Posts Tagged ‘NJ’

Trenton’s budget is in worse shape than you think

This article was originally published in the August 2008 edition of the Trenton Downtowner – D. Dodson

Trentonians pay for only 14% of the cost of running the city. If our external funders get tired of it, we’re in big trouble.

It isn’t clear how a city goes bankrupt. Technically bankruptcy occurs when an entity can’t pay its debt obligations. But a city can raise taxes and cut city services to the bone well before bankruptcy. In this case, the city simply ceases to be livable (e.g. Camden) Read the rest of this entry »

Embrace bad data, don’t shoot the messenger

Since 2006, Trenton has been included in the new American Communities Survey (ACS) which updates important census data yearly rather than every 10 years. The ACS is a boon for economist and policy planners as it provides neutral and consistent data about cities in America.

One of the most important things an organization can do to improve its operations is to measure its success. Yet, measuring city population and income would be prohibitively expensive for any local government, not to mention inherently inconsistent with other localities. Therefore, it is fortunate that the Federal government fills this role for us.

Yet the first words about Trenton’s most recent ACS Census results from Mayor Palmer were to call the results incorrect. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s time to start over on Trenton’s Public Library

Sometimes suggesting new ideas is unpopular. I’m sure this will be one of those times.

Things change. Ben Franklin’s Free Library looked nothing like the ancient Greek library. Nor should today’s version look anything like the Carnegie funded book temples of the last century.

Libraries have a noble tradition dating to a time when books held a much more sacred place in society than they do today. During the golden age of libraries, in the 1700s, books were relatively expensive. Today, most people can afford to buy as many books as they want and do. Also, the Internet has replaced much of a library’s utility as a research institution. Read the rest of this entry »

Eminent Domain needs citizen approval

ReinventTrenton.com and the Trenton Downtowner are sponsoring a quick poll to gauge public opinion on eminent domain. This is the first chance Trentonians have had to make their voice heard on this subject.

Vote on Eminent Domain

You can vote at: trentonspace.com

I’ve said many times that the use of eminent domain is a matter of principle. While I consider forcing a property owner to sell a producing property to be unprincipled, I may very well be in the minority.

The Supreme Court has found state law governing eminent domain to be constitutional but in no way does that make it right. For instance, abortion is constitutional, but many people think it’s wrong. Drilling for offshore oil could become legal but plenty of people take a principled view that its wrong as well. On both the left and right we can have principled opinions that differ with the law. This is why we vote and enact laws, otherwise the judiciary makes rules for us.

Citizens need to vote on eminent domain either directly or through their representatives. Some towns may chose to allow their government to force sales of property to developers while others may decide to more tightly restrict government power. Trenton’s citizens must make a conscious decision on the relationship between property rights and government power.

Our city council could enact an ordinance banning or limiting the practice. Or they could choose not to. Either way the people should be heard and council should actively reflect the opinion of Trentonians, not the Supreme Court or developers.

Budgeting to fix Trenton’s budget

Propose your own strategic 2012 Trenton Budget

Ask any businessman and they will tell you that budgeting is one of the hardest parts of running a company. Budgets force the organization to choose between activities that increase revenue, make customers happy and reduce costs. Spend too much money reducing costs and your revenue could dry up. Spend too much chasing new revenue and existing customers get fed up and leave.

There’s no reason to think cities should work much differently. The biggest difference is the customers (citizens) are a good bit more vested because their largest investment is their home.

The budget is the city’s main policy document

Read the rest of this entry »

A Trenton-friendly Property Tax Reform Proposal

There are plenty of influences on our country’s economic development including geography, natural resources and luck. However, government policy plays a powerful but sometimes unseen role.

Over the years government policies have contributed mightily to the American landscape

  • The FHA loan program funded the suburban dream
  • School desegregation gave rise to white flight
  • Interstates made commuting possible
  • Rural Electrification made far flung settlements possible
  • Federal Housing projects enforced government ghettos

However one of the most powerful but least understood policies affecting cities and suburbs is the property tax structure.

A couple of illustrative examples make the point.

  • In Barbados, if you don’t paint your house it’s considered under construction and is taxed at a lower value. Therefore there were plenty of unpainted houses in the country.
  • In Philadelphia, houses were taxed by their width; therefore you see a lot of old narrow houses in Philly.

Today, most property taxes are based on the assessed value of a building. This is a progressive tax meant to more heavily tax the wealthy. However, by tying taxes to property value there is a built-in incentive to avoid property improvements. Therefore neighborhoods don’t improve like they might otherwise.

This is bad for both the payer and the collector. It’s expensive to continuously re-assess property values. In fact, it’s so painful, that Trenton rarely does it, making our revenue problem even worse.

Trenton’s property tax rate really hurts

Read the rest of this entry »

Capital Park isn’t revitalizaiton and that’s fantastic

If you’re paying attention to this blog, you’ll know that yesterday wrote an article about the best way to spend government revitalization dollars. Many projects are pitched as revitalization but if they don’t have even the punch of my little hypothetical test project then they shouldn’t be called revitalization.

To be honest, I hurried up to get this test written in advance of a review of of Capital Park Master Plan.

Happily the Capital Park plan does not claim to be revitalization but instead is just a very nice state park.

Having not yet read the Master Plan, I expected to read all sorts of claims about how the park was key to Trenton’s economic development. As it turns out, the opposite is true.

Capital Park - theater

There are next to no claims about revitalization.

Read the rest of this entry »

Modeling Trenton Dynamics: A scientific approach to revitalization

Trenton is far from average

Trenton’s median income is in the bottom 9% of communities in New Jersey. Our schools are in the bottom 2% and our crime is in the bottom 1%. Real median income (adjusted for inflation) in Trenton actually declined 6.7% during the ‘90s while New Jersey’s median income rose 4%.

Because our income level and resulting tax base is so low we receive subsidies from the rest of the state most notably Abbott funding. To be a sustainable community we need to pay our own way which means our income must be in the 50th percentile, roughly that of Hamilton.

One can argue though that an urban city in New Jersey with “average” income would be a great place to live.

Making revitalization decisions isn’t easy

Trenton has been trying to revitalize for many years but with little success, therefore its time to realize that if revitalization were easy everybody could do it. Read the rest of this entry »