Archive for the ‘Vision and Management’ Category

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

We DON’T need a “qualified” Mayor

“We need a qualified Mayor!”  ”We need qualified Directors!”

These are terribly misleading statements.  But we hear them all the time in the city.  ”Qualified” is possibly the most overused and abused term in Trenton politics.

The only qualifications for being a Mayor are to be a citizen, a resident , be 18 or over and have a pulse.

You don’t vote for qualifications, it’s not that easy.  Qualifications come from a job description, they are one person’s opinion.  Rest assured that my “qualifications” are different than yours.  My list of qualifications for Public Works or Recreation Director would be different than yours.  We all have different notions of qualifications for our government leaders to the point where its meaningless to use the term.

We vote for ideas, creativity, hard work and values.  What motivates a candidate?  Are their interests aligned with ours? Have they laid out a plan that makes sense?  Do they instill confidence?

Qualifications are easy and no one background is the right one for a job anyhow.  For instance, I might prefer to have some bright, aggressive young kid, anxious to make a name for themselves, lead a Trenton department over a “qualified” guy who’s been marking time on the job.  In Trenton, we need to stir things up.

Invention won’t come from inside, it’s likely going to come from outside (another reason to do away with residency restrictions as if the past 2 years haven’t been convincing enough).  Creativity and new thinking can also come from identifying talent in the organization and letting it rise faster than normal.  It can come from transferring leadership around.  A great creative team that has been hand-selected will not just to know how to fill out the right forms, but rather to consider whether the forms are needed at all.

Let’s stop worrying about resumes and worry more about what’s behind a person’s eyes.  Depending on “qualifications” is what scared, unthinking people do.

DCA’s vetting skills won’t save us.  DCA isn’t building a leadership team.  Teams are built by carefully selecting people who have different strengths and counter-balance each other.   These kinds of teams allow out-of-the box thinking to mix with pragmatism.  DCA isn’t doing that kind of team building.  They’re just trying to keep the lights on.

Trenton needs a leader that can assemble a team to re-invent our city, not just keep the lights on.    Harping on hiring “qualified” people is proof that a candidate doesn’t have the leadership juice to run our city.

What in Tony Mack’s qualifications told any of us that he could do that?

A good first step for a candidate in 2014 will be to explain that they understand these and other principles of leadership.

The State of Trenton – by the numbers

July 2012

Now that Mayor Mack’s future has become uncertain, to say the least, contenders are being bandied about.  I plan to be even tougher with this new crop of candidates than I was in 2010.  I’m tired of empty suits with empty ideas and empty promises fulfilling their ego at the people of Trenton’s expense.  I can’t afford it anymore.

This article is meant to establish a starting point for the candidates.  It represents our state as a city.  The candidates will do well to express their plans in terms of goals for each of these areas.

Reasonable people agree that the only way to achieve a goal is to set one.  Thus the conventional wisdom of “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”.

With this wisdom in mind, Fix Trenton’s Budget and Majority for a Better Trenton have identified five areas in which the City of Trenton should manage to measurable goals.

They are

  • Crime Index reduction
  • Population growth
  • School success
  • Average Income increase, and
  • Economic success (as measured by ratable)

Most Trentonians would agree that if we did better in these five areas our lives would be better.  However, try getting a politician to commit to a real goal for school success or average income.  It’s never happened, at least not in Trenton and definitely not in Mayor Mack’s biennial report on the state of the city.

Imagine if instead of listing the number of grants we applied for, the Mayor reported on his plan to increase ratables by 10% to $2.1B or decrease our Crime Index from 3400 to 2000.  You didn’t hear that because setting goals commits a politician to producing results and quite frankly, producing results is difficult.

That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have goals for our city and that we can’t force political action both at the ballot box and otherwise that will help us achieve them.

This report is meant to provide a status report on these five important measures thus setting the stage for efforts planned later in the year to set citizen goals for ourselves.

The current statistics are presented in order of importance.  Notice that our most important goals are those that improve the economic health of the city.  We can’t fix anything in Trenton unless we have a healthy economy.

