Posts Tagged ‘NJ’

TWW is NOT the Money-Maker Trentonian’s have been Led to Believe

The State of NJ has found that Trenton Water Works carries a $12M surplus but that it employs 1/3 of the staff needed to properly run the utility.   The Jackson administration’s own proposed but never passed budget for 2018 estimates a $3.15M surplus that they gleefully carry forward into the municipal budget as revenue.

So, what gives?

If you look at the proposed but not approved budget, you also find that in 2017, the city budgeted $9.3M for staff but spent only $6.3M in salaries.  Additionally, they underspent $221K on social security because they didn’t have the people for whom they budgeted.

So really, the $3.1M surplus is all because the city didn’t spend what even it thought it should on TWW.  And of course, we know how that turned out:  Brown water, pink water, low pressure, boiled water etc.

To figure out the rea situation we need to dig deeper.

The State says we have 1/3 the employees we need.  Let’s take that at face value because we really don’t have a more reliable source for needed staffing levels at this point.

In 2017 we spent $6.3M on salaries, ~$1.7M in statuary benefits expenditures (SSA, Pension, unemployment) and $1M in sick pay and vacation.  That’s a total of $9M in staffing costs.

If we need three times the workforce then we’ll spend three times the staffing costs, or $27M.

For 2018 the city proposes to budget a total of $13.5M (salary, statutory benefits + vacation/sick pay).   Therefore, if we had proper staffing levels we would need to spend $13.5M more ($27M – $13.5M = $13.5M).

That $3.1M surplus quickly turns into a $10.4M deficit.


But wait there’s more!


The FY 2018 proposed budget lists 38 projects that need to be done to make the water utility safe.  They total in value up to $98.9M.  I have no doubt that these are needed but included in the budget only after the State began to take a serious interest.   Nonetheless, this $98.9M represents a large capital exposure.

The city has $16.5M saved up towards the $98.9M, so that leaves an exposure of $82.4M.  That’s a lot of money that we don’t have.   The projects will have to be paid for with debt.   I don’t know the city’s borrowing rate, but let’s assume its 8%. If you work out the math, that comes to a debt service (interest + principal) on that $82.4M of $9.6 over the next 15 years.   That’s another $9.6M added to our deficit!

So now it’s not a $10.4M deficit, it’s a $20M deficit.

TWW isn’t a money maker for the city of Trenton.   It’s getting ready to be a big money loser.  And guess what, that means your rates are going up, a lot. Our current revenue for TWW is only $54M.   If we need to spend another $20M so our revenue will have to increase 40%.   That’s punishing.

To say we should sell the thing is a complex proposition.

The proposal on the table in 2007 was to sell off the distribution system in the suburbs for $100M.   That could have retired a lot of debt.  We’d have lost some revenue but would still be selling water to the buyer.   That was one option.

We could sell the whole thing.  Perhaps we’d get some money out of it but at least we wouldn’t be exposed to the predicted yearly deficits AND importantly we wouldn’t be exposed to the risk of things going wrong (i.e. a Flint situation).

There are lots of options to reduce our exposure to losses, bad service, contaminated water, bad management, corrupt employees and all the other things that have plagued us via TWW over the years.   But the first thing Trentonians need to put behind them is the notion that Trenton Water Works is a money maker and an asset worth having.

Running TWW well is NOT strategic for the city of Trenton.

A well-run water utility won’t attract new homeowners, it won’t improve school performance and it won’t stop crime.   Those are the activities on which our government needs to focus.

There are smart advisors who can work out a good deal for Trenton, but first voters need to at least entertain the notion that Trenton Water Works isn’t the key to Trenton’s future success.

The truth about home-ownership in Trenton

For the past 28 years, home-ownership in Trenton has been on the decline.  This isn’t me saying this, it’s the U.S. Census Bureau who tracks this statistic for all American cities.

Since 1990, home-ownership in Trenton has declined by 5,500 units or 35%.  In 1990 the housing split was 51% home owners and 49% renters.  By 2016 the split is 37% home owners and 63% renters.

This picture should scare the living daylights out of anyone who owns a home in Trenton.  It’s very possible that you may be the only one left to turn out the lights when Trenton closes.

Most people would say home-ownership is good for a city and its residents. I have no reason to dispute that.  It only makes sense that a homeowner would be more vested in the state of their home, the cleanliness of the area around them and the future of the city.

