Posts Tagged ‘NJ’

A Plan for Addressing Vacant / Abandoned Properties in Trenton

The fundamental reason Trenton has abandoned / vacant properties in Trenton is that it costs more to rehab a property than it would be worth once completed.   We can help developers and potential homeowners by lowering their financial cost, establishing a more fluid market for vacant / abandoned properties and creating a marketing message that includes more people who might be interested in living in Trenton.

I estimate the number of abandoned / vacant properties to be over 3,300.

In general Trenton will have to attack the problem of revitalization of abandoned / vacant properties one neighborhood at a time starting with downtown.   We don’t have the resources, yet, to address the entire city at once.

Our efforts will address both city owned and privately owned abandoned, vacant and underused properties.   For city owned property our goal will be to get them on the tax rolls, not make money from selling them.

1) Lower the cost of revitalization

Enhance our tax and subsidy package for redevelopment

  • A standardized Revenue PILOT for large projects reduces risk for developers and provides transparency for all taxpayers into how the city works with large developers
  • A graduated abatement on improvements of up to 15 years.  This includes the existing 5 year abatement plus a new abatement in redevelopment areas as per NJ law
  • We will add an additional subsidy on improvements in the downtown district

Reduce risk for redevelopers by

  • Improving the public safety situation while development is going on
  • Increasing code enforcement on adjacent buildings in focus areas

Launch Homesteading in a few neighborhoods

  • Properties will be sold to homeowners for $1
  • Abatement Programs will apply
  • Buyers will be matched with local contractors and architects where needed
  • Neighborhoods will apply to participate and will be required to show support

Demolition: where a buyer wants it and our professionals agree it’s appropriate, we will sell a property to a developer, cleared.

2) Establish a more fluid market.

Use the NJ Abandoned Properties Act in Trenton for the first time.  It’s been used now in Jersey City

Track all vacant properties with help from

  • Efforts from non-profits like Isles, TCCA
  • Expanded responsibilities in our economic development and inspections department to track and identify vacant properties (our proposed budget will include funding for this)
  • Making a city-wide ticketing system available that allows residents to report abandoned properties

Outside Legal help on Closings to speed up a process that has been woefully slow and disorganized

4 hour inspections appointments instead of the current practice of allowing 22 days to review simple plans

3) Create demand by

Establishing a public / private marketing entity “Trenton Sells” co-founded with realtors and developers. This group will be the conduit for our marketing efforts.  It will:

  • Publish a web site and newsletter
  • Target Millennials along the Northeast corridor
  • Publish our vacant property inventory on the web site
  • Hold regular Open houses for the city

Matching up homebuyers with architects and contractors.   We can make renovation easier for buyers buy helping them find local development help that knows how to work in Trenton

Developing a neighborhood level branding plan. Neighborhoods will have the opportunity to sell their neighborhoods by establishing the right message. Hopefully the Master Plan includes this work

Pitching to New Urbanist Developers. There are developers who specialize in building urban neighborhoods.  They are part of a large and growing national trend.  A revitalization-minded Economic Development department will seek out these developers and invite them to Trenton.

Key Reorganization tactics

Reorganize inspections under the Economic Development Department. This will focus inspections on the job of meeting our goals

Set measurable goals that require us to put property back on the tax roles

  • Increase our ratables by 10%
  • Increase our population to 90,000
  • Track our progress on reducing abandoned properties

State regulatory Asks

The job of a Mayor is to make sure the State is working for us, not against us.  A Trenton Mayor should work with our legislative team and urban Mayors across the state to enact pro-redevelopment legislation.

Land Banks: Potential enhancements to our ability to use Land Banks beyond what is currently in the Abandoned Properties Act.  We want to provide mechanisms engage for-profit firms to help and to make sure our laws help us deal with quiet deeds and that they don’t prefer subsidized housing.

Land Value Tax: A two tier tax system can be used to make it harder to hold on to vacant land and profitable to develop it.  Land Value Tax legislation would provide a cleaner mechanism to encourage redevelopment than tax abatements as it would be available to all property owners.

