Archive for the ‘Vision and Management’ Category

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

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.

Another anti-revitalization idea to defeat in Trenton

It might be humorous if it weren’t so tragic.

Trenton is awash in crime, losing its tax base and graduating only half of its high school students.  And yet, Mayor Eric Jackson at the behest of a group of special interests along with 2200 Trenton citizens is seeking to make Trenton an even more expensive city in which to do business than its neighbors and the country in general.

The Mayor proposes to force ALL businesses in Trenton to pay for sick leave for all employees.

While I’m sure this is a lovely idea to some, the fact of the matter is that this no different than the City of Trenton requiring businesses to raise pay.  Apparently the Mayor thinks Trenton is influential enough to get away with setting a national trend.

He doesn’t get it.

Trenton is a business backwater with a GDP that some have estimated is smaller than a single shopping center in Hamilton.   That’s right Hamilton Marketplace generates more revenue than all businesses in Trenton put together.

And yet Hamilton isn’t leading this charge.  Neither is Yardley.  Neither is Princeton.

The citizens and Mayors of those towns know that municipalities don’t set national policy.   They know that creating a positive business environment is necessary for economic solvency.   Mayor Jackson has something else in mind.    He apparently suspects that by appearing to help the poor folk of Trenton he will gain political currency.   After all who will be able to link this arrogant policy decision to Trenton’s underperformance vs. the regional economy?   Yours truly is the only person in town who actually tries to measure our performance vs. the State and nation.   Regular Trentonians will never attempt to link policy to result.

City Council members will undoubtedly fall in line with this ordinance absent an organized protest by the business community (though the North Ward Councilwoman has registered her opposition).   There really aren’t enough business people with employees left in Trenton to even organize a protest.   Many of the independent business people left don’t know about this measure.  It’s been put on Council’s docket rather suddenly and even if they do know they won’t have time in their busy lives to spend 2 hours at a City Council meeting waiting for a chance to defend their right to run a business as they see fit.

Let’s be clear about this.  We’re talking about the type of policy that is best enacted at a national level so as to not disadvantage the economy of one state over another.   Minimum wage policy, social security, work week duration and child labor laws are examples of similar policies.

The City of Trenton has no business going out on a limb to enact policy that is blatantly anti-business.   We’re a small poor city in a small state surrounded by local governments eager to attract new investment.  We already create a bad environment for business through our antiquated inspections processes, our repressive property tax rate, our high crime rate and our “2nd lowest in the state” household income. We can’t afford to gain an even worse reputation for business climate.

We all know Trenton is in Rough Shape

Now that Mayor Jackson has taken office it’s squarely on his shoulders to not just talk but to show results in improving Trenton.

We all express our displeasure differently.  Residents, business owners and those considering a move to Trenton say it in many different ways:

  • “Things have gotten bad”
  • “Restaurants are moving away”
  • “Trenton used to be great”
  • “My taxes are killing me”
  • “It’s not safe anymore”

We all have emotional responses to the situation we’re in and it’s difficult to put our finger on what bothers us most.

If we really think about it though there are five key indicators of Trenton’s health.   Five symptoms 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 FBI’s Crime Index
  • 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

To be a successful Mayor, Eric Jackson must lead Trenton to show progress on these 5 measures.  It’s not nearly enough to say “I’m working hard”.   Mayors have said that before and the problem was they were working on the wrong things.  Doing the smart thing is much more important than working hard on the wrong thing.  Over the next several years I plan to do my part by reporting to Trentonians on Mr. Jackson’s progress on these basic measures.   I’m looking for results not promises of results.

The following is my initial report.

Our people are leaving the city

Trenton’s 2012 census estimate is 84,447 residents

The most important measure is the simplest one, is Trenton such an attractive place to live that our population is growing.   Unfortunately the current answer is NO.