Economic Success: D

In 2011 Trenton’s tax base,  that is, the value of property on which we can charge a property tax, was $2,009,731,470.  In 2012 it has declined to $1,961,049,170.  This represents a 2.4% loss in ratable for the city.

The implications of this statistic are large.  Our property tax rate will have to go up, again, in order to make up the difference.  It means our economy is getting worse instead of better and most importantly, it means that our policies meant to stimulate economic growth 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.

Average Income: F

Trenton’s Median Household  Income is $36,601; which stands in stark contrast to NJ’s Median household income which is almost double that of Trenton’s, $69,811.

Income levels are very important to the health of a city as they determine how much money residents will spend, which in turn, determines the attractiveness of our city to retailers and to entertainment producers.  While NJ’s household income is double that of Trenton’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 make the city attractive to new residents.

School Success:  F

The Trenton school district’s 2011 graduation rate was 47.7%.  This means that over half of the students who entered 9th grade in 2007 graduated in 2011.

There is no world in which this is healthy.  While it can be argued that fixing the schools isn’t a pre-requisite for revitalizing the city, after all the easiest target market for new residents are the millions of people without kids, failing schools don’t help.

With 50% of our young adult population grossly undereducated, they immediately become a drain on the economic future of our city.  Furthermore, a significant portion of these kids will turn to crime and create both a public health threat to the rest of us and an expense in the form of police, courts and jails.

Moving this graduation rate up to 75% could theoretically halve our crime problem in the long run.

Population Growth :  C

Trenton’s 2010 census numbers report a population of 84,913.  Since 2000 our population has declined .6% while New Jersey’s has grown 4.5%.  Relative to our neighbors, Trenton has become a less desirable place to live.

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.

Crime: C

Trenton’s crime problems have tracked the national trend downwards over the last decade.  Uniform Crime Reports for 2011 show an increase in Index Crimes from to 3802 from 3744. That’s a 1.5% increase which shows we’re moving in the wrong direction by a bit.

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Our city leaders have abdicated their responsibility to set positive goals for the city.  Therefore it’s up to citizens to work together to set their own goals and to exert political force to make those goals stick and to construct a plan to meet them.

Trenton’s Plan: The Ultimate Question

I’m currently working with a client to help them rethink their business with an eye towards improving their Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS is a fairly well known mechanism for measuring the health of a customer relationship. It’s based on asking one question: “Would you recommend the company / product to a friend or colleague?” Answers are given on a 0 to 10 scale and the NPS is calculated by subtracting the percentage of detractors (scores from 0-6) from the percentage of promoters (scores from 9-10). Depending on the industry, a decent score is 40.

Typically, companies ask detractors to explain their problem and then ask whether someone can follow-up in person. The best companies have managers follow up and take care of the customer immediately but more importantly help find ways for the problem to not happen again.

It turns out that employees in companies with high NPS scores like Apple, Jet Blue, Progressive Insurance and Enterprise Rent-a-Car are also happy with their jobs. Employees like being able to consistently satisfy customers.

The book that best explains NPS is The Ultimate Question 2.0 by Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey (Markey is a classmate of mine). The web site is netpromoter.com.

What if Trenton had such a program?

“On a scale of 0-10, would you recommend Trenton as a place to live to your friends and family?” This could be “The Ultimate Question – Trenton Edition.”

What if we religiously asked residents this question? What if we followed up? We could set up an email survey to ask the question or even better use our robocall system to do the asking.

In part one of my Trenton Plan, I recommended measuring four numbers: Ratables, Population, Crime Index and Graduation rate. Those are good things but to be really great we need to ask the ultimate question, “Would you recommend that a friend or relative live here?”

My free consulting advice for our next Mayor is to do exactly this. When you hire your aides, hire them into a small group that does nothing but call back residents about their problems, look for ways to solve them immediately and then craft ideas of how to solve the problems permanently. Additionally, your senior staff and you yourself should make some portion of these calls as part of your daily routine.

Citizen feedback and administration responses could be put onto the web site as a way to maintain transparency and re-enforce the point that we’re trying hard to deal with problems.

