Archive for 2018

Low Voter Turnout: A good thing, or a bad thing?

I like small voter turn-outs!

8,297 people voted in our May local election this year out of 39,731.  That’s about 21% but if you factor in how messed up our voter rolls are (thanks Mercer County Clerk’s office) and assume 10% of the people on the rolls no longer live in Trenton, then it’s more like 23%.   Compared to an election day featuring the first ever black Presidential candidate, that’s a low turnout.   But then, every turnout is low compared to that.

Odds are that only the more engaged and knowledgeable voters voted.   That said, 560 people who must spend most of their time as extras on Walking Dead, did manage to wander into a voting booth and press an Alex Bethea button.  Also somehow, a former City Councilwoman with an undistinguished career that included presiding over the Mack era, got more votes (for At Large Council) than anybody.  Go Figure.

But enough of that, why is this good for me?

If one reads the research “Local Elections and Small Scale Democracy” by J. Eric Oliver, you can get perspective on Trenton’s voter turnout.

Here are some of the conclusions that the research informs:

Average turnout for “local only” elections like ours is 18% nationally.

We were above average at 21%. If higher turnout were important we’d move our election to November. Our current crop of council members, including Marge, Zac and George: declined the opportunity to do that.

High turnout might not matter in a place like Trenton.

Our turnout numbers were statistically significant. Statistically speaking if 1000 voters had been picked at random they would have generally reflected the will of the entire city.  This is especially true when a population is not diverse. My previous research has shown than Trenton not at all economically diverse.   Of course voters were not picked at random but still 8,000 votes may well have been statically significant enough in a population like Trenton’s.

Depends on who you ask.

Older, educated homeowners (like me) are statistically more likely to vote and were likely over-represented in the turnout on Tuesday. To the extent that Trenton does have diversity, the low turnout favored the interests of people like me.   It’s not a bad thing and is to be expected that long tenured residents that own homes will be more committed to voting.  They have a lot invested in the city.   I’m OK with a turnout that’s homeowner heavy.

Low Turnout favors the organized.

It takes effort and organization to get out the vote. Simply being organized enough to ask voters to vote increases turnout dramatically. In my book, being organized is a virtue that we want in a candidate.

So according to Mr. Oliver, Trenton’s low turnout, was higher than average and worked in my favor.

Sure we’d all like to see everyone have a voice.  But you know what, if you can’t take the time to be an informed voter, I’m not so sure I want you to cast a ballot that affects my family’s well-being.

In the past, we’ve seen voters brought to the polls to vote for the promise of a gift card or a turkey sandwich.   We’ve seen large amounts of money out of proportion with our city’s size being used to influence the vote. We’ve seen un-substantive campaigns that were nothing more than beauty contests.

I’d rather have a small number of informed and committed voters determine the fate of our city.

Reinvent Trenton’s 2018 Election Picks

It’s like a kiss of death when I support a candidate.   The plain fact is that the vast majority of Trentonians aren’t in favor of actually doing the hard work to reinvent the city.   If they were we would have never elected Tony Mack or Eric Jackson or Doug Palmer 5 times.  It was obvious to anyone who really looked at those campaigns that they would never do what it takes to really improve the city.

I haven’t gotten involved in any of the campaigns this cycle for a number of personal reasons, but I still live here and I have written about economics in Trenton for many years. Therefore, it behooves me to say something about this campaign and in particular the relative likelihood that each of the candidates will move the economic needle.

I’d encourage readers to review the platforms of each candidate and consider that if a candidate can’t publish a plan then they probably don’t have one.

My Criteria

In years past, I’ve developed complicated issue by issue spreadsheets to evaluate candidate positions.  I read all the web sites, read candidate questionnaires, went to candidate forums, etc.   It occurs to me though that while all that is useful the decision can be a lot simpler.

Instead this cycle I’ve boiled it down of a few basic questions with associated positive or negative points.

Are they an Incumbent (-5 points): The last 18 years have been riddled with monumental government failures from using government money to build a bankrupt hotel, to corruption and now stolen payrolls and dirty water.   Council members were charged with oversight through all of that.  They have failed time and again to either notice when things were going wrong or know what to do to fix a problem.   This includes people who’ve been on council before.