  • Since 2000 our population has declined by 1.2%
  • Meanwhile New Jersey’s population has grown 5.4% in the same period

Relative to our neighbors, Trenton has become a less desirable place to live.  Over the past 44 years Trenton has steadily under-performed with the State growing 43% faster than Trenton.

While New Jersey’s growth has accelerated Trenton’s population has shrunk.   We benefit from the same factors that drive growth in the state so it is especially disappointing that Trenton continues to lose people.   Some have pointed out that Trenton’s population loss has slowed, but that is blatantly misleading.  It has only slowed because New Jersey’s growth has accelerated.

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 economy is losing 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. This represents a .8% loss in ratables for the city.

The implications of this statistic are large.  It means our economy is getting worse instead of better and most importantly, it means that our policies are not working.

We can never have a lower tax rate or afford to spend more money on parks, police and streets unless our ratables go up.

Our incomes are relatively low

Trenton’s Median Household Income is $36,727 (2012)

  • This is in stark contrast to NJ’s median household income of $71,637, which is almost double that of Trenton’s.
  • Hamilton’s median household income is $72,735

Worse yet, the percentage of households in Trenton with income over $200,000 is 1.6%,

  • The compares poorly to 9.1% for New Jersey and 4.3% for Hamilton
  • High income households spend money on amenities at a much higher rate than low income

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.

Our children are dropping out of school

The Trenton school district’s 2013 graduation rate was 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.

The cumulative effect of moving the graduation rate up to 75% could halve our crime problem in the long run if the correlations between dropout rate and crime follows.

Our crime rate is still high

Trenton’s crime problems have tracked the national trend downwards over the last decade.

Uniform Crime Reports for 2013 are 3443

  • This is a decrease from 2012 of 14% which shows we’re moving in the right direction,
  • However in 2013, Trenton set a murder record of 37 which placed it among the most dangerous cities in America.
  • Meanwhile neighboring Hamilton had a crime index 2057 and only 1 murder in 2013.

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.

These conclusions alone are quite damning for Trenton. However, it gets worse.  If a city becomes depopulated, the crime rate goes up because the criminals stay behind. Also, because high income people leave, poverty becomes more concentrated.

We don’t have a lot of flexibility in our budget to fix things

Our expenses can’t change much

Debt, fire and police make up almost all of the budget and other functions are cut to the bone.

Our revenues can’t change much either

Property tax makes up less than half of our budget so any change in the budget will have a large effect on taxes.

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.

How can we turn this city around?

We’re in a vicious cycle

  • High crime leads to depopulation and greater expense in policing
  • Depopulation leads 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 ability to fund discretionary budget items such as city services is limited
  • Lack of services drives people away even faster thus creating a vicious cycle.

How can we turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous circle?

  • A virtuous circle is the opposite of a vicious cycle
  • Good things build on one another
  • Eventually enough good things happen that they overwhelm the bad things and the city grows despite itself
  • This is happening in some cities in America like New York and Washington and even New Brunswick and Jersey City


Mayor Jackson will do well to ask himself every time a program or initiative comes across his desk, “How will this move the needle on these five basic measures of a city’s health?”

“The End of the Suburbs”

The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher is a wonderfully accessible book for beginning urbanist that need grounding in the demographic trends that are creating opportunities for cities like Trenton.

Last year the Trenton Times carried a review of the book but it seems appropriate for Reinvent Trenton to add a few words.

Ms. Gallagher has honestly built her narrative of the drivers of new urbanism on the backs of authors that have come before her including Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler.   This is important for Trentonians attempting to come up to speed on the best thinking about what can drive Trenton’s growth.

The basic theme in Gallagher’s book is that fundamental demographics and attitudes are driving a shift back from suburban to urban living.  This is good news for cities and bad news for suburbs that have likely overextended their spending and debt.

The demographic trends involved include an older child bearing age, lower number of married couples and therefore fewer children.   This, coupled with a shift in attitude amongst millennials that shows a preference for urban living and against owning a car, has started a profound shift in American lifestyle.