This idea is borne out by research conducted by J. Eric Oliver in his book Local Elections and the Small-Scale Democracy. Mr. Oliver found that homeowners voted in almost double the proportion than did renters.  Let me say it again, homeowners vote at double the rate of renters.  According to his statistics, 70% of homeowners will regularly vote while only 40% of renters cast a ballot.   This makes sense as the value of a homeowner’s largest investment is directly tied to the fortunes of a city.

Trenton politicians run against this trend.

None of the 2018 Trenton Mayoral candidates have established a strong position on how to make Trenton attractive for homeownership.   This, despite the overwhelming evidence that homeowners vote in big numbers.   The results shown in the above graph bear this trend out and suggest that previous candidates and Mayors have given scant attention to owner-occupied neighborhoods like Hiltonia, Hillcrest, Mill Hill and Franklin Park.  They’ve been oblivious as Chambersburg and South Trenton have become predominantly rental.Trenton has steadily become less attractive to homeowners during the Palmer, Mack and Jackson tenures.   It seems counterintuitive that this would have happened.

Mr. Oliver’s book suggests an answer to this puzzle.  His research analyzed positions taken by candidates and the factors that drive them in small cities arranged by three characteristics of the city: size, scope and bias.  Size is self-explanatory.  Trenton is on the big side of small cities (< 100,000 in population).   Scope is the range of services the city provides.  Some cities may rely on county or states to provide services.  Some outsource services.  Trenton has a large scope in that most of our services are provided directly by the City of Trenton (water, police, etc.). One notable exception in Trenton is that the school system is quasi-independent.  Bias is how uniformly resources are distributed and is probably the most important characteristic to consider for Trenton.

Bias happens when special interests or political machines can unevenly distribute resources to their own constituents.   In other words, they redistribute the winner’s spoils.  Mr. Oliver gives a New Jersey example in his book that I found illustrative.

“As an example, consider the political importance of a garbage contract for a rich township like Princeton, New Jersey, compared to its impoverished neighbor Camden. With a median family income above $125,000 a year and an average home value of over $1 million, it is highly unlikely that many of Princeton’s 16,000 residents work for garbage companies (although they may own one). When the township hires a garbage company, it is probably importing all its labor and services. On the other hand, a garbage contract for an impoverished place like Camden (with an unemployment rate well over 30 percent) means dozens of good jobs for its residents. When Camden hires a garbage company, its leaders will thus be under considerable political pressure to hire Camden residents and to employ a locally operated firm. Camden officials who decide the garbage contract will, in turn, probably expect continued support from the company and its workers. The garbage contract, simply by virtue of Camden’s poverty, will be a major source of political contestation whereas in Princeton it is simply a contract to be filled.”

Oliver, J. Eric. Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy (Kindle Locations 661-669). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Does that sound familiar?  It should.  You can’t talk about a project in Trenton where someone with an interest in city employment won’t make that argument.  Our Mayor and City Council generally consider whether a contractor will employ city residents and therefore de-prioritize the importance of cost and service.  When they do this, they de-prioritize the interests of home owning taxpayers.

Size matters because voters in a larger city like Trenton are more disengaged than in a smaller city like Hopewell as voters are less personally connected to office seekers, according to Mr. Oliver. Scope matters because a larger city has a lot of money to throw around.  But bias is also a factor as it provides the reason why homeowners can be left out of the political calculus.  In Trenton, homeowners are ignored because a Mayor and City Council can become beholden to special interests (city service providers, affordable housing developers, and labor unions, etc.)) that feed off of bias in our city government. The problem is made bigger by our large scope and is enabled by the relative size of the city and disengagement of its voters.

Is there a way out for Trenton?

Yes.  Let me explain.

If you’re a homeowner in Trenton, then you must know that we are more Camden than Princeton in that special interests not aligned with your own are hard at work.   While all you really want are low property taxes and a high level of city services, including water, police, schools and public works, others don’t share your concern.   It’s natural.

However, even though the ranks of homeownership in Trenton have been decimated, they still vote in higher proportions than renters.  Voting still matters though candidates can and do certainly still lie to us about their vested interests (i.e. who’s funding them now and in the future).

For a candidate to be believable as a pro-homeowner candidate then their platform, fundraising and speeches need to put homeownership front and center. Making Trenton attractive for residential investment must be their only “focus”.   They must stand out as the “homeowner” candidate.

