Big suggestions for Fixing Trenton

 Not every big revitalization idea takes big money.  There are low cost policies that Trenton can either implement on its own or begin lobbying for that will fundamentally change how our city works.

I’m hopeful that our current city council will be inspired to act on these ideas as it has shown signs of willingness to move in a new direction.  I’m encouraged by many of their private and public comments especially around the subject of refocusing our economic development efforts on attracting disposable income. 

However, as promising as they are, they are still a legislative body and require leadership. 

If the Mayor chooses to exert leadership or at least anoints others to do so in his stead (perhaps citizen leaders), these are some of the big low cost ideas that we might pursue.  They are in no order and not mutually exclusive.

1)      Abandon residency restrictions

Our recent miss-steps and hiring disappointments should convince us that restricting employees to city residents is folly.  There are many smart public service oriented people out there that might help run a water department, a public works department or even a police department that for one reason or another can’t live inside Trenton’s city limits.  Trenton isn’t for everybody.

We shouldn’t let a person’s address stop them from helping us manage our way through a very difficult period.  We need help and we should look outside our city limits for it.  The old rationale for residency has proven to be false, let’s not let our provincialism hold us back.

2)      Accelerate property revaluation

The County is doing us a favor by forcing us to revalue our property.  As it stands now we’ve implemented a Rube-Goldberg approach to setting tax rates and then discounting them.  We have no idea what our actual property values are except when a property is sold or renovated. 

It’s only when investment actually happens that we can properly tax the hell out of it.  Meanwhile, older properties of equal value skate by at a lower effective discount off of market value.

It sounds unbelievable but we’re actually using our single biggest policy tool (taxation) to discourage investment in Trenton.  A smart city administration and council will recognize this and rush to fix it.  This is a specific area in which Fix Trenton’s Budget seeks to work with the city.

3)      Create a Master Developer for city owned property

This is brand new idea at Reinvent Trenton.

I recently made a big stink about a non-profit call Trenton City Home that the city uses to dispose of some city owned properties.  That complaint had two parts to it.  First, no one on council (much less the public) knew what it was.  It’s a shadowy subsidiary of the city with no public board and likely no tax returns. The second complaint was that the city was using this entity to funnel property to other non-profits and low income housing developers.

My read of the public and city council is that they are through with stimulating low income property uses and would rather see Trenton attract high disposable income residents. 

The Master Developer idea is similar to Trenton City Home except it won’t be secret, won’t be non-profit and will be aligned with citizen goals for increased population and disposable income

I propose that Trenton appoint a Master Developer to form a for-profit company with a public board to develop ALL of the city’s abandoned property.  This is a bit like a land bank. 

The company will be partially owned by private developers, the city of Trenton and private investors (including Trenton residents).  The city will deed clear title to this company on property it receives.  The developer, in turn, will seek to maximize return either by developing property itself or selling it to third parties. It will undoubtedly do this by focusing on creating critical mass for development neighborhood by neighborhood, rather than in a scatter-shot method as the city currently does.  Furthermore, this entity will be free to move quickly to capitalize on opportunities.  Specifically, the developer will undoubtedly find it expedient to resell properties to smaller developers who will augment efforts in a neighborhood.

By the city taking an ownership position in the entity, citizen’s interests are aligned with the developer’s profit motive.  The developer may also operate an investment fund that could allow individuals to invest their own money into the entity and thus create an additional financial opportunity for Trentonians (I’d invest). 

There are a lot of details to work out in this plan, but the key idea to move fast and increase flexibility in order to attract middle and upper income residents.

4)      Establish a partial land based tax

Reinvent Trenton has written many times about the land tax.  It remains one of the most intriguing mechanisms for using our tax code to encourage rather than discourage investment.

Today we discourage investment with a progressive tax that taxes high value investment more than low value investment.  At the same time there are private speculators who own vacant land in Trenton and pay very low taxes. 

Vacant land brings down the value of neighboring property and thereby destroys value.

We can both encourage investment and discourage speculation by establishing a land tax.  The land tax would compromise only a portion of the property tax (say 25%) but in so doing would increase the tax on vacant land and provide a mechanism to lower the tax on property improvements. Most homeowners would not see a difference in their tax bill.

