Posts Tagged ‘NJ’

Trenton’s Next Self-Inflicted Economic Disaster

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

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

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

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

So what’s so wrong about Miller Homes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayers have grossly overpaid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of Trenton – by the numbers

July 2012

Now that Mayor Mack’s future has become uncertain, to say the least, contenders are being bandied about.  I plan to be even tougher with this new crop of candidates than I was in 2010.  I’m tired of empty suits with empty ideas and empty promises fulfilling their ego at the people of Trenton’s expense.  I can’t afford it anymore.

This article is meant to establish a starting point for the candidates.  It represents our state as a city.  The candidates will do well to express their plans in terms of goals for each of these areas.

Reasonable people agree that the only way to achieve a goal is to set one.  Thus the conventional wisdom of “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”.

With this wisdom in mind, Fix Trenton’s Budget and Majority for a Better Trenton have identified five areas in which the City of Trenton should manage to measurable goals.

They are

  • Crime Index reduction
  • Population growth
  • School success
  • Average Income increase, and
  • Economic success (as measured by ratable)

Most Trentonians would agree that if we did better in these five areas our lives would be better.  However, try getting a politician to commit to a real goal for school success or average income.  It’s never happened, at least not in Trenton and definitely not in Mayor Mack’s biennial report on the state of the city.

Imagine if instead of listing the number of grants we applied for, the Mayor reported on his plan to increase ratables by 10% to $2.1B or decrease our Crime Index from 3400 to 2000.  You didn’t hear that because setting goals commits a politician to producing results and quite frankly, producing results is difficult.

That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have goals for our city and that we can’t force political action both at the ballot box and otherwise that will help us achieve them.

This report is meant to provide a status report on these five important measures thus setting the stage for efforts planned later in the year to set citizen goals for ourselves.

The current statistics are presented in order of importance.  Notice that our most important goals are those that improve the economic health of the city.  We can’t fix anything in Trenton unless we have a healthy economy.

Economic Success: D

In 2011 Trenton’s tax base,  that is, the value of property on which we can charge a property tax, was $2,009,731,470.  In 2012 it has declined to $1,961,049,170.  This represents a 2.4% loss in ratable for the city.

The implications of this statistic are large.  Our property tax rate will have to go up, again, in order to make up the difference.  It means our economy is getting worse instead of better and most importantly, it means that our policies meant to stimulate economic growth are not working.

We can never have a lower tax rate or afford to spend more money on parks, police and streets unless our ratables go up.

Average Income: F

Trenton’s Median Household  Income is $36,601; which stands in stark contrast to NJ’s Median household income which is almost double that of Trenton’s, $69,811.

Income levels are very important to the health of a city as they determine how much money residents will spend, which in turn, determines the attractiveness of our city to retailers and to entertainment producers.  While NJ’s household income is double that of Trenton’s, per capita retail spending is three times our rate.  This means that retail spending falls off disproportionately to income.

Making Trenton attractive to retail and entertainment business is important as the presence of those amenities make the city attractive to new residents.

School Success:  F

The Trenton school district’s 2011 graduation rate was 47.7%.  This means that over half of the students who entered 9th grade in 2007 graduated in 2011.

There is no world in which this is healthy.  While it can be argued that fixing the schools isn’t a pre-requisite for revitalizing the city, after all the easiest target market for new residents are the millions of people without kids, failing schools don’t help.

With 50% of our young adult population grossly undereducated, they immediately become a drain on the economic future of our city.  Furthermore, a significant portion of these kids will turn to crime and create both a public health threat to the rest of us and an expense in the form of police, courts and jails.

Moving this graduation rate up to 75% could theoretically halve our crime problem in the long run.

Population Growth :  C

Trenton’s 2010 census numbers report a population of 84,913.  Since 2000 our population has declined .6% while New Jersey’s has grown 4.5%.  Relative to our neighbors, Trenton has become a less desirable place to live.

It will take an influx of new residents to begin the process of rebuilding our tax base.  We have room to grow.  At its peak in the 1920s, Trenton housed 140,000 residents.

Crime: C

Trenton’s crime problems have tracked the national trend downwards over the last decade.  Uniform Crime Reports for 2011 show an increase in Index Crimes from to 3802 from 3744. That’s a 1.5% increase which shows we’re moving in the wrong direction by a bit.

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Our city leaders have abdicated their responsibility to set positive goals for the city.  Therefore it’s up to citizens to work together to set their own goals and to exert political force to make those goals stick and to construct a plan to meet them.

Should Government Festivals be Our Top Priority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trenton’s Plan: The Ultimate Question

I’m currently working with a client to help them rethink their business with an eye towards improving their Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS is a fairly well known mechanism for measuring the health of a customer relationship. It’s based on asking one question: “Would you recommend the company / product to a friend or colleague?” Answers are given on a 0 to 10 scale and the NPS is calculated by subtracting the percentage of detractors (scores from 0-6) from the percentage of promoters (scores from 9-10). Depending on the industry, a decent score is 40.

Typically, companies ask detractors to explain their problem and then ask whether someone can follow-up in person. The best companies have managers follow up and take care of the customer immediately but more importantly help find ways for the problem to not happen again.