Support from Status Quo (-5 points): There are king-makers who have been shaping Trenton politics for many years.  They’ve clearly not been shaping a good city.  If a candidate is a product of these people, then they can’t be trusted to do the right things.

Are they supporting an incumbent (-3 points): A candidate who has the bad judgement to support an incumbent, can’t be trusted.  We’ve simply had enough failure.

No Web Site (-3 points): My gosh if you can’t put up at least a basic page to say hello, what are you doing.  This means you’re not really living in the 21st century.

Focus on Homeowners (5 points): Homeownership in Trenton has declined 35% over the last 28 years.  That’s what happens in a failed city.   If a candidate doesn’t have their head around this then they shouldn’t be running for office.

New Governance Ideas (3 points): We clearly have a problem with how our city is run as evidenced by the poor annual report cards this site has given the city over the years.  Does the candidate have any suggestion on how to improve governance?

Fleshed Out Platform online (3 points): Does they candidate thoughtfully address the important issues, especially the list of issues identified by the Fans of Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger election group.

Follows Reinvent Trenton (2 points): I’m partial, but Reinvent Trenton has been discussing economic policy for  a long time.  Even if you don’t like the policy, to not be engaged enough in the discussion to keep up with the page means you’re not a serious policy candidate.

Tiebreak – I like them (1 point): I know most of the candidates so if there’s a tie, I’ll do what everyone does. Vote for who I like.

And now the races.

Mayor – Paul Perez

Think long and hard about what your expectation of a Mayoral candidate is.  I have.  I expect a thoughtful platform that explains how they will get good governance and improve the economy, especially how they will improve the attractiveness of Trenton to homeowners.   I expect that the candidate assumes all voters are serious minded about policy and the important decision in from of them.

For the most part my review of this year’s candidates demonstrates a disregard for the intelligence of the voter.
Most web sites have very scant platitudes about the economy with limited policy ideas:

Reed Gusciora, Walker Worthy and Darren Green fall into this category with Reed at least saying something about downtown and promoting a resident incident line (which is sorely missing).

Some candidates have absolutely nothing to say:  Annette Lartique and Alex Bethea are in this category.  At least one has a website that doesn’t appear to work (can this be true?): Duncan Harrison’s site loads so slowly that its unusable.

And then there’s Paul Perez.
Paul and his team have written a book on economic development, linking issues with home ownership and rentals to the fundamental attractiveness of Trenton as an investment choice.  They’ve created a treatise on good governance and took the time to research model governance that would be helpful

His web site deals with economic policy on how to fix abatements, some specific issues about downtown, our abandoned property policies and citizen engagement among other policy ideas. I was wrong when I said a couple of weeks ago that none of the candidates are addressing our decline in home ownership directly. Paul is.

Some of the other candidates mention good government and economics but compared to the detail and thoughtfulness Paul has put into his policy, the others look silly and trite.

Two of the candidates are incumbents and as such have presided over our failed government. Duncan Harrison is backed by the same person who backed Doug Palmer and gave us the failed city hotel.  Walker Worthy is back by the Democratic establishment, including Doug Palmer, who have stood by and watched Trenton fail.

Paul, Darren and Reed have no obvious loyalties to Trenton’s political establishment.

It’s not close, Paul Perez is my strong recommendation for Mayor of Trenton.

Points Total
Paul Perez 13
Darren Green 2
Reed Gusciora 0
Annette Horton-Lartigue -3
Alex Bethea -5
Walker Worthy Jr -5
Duncan Harrison Jr -8

At Large Council – Blakeley, Rodriguez, Montero,

You’ve got to pick three candidates and admittedly that was tough to do.

Over the years I’ve not seen eye to eye with Jerell Blakeley.   Quite frankly he comes across as interested in something other than economic revitalization.  He’s more of a “lift up the people” guy.  My problem with that is, that without economic revitalization, who’s left to do the lifting.

