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

Buying Out Tony Mack’s contract is a Win-Win

Our country’s economy and especially its real estate market has been in a slump for 4 years.  However, in the next 2 years we’re going to come out of it, no matter who wins the Presidential election.

When that happens, we don’t want Trenton to be left behind.

A normal economy will grow around 2-3% a year.  For Trenton with its $1.9B tax base and  ~ $70M in property tax revenue that means our revenues could increase $1.4M – $2.1M a year.  That’s if we were normal.

The problem is that our Mayor has become a national and regional publicity problem due to his various missteps and most notably his arrest by the FBI on corruption charges.  It should be obvious to us that no matter how good the national economy, a developer, potential homeowner or business owner would not want to invest in a city under such leadership.

Tony Mack is a drag on Trenton’s economic recovery.

In addition to the bad reputation he’s given the city, it’s also become apparent that Mack’s administration has no intention of addressing our economic growth.  In Mack’s 2 ½ years in office he has not made one proposal to increase our tax base.  In his 10/16/2012 budget address to City Council he did not mention ratables or growth in property taxes other than to pitch his proposed  $.19 tax hike, which would have a negative impact on economic growth.

Mack is not thinking about revitalization.  He’s never mentioned it.  There’s never been a plan presented.  This city’s budget discussions have never contemplated expenditures related to increasing our tax base and thereby our property taxes, our single largest source of revenue.

If by inaction and negative publicity, he “drags” our economic growth by even one quarter of one percent or $150K per year in growth, we would be better off paying the man to step down.  We’d be better off  paying Tony Mack his $126,000 a year salary, NOT to show up for work.

For a man facing a difficult legal battle and under severe personal financial distress, this seems a win-win for both Tony Mack and the City of Trenton.

Palmer’s Dream, Still a Nightmare

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my first article about the Trenton Marriott shortly after I joined the Lafayette Yard Development Corporation board (LYDC).   which oversees the hotel on behalf of the city.  At the time in 2010, I was encouraged that a new Board would take aggressive action to get us out from under the hotel’s debt burden and operational risk.   A new year and a new attitude at our hotel

After I joined the board and began to understand things better I started saying to anyone who cared to listen, and certainly the LYDC board that: Our hotel isn’t worth very much to us and we need to sell it now.

The LYDC board has a few sophisticated people on it and many others who simply have no business being on the board of a multimillion dollar operation.  This is one of the many follies in having a city owned business; it has to be run by citizens who simply aren’t equipped to make important business decisions.

Two years after I wrote the above, hopeful, article:

  • We still own the hotel,
  • It’s still struggling,
  • We’ve bailed it out to the tune of $500K,
  • And we’ve paid $2.8M in debt payments from our city budget,
  • And I’ve resigned from the board.

The fundamental problem is that the hotel is worth more to a third party than it is to Trenton and it’s not worth very much to us at all.  For instance a third party would be allowed to lease out the restaurant space (we’re not).  A third party could profit share with its manager.  We can’t do that.  A third party could make big decisions quickly.  As a public corporation the hotel has to go before a citizen board and sometimes City Council.  The operations of the hotel are severely limited in flexibility and business model structure.

As an asset, the hotel should be valued to the owner (the taxpayers of Trenton) at the present values of its future cash flows. In a good year we can expect around $100K in cash from operations before our debt cost of $1.4M a year. The value of those cash flows comes out to about $700K. This means that we should be happy to sell the hotel for that amount of money.

Of course there may be a buyer who would pay us more than that but every day we turn down offers for anything more than our own value is a day that we’re losing money (because we pay the debt).

For instance, if, when we had an offer for $22M and had wound up selling for $10M, we would be able reduce our $15M debt by 2/3.   That would save almost $1M a year in debt payment from the city. The board President didn’t even manage to bring that offer to the LYDC board.  He failed to do so at the advice of our bond financiers who felt considering a sale would have gotten in the way of their bond sale, and thus their fat commissions. The bond guys were effectively running the board and had a significant conflict of interest.  I quit the board soon afterwards.

The City of Trenton (taxpayers) pay $1.4M a year on that $15M in debt. Every year we don’t sell the hotel means another year we’re paying that full amount.

I hope to God the LYDC board has at least put the hotel up for sale, but as of the time I left the board, they couldn’t even get themselves organized to do that.