This means trimming non-essential services that don’t directly benefit homeowners.  It means investing more in making it easier to develop and improve property. It means increased school choice. It means more responsive police and public works departments.  It means new economic development. And, most of all, it means that there is a plan for the tax rate to eventually go down.  Trenton’s tax rate is the highest in Mercer County and as high as a mortgage rate.

This is hardcore stuff, but Trenton is in decline and has been for some time.  We are losing population.  Our per household income is losing ground vs. the rest of the state.  And obviously homeowners are leaving.

Voters will have to understand that they have a very real threat  if we continue to elect politicians who can’t or won’t address the issues of homeowners, they will likely never recoup the investment in their houses and  the situation will only get worse.  Taxes will continue to rise as property values decline or stay stagnant.   Services will continue to deteriorate until we hit rock bottom and look even more like Camden or Detroit.
It’s hard to say whether our decline is already too severe to recover from without an existential catastrophe like Detroit’s bankruptcy or Camden’s worst in the nation murder rate.  However, not trying to elect leadership with a real focus on reversing the homeownership trend just isn’t an option.

Operating a city without a budget is irresponsible

Usually when families don’t have a lot of money, they get very good at budgeting.  It helps to plan spending so you don’t get surprised later in the month or year.

Organizations budget for that reason, but also to make sure they’ve allocated funding to important initiatives that advance the goals of the organization.   The budget is a central planning document that gets everyone in the organization aligned.   This true for companies, schools, non-profits and most governments.

This should not be news to anyone in America.  Every literate America knows that organizations must have budgets.

And yet, the City of Trenton operates without a one and has done so for years.  It should be no mystery then that we have a sense of aimlessness in our effort to revitalize.

“What?”, you ask, “Trenton does have a budget, the Mayor submits one to Council every year”.

Fellow citizens, that is a charade.  Last year’s budget for fiscal year 2017 (that’s July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017) was not approved by City Council until April 2017.   That’s 9 months into the fiscal year.  For 9 months, we had no budget.

The City Business Administrator is planning to draft a budget for 2018  in October.   That’s four months after the 2018 fiscal year has started.  It will be months before City Council approves it.   Who does that?

It’s not just bad business its in violation of our own City Code.  Our city code is clear: violation of it.

§ 2-78 Budget preparation.

A.  The budget shall be prepared by the Mayor with the assistance of the Business Administrator. During the month of November, the Mayor shall require all department heads to submit requests for appropriations for the ensuing budget year and to appear before the Mayor or the Business Administrator at public hearings which shall be held during that month on the various requests. On or before the 15th day of January, the Mayor shall submit to Council his/her recommended budget together with such explanatory comment or statement as (s)he may deem desirable.

B.  The Business Administrator, with the assistance of the Director of Finance, shall prepare all estimates of non-property tax revenues anticipated for the support of each annual budget.

The City Code, our law, says that the Mayor must submit a budget to Council by January 15 for the ensuing year.  The ensuing year begins July 1.

This timing makes sense.  It gives the Council and the public time to react and for the administration to make changes.

I’ve heard every excuse there is from our city leaders.   The most common one is “we don’t know what the state will give us.”   Do you suspect that any company in America knows its revenues for the upcoming year?  Of course not.  They must estimate.  If things go wrong, they adjust.   But no one wades into a fiscal year without a plan.  No one.

Unless you’re a city government like Trenton.  OR Minneapolis, which also didn’t submit a timely budget and is now being sued by its tax collector.  Is that what it’s going to take in Trenton? Are we going to have to sue ourselves to force our government to act responsibly?

We realistically can’t fix the 2018 fiscal year.  It will be as bad as all the previous Jackson years (though hopefully we won’t have another $5,000,000 stolen).   However, we can avoid re-electing the perpetrators of this debacle.  That includes the current Mayor and any sitting or past council member.   They are all complicit in the mismanagement of our city and our money.

I have written many times about the budget process in Trenton and its many failing and opportunities.  It’s a source of frustration for me that even after collaborating with some of Trenton’s most knowledgeable citizens to recommend improvements, our city leaders have roundly ignored us.  All we  want is well-run, transparent government that plans for improvement.