The trend has been with us for many years says Gallagher but become most pronounced during the Great Recession that has left great swaths of suburban McMansions abandoned while home values in cities suffered only slightly.   In fact cities are now growing at a faster pace than suburbs and according to Gallagher, home builders like Toll Brothers, the Godfathers of the McMansion, have noticed.  Builders have shifted their efforts to building luxury condos, lofts and New Urbanist development that mimic older cities.

Cities like Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore have already felt the benefit.   New Jersey towns like New Brunswick, Montclair and even the post-Sandy Jersey Shore are being built with a New Urbanist feel.

The question for Trenton is will we lift a finger to ride this fundamental wave of migration?

For us it means pitching developers like Toll Brothers on our city, offering a sane development environment that works with developers instead of against them.  It includes a new tax structure.   It includes increasing our walkability, perhaps by rethinking our transit system in favor of trolleys.  And most of all it includes a small well-disciplined government that can support new development.

There are millions of young people living in our region who, given the opportunity to live in a great urban space would jump at it.   It’s up to Trenton to make help facilitate an environment that allows buyer and seller to come together.   We’re not there yet, but I can see Jane Jacobs vision of a city that constantly reinvents itself coming to life here.

I recommend The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher to Trentonians hoping to get an easy to read overview of our city’s possible future ($14 from Nook).

For me the other refreshing story here was who recommended the book to me.  I’ve read quite a few books on cities and have publicly bemoaned the fact that Trenton’s politicians appear to be under educated on the latest thinking.  However, in this case mayoral candidate Jim Golden recommend The End of the Suburbs and I jumped at the chance to read what was driving his thinking.

She didn’t stand for the foolishness

The news of Trenton City activist Pat Stewart’s passing has hit me hard.

It’s difficult to let a friend go, especially one that you’ve stood beside for so long and in so many capacities.  I can’t remember exactly when I first came across Pat Stewart.  I was new to Trenton’s political scene and Pat seemed to know everybody.   Everybody.

But no matter who she was talking to, whether friend or not, she spoke her mind including to me.  Pat would not tolerate what she saw as foolishness.  And frankly we’ve had more than our fair share of that in Trenton.

The Reinvent Trenton blog owes quite a bit to Pat Stewart.   My first foray into real politics was with the Lamberton Historic District Committee over Doug Palmer’s plan to tear down the Kearney homes and replace it with a new government housing project.   She  couldn’t understand  why we’d  tear  down  one  housing project which, in her words “was strong enough to withstand  a nuclear war”  just to build  another one.   We like to think that our efforts helped defeat that project.  Because of that effort we now have very nice market rate (non-government) housing on that site.

Pat, along with that same group, rallied the South Trenton neighborhood in opposition to Leewood  Development’s proposal (again with Doug Palmer’s support) to bulldoze 8 square blocks of historic housing stock along Centre Street.  Though  hers and  the group’s  efforts   over 300 residents showed up  at several citizen’s  meetings to oppose  the  project.   The opposition was eventually too intense for Palmer and Leewood and they retreated.

With these successes under her belt she encouraged former City Councilman Jim Coston   to organize an urban studies book club for residents who wanted to be better educated about revitalization issues.   For many of us, this group was our education.  We read the literature on urban revitalization and invited guest speakers of national renown to talk with us.   It’s an education that led directly to this blog. Pat Stewart was a ring leader of that group.

My affiliation with Pat has continued throughout almost all of my civic endeavors.   She was a leader in the Trenton Council of Civic Associations and was vocal with the Trenton Republican committee.   She joined me in Fix Trenton’s Budget and Majority for a Better Trenton. She put her hat into the ring in the 2009 Special election for South Ward Council and as everyone with an ounce of familiarity with Trenton politics knows, Pat Stewart was a fixture at City Council.

Pat, who was self-admittedly intimidated by technology, even started her own blog, Lamberton Lilly.  She made short and to the point comments about the goings on in Trenton.  She had a following.