The next administration should use Net Promoter Score as a way of evaluating all departments and personnel. Create a bonus pool with city council’s blessing to reward employees based on NPS for the city. As you get more sophisticated, tie all work orders and emergency responses to how they served individual residents and business owners. Be able to link the work of the city back to individual NPS results in order to eventually give each employee an NPS score.

We might not even need to link bonus to NPS. The best companies don’t. A source of pride for Trenton employees (and I’d like to see this extended to schools) would be to achieve high levels of citizen satisfaction. Can you imagine how good it would feel to know that because of your efforts, citizens were giving the city scores of 9 or 10?

In short order we could turn into a city that strives to have citizen’s recommend it. This kind of attention to customer satisfaction could certainly be the silver bullet that revitalizes Trenton. Soon, everything our administration does could be oriented towards citizen priorities. Our budgets and policies would finely be in tune with the public.

This doesn’t solve our budget problem immediately and we won’t magically fix our crime issue. But by aggressively listening to citizens and solving their most important problems we slowly begin to repair our broken image.

Trenton’s Plan: Setting Goals

It is a truism that, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.”

And so it is with Trenton. We don’t know where we’re going, and so far, it’s pretty clear we haven’t gotten anywhere good.

Ask five Trentonians what their goals for the city are and you’ll likely get five different answers. Try asking 7 city council members. Or, try getting an answer from our Mayor at all.

Leadership is painting a vision and lacing it with measurable goals.

To miss-quote John F. Kennedy – “We choose to go to somewhere in space in the future”. Not much of a call to action is it.

As a community we don’t have a common set of goals that represent our vision and drive our mission to revitalize the city. We need that. We need our leaders to be thoughtful about how our policies and our budget are used to achieve goals. We can’t do everything, so being clear on the things we must do is job #1.

It’s hard set measurable goals

Goals are meaningless if you can’t recognize when they’re accomplished. Too many people forget this. A goal doesn’t help if you can’t measure achievement, or the progress towards achievement.

Every meaningful Goal has an outcome, and the challenge to writing meaningful goals is drafting a clear, precise, and measurable outcome.

To oversimplify, which goal stated below is meaningful?

  • To keep the citizens of the City safe from fire.
  • To keep citizens safe from fire by maintaining first engine response time to less than 3 minutes.

Note that meaningful Goals often describe an action or activity [although not always], but they always describe outcomes that are clear, precise, and measurable.

Think about measurement. How would I measure this? Can I accurately count the number of times something happens? Will I know when something happens? Can the administration cook the books?

These are all questions we need to ask ourselves.

Broad health goals set the agenda

For Trenton we have four basic concerns: We want our city to be safe from crime, for our children to be educated, for the city to be a pleasant place and for our government to be affordable. These concerns are not only interrelated but spill-over into every other part of life in the city.

Bad school environments breed crime, which makes us feel unsafe. When we feel unsafe we want to hire more police, which costs money we don’t have. However, if we don’t reduce crime we’ll not attract the new investment that would help us pay for a police force and a good school system.

Four broad goals can serve to focus us and our government policy on these concerns.

Ratables: Goal is $2.1B. in 4 years

That’s a 10% increase over the current $1.9B. Source: City tax rolls.

Ratables are what drive property taxes. In Trenton our property tax pays for 15% or our total municipal and school budget. The average for New Jersey is 50%. The State of New Jersey is under increasing pressure to decrease its funding to Trenton and we’ll need to make up the difference. However, to be a great city, we need to have a tax base that does more than maintain minimum services as we’re doing now.

Today the State of New Jersey funds $285M of Trenton’s school and municipal budget. If State property were taxed like private property, it would pay only $45M. Clearly we exposed to tightening budgets at the state level.

Ratables are measured in Trenton by the tax assessor and the tax roll is maintained by Trenton’s tax office. While property assessment is generally a well disciplined art, Trenton will need to update its processes and regularity for property value assessment.