Here are a few of the previous Reinvent Trenton Articles on our Budget:

Trenton is adrift because it operates without a budget

Trentonians favor fewer services and lower taxes

Trenton’s Budget won’t fix itself

Trenton’s 2017 Report Card

Governor Christie is trying to throw a lot of money at Trenton.  Notably he wants to build an $18M pedestrian bridge from the Capitol building to the Delaware River.  This report highlights the city’s progress (or lack thereof) in 5 basic measurements.   One has to ask whether that kind of investment will move the needle in improving any of these important measures.

It’s not enough, to say we did something, or are working on something or want something to happen.  Rather, the results are what matter.

All five of the following are “lagging” indicators, meaning they represent the past, but they are objective and widely used measurements collected in a consistent way across the state and nation.   There’s no hand-waving with these numbers.

  • Crime levels as measured by the Uniform Crime Report
  • Population growth as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau (in the case of Trenton, every year)
  • Graduation rate as measured by the NJ Department of Education
  • Median Household Income as measured by the U.S. Census, and
  • Economic success as measured by our Tax Base

Crime is up and so were murders

The 2016 Uniform Crime Report represents last year’s crime

  • Uniform Crime Reports for 2016 are 3313
  • This is an increase from 2015 of 8.7%
  • Murders were up from 17 in 2015 to 21 in 2016

Holding the rate steady would give the City a C, but since the both the murder rate and crime index increased I’m giving it a D.

Source: NJ State Police

Trenton is losing population

Trenton’s 2016 census estimate is 84,056 residents.  This is a 1% decrease from 2010’s population of 84,913.

You can’t revitalize a city by losing population.  It implies that our economy is shrinking, we’re not a desirable place to live and that our property values are going down.   New Jersey as a whole is gaining population at a 1.7% rate.

For continuing to lose population in growing state for the 4th year in a row (since I’ve been tracking), Trenton gets an F.

Source: US Census Bureau

Graduation rates have declined

The Trenton school district’s 2016 graduation rate was 66.55%.  This is a slide backwards over 2015’s rate of 68.63% which had been a big improvement over the year before.

Just about 2/3 of Trenton kids are graduating now.  But still 1/3 don’t graduate high school which is appalling and continues to explain the high level of lawlessness in the city.

The State of NJ is spending a fortune on a new school but I’ll guess it won’t fix our problems.   We also have a new superintendent but Trenton is a bit of a revolving door in that regard.     One of these days Trentonians will do the right thing and lobby for school choice, county-wide integration or both.

Because we slid backwards, Trenton gets an D.

Source:  NJ Dept. of Education

Incomes in Trenton are down yet again

Median Household Incomes in Trenton are down again to $34.257 (2015 numbers) from $35,647 (2014).  These are the latest numbers we have but represent a disturbing trend in Trenton.  Not only are we losing people, but evidently, we’re losing higher income people.    Furthermore, 28% of people in Trenton live in poverty.

New Jersey’s median household income is more than double Trenton’s at $72,093.

For having shrinking incomes, a 4th year in a row in a wealthy state, Trenton gets an F.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tax Base is up a bit

Trenton doesn’t maintain a current publicly available tax list,  so I’ve to use the Dept. of Community Affairs web site.  It gives our tax base as $2,022,437,610 (just over$2B) for 2016.  This is up  from the $1,996,653,658 I reported last year.   The number includes properties with abatements and PILOTs so I think its likely indicative.

It’s tough to say whether this inconsistent reporting is really indicative of $22M in new investment.   However, I do know that $2B is enough of a tax base to support the city and we need something like four times the tax base to pay for our municipal and school budgets.   We have a long way to go and not too many projects in the pipeline.

As a comparison, Hamilton’s tax base is over $5B and tiny Princeton’s is over $6B.

For a tax base that at least isn’t shrinking but will nonetheless lead to higher taxes I give Trenton an D.

Source: Department of Community Affairs

Is the city turning around?  Not yet!

  • The numbers are about the same as last year
  • If you believe numbers don’t lie then we’re not really improving

If a Mayor and City Council really were interested in progress they would highlight these 5 numbers in every meeting, every State of the City and with the State.    Every dollar spent would be to improve the numbers year over year.   Instead, for the 17th year in a row (since I’ve lived in Trenton) all I get from our government is hand waving.

Link to the 2016 Report Card

Link to the 2015 Report Card

Link to the 2014 Report Card

How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies

I really dislike those books.  The titles are demeaning to people who just want to learn something at a basic level.   But who am I to say; it’s a wildly popular series.   I suppose the title has a little empathy for the person who wants to learn “How to use a computer”, “How to Garden” or “How to do Arithmetic”.
So here I am in year 17 of the Trenton Revitalization Doug Palmer told me was underway.   It’s not! Trenton has steadily slid backwards (based on objective metrics).