Pat was everywhere and so much a part of Trenton for me that it I’m sure I will think of her often in the years to come.    I know that when our next administration finally crafts a real strategy for Trenton and it includes a real marketing plan for our city, I’ll probably shed a tear and hope that Pat knows that her constant admonition has finally come to pass.

In many ways Reinvent Trenton has been written with Pat in mind.  It puts into words the ideas she had in her head.   I know this because she constantly encouraged and commented favorably on my articles.       I knew I was on the right track if Pat liked the article.

Of course Pat’s influence goes far beyond what I know about personally.  She was a leader in the STARS civic association for many years, sat on the Zoning Board and was recently appointed by City Council to sit on the Ethics Commission.    These are places of honor in Trenton.

I know that her son Nicholas knows how we all feel about his mom.   I also know that the most important thing for a family member to know when a loved one passes is that the loved one will be remembered.   Nicholas, that is a certainty.

Causes and Effects: A Guide to disciplined policy discussion

The world is made up of causes and effects.  Hurricanes cause storm surges.  Hitting a cue ball hard into a break causes pool balls to scatter.  A bad earnings report causes a company’s stock to go down.  And so it goes in business, sports, life and cities.  High crime rates cause visitors to stay away from a city.  High taxes slow development.  High college acceptance rates attract students to schools.  This is what economists spend their time thinking about.

Most people think about these causes and effects abstractly.  Common sense tells them that one thing ought to affect another.   For instance, an after school program keeps kids off the streets and therefore should reduce the crime rate because kids on the streets sometimes commit crimes.    Another example might be, making a city’s inspections process less expensive to lower development costs and stimulate investment.   Or perhaps, opening a new museum will increase tourism.

Most people are comfortable making statements like the above, but generally don’t know the details.  For instance, they can’t answer questions like:  If we spend $1,000,000 on foot patrols how many FBI index crimes will be avoided?  Or, if we lower inspections fees by 50%, how much incremental investment should the city expect to see over the next 5 years?   These are fair and important questions.  Most citizens can come nowhere close to answering these types of questions, and that would be OK but sadly, most policy-makers in a city like Trenton can’t answer them either.

So how can normal citizens get better at thinking through the policy issues that face us every day?

Without researching every policy assertion that’s ever made, how can we begin to really understand causes and effects?

We make better choices by knowing whether a policy has a 1st order or 2nd order effect and whether the effect is strong or weak. Of course we need to start with clarity on our goals (investment, crime, education, population, income). But after being clear on goals we must carefully consider causes and effects so we can begin to decide whether policy assertions are important.  This kind of thinking is often called “systems” thinking and is used to better understand complex things, like cities.

There’s a difference between 1st and 2nd order effects

In pool, when the cue ball strikes another ball and knocks it directly into a pocket, we call that a 1st order effect.  One thing caused another.  However that same pool shot may have left the cue ball well positioned to allow the player to sink the next ball.  That’s a 2nd order effect.  The difference is that  in order for the good “leave” to have happened, many more effects of physics had to take place over and beyond the just hitting the first ball in.  The cue ball had to be deflected just so, the spin had to be just right and perhaps the cue ball needed to bounce off the bumper with just the right angle.  The good “leave”, assuming it was intentional, had a much less likely chance of success than hitting the first ball in.

And so it is with city policies.  An afterschool program will most definitely get some kids off the street.  Getting kids off the streets is a 1st order effect and can be measured fairly simply.  It’s the number of kids in the program minus the percentage of those kids who would have otherwise stayed at home or in the library.  For instance: of the 100 kids in the after school program we might say 40 of them would have been home.  So the program got 60 kids off the street.

But how does an after-school program affect crime?  It’s not likely that a kid staying home would cause a crime.  But what about the 60 who would have hung out on street corners.  It’s a bit harder to say because crime reduction is a 2nd order effect.  For example, not all of those 60 kids would have ever committed a crime.  Of the several who might be inclined to commit a crime they might do it when they weren’t in the after-school program.    But then again, maybe the program has a long term effect on the child, or maybe it doesn’t.  As you can see, the 2nd order effects begin to get murky.  This is why sophisticated policy makers don’t depend on them and often point to 2nd order effects as “potential side benefits”.