Urban Income Tax Zone: Push to have Trenton become a test city for an urban income tax zone.  The maximum income tax bracket in Trenton would be set at 2% instead of 5% making it very attractive for higher income New Jerseyeans to move to Trenton.

THE WORST MAYOR IN THE HISTORY OF BAD MAYORS

No clever new policy idea today.  Because what would it matter?  Trenton is governed, at least legally, by the worst Mayor ever.   I’m mad.   All Trentonians should be mad.  Our City Council members should be furious, except for the worthless three who’ve propped up the Convicted Occupant of the Mayor’s Office, Tony Mack.

I’m so mad that I think of storming City Hall often. I imagine thousands of angry citizens with torches and pitchforks, busting through security up to the Mayor’s office and knocking down the door. I think of riot police with tear-gas being forced into duty.

I envision CNN, ABC and the BBC covering the riot with choppers and camera crews.

Then, after days of international media coverage, the Attorney General refers the matter to the State Supreme Court. Out of fear of more public backlash, the court rules on the matter and sends Tony Mack to the deepest pit of prison hell, takes away pensions and for good measure re-writes our statutes concerning succession. Out of fear for their political futures (and a bit for their physical well-being) the legislature pass it in a week so this travesty never happens again.

You’ll excuse the vitriol.   It’s been 3 ½ years of suffering this fool and I’m tired and angry.

A Downtown Investment Program for Trenton

Many things have led to Trenton’s economic problem but they aren’t unique to post-industrial America. If you don’t understand how it happened I can recommend some books.

The question is how to turn it around. Some cities have. Some have done fairly well simply by having good leadership over the years. Trenton, like Detroit, hasn’t been that fortunate.

We’re in a situation where brave leadership will have to offer creative solutions.

Our crime situation can’t change quickly. Our public schools can’t change quickly. Our taxes are chronically high because our tax base funds only 1/3 of our budget. Therefore we can’t afford to invest much more money into police, schools or infrastructure.

So what can we do?

I suggest that we create a Downtown Investment program that seeks to increase our tax base to a point where it can once again fund city services. It has three key elements:

1) Fund an investment subsidy of 10% on any rehab investment of over $100,000. Because our tax rate is currently 4% well will recoup this investment in under 3 years, a 33% ROI. This will be available only to market rate, residential development not seeking abatements or PILOTs. Residential investment needs to come first and will eventually drive retail and commercial investment.

2) Target millennials and professionals with no kids. Over 1,000,000 people like this live within 30 minutes of Trenton. This is mostly who’s bought in Trenton over the last 10 years and it squarely fits the broader demographic trend towards America’s urbanization. A marketing program (web site, newsletter, some advertising, open houses, Realtor and developer organization) will embody this targeting.

3) Start small and offer the program (for now) only in Downtown Trenton. Scholars and Trenton activists have long pointed out that revitalization efforts need to be focused and start at the center. Trenton has had problems with execution in the past, starting small will let us see whether this works, and fix it if if it needs fixing. Downtown is the place to start as it allows us to spread outwards from there. If it’s successful downtown we’ll expand the program, one neighborhood at a time.

With modest investments funded just out of our budget, we can hope to increase our tax base from just under $2B to over $2.4B in 10 years. State participation in the program will help and other policies could also speed up the process. This will stop our vicious cycle of decline and start a virtuous circle of revitalization.

Now is the time for Steady Stewardship

Few Americans will ever see civic corruption as up close and personal as Trentonians have recently.   Now that our 3 ½ year ordeal has been ended by the Federal Government our first inclination as citizens is to react.   I know I have already, especially at the public figures who supported or refused to denounce Tony Mack even in the face of his obvious misconduct as Mayor, even before his arrest.

But we have only 5 months until we elect a new government.   That new Mayor will have all the latitude in the world to reorganize and reinvent Trenton’s administration.  He will be able hire new people and perhaps let some poor performers go.  He will be able to close down operations that don’t make sense anymore or aren’t critical to our functioning as a city.   He’ll be able to put in place systemic changes to our tax, development and policing policy.