The City of Trenton needs to get itself out of the hotel business now, not next year or the year after. There is no reason to expect the LYDC to manage the operation to greater profitability, experience shows it won’t.  We need to put this bad experiment in mayoral arrogance and public gullibility behind us.

Instead, we continue business as usual.  The Marriott will take away its brand in the middle of 2013 because they are disgusted with us.  Waterford, the organization who has managed not to run the hotel at a profit and who caused the city to have to bail out the hotel, may get replaced.    It will likely be replaced with another outfit recommended by Acquest but without a serious national search for a new manager or owner

Erin Duffy at the times wrote a good summary this week in the Times: Trenton Marriott next to Statehouse could change branding to Holiday Inn.

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

The Economics of “Good Corruption”

JoJo Giorgianni has given us his economic assessment of the value of corruption to a city.  His plan was to use Mayor Tony Mack like a puppet to enrich himself as developers bribed his version of Tammany Hall for the right to build in Trenton.  JoJo’ and Mack’s thinking was that they were facilitating investment and should get paid.  Why else would they have gone to the trouble of getting Mack elected?  In his conversation with an FBI informant, JoJo called this “Good Corruption”.

I guess that’s one idea.

But just to spell it out we, need to be clear about why corruption hurts a city.

Corruption distorts a market and creates uncertainty.

Investors HATE uncertainty!   When it becomes known that one developer has had to bribe city officials, all other developers become uncertain as to what level of corruption they will face as they consider investment in Trenton.  A developer would much rather play by a transparent and clear set of rules rather than the murky give and take of Trenton’s underworld.

Furthermore, in a climate of corruption, it is entirely likely that a developer could face a second round of shake-downs further into the project after there was no turning back.  This possibility opens the developer up to a high degree of risk.  What was to stop JoJo and Mack from ordering the building inspector to look again at a project, unless the developer had “Uncle Remus” visit again (their code for bribe money).

Our PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) negotiations are another source of risk and potential corruption.  Every developer negotiates separate deals with the administration on what taxes they will pay.  This kind of uncertainty makes evaluating a deal impossible.  Even when options for a “standard” PILOT have been presented to the Mack administration, they have ignored them.  Why give up the opportunity for graft.

Bribery and extortion create an unequal playing field that raises the cost of business in a place like Trenton. Developers have other options and we need them more than they need us.

Trenton politicians have a history of shaking down developers

Tony Mack isn’t the first politician to require that developers “check in” with the administration before doing business.  Other politicians have required contributions to campaigns as a pre-condition of cooperation.  We should all be suspicious of campaign war chests exceeding $200,000.  That kind of money doesn’t come from normal citizens hoping for better government.  It comes from people who want favors, at our expense.

We don’t want to make it expensive, risky or difficult for developers to build in Trenton.  We can see the results:  very little development happens in our city because of our corrupt climate and heavy handed administration.  I’ve talked to many Trenton developers over the years who’ve refused to work in our city again because of the bad taste it left in their mouths.

We need a completely different approach

In a new revitalization minded administration, we’ll:

  • Clean out our Housing and Economic Development and Inspections Departments and start over with a new attitude
  • Publish a process for development that does NOT include the Mayor’s office
  • Set prices for city owned land in a public Internet based auction system (For the time being, NO more deals).
  • Create a standard PILOT hopefully based on Land Value Tax system that rewards investment and discourages speculation

Trenton has been relatively closed to honest business development for many years.  Hopefully, with the Mack era behind us we can start fresh and turn our city into the easiest place in Central Jersey to develop instead of the hardest.  Given our other issues, we need to be better than everywhere else.

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.

Trenton’s Next Self-Inflicted Economic Disaster

Perhaps no other government initiative better illustrates why Trenton has economic problems than the Miller Homes HOPE VI project (aka Rush Crossing).

Early on in the project I suggested privately to City Council members and publically at City Council meetings and on reinventtrenton.com that the Miller Homes HOPE VI project would be economically disadvantageous to Trenton.

One would think that if an activist who is known to analyze Trenton’s economic issues and whose paying job is to do similar analysis for his corporate clients, someone in city government would have at least attempted to calculate the economic impact of Miller Homes. No one ever has.

