Posts Tagged ‘City Council’

Trenton’s 15% raise for the City’s top brass is a bad idea

Let’s imagine the City of Trenton was managed like a company.   Many have pondered this notion including a few of our Council members.

Of course no one really thinks cities and companies are the same thing.   I certainly don’t.  But I do know that a few basic business principles apply to any organization.

At the top of the list of basic tools is “managing by objective (MBO)”.

Managing by objective is when you give your employees targets to hit and compensate them with a bonus or raise for reaching or exceeding them.    Sounds pretty basic doesn’t it.  Many, if not most management level employees in this country work under some form of MBO plan.

Not in Trenton city government.

We not only do not have objectives; our administration has proposed a 15% raise for the city’s top brass in the face of management failure after failure.  Some of the most egregious of those are listed below.

  • Trenton’s tax base has been stagnant and our tax rate has gone up not down.
  • Was asleep at the wheel while payroll taxes were stolen – ~$5M hit to the budget.
  • Operated without an approved budget for both of its fiscal years.
  • Hired an incompetent IT firm.
  • Messed up the swimming pool contract and wasted money to hire a new contractor.
  • Stole a Christmas Tree from a city park.
  • Set a new record in spending on lawsuits
  • Oversaw a downgrade of the city’s credit rating.
  • Epically failed to plow the streets during our one snow storm in 2016.

The Business Administrator made the pitch for his and the Mayor’s raise by suggesting that it would otherwise be tough to attract talent.   City Council is being asked to consider ONLY this pay hike as a solution.

But consider the argument.

Our Mayor spent $100s of thousands of dollars to get the job he’s got and he knew the salary going in.    All of the employees knew their salaries.  It’s as if a salary pay hike were the only possible improvement the administration could think of to make Trenton a great place to work.

I can think of plenty of ways to make working in Trenton City government attractive.

How about setting objectives for the city and its departments?

People love having clear goals in their job.   Great companies are great because their employees are fixated on common measures of success.  For instance, should top city execs be working towards objectives for increasing our tax base, lowering crime rate, increasing the population, improving our per capita income, increasing the graduation rate and lowering taxes?

What if we gave bonuses tied to meeting or exceeding those objectives?

If I’m an aspiring economic development director, I’d love a chance to put my plans in to place and profiting from my effort.   I’m sure most citizens wouldn’t mind at all if a Department Head made a big bonus based on our property tax rate going down.

What if we got rid of our residency requirement?

It’s just common sense that a high performing local employee from a neighboring city would be wary of uprooting her family to move from East Windsor or Princeton just to take a job 7 miles away in Trenton.  What company forces their employees to move 7 miles in order to take a job?

What if we improved working conditions?

This is a broad category but do we really think Trenton is the best organization on the planet to work for?   Does it provide a transparent management environment?   Are goals clearly communicated?   Do customers (i.e. citizens) respect the organization?   Do we provide employees modern tools like E-Government?  Do departments have ways of measuring success, for instance citizen satisfaction?

Handing out raises beyond the 1-2% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is just throwing money away.   We need to be smarter than that.   Trenton does need to attract top performers, but they need to be the kind of people that are OK with tying rewards to success.

What can you do?

Trenton’s leaders are immune to this kind of thinking as is evidenced by City Council’s positive vote on an ordinance to grant the administration’s salary increase request.   Every member of the pubic that spoke at the meeting was against it, yet our Council voted for it anyway.

A group of petitioners has set in motion an effort to overturn the measure should it succeed on its second reading in two weeks on September 15 (all ordinances in Trenton need two successful votes).    The petitioners are asking citizens to sign an e-petition in advance of the vote to provide an indication to Council on the likelihood of a petition fight.  If the ordinance passes, the petitioners will have 20 days to collect just over 800 signatures.  The e-petition will make that task easier.

Link to Petition to oppose Trenton’s 15% salary increase for top management

We can change the government if it’s not working for us

Trenton “peaked” decades ago.   My cursory research into the city’s history points to a high point either the late 1920s when the city’s population was around 140,000 or perhaps in the 1950s when much of America was enjoying a post war boom.   However, since then broad, and well known economic and social forces have conspired to challenge industrial cities like Trenton.

Some cities have responded to the challenge and have reinvented themselves.   We know about Savannah, Pittsburgh and to some extent Cleveland and Cincinnati.   Cities in the South like Winston-Salem and Richmond managed their way through the change.   It can be done.   Trenton didn’t do it.