What we need now is an Acting Mayor who will allow his Directors to be open and transparent, who will question spending and who will put on a trustworthy face to the rest of the world, especially the State.   We don’t need new policy from an Acting Mayor.  We don’t need new programs.  There simply isn’t time.   With the exception of a few dismissals of employees who have deliberately ignored Council’s directives and needlessly withheld information, there should be no mass firings.  Instead, an Acting Mayor would do well to help the candidates prepare their policies by opening up the books and processes to those campaigns.

All indications so far seem to indicate Council President Muschal will take the “steady stewardship” approach.   Let’s hope he keeps a cool head and does his part to insure the public makes the smartest choice it can for our next Mayor.

“The End of the Suburbs”

The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher is a wonderfully accessible book for beginning urbanist that need grounding in the demographic trends that are creating opportunities for cities like Trenton.

Last year the Trenton Times carried a review of the book but it seems appropriate for Reinvent Trenton to add a few words.

Ms. Gallagher has honestly built her narrative of the drivers of new urbanism on the backs of authors that have come before her including Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler.   This is important for Trentonians attempting to come up to speed on the best thinking about what can drive Trenton’s growth.

The basic theme in Gallagher’s book is that fundamental demographics and attitudes are driving a shift back from suburban to urban living.  This is good news for cities and bad news for suburbs that have likely overextended their spending and debt.

The demographic trends involved include an older child bearing age, lower number of married couples and therefore fewer children.   This, coupled with a shift in attitude amongst millennials that shows a preference for urban living and against owning a car, has started a profound shift in American lifestyle.

The trend has been with us for many years says Gallagher but become most pronounced during the Great Recession that has left great swaths of suburban McMansions abandoned while home values in cities suffered only slightly.   In fact cities are now growing at a faster pace than suburbs and according to Gallagher, home builders like Toll Brothers, the Godfathers of the McMansion, have noticed.  Builders have shifted their efforts to building luxury condos, lofts and New Urbanist development that mimic older cities.

Cities like Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore have already felt the benefit.   New Jersey towns like New Brunswick, Montclair and even the post-Sandy Jersey Shore are being built with a New Urbanist feel.

The question for Trenton is will we lift a finger to ride this fundamental wave of migration?

For us it means pitching developers like Toll Brothers on our city, offering a sane development environment that works with developers instead of against them.  It includes a new tax structure.   It includes increasing our walkability, perhaps by rethinking our transit system in favor of trolleys.  And most of all it includes a small well-disciplined government that can support new development.

There are millions of young people living in our region who, given the opportunity to live in a great urban space would jump at it.   It’s up to Trenton to make help facilitate an environment that allows buyer and seller to come together.   We’re not there yet, but I can see Jane Jacobs vision of a city that constantly reinvents itself coming to life here.

I recommend The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher to Trentonians hoping to get an easy to read overview of our city’s possible future ($14 from Nook).

For me the other refreshing story here was who recommended the book to me.  I’ve read quite a few books on cities and have publicly bemoaned the fact that Trenton’s politicians appear to be under educated on the latest thinking.  However, in this case mayoral candidate Jim Golden recommend The End of the Suburbs and I jumped at the chance to read what was driving his thinking.

She didn’t stand for the foolishness

The news of Trenton City activist Pat Stewart’s passing has hit me hard.

It’s difficult to let a friend go, especially one that you’ve stood beside for so long and in so many capacities.  I can’t remember exactly when I first came across Pat Stewart.  I was new to Trenton’s political scene and Pat seemed to know everybody.   Everybody.

But no matter who she was talking to, whether friend or not, she spoke her mind including to me.  Pat would not tolerate what she saw as foolishness.  And frankly we’ve had more than our fair share of that in Trenton.

The Reinvent Trenton blog owes quite a bit to Pat Stewart.   My first foray into real politics was with the Lamberton Historic District Committee over Doug Palmer’s plan to tear down the Kearney homes and replace it with a new government housing project.   She  couldn’t understand  why we’d  tear  down  one  housing project which, in her words “was strong enough to withstand  a nuclear war”  just to build  another one.   We like to think that our efforts helped defeat that project.  Because of that effort we now have very nice market rate (non-government) housing on that site.