Population: Goal is 90,000 people in 4 years

That’s up from 84,913 in 2010. Source: US Census – ACS

Growth in population shows that our city is appealing to outsiders. If we’re attracting people we’ve been successful in making the city livable for existing residents but we’re more attractive to businesses as well.

Population in Trenton is measured by the US Census bureau with a hard count every 10 years and an accurate estimate every year via the American Communities Survey.

Crime Index: Goal is a 20% decrease in one year, 40% in four years.

That’s from 3851 crimes in 2010. Source: Uniform Crime Report

The Uniform Crime report and FBI Crime Index report crime in a standard way and is a widely used statistic for assessing a community’s safety.

Graduation Rate: Goal is 90% graduation rate in 4 years

That’s up from the rate of 78%. Source: NJ DOE

Educators will argue over the use of this statistic but then fail to provide an alternative single measure for the health of a school system. A school system’s overall graduation rate, while not a perfect measure, is a good indicator of success and has the virtue of being well understood by the public. Furthermore, graduation from high school is a solid predictor of a student’s future success in life.

I hope that by publishing these four goals and our current state of affairs. We, as a community can begin to discuss them honestly. Perhaps we’ll change the targets up or down a bit, but in the end we need goals on which we can agree.

Dysfunctional and without a plan

By far my biggest complaint is our city’s lack of a strategic plan. All of the mayoral and council candidates stressed the need for it in the election, all of them.

So here we are one and a half years later and we have nothing, no plan at all. Not even a bad one.

The Mayor says the “state of city” pamphlet is his plan. It’s a document full of past statistics that are mostly irrelevant. Nothing about it discusses our measurable goals and how we’ll use our limited resources to achieve them. There are no strategic themes around which departments can build their operational plans. There is no new thinking. There’s nothing.

When I complain to the Mayor, he says, “I have a plan, just not one you like Dan”. “Really”, I say, “Could you email me a copy?” I’m still waiting.

The other day it hit me between the eyes how bad not having a plan can be.

Great cities are made by bringing creative people together. This isn’t a new thought and it’s been crystallized for me recently as I read the Richard Florida author of The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City. I’ve been thinking about what we could do in Trenton to jumpstart own value generating creative juices.

My idea was to help organize an entrepreneur’s conference in Trenton. It’s something I’d be interested in and perhaps we could pitch Trenton as a good business location.

I went to city council meeting on Dec. 13 and my hopes were dashed.

A local business owner and several other speakers were at council to complain about a rise in the business registration fee from $10 to $300. You can pay even more if you’re a more successful business. Basically our city council and administration are planning to institute a business tax. Nearby Hamilton doesn’t have a registration fee and yet Trenton is going to add a new one. We’re adding a business tax in addition to having the highest property tax in the State.

Is this part of the plan? Is making Trenton the most expensive place in the region to do business part of the grand plan?

And now for the dysfunctional part.

At this same city council meeting, our council members were confused about how and why the business tax was so high even though they approved it. Apparently the ordinance creating the tax was put together by the city clerk with consultation from the Trenton Downtown Authority. However, the Chair of the Downtown Authority, John Clarke, spoke at council to oppose the business tax.

It seems as though the tax is some kind of miscommunication. Wow!

Slapping business owners in the face isn’t all our city council has been busy doing. It seems they have been going through the city budget line by line. They’re doing this not because they want to but because they have to.

According to council members and members of the public who’ve been there, the city’s business administrator isn’t aware of the particulars of our budget. It seems as though department heads haven’t been very involved either. In other words, they took last year’s budget, which was based on the budget from the year before that and have just copied the numbers. There’s no new thought in the budget. Imagine that our city’s only important strategic document has no strategy and no new thinking. In fact, council members are finding personnel and expenses simply shifted around.

Trenton’s dysfunctional government is managing our affairs by wandering around aimlessly, with no serious forethought and without a strategic plan. Please someone email me the strategic revitalization plan that includes rehashing old department budgets and increasing the business registration fee by 2900%.

Go Trenton! Beat Clifton!

Catchy, isn’t it. I’m offering it up as a slogan for the next Mayor of Trenton. In fact, I’m suggesting that it be the entire campaign platform.