Instead of revitalizing, Trenton has sunk to lows unimaginable in America’s new suburban townships.   We’ve squandered millions of dollars on publicly owned hotels and parking garages.   A Mayor has been sent to a Federal penitentiary.  Our graduation has sunk to below 50%.  Below 50%!   Our murder rate has flirted with being the highest in the nation.  We’ve had almost $5,000,0000 stolen from right under our noses.  Our water has been unsafe.  Our taxes are the highest in New Jersey.  We’ve lost population.   Over half of the land in the city is tax exempt.   We’ve closed our libraries.   Our City Council has failed to provide oversight and occasionally Council meetings turn in to fist fights.  The list goes on.

However, the people of Trenton are not helpless.  We can take control of this problem and provide the ultimate fix.

We can tear down our form of government and start over!

In 1962 Trenton did just that.  The Trenton Council at the time formed a citizen’s commission to study the problem of whether the current form of government was appropriate for the times.  That group took a year and developed a very considered opinion that “no, it wasn’t”.  They therefore recommended that the City adopt the now familiar, Strong Mayor form of government as outlined under the Faulkner Act of the State of New Jersey.   The Faulkner Act spells out several different forms of government including a strong Mayor, a weak Mayor and a City Manager approach.  So no, we’re not locked in to what we have now which spells out 7 council member (4 of them At Large), a Mayor and a Business Administrator.   We can decide that this isn’t working for us.   The evidence (population decline, tax base decline, income decline relative to the State, graduation rate decline and high crime rates) would suggest that it hasn’t “worked” for some time.

Link to 1962 Commission Report

Link to 1962 Ordinance Forming our new Government

One of three things can happen:

1)      The Trenton City Council can take action to form a citizen’s commission to look in to the matter and if needed propose a change.  The change, if recommended would be voted on in a city referendum.  This process would take about a year.

2)      Citizens can form a committee on their own to force the creation of the citizen’s commission.  This action would be similar in scope to Trenton’s recent recall ballot measure, our Pay to Play ballot initiative and smaller ballot measures to simply stagger terms in office for City Council

3)      We can do nothing and hope for the best

The most interesting of the several options under the Faulkner Act is the Council – Manager form of government.  This would allow our elected City Council to hire a professional manager. Typically, this is used in smaller cities where the local talent pool isn’t likely to produce a professional city administrator.   The upside is that we can give this “employee” goals, they can be selected from a national pool of candidates with resumes and the Manager can be fired if they aren’t doing a good job.  The downside is that, much like a school superintendent, the positions is very political and the manager serves at the whim of City Council.

It’s worth thinking about.   Much has changed in Trenton since 1962.  We’ve gone downhill.  Our city’s population has radically changed, the industrial economy has collapsed and the Internet economy has been established.   Not much has changed in Trenton’s government.

Activist like myself and Kevin Moriarty have talked openly about mounting such an effort.  Others have voiced support.  But like the recall, it’s a big effort, especially if our City Council stands in the way of at least considering a change.   We assume they and the current administration will resist even thinking about it.   But that shouldn’t stop the long suffering citizens of Trenton.

Voice your support for the idea of considering a change to our form of government.   Let us know.  From where I sit, it’s much easier to lead if you know you have support.  Better yet, let our City Council know that you want to consider a Faulkner Act change.   A Council action to form the commission will immeasurably simplify the effort by avoiding a costly public referendum.

City’s Housing Director should be fired

I’ve been patient both on this blog, on Facebook, in private emails and in person trying to explain how low income housing projects can’t generate enough tax revenue to offset the cost of supporting the residents.  I’ve gone on to explain what level of market rate development Trenton needs to achieve self-sufficiency.  I’ve made specific recommendations.  I’ve even started a citizen’s budget group to work with the Mayor and City Council on the budget and revitalization. Read the rest of this entry »

Big suggestions for Fixing Trenton

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

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

It’s Not My Fault – Leadership in Trenton

The theme for last night’s City Council Special Session on the budget was, “The mess we’re in isn’t my fault”.

The administration officially proposed a budget that raises property taxes by almost 20% which would make Trenton’s rate by far the highest in NJ.

The Mayor spoke first.  Let me summarize. Read the rest of this entry »