Pat, along with that same group, rallied the South Trenton neighborhood in opposition to Leewood  Development’s proposal (again with Doug Palmer’s support) to bulldoze 8 square blocks of historic housing stock along Centre Street.  Though  hers and  the group’s  efforts   over 300 residents showed up  at several citizen’s  meetings to oppose  the  project.   The opposition was eventually too intense for Palmer and Leewood and they retreated.

With these successes under her belt she encouraged former City Councilman Jim Coston   to organize an urban studies book club for residents who wanted to be better educated about revitalization issues.   For many of us, this group was our education.  We read the literature on urban revitalization and invited guest speakers of national renown to talk with us.   It’s an education that led directly to this blog. Pat Stewart was a ring leader of that group.

My affiliation with Pat has continued throughout almost all of my civic endeavors.   She was a leader in the Trenton Council of Civic Associations and was vocal with the Trenton Republican committee.   She joined me in Fix Trenton’s Budget and Majority for a Better Trenton. She put her hat into the ring in the 2009 Special election for South Ward Council and as everyone with an ounce of familiarity with Trenton politics knows, Pat Stewart was a fixture at City Council.

Pat, who was self-admittedly intimidated by technology, even started her own blog, Lamberton Lilly.  She made short and to the point comments about the goings on in Trenton.  She had a following.

Pat was everywhere and so much a part of Trenton for me that it I’m sure I will think of her often in the years to come.    I know that when our next administration finally crafts a real strategy for Trenton and it includes a real marketing plan for our city, I’ll probably shed a tear and hope that Pat knows that her constant admonition has finally come to pass.

In many ways Reinvent Trenton has been written with Pat in mind.  It puts into words the ideas she had in her head.   I know this because she constantly encouraged and commented favorably on my articles.       I knew I was on the right track if Pat liked the article.

Of course Pat’s influence goes far beyond what I know about personally.  She was a leader in the STARS civic association for many years, sat on the Zoning Board and was recently appointed by City Council to sit on the Ethics Commission.    These are places of honor in Trenton.

I know that her son Nicholas knows how we all feel about his mom.   I also know that the most important thing for a family member to know when a loved one passes is that the loved one will be remembered.   Nicholas, that is a certainty.

Trenton’s Most Foolish Ordinance Yet

Even the State of NJ thinks the recently passed   “New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act of 2013” is a bad idea.  However, the Act was confirmed by Trenton’s   City Council and made applicable to Trenton by Ordinance 13-58.

The Act is meant to stimulate certain types of investment and create jobs in NJ. However, it does so at a high price of over $400,000 per job in tax credits and the loss of local property tax revenue for 20 years.  It is targeted at four NJ cities including Trenton and requires those cities to forego substantial taxes that would otherwise be collected from property owners.   The State’s Office of Legislative Services (OLS) did an economic analysis of the Act which estimates that in the best of circumstances the State’s   investment would return 10% over 20 years.   That’s .05% per year.     We’d be better off investing in a savings account.

The OLS summarizes its findings below:

The Office of Legislative Services finds that the revenue impact of the substitute (the Act) is indeterminate with certain revenue losses due to tax incentive agreements which may or may not be fully offset by revenue increases from expanded business activity. The magnitude of the revenue losses from tax incentive agreements cannot be known because ERG and GROWNJ have no aggregate award cap from January 1, 2014 through the program expiration on July 1, 2018.

What’s worse is that the .05% yearly return assumes that the alternative is that no new   jobs are created unless this Act is in place.  That’s a horrible assumption and the OLS so much as admits it.  Read the full analysis here.

So why did our City Council sign on for a bill that is so terrible for both the State and the City of Trenton?

It’s hard to say and there has been much speculation amongst activist.  Some of facts surrounding the passage the Ordinance are as follows:

  • Council passed it in a hurry with little to no public comment and on a Friday evening when the public was not likely to be in attendance at the meeting.  This was suspicious.
  • One person who did make it to the meeting was a developer from Robert Torricelli’s Woodrose development who stands to benefit from the Act.
  • Days  later  that same Woodrose development  handed  out  500 free Turkeys at their  development site  in Trenton and invited local politicians Marge Caldwell-Wilson and  Eric  Jackson  to  be seen as  having something to do with the gift.
  • Robert  Torricelli was  reprimanded in the US  Senate for corruption

So on the surface this deal is smelly and reeks of connected developers getting rich on the backs of taxpayers.