In Trenton, we shouldn’t base our important policy decisions on 2nd order side effects.

Strong vs. weak effects and the importance of context

Even when causes and effects are 1st order, the linkage between the two can be weak.  For instance in buying a used car, high mileage may not dissuade you from buying it.  This is a 1st order effect but not a strong one because you’ve already decided you could accept a few miles on the car.  However, dented side panels may just completely turn you off.  The big dents might be a strong 1st order effect and keep you from buying the car.

It’s the same with public policy.  Let’s return to inspection fees for a new home.  Let’s say we want to stimulate growth by reducing the fee from $1000 to $300.  That’s a big drop.  And because it directly affects the price of the house, it’s a 1st order effect.  However, that $700 drop in cost is fairly small in comparison to the $300,000 that you’ll eventually spend on the house.  Other things like lumber, labor, land and property taxes easily dwarf the inspection cost.  So while the reduction in inspection fees may be annoying to the builder, it has a weak effect (though 1st order) on the eventual buyer.

2nd order effects can be weak and strong as well.  For instance, we can imagine a school retention program that lowers the high school drop-out rate.  This program might have a good 1st order effect on education but also a 2nd order effect on crime reduction.  That 2nd order effect might be considered strong because we know there’s such a high correlation between high school graduation and likelihood of committing a crime in the future.  Compare that to an after-school basketball program which should have a 2nd order effect on crime reduction (as we discussed above) but that effect may be weak.  Certainly the research and evidence linking graduation to crime reduction is stronger than that linking basketball to crime reduction.  That’s not to say there’s no effect, it’s just not likely to be as strong.

The cause and effect of crime also varies widely.  Economists have shown that each incremental index crime in a city leads to one person moving away.  However, the rate of emigration is 5 times higher for high income people and 3 times higher for families with children.  Poor, single people are much less likely to move away due to a high crime rate.    Therefore we can say that a high crime rate has a strong effect on high income people leaving a city but a weak effect on the poor leaving (likely because they have fewer choices).

Just understanding this differences in the effects of crime, even in the abstract, should have a profound impact on how we think about policy in a city like Trenton.  Sadly, you’ve never heard a government official make the above distinction.

It might be good to focus on strong 1st order effects rather than weak 2nd order ones.

In the world of policy making and particularly in a cash-strapped city like Trenton, we need to make hard choices.  We don’t have either the money or the man-power to do everything we’d like.  So it’s important for citizens to lobby for the most important policies and for government officials and activists to help clarify 1st and 2nd effects and strong vs. weak linkages.

We can use crime reduction as an example of a good objective.  Criminologists know that high rates of incarceration have a beneficial effect on the crime rate (most people get this).  There is a strong 1st order cause and effect between building good cases against criminals that lead to long sentences.   On the other hand, we may spend the same money we would have spent on an extra detective on a mentoring program.  The mentoring might have a 2nd order effect on crime reduction and likely a weak one at best.

When we talk about programs and policies in Trenton politics, we need to keep these things straight and always keep our core goals in mind as well as cost-benefit.

Policies that have multiple 1st and 2nd order effects are generally more impactful than others

Finally we should remember that sometimes policies can have multiple effects.  You’d likely trade a $1,000,000 program to reduce crime that has single strong and effect on the crime goal, for a $1,000,000 program to stimulate development that might have a strong 1st order effects on the economic growth goal, a strong 2nd order effect on the crime goal and a weak 2nd order effect on the education goal.  Some policies give us broader “bang for the buck”.

Policies that positively affect multiple goals in Trenton (investment, crime, education, population growth and income growth) will not only strengthen the city and stretch our dollars, but will find broader political support.