That said, he checked a few boxes in my candidate criteria.  He’s included a fair bit on policy, some of it good, some of it not so much (for instance, you have to be a Tier 1 city to collect a commuter tax).  He does go in to good government issues which is great but he doesn’t address home ownership.   He’s not an incumbent and as far as I know, no one’s pulling his strings.

After Jerrel it drops off dramatically and we immediately get in to bad candidates.   Santiago Rodriguez doesn’t have a web site so that means he doesn’t have a platform.  His one saving grace is that he actually follows Reinvent Trenton which has lots of policy ideas.

The next batch include two candidates that have used terrible judgement in supporting and co-campaigning with failed City Council President Zac Chester.  Between Elvin Montero, Rachel Cogsville-Lattimer and Nathaniel McCray I had to pick one, so the tie went to Montero.  He at least mentioned a few issues on his web site though it was in the most shallow of terms.

Points Total
Jerell Blakeley 6
Santiago Rodriguez -1
Elvin Montero -2
Rachel Cogsville-Lattimer -3
Nathaniel McCray -3
Kathy McBride -8

North Ward – Algernon Ward

I’ll vote in the North Ward and am very familiar with two of the candidates.

Marge is the incumbent and though she’s frequently been useful in constituent services, that’s just not the real role of a City Councilperson.  Rather, it’s to oversee the administration.  In that capacity she’s overseen failure after failure.  She can blame it on others but she was there and the failures happened on her watch.   Also, bizarrely, she doesn’t have a working web site so we don’t even know what kind of platform she’s pitching.

Algernon Ward is a geek.  That’s a good thing.  He’s a scientist and a history buff which you’ve got to love.   He’s got positions listed on his web site but unhappily they’re also of the “lift up the people” variety and not “fix the city”.   In fact, Algie once told me that he thinks corporations are evil and that he hopes that big business never relocates to Trenton.  On the other-hand he worked with me on the “Fix Trenton’s Budget” group, so that’s good.

My criteria favors having written opinions and not being an incumbent.  Algie’s an independent guy and also fairly experienced in Trenton politics.

Points Total
Algernon Ward Jr 5
Eboni Love -3
Marge Caldwell-Wilson* -8

South Ward – Damian Malave

Although, I can’t imagine anyone outdoing George Muschal in constituent services, that’s not the real job.  His Council (and he was Council President during the Mack years) was a failure in government oversight.

Neither Damian or Jenna say much useful on their web sites but at least they have them.   Jenna, unhappily has joined up with the current President of the failed City Council, Zac Chester.   This is a big knock against her and therefore pushed my vote to Damian Malave (if I lived in the South Ward).

Points Total
Damian Malave 0
Jenna Kettenburg -3
George Muschal* -8

East Ward – Joe Harrison

None of the East Ward candidate web sites say much at all.   That’s obviously a disappointment.   However, two of the candidates do follow Reinvent Trenton which is like saying they at least get exposed to policy thinking.   However, Taiwanda lied to me about her support for failed Council President Zac Chester.   I was disappointed that she’s supporting him but really disappointed by the lie.

Trenton East Ward candidate called out for ‘lying’ about support of Chester

Joe Harrison has been participating in Trenton politics for a while and quite frankly would be a breath of fresh air on City Council.

Points Total
Joseph Harrison 2
Perry Shaw III 0
Taiwanda Terry-Wilson -1
Elmer Sandoval -3

West Ward – Robin Vaughn

Obviously, the incumbent is out of the running.  Two of the candidates don’t even trouble themselves to have a web site that might explain their platforms.   Robin Vaughn and Atalaya Armstrong have web site but they fail to discuss issues at all.

That forced a tie.  I give the nod to Robin because she’s at least dared to stick her toe in the hotbed of Trenton’s political policy discussion, the Facebook Group, Fans of Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger.  In that forum she’s gotten beaten up a bit for not being specific, but she’s still there and that’s a good sign.

Points Total
Robin Vaughn 1
Atalaya Armstrong 0
Dr. Shirley Gaines -3
Zachary Chester* -6

——————————————-

The full article with point allocation for each candidate can be found in the pdf linked below.

Full Election Selection Criteria Article

Candidate Evaluation Spreadsheet with Web Site Links

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.