Given the OLS’ analysis it’s clear that NJ taxpayers are being shafted.  The question is, “are Trenton taxpayers getting any benefit?”

First, we have to assume that Trenton taxpayers are suffering from this bad investment in a similar manner to our suburban friends.    Our State income tax dollars are being wasted.

Then there’s the matter of lost property taxes that many in the activist community have complained about.   This is trickier.

The deal is that a developer would pay no new taxes on improvements to a property for 10 years.   During years 10 – 20 taxes on improvements would gradually be raised to reach 100% by year 20.

So this could stimulate new taxes, just not in some of our lifetimes.    There is no guarantee that any property in Trenton could ever be developed (many abandoned properties have negative value).   So getting something on those difficult plots of land  and having the State stimulate that future tax benefit does have a positive benefit.  Perhaps that’s what our Council members are reacting to (I’m giving them the benefit of a doubt).

But here are the problems:

The deal is unfair

This tax break is not available to all citizens or even all types of investment.  For instance, there are exclusions on retail investment such as stores and restaurants.  The deal is not available to homeowners or even condo owners.    You and I can’t benefit from this Act and are in fact subsidizing those that do. The state and city should not be in the business of preferring one type of investment and one type of investor. They’re not that smart.

The deal will have unintended consequences

Trenton does not have unlimited developable land.  The Act heavily incents developers to build non-retail commercial space or residential rental property.  If all the prime development spots were taken for these purposes, then the price of retail and owner occupied development will go up.   Many in Trenton’s revitalization community believe that if anything, Trenton needs to over index on owner-occupied housing and new retail amenities.  This bill is likely to make that more difficult.  In this regard we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

There are better alternatives

A maxim in real estate development is that a building or land should find its highest and best use.   This Act warps that concept by preferring only certain developers with certain kinds of projects.   A better alternative is to establish a standard PILOT agreement and stimulus that are available to anyone investing  in our cities.  One such PILOT plan would offer a very high tax rate on land but a very low rate on improvements thereby rewarding high value or high density development no matter what type it is.  This PILOT could even be made optional to existing landowners.  This would be especially beneficial to home owners seeking to improve their homes.    It could do away with existing abatements and negotiated PILOTs (long an opportunity for abuse).    The state could directly and more transparently provide tax credits on the total value of a project of say $200,000 or more.  This standard subsidy gets the   State out of the dicey business of trying to manipulate the economy.

I suspect that the City of Trenton did not have a real voice at the table when this scheme was cooked up.  Certainly it was foisted on the citizens of Trenton in a rush.  This is a big problem as there is no evidence the State is acting in best interest of Trentonians.

An Act and Ordinance of this scale and importance (it fundamentally   changes our tax structure) should never be considered in the current political situation where a Mayor indicted on corruption charges related to real estate development has only 6 months left in his term.   Rather we need to let the next administration determine whether this deal fits into a strategic plan for Trenton.   Let’s vote on it by making it one of the issues in the upcoming election.

Our City Council has done the citizen of a Trenton a disservice by allowing us to be bullied into the deal. There is an online petition being run to show opposition to Ordinance 13-58. I encourage all to sign it.

Petition to Oppose Ordinance 13-58

My choice for Trenton’s next Mayor

After 24 years of mayoral leadership that has gone from bad to worse, we once again have the chance to change direction in Trenton.  Like we did in 2010, we’ll have a crowded field of candidates.  Unlike 2010, in 2014 we have several viable options.

In this very difficult time in Trenton’s history, we as citizens need to be equipped to make a smart choice.   We’ve all seen how poor choices at the voting booth can materially damage our city.  This time around:

  • Voters need to consider all aspects of what will make a good Mayor, and
  • The campaigns need to communicate clearly to voters.

The question I have for myself is, what can I do to help this process?  What can I do differently in 2014 to help elect a leader that will chart a more productive direction for Trenton?

I’ve tried quite a few approaches to improving Trenton.