Every minute of every day, Trentonians have policy discussion on Facebook, at barber shops, in civic association meetings, over drinks and at City Hall.  We discuss crime, trash pick-up, taxes, parades and any number of topics.  It’s important for Trentonians to move past sentimentality and misguided assumptions in our discourse.  We need to get on the same page.  To do that, not only do we need shared goals, but we need a common vernacular for discussing policy.  To the extent we can begin to discipline our thinking by keeping our goals clear and then breaking causes and effects down into 1st and 2nd order and then strong vs. weak, we’ll have a more constructive civic dialogue.

Note:  I wrote this article for my blog 2 weeks ago, before the TESC deal for Glen Cairn Arms came up and was having it edited.  I had no way of knowing we would be having a important policy debate about this very subject.  I held off publishing it in favor of reporting on and  providing thoughts about the proposed TESC deal.  However now is a good time to start talking about causes and effects in policy discussion.

Fix the product first and then advertise

Trenton needs an ad campaign now like we need another hole in our head.
City activist Pat Stewart has been beating this horse for years. For the love of God, let’s have a product plan first.

Marketing VPs get fired for launching ad campaigns at the wrong time. The right time is around the launch of a new product or product update. Trenton hasn’t updated its product. In fact, we’re not even sure what our product is.

Yet, a marketing campaign is exactly what Mayor Tony Mack has recently suggested.
I’ve written about this before, but basically we need to sort out what we’re trying to sell first.  Are we selling abandoned warehouses as Mack suggests in his recent “Ask the Mayor” session.  If so, are they saleable?  Are titles cleared?  What are the brownfield issues remaining?  What’s the market for abandoned warehouses?   Perhaps we’re selling city-owned houses or infill projects in our nice neighborhoods. Or, perhaps we should promote downtown living.

Mack doesn’t know what we should be selling. Sam Hutchinson doesn’t know. If councilmembers knew, they certainly wouldn’t agree with each other or the Mayor.

A marketing campaign can’t market everything.  If we’re going to make a pitch we’d better make it for a product that’s ready to be sold.  For instance, promoting infill opportunities before we know how we’d take a developer or homeowner through the development process is wasteful and potentially damaging to our reputation as an easy place to develop (of course we don’t actually have that reputation).  Another consideration is what are our development priorities?  What kind of development gives us the most “bang” for the buck?  That analysis has never been done in Trenton and marketing consultants won’t be able to do it for us.

Before launching an expensive marketing campaign, we need to have sorted out the residential market for Trenton.  Who’s going to move here?  Where do they live now?  We have challenges like our crime rate and schools.  Are there population segments that don’t care so much about those things?  Where would they live in our city?

Before we think about promoting Trenton we need a marketing strategy.  Read more about that in the following:  Managing the Trenton brand
The first step in a plan to sell Trenton is to figure out what we’re selling and why.  This doesn’t have to be a difficult process but when we’re talking about spending precious tax dollars and time we shouldn’t just guess.

Second, just as in business, our pricing needs to be right before we market.  Trenton is currently priced too high.  Many of our abandoned buildings have negative value and yet the City attempts to sell them for positive prices.  It’s no wonder they haven’t sold. Also, our tax rate is the highest in NJ making new development in Trenton a bad idea when compared to neighboring towns with half our tax rate.  We need to work out how to make our product’s pricing attractive. Land Value taxes are one answer. Subsidies and abatements are another.

More on how land has negative value in the following: The case for dumping city-owned property

Third, we need to spruce up the product. We can do this by reducing crime in the area of focus. We could clean up a bit. If we’re marketing to population segments likely to appreciate the arts, we could invest in some targeted cultural things. We could also wait until we have a Mayor that’s a little less radioactive.

When you visit Trenton and pick up a paper, all you’ll see are dirty streets, stories about shootings and murders, a recreation department in disarray and a corruption scandal that sought to extort a developer.  No amount of marketing is going to overcome these issues.  And while we don’t have to eliminate crime or have pristine streets to attract new development, we do have to have made progress and at least have a credible plan on how we’ll improve.   The product improvement plan for Trenton doesn’t exist.

