So maybe we do need some condescending help with the problem.   Maybe the Mayor and Governor need a copy of “How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies”.

Over the years I’ve likely written enough essays to fill the book but perhaps I need a good outline.  Outlines help keep books simple and suitable for “Dummies”.    The book would have only four chapters and plenty of pictures and examples.  What it wouldn’t have are chapters on how to spend vast sums of taxpayer money on public venues that don’t impact the local economy.   An $18M bridge from the State Capitol into the Delaware River is a distraction just like the Ballpark and Arena were.

Chapter 1 -  CLEAN and NEAT

This chapter will cover:

Chapter 2 – It’s the Tax Base Dummy

In this chapter, we’ll cover some basic economics and math like:

Chapter 3 – Transparency and Accountability

In this chapter, we’ll cover basic public relations technique like:

  • Using the Internet as a communications tool
  • Getting voters bought into your plan, assuming you have one
  • Robo-calling, “Less is More”
  • Answering citizen concerns
  • Modern technology and how “trouble tickets” help organize citizen complaints
  • The connection between budgets, spending and priorities

Chapter 4 – Making Trenton a Living Hell for Criminals

This self-help chapter will cover:

  • Responding to citizens before it’s too late
  • Leveraging private surveillance
  • The Economics of Crime
  • Criminal databases for everybody

Parks and Re-election

Building parks is what politicians do when they simply don’t know what else to do.

Imagine you’re in charge of a “down on its luck city” with high crime, low income levels, bad schools minimal industry and population loss.  You have only $1 dollar, no make that $20,000,000 left to spend.   The question is, on what do you spend that one time only $20M?

Hmmm …..

If you’re an observer of successful urban revitalization maybe a few things would come to mind:

  • How about a stimulus package for urban homesteaders that would attract investment?
  • How about site development for a light manufacturing facility?
  • How about a big investment in technology and surveillance for the police including body-cams?

All seem worth a thought.   But they have one problem in common.  They aren’t parks.

People love parks, or at least the notion of a park.  Perhaps we have fond childhood memories of playing in a well-kept park with mom and dad.  Perhaps, we remember playing baseball or going on a picnic.

Parks are like catnip for residents that don’t know any better.

“People do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would.” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Parks take regular expensive maintenance.  Parks are magnets for drug dealers and prostitutes.   Parks use up land that could be converted to taxable property.  Unless a lot of operational funding is thrown at a park, it’s at best a drain on a city’s finances and at worst a breeding ground for everything wrong with a city.  Parks are what we should do after we’ve achieved some revitalization success.

Parks are what politicians build when they don’t know how to do real revitalization and when they know they’re citizens can be fooled.

That’s what’s going on in Trenton.  Gov. Christie says new Trenton park ‘first step’ to reconfigure Route 29

Faced with his last year in office and in collusion with a governor also in his last year in office, Mayor Jackson realizes that he can’t point to much that’s moved the needle in Trenton.   Instead, he’s lost or wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.   So, what to do?  Build a park or maybe two.

There are a large number of Trenton residents that will immediately reach for their rose colored glasses and think back to pleasant childhood memories to convince themselves that, yes, absolutely, a park will turn Trenton around.   New residents hoping to build new $300,000 homes will flock to Trenton because of our parks.   Criminals will be repulsed by the beauty of the new park and will immediately forgo a life of crime, go back to school, get straight As and find a well-paying job.   That’s what parks do.  The power of parks.

If parks were the linchpin of our Mayor’s overall grand plan (not that anyone believes that) then why hasn’t he shared it with the public?  Why didn’t he base his campaign on it?   Parks were never part of any plan, they just sort of came up and he said, “yeah, sure, then the people will think I did something positive”.

It’s just the opposite, Trenton is taking money out of the “political capital” bank and instead of investing it in to trans-formative initiatives, wasting it on parks.

Linking the un-linkable in Trenton

What does a $130M loft complex in Chambersburg section of Trenton, an $18.3M pedestrian bridge, a $135M proposal to build two new single purpose state owned office buildings at the edge of downtown, a state funded $13M plan to tear down empty houses throughout the city, a $2.3M plan to add features to Cadwalader Park in western Trenton, a $180M high school and a $300M plan to refurbish the New Jersey State Capitol building have in common?

The answer is, NOTHING.

Together these projects total in value $778M.   That’s a lot of money.   Only one of these include private money (Roebling Lofts) and even it benefits from substantial State subsidies.

We have to assume that State of New Jersey doesn’t have the citizens of Trenton’s best interest at heart.   But that doesn’t mean the City of Trenton should let all of this public money be wasted.

We have a very large private project nearing completion of its first phase at the old Roebling complex.  Let’s start with that.   Which of the public State and City projects directly support its success.  If the answer is none, let me suggest that our leaders start over in their thinking.