  • I’ve blogged for years trying to bring new ideas for revitalization to the city.  The evidence will show that my blogging hasn’t helped.
  • I formed Fix Trenton’s Budget to provide an economic point of view in the 2010 election and later assist Mayor Mack in setting budget and economic policy.  The evidence shows that didn’t help.
  • I helped form The Majority for a Better Trenton in order to create an unaligned political force in the city.  It turns out the group had organizational challenges, so that didn’t help.
  • All along I’ve been an outspoken critic on Facebook, in the press, at City Council and on my blog.  Sometimes that makes me feel better, but it hasn’t helped.

As I’ve often said, doing the same things over and over again in Trenton and expecting better results is the definition of insanity.  So this election cycle I’ll do something I’ve not done before.

This election cycle I’m going to choose one candidate to not only support but also to volunteer for during the campaign.   This implies quite a bit.

It implies that I will have to make my own informed decision about the candidates well ahead of walking into the voting booth.   I’ve done some homework in preparation for my decisions.  I have:

  • Talked to each of the candidates I would consider,
  • Read their websites, and
  • Reviewed their track record in Trenton.

To put all of these conversations, impressions and histories into perspective I created an objective scorecard to help.  The scoring approach rates the candidates along several dimensions and weights the scores based on how important that dimension is for a good Mayor.  It’s like coming up with GPA for the candidate but allowing the flexibility to weight one course as more important than another.

Being numbers driven seems appropriate for me as I’m constantly encouraging city leaders to be objective, unemotional and fact driven in their approaches to our problems.   It’s sometimes hard to do but often provides clarity where a muddle of data and opinion cloud the issues.

For each dimension I scored the candidate 1-10.  The dimensions and weighting are as follows:

Table ‑1 Candidate Selection Criteria

Dimension Weight Description
Approach to Strategy 9% Thinks critically about cause and effect.  Is data and fact driven.  Results focused.
Planning 15% Organized, clear and thoughtful about actions and timing.  Considers risks.
Campaign 12% Well run campaign with people who share a focus on revitalization and diversity.
Motivations 9% Setting an example for urban revitalization in small post-industrial cities.
Management Style 12% Disciplined.  Has an air of gravitas.  Reads people well.  Transparent.
Track Record 12% Has participated in thoughtful activism in Trenton.
Budget awareness 15% Understands the budget and what drives it.  Appreciates its role as the central policy tool.
General Capability 9% Smart.  Hard working.   Well written and well spoken.  Well educated.
Sacred Cows 9% Has revitalization minded positions on regionalization, residency, reassessment, etc.
100%

To be fair I didn’t talk to all of the candidates.  Walker Worthy’s strict partisanship and lack of presence in Trenton politics ruled him out as an option.   Kathy McBride’s frequent missteps, support for Tony Mack and lack of interest in policy rule her out.   Bucky Leggett was so uninspiring the last time he ran that I voted for Doug Palmer.  Each of the other four candidates:  Patrick Hall, Eric Jackson, Jim Golden and Paul Perez are fine people by all accounts, including my own.   They deserved serious consideration.

Of course, whoever I support may very well not win the election.  That’s not the end of the world and we have good options.   I certainly hope that even if I wind up on a losing campaign team, the winning Mayor will take me up on my offer to do whatever I can to help his administration succeed.  I made that offer to Tony Mack, he just didn’t follow through.

Also, I’m not going to say anything negative about any of the other candidates except maybe to critique a policy idea here and there.

After several months of talking and thinking about the next Mayor of Trenton I’ve decided I’d like to support Jim Golden to be our Mayor.

Jim is seeking to bring the best thinking in the country to bear on Trenton’s revitalization problems.  He has good initial insights especially on our crime issues. He has good experience in running large organizations.   He’s been openly committed to setting measurable goals and setting up feedback mechanisms to track our progress.

Jim was an early and vocal critic of Tony Mack and actively supported the recall effort.  He’s conscious of the budget and its limitation, especially the biggest component, police.

In every conversation I’ve had with Jim, he’s sought to think through pragmatic steps towards making Trenton more livable while eventually lowering our tax burden.  Finally, his motivations are simple and clear, he’s a retired resident of Trenton who wants a better town in which to live, so do I.