Fourth, we need to make sure our operations work. As a customer you hate it when you try to buy something but the store is out of stock, it gets shipped incorrectly, or it’s broken when you receive it.  Trenton is like that.

Our Economic Development department isn’t prepared to deal with an influx of developer interest.  Our residential and commercial realtors don’t have the city’s marketing plan in mind so they can be part of the solution.  There’s not even a promotional web site in place.  Our inspections process has never been a positive aspect of developing in Trenton.  Would it be useful to have turned that department into a positive instead of a negative before we start attracting new investment? Can the City even transfer property?  Properties sold in last year’s auction still haven’t closed.

The bottom line is that before we start attracting interest we need to improve the operations of our city so that our new customers have a positive experience.  If you currently live in Trenton and have dealings with the city, you know we’re a long way from operational excellence.  Companies that run marketing campaigns when their operations are broken make matters worse and pretty soon go out of business.

Advertising is the last step.

To recap, first we must

  • Decide what we’re selling and to whom
  • Competitively price our city
  • Fix the issues that are causing our poor image
  • Improve operational proficiency

These aren’t new ideas; and its’ pretty much Management 101.

For more reading on planning for Trenton’s revitalization see of the below articles:

Revitalization is a dirty job

A Vision and Plan for Trenton

The State of Trenton – by the numbers

Trenton’s Plan: The Ultimate Question

Trenton’s Plan: Setting Goals

Dysfunctional and without a plan

Big suggestions for Fixing Trenton

Trenton is Missing Out on Big Business

Trenton is Missing Out on Big Business

If you’ve driven up the turnpike from Exit 7 to 8A then you’ve undoubtedly seen all of the giant distribution centers.

These are businesses that could have been located in Trenton if we’d gotten our act together.

One of the things you do as an aspiring civic leader in Trenton is go to workshops where you’re asked to list Trenton’s assets.  People always give the same answers:  its people, its buildings and its location.

Well our people are going to work on the turnpike corridor in places like East Windsor and Robbinsville, our buildings are empty and our location isn’t as good a one would have thought.

Instead Barnes and Noble, Green Mountain Coffee and likely Amazon along with many others have set up shop in modern warehouse space in the suburbs.

Before the apologist tell me that building new construction space is cheap and Trenton can’t compete, let me suggest that we didn’t even try.  Doug Palmer was asleep at the wheel and Tony Mack is, well he’s Tony Mack.

The explosion in industry just 10 miles from downtown Trenton happened without our city even lifting a finger to figure out how we might be competitive.

We had at least one competitive advantage over the suburbs. Those warehouse facilities are hiring Trenton people.  The Kenco facility that houses Green Mountain Coffee are actually bussing Trentonians to Robbinsville.

What went wrong?

My guess is that the views on business among the city leadership are simply too provincial to understand what was happening.  Additionally our culture of corporate extortion limits us to dealing with small time developers.  Serious logistics companies like Kenco wouldn’t give a trifling crook like Tony Mack the time of day.

Furthermore we just don’t have a good story to tell.  To attract a 500,000 SF logistics operation we’d need to show why Trenton is a less costly option than a “Greenfield” in Robbinsville.  We’d have needed all the creative business people we could muster to pull that story together.  A difficult task indeed, but we didn’t even make a serious effort.

Trenton misses out on opportunities like this because we are distracted from the job of revitalizing our city.  Instead of attracting world class development, we’re busy playing political games to attract housing projects like HOPE VI.   We spend our days begging for money through grant writing and we reshuffle the deck chairs in our city budget.

I don’t expect Trenton to develop a plan in the next two years.  Rather we’ll need to wait until a new administration is elected.  In the meantime, we need to listen for candidates who have a “can do“attitude about engaging the city in developing a real revitalization plan.

Kenco brings Green Mountain to Robbinsville