And yet the State of NJ, Mercer County and occasionally the Feds continue to throw millions and millions of dollars at Trenton.   We got a hotel, a ballpark, an arena, a Rt 29 conversion, a Light Rail, a Train Station redo, a nursing school, a new Housing Project or two and what do we have to show for it?   Nothing!  We’re still losing population; our tax base and per capita income are still losing ground against the rest of the State.

So maybe we do need some condescending help with the problem.   Maybe the Mayor and Governor need a copy of “How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies”.

Over the years I’ve likely written enough essays to fill the book but perhaps I need a good outline.  Outlines help keep books simple and suitable for “Dummies”.    The book would have only four chapters and plenty of pictures and examples.  What it wouldn’t have are chapters on how to spend vast sums of taxpayer money on public venues that don’t impact the local economy.   An $18M bridge from the State Capitol into the Delaware River is a distraction just like the Ballpark and Arena were.

Chapter 1 -  CLEAN and NEAT

This chapter will cover:

Chapter 2 – It’s the Tax Base Dummy

In this chapter, we’ll cover some basic economics and math like:

Chapter 3 – Transparency and Accountability

In this chapter, we’ll cover basic public relations technique like:

  • Using the Internet as a communications tool
  • Getting voters bought into your plan, assuming you have one
  • Robo-calling, “Less is More”
  • Answering citizen concerns
  • Modern technology and how “trouble tickets” help organize citizen complaints
  • The connection between budgets, spending and priorities

Chapter 4 – Making Trenton a Living Hell for Criminals

This self-help chapter will cover:

  • Responding to citizens before it’s too late
  • Leveraging private surveillance
  • The Economics of Crime
  • Criminal databases for everybody

Linking the un-linkable in Trenton

What does a $130M loft complex in Chambersburg section of Trenton, an $18.3M pedestrian bridge, a $135M proposal to build two new single purpose state owned office buildings at the edge of downtown, a state funded $13M plan to tear down empty houses throughout the city, a $2.3M plan to add features to Cadwalader Park in western Trenton, a $180M high school and a $300M plan to refurbish the New Jersey State Capitol building have in common?

The answer is, NOTHING.

Together these projects total in value $778M.   That’s a lot of money.   Only one of these include private money (Roebling Lofts) and even it benefits from substantial State subsidies.

We have to assume that State of New Jersey doesn’t have the citizens of Trenton’s best interest at heart.   But that doesn’t mean the City of Trenton should let all of this public money be wasted.

We have a very large private project nearing completion of its first phase at the old Roebling complex.  Let’s start with that.   Which of the public State and City projects directly support its success.  If the answer is none, let me suggest that our leaders start over in their thinking.

Trenton’s 2016 Report Card

Mayor Jackson gave his state of the city address last night.  He highlighted quite a few things the city is doing and congratulated his staff on their hard work.   What he did NOT do, nor has any Mayor of Trenton in the last 15 years done, is to give numbers that back up successful results.

Several years ago, the Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee which I led, agreed on 5 basic measures of goodness for a city.  Since then I have been reporting on these indicators as an objective way to gauge our progress in Trenton.  It’s not enough, to say we did something, or are working on something or want something to happen.  Rather, the results are what matter.

All five of the following are “lagging” indicators, meaning they represent the past, but they are objective and widely used measurements collected in a consistent way across the state and nation.   There’s no hand-waving with these numbers.

  • Crime levels as measured by the Uniform Crime Report
  • Population growth as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau (in the case of Trenton, every year)
  • Graduation rate as measured by the NJ Department of Education
  • Median Household Income as measured by the U.S. Census, and
  • Economic success as measured by our Tax Base

Crime is slightly up but murders were down

The 2015Uniform Crime Report represents 18 months of Mayor Jackson’s tenure.

  • Uniform Crime Reports for 2015 are 3048
  • This is an increase from 2014 of 3%
  • Murders were down from 32 in 2014 to 17 in 2015

Holding the rate steady would give the City a C, but since the murder rate declined so drastically I’m giving it a B.

Source: NJ State Police

Trenton is losing population

Trenton’s 2015 census estimate is 84,225 residents.  This is a slight decline of from 2012’s estimate of 84,349.