I’ll enjoy working with him both on the campaign and the transition into office.   I know his heart is in the right place and that he has the right skills and temperament.  Most importantly for me, he did the best in my candidate qualification scorecard, earning 7.7 out of 10 points.

I look forward to working with Jim and his campaign but wish all the candidates well.

Hoping for a pro-regionalization campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Causes and Effects: A Guide to disciplined policy discussion

The world is made up of causes and effects.  Hurricanes cause storm surges.  Hitting a cue ball hard into a break causes pool balls to scatter.  A bad earnings report causes a company’s stock to go down.  And so it goes in business, sports, life and cities.  High crime rates cause visitors to stay away from a city.  High taxes slow development.  High college acceptance rates attract students to schools.  This is what economists spend their time thinking about.

Most people think about these causes and effects abstractly.  Common sense tells them that one thing ought to affect another.   For instance, an after school program keeps kids off the streets and therefore should reduce the crime rate because kids on the streets sometimes commit crimes.    Another example might be, making a city’s inspections process less expensive to lower development costs and stimulate investment.   Or perhaps, opening a new museum will increase tourism.

Most people are comfortable making statements like the above, but generally don’t know the details.  For instance, they can’t answer questions like:  If we spend $1,000,000 on foot patrols how many FBI index crimes will be avoided?  Or, if we lower inspections fees by 50%, how much incremental investment should the city expect to see over the next 5 years?   These are fair and important questions.  Most citizens can come nowhere close to answering these types of questions, and that would be OK but sadly, most policy-makers in a city like Trenton can’t answer them either.

So how can normal citizens get better at thinking through the policy issues that face us every day?

Without researching every policy assertion that’s ever made, how can we begin to really understand causes and effects?

We make better choices by knowing whether a policy has a 1st order or 2nd order effect and whether the effect is strong or weak. Of course we need to start with clarity on our goals (investment, crime, education, population, income). But after being clear on goals we must carefully consider causes and effects so we can begin to decide whether policy assertions are important.  This kind of thinking is often called “systems” thinking and is used to better understand complex things, like cities.

There’s a difference between 1st and 2nd order effects

In pool, when the cue ball strikes another ball and knocks it directly into a pocket, we call that a 1st order effect.  One thing caused another.  However that same pool shot may have left the cue ball well positioned to allow the player to sink the next ball.  That’s a 2nd order effect.  The difference is that  in order for the good “leave” to have happened, many more effects of physics had to take place over and beyond the just hitting the first ball in.  The cue ball had to be deflected just so, the spin had to be just right and perhaps the cue ball needed to bounce off the bumper with just the right angle.  The good “leave”, assuming it was intentional, had a much less likely chance of success than hitting the first ball in.

And so it is with city policies.  An afterschool program will most definitely get some kids off the street.  Getting kids off the streets is a 1st order effect and can be measured fairly simply.  It’s the number of kids in the program minus the percentage of those kids who would have otherwise stayed at home or in the library.  For instance: of the 100 kids in the after school program we might say 40 of them would have been home.  So the program got 60 kids off the street.

But how does an after-school program affect crime?  It’s not likely that a kid staying home would cause a crime.  But what about the 60 who would have hung out on street corners.  It’s a bit harder to say because crime reduction is a 2nd order effect.  For example, not all of those 60 kids would have ever committed a crime.  Of the several who might be inclined to commit a crime they might do it when they weren’t in the after-school program.    But then again, maybe the program has a long term effect on the child, or maybe it doesn’t.  As you can see, the 2nd order effects begin to get murky.  This is why sophisticated policy makers don’t depend on them and often point to 2nd order effects as “potential side benefits”.

In Trenton, we shouldn’t base our important policy decisions on 2nd order side effects.

Strong vs. weak effects and the importance of context

Even when causes and effects are 1st order, the linkage between the two can be weak.  For instance in buying a used car, high mileage may not dissuade you from buying it.  This is a 1st order effect but not a strong one because you’ve already decided you could accept a few miles on the car.  However, dented side panels may just completely turn you off.  The big dents might be a strong 1st order effect and keep you from buying the car.