Trenton currently has a per capita income of $17,066 per person according the US Census Bureau (2009 numbers). However, as we’re fond of saying in Trenton, “There’s always Camden”, which is $12,777. The average for all of New Jersey is $34,622 . Trenton’s per capita income is half that of the average for New Jersey. This is why we struggle as a city. There’s no money here.

To help clarify our revitalization mission here in Trenton I offer Clifton, NJ. Clifton is a “middle of the pack” city in New Jersey with a per capita income of $30,552. It also happens to be the same size as Trenton with a population of 85,000. Clifton is a great aspirational target in terms of economic activity.

Clifton is a quiet bedroom community for New York City with nice parks and good schools. It’s also quite diverse. Given Trenton’s history and location I’m sure that given the same income mix we’d be a much better place to live? “Go Trenton, Beat Clifton”.

Why focus on income as a measure anyway? Everything is tied to income: Housing values, student performance and even crime. There aren’t too many high income areas with run down houses, bad schools and rampant crime. Nobody hopes to revitalize their town by lowering the income.

Per capita income targets give us something at which to aim. How far should we go? Let’s be reasonable and assume that a city should be a diverse, after all we don’t want to be Princeton. Furthermore we’re starting from pretty far in the hole so let’s give ourselves a break and shoot for, say, $30,000. That’s a round number and about the same as Clifton, so when we make it, we’ll declare victory.

Furthermore, a city’s per capita income tells you whether the city is being subsidized by state, county and federal governments (i.e. is it a drain on society?). It tells you whether the tax rate is high and whether it can pay for the things that make a city nice: like parks, public art and libraries.

Make no mistake about it though, I don’t equate the $35,000,000 or so the state currently pays Trenton as “aid”. When you do the math on the State’s property in Trenton, they should be paying a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) of about that amount. However, when we include our schools, it’s clear that the State is massively subsidizing us as they pay roughly 80% of the budget.

If our next Mayor and city council really want to focus on revitalization, they will worry less about attracting affordable housing and halfway houses and more about moving up the ranks of per capita income.

Sounds great but here’s the catch. Given Trenton’s current population of 85,000 people at an income of $17,066, we’ll need to add 79,000 people with a per capita income of $45,000. We’ll be a vibrant city of 164,000 people living in beautifully converted lofts, gleaming high-rises and restored 19th century homes.

To put this into real terms, to reach our goal, we would have to absorb 20 times the population of affluent Lambertville to move our average up to Clifton’s. Imagine that: Trenton will have to convince 79,000 Lambertville-like folks to leave their restored historic houses, fine eateries and antique shops to move to Trenton. That’s a lot of convincing but it’s what has to be done.

This goal has other implications. Remember that per capita means “per person”. Children that don’t earn $45,000 / year will bring down the average. This is a serious realization. It means that we need to work especially hard to attract childless adults who make at least $90,000 per couple. This is especially important when we realize that Trenton’s largest cost is support of children. In order to fix our economy and our budget we need to become an especially attractive place for singles, retirees, gay couples and young marrieds. This formula is a familiar platform in revitalized cities across America.

Every good platform needs planks and for revitalization there are only three that matter:

Bring back the middle and upper class. Whenever a new proposal comes into city hall, department directors would have to ask themselves, “Will this get us to $30,000 per capita income?”. Let’s face it, the only proposal that will pass muster are ones that attract middle class and upper income to town or that provide high paying new jobs.
Institute a pro-growth tax system – Our property taxes are not only highest in NJ but they also discourage development. A land-value tax would tax land at a very high rate but improvements at a very low rate. This encourages developers to build very dense and very expensive buildings. We want that.
Reject new affordable housing projects. Affordable Housing programs like Leewood Village, HOPE VI and Mt. Laurel RCA contributions will be banned from Trenton. As evidenced by the Lamberton Historic Districts stance against these projects, Mill Hill, Berkley Sq. Cadwalder Heights, Glen Afton and Hiltonia have worked hard to raise their standard of living; other neighborhoods want the same success but just don’t want the city working against them.
Listen to what the people want. Take to heart what your current middle and upper class citizens are telling you. They want Arts, Crime Prevention, Preservation and Clean Streets. They can’t be any clearer.