However, new development would tend to be high end (you’d be better off building your mansion in Trenton than Princeton) or dense (with a lower tax on improvements why not build a tall building).  Meanwhile, we’d increase our revenues by increasing the tax on vacant property.  Speculators would be forced to sell to someone who could actually develop the land.

5)      Create a Strategic City Budget

Trenton’s city budget and departmental operations are a collection of years of neglect and are hopelessly out of date as no top to bottom realignment has been done in recent history.  Now that we have to do more with less, we need a thoughtful approach towards aligning our operations with our civic priorities. 

The Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee has proposed a priority based budgeting approach and along with Beautiful Trenton and TCCA plan to assist the city in implementing it.  We’re only waiting for a willing partner in city hall to work with us.

6)      Dissolve the city or at least rush towards regionalization

I’ll call this the “Mickle Plan” in honor of The Trentonian editor who put it out there.  Why are cities in NJ knocking themselves out to run so many school districts, police departments and public works departments?   All of the municipal funding problems the state is wrestling with (including Abbott Districts) would vanish with strong county governments.  Counties would naturally include economically diverse populations that could take care of their own local affairs.  Let’s remember that with 21 counties and 8,700,000  NJ residents, no NJ county government would be larger than a mid-sized American city.  Our most populace county is Bergen and has fewer than 900,000 residents.

A natural first step towards dissolving our municipalities is aggressive regionalization.  There are State sponsored programs encouraging this and though it isn’t likely that collapsing any service into a county-wide operation will save more than 10% in cost, 10% IS a big number.  Furthermore, we’ll be able to attract a higher caliber of management to a large county department than we could to a smaller city operation.

Other than a county-wide school system, which no sane person should oppose, complete elimination of our cities is a last resort or a far off goal.

There’s nothing on this list that can’t be done.  Even the “Mickle Plan” is within reach.  We just need leaders who aren’t afraid.

Editors Note:  I’m told John McManimon first laid out the ”Dissolve Trenton” idea  in a Trentonian Op-Ed last spring.  So all credit to him.  It must be the echo from him, as I bought my current house from John.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks

4 Responses to “Big suggestions for Fixing Trenton”

  • Great suggestions, Dan. The idea of the Master Developer for city-owned properties is worth pursuing. CityHomes needs to be looked at regarding its past operations, for sure, Going forward, I don’t think it’s the right vehicle for the scale of work required for the future.

    Also, What you refer to as the “Mickle Plan” was, at least as far as I know (and what do I know), first presented this spring by John McManimon in a Trentonian Op-Ed.

    Mr. Mickle should have, IMHO, properly credited his own contributor with the idea, actually.

    Trenton as Vatican City has a nice ring to it, actually. That would, though, make Chris Christie the Pope. Hmmm.

  • Well there you go. It’s come up in recent discussion as well before the Mickle article.

    I’ve asked in serious conversation, “Why do we need cities in NJ?”. It’s not obvious. If we were starting now, I’m pretty sure we’d come up with a different governmental structure.

    Mind you, large isn’t always good. Large tends to be unaccountable and unresponsive.

    I’m still trying to think of why the rest of Mercer County would want us? We do still have the best police force. We have some good parks but they’re free anyway. they’d get our kids in their schools and they might not want that.

    Perhaps, as part of the experiment, state income taxes could go down for Mercer County and in return all state aid would be eliminated. The county pols would have more control.

    We need to figure out how this can be a win win

  • Roland Laird:

    Interesting. I’m not a supporter of regionalization, but I know Marty Johnson has some data around it. You guys should rap if you haven’t already.

    I actually think that Trenton’s small geographic footprint is a major plus. It’s just that nobody has approached it’s size as an asset. Trenton could house numerous academic pilot programs, that attract research dollars. This could be done w/o logjamming the state legislature.

    Trenton should also be seriously looking at starting a commission to figure out how to get money from non-profits for services.

  • Roland, you have the invitation to be part of Fix Trenton’s Budget. So far we are the commission that’s looking in to things.

    If you think Trenton should do it, I’d love for you to be part of the doing.

    “Rap”, is that still a word?

Leave a Reply