The city has been flying blind on Miller Homes pushed along by developers, financiers, lawyers and contractors eager to feed at the public trough. The scene has been unseemly. Last year at a presentation to City Council 15 non-residents in “suits” showed up to watch the developer, Penrose, with their enablers, Trenton Housing Authority, pitch the project to City Council. They talked about how they would help the “poor people” but not once did they mention the project’s impact on Trenton’s City budget. These were carpetbaggers feeding on $61M in Federal, State and City tax funds. Their lawyer was there earning $300/hr to sit at City Council, their bond guy was there looking forward to his commission on the publically back financing and the developer was there to get paid to build the most overpriced housing in Trenton.

So what’s so wrong about Miller Homes?

1) The cost is wildly out of line with housing prices in Trenton
2) The cost of supporting the residents will be higher than the tax revenue and Trentonians are left holding the bag

Our tax dollars are funding housing of $300,000 per unit at Miller Homes in a city where the average home price is $61,000.

Only an insane person would think this project is sane. The total price for Miller Homes is $61,000,000 and it will yield 204 units. Simple division works out $299,000 per housing unit. These aren’t specially equipped apartments for the disabled; these are normal 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments. Most similar apartments in Trenton rent from $600 to $800 a month.

The $61,000 average sales price for Trenton comes from Zillow and reflects current prices. However even at our economic peak, average home prices were around $100,000.

An analysis of investment property in Trenton shows that property values range between 70 and 90 times rents. Therefore using the most optimistic valuation, an $800 2 BR rental unit would be worth $72,000. At Miller Homes our tax dollars are paying $299,000.

Trenton’s City Council, the administration, Trenton Housing Authority, the State of New Jersey and HUD are behind this. No one has publically admitted why they support this kind of waste. It can only be that with so much waste involved, the developer can afford to throw money at government officials in ways too indirect for the public to easily discover.

The fact remains that new construction for 2 BR apartments simply does not cost $299,000. The 2 BR units in Miller Homes will be approximately 999 SF. Even at fairly expensive construction costs of $120/SF (expensive for affordable housing) the costs should come closer to $120,000. Why then are costs $299,000 per unit.

Defenders of the project will say that they are adding amenities like community rooms and lighted paths. However, in normal privately funded projects these things are always built.

Taxpayers have grossly overpaid.

The cost to serve the residents will be $3M but we’ll collect only $750K in revenue.

Wasting taxpayer money on development isn’t really Trenton’s biggest problem, though the land we donated and $3.5M in funding we provided could have been put to more productive use.

Trenton’s biggest problem is that we’ll feel the negative economic impact of the Miller Homes for the rest of our lives.

If we assume that the owners of the building are taxed like other commercial landlords then their valuation will be based on income. Projected rents, based on THA’s own published comments should be around $140,000 per month for 63 – 1 BR, 73 – 2 BR, 62- 3 BR and 6 – BR apartments. Using the valuation of 90 times monthly rent, the value of Miller Homes will be $13,255,000 (a far cry from the $61,000,000 development cost). At Trenton’s tax rate of 5.63% this will yield $747,000 a year in taxes.

If we assume that Trentonians pay for half of their city government and half of their school costs (an assumption that we have to make should Trenton ever revitalize an no longer be an Abbot district), then taxes generated from Miller Homes need to cover proportionate costs of the residents.

For a 1 BR apartment with no kids, this equates to $4114 per year (to support police, fire, public works etc.) . A 2 BR apartment would include one child and 3 BR apartments would include 2 children (for sake of argument). Each child should cost Trenton about $10,357 to send to school (the city’s portion). Therefore a 3 BR (on average) would require $25,000 a year in public spending.

Given the mix of 1, 2 , 3 and 4 BR apartments in Miller Homes, the project will require $3M in public spending on the city’s portion of its municipal and school government. However, because the rents, and therefore the valuations are so low, we will collect (at most) only $750K in tax revenue.

Even if Trenton were to fully revitalize, other Trentonians will continue to subsidize Miller Homes in the amount of $2.25M a year, forever.

This analysis is meant to show how public officials in Trenton need to start thinking about publically funding redevelopment. We have allowed federal and state funds to be squandered on a project that does not gives us bang for the buck. We could have found better projects. Also, because our City housing and economic development officials and city council members could not be bothered to listen to an economic impact analysis we have burdened ourselves with a financial albatross even bigger than the city’s last major self-inflicted disaster, the much maligned downtown hotel.