Urban Republicanism in New Jersey

After participating in the 2002 Leadership Trenton program, I became convinced that Republican’s have much to offer cities. Urban Republican change the attitude towards cities away treating them as charity cases and instead viewing them as opportunities.  This can be done by promoting principles of fiscal conservatism, social liberalism and limited government. These principles shape our deep concerns about racism, sprawl, crime, pollution, welfare and drug addiction.

The Leadership Trenton program showed a serious divide between the interest of economic revitalization and social welfare. The emotion of racial victimization underlies the social welfare movement which deeply distrusts white Republicans. However there is a cold hard reality to building a sustainable urban tax base that is at the heart of the Republican fiscal conservative movement.

There are both black and white fiscal conservatives among Trenton’s and other urban small business communities. They denounce failed policies of publicly subsidized housing, poorly funded public safety and high taxes. Republicans support school choice as a radical change to a persistent problem and they support a pro-business stance that finds strategic advantage in urban site location. Rational Republicans also know that racially spurred sprawl has led to government expansion in the form of bloated transportation departments and segregated school districts.

Urban Republicans don’t have patience with social conservatives. They know that the anti-choice stance on abortion is out of touch with city dwellers. They support the LBGT and want government out of the bedroom. They know that addiction is a disease that can be cured. Most importantly they challenge racism not only on moral grounds but as damaging to our vitality as a people.

However, for Urban Republicans to make progress, our national leaders must root out the latent racism of the party. Republicans have a hard enough time talking about tough social issues without that albatross around our necks.

There are hard cold benefits to a state like New Jersey in helping our cities thrive.   Cities are where innovation happens best.  They’re economical to develop and don’t add to sprawl.  And best of all they conserve energy and reduce our carbon footprint.

A strong Urban Agenda appeals to the business community and many of the traditionally Democratic interests as well.   It’s what we need in New Jersey to grow our state and become national leaders for a better society.

Citizen response to Palmer and Prunetti’s Op-Ed on Trenton redevelopment

Jane Jacobs is perhaps the most influential writer on urban redevelopment in our time.   Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a bible to many on what works and doesn’t in urban revitalization.   In it, she argues that the infusion of large sums of government money into revitalization projects is cataclysmic.  Instead, gradual money that ebbs and flows, fails and succeeds, is what is needed.

The very premise that a large infusion of government money into downtown Trenton will help, no matter how tempting, is fundamentally flawed.   We don’t have to re-read Jacobs to understand this.   Over $150,000,000 in government funds were spent in Trenton 20 years ago to build what Messer’s Palmer and Prunetti called the “Opportunity Triangle”:  The ballpark, the arena and the hotel.   The promise was that these large government investments (yes, our hotel was owned by the city) would stimulate other development in Trenton.

IT NEVER HAPPENED!

Palmer and Prunetti were wrong, way wrong.   They proved how wrong politicians can be at great public expense (the hotel went bankrupt). Bob Prunetti, defended another government project, Thomas Edison State College’s development of Glen Gairn Arms site, by claiming that the patrons at the ballpark were stimulating development as late as 2014.   There is no evidence of this at all.  He was making up a conclusion that was not founded in fact.   Palmer, as late as 2013 told me that he always wanted to sell the hotel to a private owner, yet he never did. After he left office, the hotel, that was built for $60,000,000, was sold in a fire sale for $5,000,000.   Trenton taxpayers lost millions.

So why is it that the Trentonian thinks these two should have an audience regarding the use of public funds in Trenton redevelopment?  (Guest Oped: Palmer and Prunetti: Trenton needs to follow successful examples from other cities)

They shouldn’t.

They had their chance and don’t have anything to show for it.  In the 90s, when they were in power, the country grew economically while Trenton slid backward.   They simply failed to position Trenton to ride the wave of growth that swept the country and  therefore set the city up for the current trend in urban re-population.

Even one of the examples of success they reference in their Op-Ed,  an expensive but uncompleted project in Atlantic City is dubious.   A project that hasn’t even been completed can’t, by definition, be called an economic development success story.  Spending money with no results isn’t success. Who would think otherwise?

Governor Christie’s plan for Trenton has already been roundly criticized by citizens that actually live and work in downtown Trenton.   It’s a tone-deaf proposal that Ms. Jacobs would have railed against.

Prunetti and Palmer propose to change the investment a bit and morph it in to different mixed use project.   However, this still represents a big, risky government directed project.  It’s fundamentally predisposed to have cataclysmic results like stifling streetscapes, crowding out other projects or simply failing (like the hotel).

Who knows why these two former politicians decided to pitch this specific plan.  Perhaps they are somehow connected to it?   Perhaps they haven’t learned the lessons of cataclysmic government money and really think this will work?   I don’t know.  What I do know, and all rational Trentonians should know, is that their track record has been disastrous for Trenton.   The Trentonian has done a disservice to Trenton in publishing their Op-Ed and giving it the credibility that comes with “print”.