Archive for August, 2013

Hoping for a pro-regionalization campaign

I can’t think of any urban city in New Jersey which one would classify as truly “great”.   A great city provides the intellectual, creative and financial juice to form new companies that fuel economic growth and the resulting high quality of life.

There are large cities in America that do this like Boston, San Francisco and New York.    There are small cities that have done it as well; Raleigh and Austin come to mind.

As we wonder what it will take to make Trenton great again, we’d be foolish to think we could copy any of those cities.  After all we live in a unique state at a unique time.  But surely the ingredients for greatness are within our reach.

Much has been said about regionalization in New Jersey and how it can help.  But let’s be honest, Princeton is a poor comparable for Trenton, Passaic, Irvington and Camden.

The question is what does regionalization mean for Mercer, Essex, Passaic and Camden counties?  Does a rising tide raise all ships in those places?  Will a regionalized police force lead to lower crime rates and is that a measurably good thing for not only the urban centers but the suburbs as well?  What about schools?  What about economic development?

My suspicion is “Yes”?  Let’s seriously explore being a great county.

The analysis I have read about regionalization points to cost savings from combining operations.   This is obviously a good thing.  However, best guesses are that this amounts to around a 10% overall savings.  This is nothing to sneeze at but given the severe imbalance in property taxes vs. cost of services between a poor city like Trenton and its wealthy neighbors, it may not be worth the risk.

If, on the other hand, we saw an overall reduction in crim, county wide and not just in the urban center, then that kind of improvement would certainly grab a safety conscious suburbanite’s attention.

Schools could benefit too.   As it stands, suburbs currently fund not only their own schools but the lion’s share of the cost of urban schools.  Those urban schools produce generally poor results for a premium dollar.   But what if by integrating schools on a county level we were able to reduce the overall cost of providing a decent education?   There are thousands of examples of where this has happened in the USA.  If I lived in West Windsor, I’d much rather have a vote on how my money was spent in Trenton than not.  And as I’ve said many times, I’m the product of an integrated public urban school that I’d gladly compare to Princeton High.

But the real benefit could come from economic development.  Our suburbs struggle to attract ratables while at the same time fight the ugliness and hassle of sprawl.   But what if they benefitted from development in urban centers which typically have a surplus of developable land and welcome it?  Couldn’t that be a home run?  Imagine what would happen if county leaders could, in good conscious, focus their development efforts on cities knowing that the ratables their efforts generate would fund county-wide budgets.
This all sounds good but there is quite a bit of work to do to turn these ideas into real plans for action.  The fortunate thing in our favor is that a lot of the work has been done by State regionalization task forces and our current State administration is solidly behind those plans.

What is needed are Mayors and City Councils who are willing to lead their municipalities into a form of government that give up traditional autonomy in favor of a more balanced regional economy.   A strong leader in Trenton will need to find and sell the benefits of regionalization not only to the city but to suburbanites as well.

We’ll have to recognize that there is a good bit of well-deserved fear involved in a suburban town throwing in with a city like Trenton.  And Trentonians would have to realize that they would no longer call their own shots.

My hope is that at least one Trenton campaign in the 2014 election sets as its centerpiece, mutually beneficial county-wide regionalization.  Let’s explore sharing our library, Cadwalader park, our communication center, our schools and our developable land with our neighbors in return for becoming integrated back in to the region’s economy.

Reengaging with Trenton’s Revitalization

Earlier this year I become so upset about politics that I took a leave of absence from Trenton political scene. (Giving up on Reinventing Trenton).   My reasons reflected frustration with working to make Trenton a better place including:

  • The inability of city activists to create and maintain an independent political organization (Majority for a Better Trenton),
  • The no-show park rangers we paid for at the 2012 Alexander’s Run
  • The lack of thinking that went into ceding the Glen Cairn Arms property to a non-profit
  • My inability to help the LYDC board think analytically about the city’s hotel

However, the past 12 months have been downright tragic for Trenton

  • Our Mayor has been indicted on corruption charges
  • Our tax base declined, forcing us to increase tax rates
  • Our hotel has come within inches of closing
  • Our murder rate is set to shatter the single year record
  • Police response has declined to the point of being dangerous

It seems that absolutely nothing can go right in Trenton and that we’re on track to become an East Coast Detroit.

Trenton’s problems hurt my family in many ways, some big and some small. Our property values are kept low by the high crime rate and continuing lack of amenities in the city.  Our property taxes are crushing and make our rental properties unprofitable.  It’s hard to invite suburban friends to our home (guests at one party had their SUV tagged).  Babysitters are afraid to come to Trenton.  This is not a healthy environment and for those of us hoping to live a full life in Trenton

I have three choices going forward:

1)      I can move. However this would involve a substantial financial loss given that we have invested so much money in the city. Also we desperately want to stay close to our first son’s grave in Riverview Cemetery and our memory of him in Trenton.

2)      I can close my eyes and hope for the best.  I have to imagine that this is what the vast majority of Trentonians are doing.  They complain from the sidelines or just suffer in silence perhaps because they don’t know or haven’t been told how to help.

3)      I can reengage in some useful way. There are many options and I’ve tried several of them. I’ve worked to become an independent resource for revitalization thinking. I’ve tried to help start a political group (Majority for a Better Trenton).  I’ve helped start a non-profit arts organization and I’ve helped lead election debates.   One option I’ve not tried is to become involved with a mayoral campaign in a meaningful way.

But the fact is, if I can’t move and sticking my head in the sand won’t work, then I’m better off trying to help one candidate be the best that he or she can possibly be.   I’ve never expected a Mayoral candidate to have all the answers.  I do expect them to lead in an intelligent way and bring serious thinking to what amounts to world class problems.  I expect them to turn away from those who have led us to the place we’re in and to embrace new thinking about revitalization.
So with all of this said, I’m in the market for a transformational Mayoral campaign.  I can write.  I can research.   I can stuff envelopes and I can debate.   I wouldn’t mind doing a little door to door, though I’m sure I’m about the least likely person in this city to connect with the average voter.  I know that.  But I do want to start putting a real revitalization plan into language all of us can understand.
My positions on policy are clear.  They’ve been posted on for many years.  I should be a known quantity by now.

So, here’s how I’d like to proceed.  I’ll email you and let’s set a time to talk.  Let me hear your approach and your positioning.  Rest assured that political platitudes and dubious promises won’t work with me.  I know the budget and its issues pretty well and I’ve been studying Trenton and urban revitalization for a while now.   I’ll be difficult and I have a reputation as an angry taxpayer.  However, if you want: policy development help, logistical help and to be seen as a pro business, pro taxpayer candidate, it might be worth the trouble.