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.

———————————————————————————————————

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.

Should Government Festivals be Our Top Priority?

Trenton has more than its fair share of volunteers, arts organizations and civic groups.  Many of these active people and groups put on festivals and events either as part of their mission (The Trenton Film Festival, St. Patrick’s Day Parade), to raise money (Trenton Half-Marathon) or both (Art All Night).

Every event put on in Trenton needs city cooperation even if they have to pay for it (groups have to pay for police and park rangers).  But generally, no private group needs or really wants the city to do its planning, promotion or operations.  They rely on the goodness of their sponsors and volunteers.

But we have to ask ourselves, with such a vibrant roster of volunteer groups in Trenton, why do we need to publicly fund and operate government events?

Tony Mack has announced his “unwavering support” for government festivals such as Heritage Days.

http://www.trentonnj.org/Documents/PR%20Mayor%20Tony%20Mack%20Stands%20Behind%20Recreation.pdf

Is it the proper role of government to organize festivals?  Especially when the government is nearly bankrupt?

Trenton could  support festivals in the city by making it easier for non-profits to work with the city.  For instance, the process for engaging  the police and public works could be streamlined; city assets available for use by groups could be listed on the web site and rented out (including tents and stages).  The administration could eliminate the requirement that groups hire park rangers.   The city could be generally more responsive and helpful.

But, organizing and running an event such as Heritage Days or the Thanksgiving Day Parade is simply inappropriate.    These events have become thinly veiled mechanisms for a Mayor to self-promote to an unsophisticated public.  We certainly don’t want our precious tax dollars going towards that.   Politicians love spending your money to make themselves look good and Trenton is rife with examples (the former Trenton Jazz Festival, the hotel, Waterfront Park).  I’m asking that Trentonians see this for what it is and help City Council put a stop to it.

Heritage Days cost taxpayers at least $70,000.  There were less than 1,000 attendees at the event meaning we spent more than $70 a person.  That’s an obscene waste.

The Mayor has committed himself to government festivals.  However city council is at least rethinking it.  They are having some difficulty however, in getting a proper accounting of what we’ve spent.  Requests for a full accounting of the Thanksgiving Day parade and last year’s Heritage Days have gone unanswered leading some of your council people to question every line item in the budget trying to find out where the expenses have been hidden.   Some of our more responsible city council members are even considering eliminating the recreation because it’s become a rogue department. It’s come to this.

Trenton is facing a $7M deficit in 2013 and it recently laid off 30% of its police force, in other words, we’re burning.  Meanwhile our Mayor insists on playing his fiddle.  It’s his top priority.

Politics IS the Answer: The Majority for a Better Trenton

Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t pay attention to politics, politicians disgust me”, I feel sorry for our society and how that person’s parents and teachers have let us all down.

Politics (from Greek politikos ”of, for, or relating to citizens”) as a term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the corporateacademic, and religious segments of society. It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.

Politics isn’t a “bad” word.  When people complain about politics, what they’re really complaining about is that some people are simply better at it then they are.  And, by definition, if you don’t participate in the political process at all then you’re pretty much at the bottom of the heap.

Nothing is a given in politics.  People perceived as powerful don’t have to stay that way.  We don’t even have to keep our form of government.  Any one person or group of people can wield political power.   Case in point are Trenton’s bloggers, just by writing about our political situation we have at least some (albeit modest) political power.  In the past two years it’s been individual citizens who have researched and discovered many of the abuses of power in Trenton’s City Hall.

As the Citizen’s Campaign people are fond of pointing out there are many ways to be involved in the political process more than just voting and less than running for elected office.

  • You can be a party representative
  • You can be a citizen journalist (like me)
  • You can be on public board (like I used to be)
  • You can be a citizen legislator
  • Or, you can call people to action (like I’m doing in this article)

In Trenton we have non-partisan elections. This has good and bad effects on our city.  A partisan election with Republicans and Democrats has the potential to weed out bad candidates (which would have been helpful in 2010) but it also has the high likelihood of introducing issues into a local race that have no business being there (i.e. Defense spending or public healthcare ).