Losing population is a crippling situation to be in.  It implies that our economy is shrinking, we’re not a desirable place to live and that our property values are going down.   Since 2010 Trenton’s population has decreased -.8% while New Jersey’s has increased 1.9%.   In a growing state, Trenton is shrinking.

For continuing to lose population in growing state, Trenton gets a D.

Source: US Census Bureau

Graduation rates have improved

The Trenton school district’s 2015 graduation rate was 68.63%.  This is an improvement over 2014’s dismal graduation rate of 52.95%

Just about 2/3 of Trenton kids are graduating now.  That sounds better but still 1/3 don’t graduate high school which is appalling and continues to explain the high level of lawlessness in the city.

It can be argued that fixing the schools isn’t a prerequisite for revitalizing the city.  The easiest target market for new residents is the millions of people without kids.  However, failing schools don’t help.

For a big jump in graduation rates though, Trenton gets an A.

Source:  NJ Dept. of Education

Incomes in Trenton are down again

Median Household Incomes in Trenton are down again to $35,647 (2014 numbers) from $36,662 (2013).  These are the latest numbers we have but represent a disturbing trend in Trenton.  Not only are we losing people, but evidently we’re losing higher income people.  This is disastrous for an economy that is largely based on retail spending.  Furthermore, 28% of people in Trenton live in poverty.

New Jersey’s median household income is more than double Trenton’s at $72,062.

For having shrinking incomes, a 3rd year in a row in a wealthy state, Trenton gets an F.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tax Base is down

Trenton gets an “incomplete” on this grade as it no longer bothers to publish its tax base information on the city web site.  The version published there is almost 2 years old.   So I went digging for another source and found our tax base (for 2015) published on the Dept. of Community Affairs web site.  It gives our tax base as $1,996,653,658 (just under $2B).  This would be down from the $ 2,036,287,800 I reported last year based on the January 1, 2015 City Tax list.

As we can see the numbers are inconsistent, but since they’re all that are available, I surmise that our tax base has in fact shrunk.   To fix Trenton’s budget we need to be adding roughly $100M a year in taxable properties instead we lost $40M in value.

As a comparison, Hamilton’s tax base is over $5B and tiny Princeton’s is over $6B.

For a shrinking tax base that will lead to higher taxes I give Trenton an F.

Source: Department of Community Affairs

Is the city turning around?  Nope!

  • We’re in pretty much the same situation we were in last year
  • There are some development projects but they aren’t paying taxes yet
  • People are still moving away.

That’s not progress.

Link to the 2015 Report Card

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

How Pork makes Trenton Roll

Trenton isn’t doing so well and it hasn’t for a long time.   Economic activist like me have tried in vain to recommend sound fiscal policy that would “right the ship”, but no one’s listening.   Why not?

Well, to understand why, voters have to look within themselves.

How would you feel about a politician who only talked about tax policy and zero based budgeting?  Boring right?   Well, what about a politician who stood in front of a podium and talked about how the city funded a park clean-up, or a books for kids program, or Meals on Wheels.

Why you’d think that person was pretty nice.   And so it goes.   Trenton political policy over the years has been all about handing out turkey’s at Christmas,  funding block parties, giving city land to non-profits and doling out other people’s money to this charity or that (depending on who’s in favor).   The Pork Roll festival doesn’t happen once a year, it’s an everyday event in Trenton.

Trenton and most other poor cities are awash in this kind of money.  It comes from grants including Community Development Block Grants and private money.  Sometimes it comes straight from our tax dollars and the money the state gives us.  But none of it has anything to do with fixing our economy.  And, fixing Trenton’s economy is the only thing that matters.   Spending every single dollar including the dollars we allocate to managing CDBG funds should go to reducing our crime rate and stimulating new investment.

Every second our elected and non-elected politicos spend on spreading the pork around, is time wasted.

So look inside yourself.  Do you want our political class making you feel warm and fuzzy or do want crime to go down, our tax base to go up and then hopefully, our tax rate to go down?

We need to all get a little cranky about how Trenton, the State and the Federal government spend our money.   As Trentonians we need to tell the State and Federal government what we really need, not what will make a local charity and its supporters feel good.

We need to focus like a laser beam on boring ole economic policy.  We need to run basic services better than any other city in the nation.  We need to have the most aggressive approach to crime prevention ever imagined.

If you hear a politician talk about anything else, they’re blowing smoke up your butt.

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.