I don’t mean to suggest that taking this radical approach to revitalization will be easy for a political candidate. For years Trentonians have been misled to believe that affordable housing IS revitalization. Also, there is a large part of Trenton’s population that makes their living catering to the poor, either through state government or the various non-profits with offices in town. We’re practically a company town for the underclass. However, to “Beat Clifton” and get to $30,000 we’ve got to move forward.

I challenge out next crop of mayoral candidate to seize the agenda of growing Trenton into a powerhouse city. You will have plenty of support from voters that are ready to welcome 79,000 affluent new neighbors.

Go Trenton! Beat Clifton!

Recall Petition is Rational

I’ve heard otherwise sensible Trentonians give various reasons for not signing the petition to recall Tony Mack. These range from:

    1) I do a lot of work with the city and the Mayor’s vindictive,
    2) I don’t believe in recalls,
    3) The recall committee didn’t print their reasons on the ballot,
    4) I don’t know whose running,
    5) It will cost the city money,
    6) I work for the Mayor.

The first thing to remember is that the recall petition isn’t even a vote to recall. It’s simply a request to formally put the question forward. It’s quite possible that if the recall petition drive is successful, we’ll have a special election and Tony Mack will win the special election. The recall committee and the 8000 or so people that have already signed think there’s enough doubt though to warrant a vote on the subject.

Therefore I’d like to address the reasons not to sign, one by one:

First “The Mayor is vindictive and he’ll hurt my business”. Well, that should tell you something. Aren’t we done with bullies in this society? If you’re not the one to stand up to a bully, then who is? And who’s to say the Mayor’s not bullying someone else that is less able to stand up to it than you. This is exactly the reason to put the Mayor’s status up for a vote.

Second, “I don’t believe in recalls”. What’s not to believe in? The NJ legislature has provided this very democratic method for correcting terrible mistakes. The fact is that a Mayor can do significant damage to a city through mismanagement without doing anything illegal. In four years that damage can become irreparable. That’s where Trenton is heading. If you think our Mayor has behaved ethically, is managing the city well and has a plan for its recovery, that’s one thing. If you don’t then not believing in recalls is like believing your city is doomed.

Third, “The recall committee didn’t print their reasons on the ballot”. I actually heard this. Hopefully, the committee has hand-outs. But if not, their web site is trentonrecall2011.wordpress.com. Let me also suggest kevin-moriarty.com.

Fourth, “I don’t know whose running”. You should venture out from under your rock. Jim Golden has announced. Eric Jackson may be in the race. I didn’t support Jackson in the first campaign because he was a re-hash of Doug Palmer. However, he was worlds more suitable than Mack and did run the public works department. Golden is interesting. He comes across as thoughtful and it doesn’t hurt that he’s run the police department. I’ve not met with Jim to discuss all of his policy thoughts but from I know so far, we’re on the same page.

Fifth, “It will cost the city money”. A recall election will cost about $100,000. That’s small change compared to the $2M in transitional aid we already didn’t get this year because the Mayor has consistently thumbed his nose at DCA. It’s small compared to the ground we’ve lost in our efforts to revitalize because we don’t have a plan, or the misspending of our budget that’s happened either because of fraud or, more importantly, because we don’t have a high quality set of department Directors in place. Trenton’s budget is $185,000,000 next year. $100,000 is a small price to pay to get a Mayor qualified to spend that amount to our mutual benefit.

Sixth, “I work for the Mayor”. If you do, I apologize on behalf of all voters. You probably shouldn’t sign unless you’re looking forward to getting to know “wrongful termination” lawyer George Doherty a lot better.

There’s hardly a reason not to sign the recall petition. It’s only a petition to request a vote. If during the special election Tony still winds up being the best choice, then so be it. But, if you think Trenton is on a terribly wrong course, then recall is the only rational answer.