The absence of political parties reduces the opportunity for public involvement in the process and weakens the strength of platforms on which the candidates might run.  Rather than have candidates embrace ideals embodied by a party (as miss-guided as they might be) we have candidates in Trenton running mainly on personality.  We’ve all seen how that’s worked out.  I’m not arguing for a two party system in Trenton, rather I’m suggesting that stakeholders organize themselves in order to have a louder and more intelligent voice.

Elections should be about “ideas”, not about “what neighborhood a politician is from” or whether she was “born and bred” in Trenton.  Being an ideologue isn’t a bad thing.  We need well thought out goals, strategies and plans that are bigger than a single candidate.   They should be bigger.  The thinking required to revitalize Trenton is beyond any one person.

We need a mechanism to allow the best and brightest to set policy for our city and then to communicate those policies to an engaged public.  Such an organization will have a large membership of stakeholders, will communicate with officials and citizens, will serve as watchdogs over our government and importantly will select candidates that espouse the group’s ideals.  Its goal should be to make government beholden to the people and not the other way around.

I suggest that The Majority for a Better Trenton is that organization.  It is a political group with a mission to build a strong base of support for the strategies and plans that will revitalize our city.  If that means we need to change our form of government, then those options are on the table.  If it means wielding power to force elected officials to do the right thing, then that’s OK.  However, for the first time in Trenton, this group will decide what the “right things” are and why.

The group will create an opportunity for political expression beyond just voting on Election Day.

Being a member

MFABT will require lots of volunteer effort to develop policy, ensure good government and build the organization.  However we also want members!  Membership is for people who want to have a better opportunity to influence Trenton by better understanding the issues and then by voting on the group’s platform policies and support for candidates.  Basic membership is $15 and will go to support the costs required to grow the group (501c4 filing, PO Box, mailings etc.).    Members may be called upon to show support for an issue at City Council and be asked to vote on the group’s platform and support for candidates and other big issues at our annual meeting (planned for early 2013).  We’ll also call on members to participate in educational sessions and city budget prioritization sessions.  Trenton residents, business owners and property owners can be voting members.  Basically a member is a Trenton stakeholder who wants to raise their political voice louder than just voting every 4 years.

Being a volunteer

MFABT is creating standing committees to:

  • Serve as government Watch-Dogs,
  • Improve our political process,
  • Develop platform policies,
  • Identify future leaders,
  • Grow the membership and
  • Communicate to the public.

We hope that by virtue of this group being formed out of last year’s recall effort there is harmony among the activists and those that want to be more active to work with us to build a strong political force in Trenton.   Volunteering can mean doing mailings on the membership committee, doing OPRA requests for good government or researching an issue for the policy committee.  Volunteers will shape this group and help better run our city.

Being a leader

People shy away from leadership.  It’s hard and sometimes it takes time.  Really though, it only takes time when others don’t do their part.  The founding members of this group have already led and invite other leaders in Trenton to join us.  MFABT is a unique experiment in political activism and we all hope to look back on our roles with pride years from now.

Our Ask

  • We have a facebook group that you can join (look up Majority for a Better Trenton) please do.  We post events there and I’m sure discussions will happen.
  • Get involved by emailing me @  dan@livingonthenet.com or Keith Hamilton at keithvha@verizon.net to let us know how you want to be involved.
  • For now our Treasurer will send invoices for membership dues until we have a web site with e-payments up and running.
  • Forward this to others that should be involved.

Voting is the basic level of involvement but it’s not enough.  I’d really rather that people who’ve not taken the time to understand the issues and the people running for office, just stay home.  You’re abusing your right to vote by not taking it seriously.  Votes make a difference and we’re all paying the price here in Trenton.  We’ve made bad political choices for a long time in Trenton and now we’re in bad fiscal shape and have a poor quality of life.  It’s not the politician’s fault, it’s the voters.

As we form Majority for a Better Trenton it’s inevitable that we’ll have to have meetings.  Please feel free to get involved with any of them.  We have three meetings coming up:

4/21 – Membership Committee Meeting

1pm @ Trenton Social.

We’ll start the organization process for building an 8500 person membership

4/21 – Policy Committee Meeting

2:20pm @ Trenton Social.

We’ll start sketch out the areas in which we want to have positions.

4/28  – General Meeting

1pm  @ Turning Point Methodist Church (15 S. Broad).

We’ll bring everyone up to speed, take membership dues  and break back into committee work