It’s the same with public policy.  Let’s return to inspection fees for a new home.  Let’s say we want to stimulate growth by reducing the fee from $1000 to $300.  That’s a big drop.  And because it directly affects the price of the house, it’s a 1st order effect.  However, that $700 drop in cost is fairly small in comparison to the $300,000 that you’ll eventually spend on the house.  Other things like lumber, labor, land and property taxes easily dwarf the inspection cost.  So while the reduction in inspection fees may be annoying to the builder, it has a weak effect (though 1st order) on the eventual buyer.

2nd order effects can be weak and strong as well.  For instance, we can imagine a school retention program that lowers the high school drop-out rate.  This program might have a good 1st order effect on education but also a 2nd order effect on crime reduction.  That 2nd order effect might be considered strong because we know there’s such a high correlation between high school graduation and likelihood of committing a crime in the future.  Compare that to an after-school basketball program which should have a 2nd order effect on crime reduction (as we discussed above) but that effect may be weak.  Certainly the research and evidence linking graduation to crime reduction is stronger than that linking basketball to crime reduction.  That’s not to say there’s no effect, it’s just not likely to be as strong.

The cause and effect of crime also varies widely.  Economists have shown that each incremental index crime in a city leads to one person moving away.  However, the rate of emigration is 5 times higher for high income people and 3 times higher for families with children.  Poor, single people are much less likely to move away due to a high crime rate.    Therefore we can say that a high crime rate has a strong effect on high income people leaving a city but a weak effect on the poor leaving (likely because they have fewer choices).

Just understanding this differences in the effects of crime, even in the abstract, should have a profound impact on how we think about policy in a city like Trenton.  Sadly, you’ve never heard a government official make the above distinction.

It might be good to focus on strong 1st order effects rather than weak 2nd order ones.

In the world of policy making and particularly in a cash-strapped city like Trenton, we need to make hard choices.  We don’t have either the money or the man-power to do everything we’d like.  So it’s important for citizens to lobby for the most important policies and for government officials and activists to help clarify 1st and 2nd effects and strong vs. weak linkages.

We can use crime reduction as an example of a good objective.  Criminologists know that high rates of incarceration have a beneficial effect on the crime rate (most people get this).  There is a strong 1st order cause and effect between building good cases against criminals that lead to long sentences.   On the other hand, we may spend the same money we would have spent on an extra detective on a mentoring program.  The mentoring might have a 2nd order effect on crime reduction and likely a weak one at best.

When we talk about programs and policies in Trenton politics, we need to keep these things straight and always keep our core goals in mind as well as cost-benefit.

Policies that have multiple 1st and 2nd order effects are generally more impactful than others

Finally we should remember that sometimes policies can have multiple effects.  You’d likely trade a $1,000,000 program to reduce crime that has single strong and effect on the crime goal, for a $1,000,000 program to stimulate development that might have a strong 1st order effects on the economic growth goal, a strong 2nd order effect on the crime goal and a weak 2nd order effect on the education goal.  Some policies give us broader “bang for the buck”.

Policies that positively affect multiple goals in Trenton (investment, crime, education, population growth and income growth) will not only strengthen the city and stretch our dollars, but will find broader political support.

Every minute of every day, Trentonians have policy discussion on Facebook, at barber shops, in civic association meetings, over drinks and at City Hall.  We discuss crime, trash pick-up, taxes, parades and any number of topics.  It’s important for Trentonians to move past sentimentality and misguided assumptions in our discourse.  We need to get on the same page.  To do that, not only do we need shared goals, but we need a common vernacular for discussing policy.  To the extent we can begin to discipline our thinking by keeping our goals clear and then breaking causes and effects down into 1st and 2nd order and then strong vs. weak, we’ll have a more constructive civic dialogue.

Note:  I wrote this article for my blog 2 weeks ago, before the TESC deal for Glen Cairn Arms came up and was having it edited.  I had no way of knowing we would be having a important policy debate about this very subject.  I held off publishing it in favor of reporting on and  providing thoughts about the proposed TESC deal.  However now is a good time to start talking about causes and effects in policy discussion.