Hoping for a pro-regionalization campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4 Responses to “Hoping for a pro-regionalization campaign”

  • Elise:

    I agree we need a strong leader in Trenton to lead/support the regionalization effort, however I also think we need a leader at the county level. Christie was correct in stating that our county needs political courage — certainly not one of Brian Hughes’ strengths. In my own conversations with county planners regarding regionalization I have walked away with the sense that there is a lot of fear regarding anything considered radical like regionalization. And it seems the m.o. Is top-down decision-making, not exactly an enlightened way of operating in today’s world. You can see from the conversation in the press that Hughes is already looking towards the state for money instead of doing some internal homework, rallying the troops, etc. in terms of the police maybe we only save 10% but in terms of the school district I think we’d. Save more–one director of curriculum, one special needs director, etc etc In regionalized education, there are also interesting hybrids like the Bucks County PA system which consistently ranks in the top ten districts nationally.

  • Reggie:

    With all due respect…..the notion a regional police force will reduce crime or regional schools will improve academic results are fallacies. One basic fundamental principle, the key to all the answers which are sought is economic freedom once economic freedom is established social and political freedom are automatic.

  • How do you know that?

  • SFB:

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

    That city does exist, it is Greater Princeton (we can go back and forth about what ‘urban city’ means). People in greater Princeton don’t want anything to do with Trenton. Sorry. In fact they define themselves as being the opposite of Trenton, just as folks in Oakland County, MI distinguish themselves from Detroit.

    I personally agree that Greater Princeton and the wealthier areas of Mercer County do have a responsibility to help fix Trenton, but although people wring their hands about what’s happening in the city, they would freak out if they had to share services with Trenton. Don’t look outside of city limits for a savior; Trenton is going to have to fix its own problems. Fair? Probably not. But that’s the way it is.

    By the way, can we get your take on the bankruptcy filing for the hotel?

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