It turns out that employees in companies with high NPS scores like Apple, Jet Blue, Progressive Insurance and Enterprise Rent-a-Car are also happy with their jobs. Employees like being able to consistently satisfy customers.

The book that best explains NPS is The Ultimate Question 2.0 by Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey (Markey is a classmate of mine). The web site is netpromoter.com.

What if Trenton had such a program?

“On a scale of 0-10, would you recommend Trenton as a place to live to your friends and family?” This could be “The Ultimate Question – Trenton Edition.”

What if we religiously asked residents this question? What if we followed up? We could set up an email survey to ask the question or even better use our robocall system to do the asking.

In part one of my Trenton Plan, I recommended measuring four numbers: Ratables, Population, Crime Index and Graduation rate. Those are good things but to be really great we need to ask the ultimate question, “Would you recommend that a friend or relative live here?”

My free consulting advice for our next Mayor is to do exactly this. When you hire your aides, hire them into a small group that does nothing but call back residents about their problems, look for ways to solve them immediately and then craft ideas of how to solve the problems permanently. Additionally, your senior staff and you yourself should make some portion of these calls as part of your daily routine.

Citizen feedback and administration responses could be put onto the web site as a way to maintain transparency and re-enforce the point that we’re trying hard to deal with problems.

The next administration should use Net Promoter Score as a way of evaluating all departments and personnel. Create a bonus pool with city council’s blessing to reward employees based on NPS for the city. As you get more sophisticated, tie all work orders and emergency responses to how they served individual residents and business owners. Be able to link the work of the city back to individual NPS results in order to eventually give each employee an NPS score.

We might not even need to link bonus to NPS. The best companies don’t. A source of pride for Trenton employees (and I’d like to see this extended to schools) would be to achieve high levels of citizen satisfaction. Can you imagine how good it would feel to know that because of your efforts, citizens were giving the city scores of 9 or 10?

In short order we could turn into a city that strives to have citizen’s recommend it. This kind of attention to customer satisfaction could certainly be the silver bullet that revitalizes Trenton. Soon, everything our administration does could be oriented towards citizen priorities. Our budgets and policies would finely be in tune with the public.

This doesn’t solve our budget problem immediately and we won’t magically fix our crime issue. But by aggressively listening to citizens and solving their most important problems we slowly begin to repair our broken image.

Trenton’s Plan: Setting Goals

It is a truism that, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.”

And so it is with Trenton. We don’t know where we’re going, and so far, it’s pretty clear we haven’t gotten anywhere good.

Ask five Trentonians what their goals for the city are and you’ll likely get five different answers. Try asking 7 city council members. Or, try getting an answer from our Mayor at all.

Leadership is painting a vision and lacing it with measurable goals.

To miss-quote John F. Kennedy – “We choose to go to somewhere in space in the future”. Not much of a call to action is it.

As a community we don’t have a common set of goals that represent our vision and drive our mission to revitalize the city. We need that. We need our leaders to be thoughtful about how our policies and our budget are used to achieve goals. We can’t do everything, so being clear on the things we must do is job #1.

It’s hard set measurable goals

Goals are meaningless if you can’t recognize when they’re accomplished. Too many people forget this. A goal doesn’t help if you can’t measure achievement, or the progress towards achievement.

Every meaningful Goal has an outcome, and the challenge to writing meaningful goals is drafting a clear, precise, and measurable outcome.

To oversimplify, which goal stated below is meaningful?

  • To keep the citizens of the City safe from fire.
  • To keep citizens safe from fire by maintaining first engine response time to less than 3 minutes.

Note that meaningful Goals often describe an action or activity [although not always], but they always describe outcomes that are clear, precise, and measurable.

Think about measurement. How would I measure this? Can I accurately count the number of times something happens? Will I know when something happens? Can the administration cook the books?

These are all questions we need to ask ourselves.

Broad health goals set the agenda

For Trenton we have four basic concerns: We want our city to be safe from crime, for our children to be educated, for the city to be a pleasant place and for our government to be affordable. These concerns are not only interrelated but spill-over into every other part of life in the city.

Bad school environments breed crime, which makes us feel unsafe. When we feel unsafe we want to hire more police, which costs money we don’t have. However, if we don’t reduce crime we’ll not attract the new investment that would help us pay for a police force and a good school system.

Four broad goals can serve to focus us and our government policy on these concerns.

Ratables: Goal is $2.1B. in 4 years

That’s a 10% increase over the current $1.9B. Source: City tax rolls.

Ratables are what drive property taxes. In Trenton our property tax pays for 15% or our total municipal and school budget. The average for New Jersey is 50%. The State of New Jersey is under increasing pressure to decrease its funding to Trenton and we’ll need to make up the difference. However, to be a great city, we need to have a tax base that does more than maintain minimum services as we’re doing now.

Today the State of New Jersey funds $285M of Trenton’s school and municipal budget. If State property were taxed like private property, it would pay only $45M. Clearly we exposed to tightening budgets at the state level.

Ratables are measured in Trenton by the tax assessor and the tax roll is maintained by Trenton’s tax office. While property assessment is generally a well disciplined art, Trenton will need to update its processes and regularity for property value assessment.

Population: Goal is 90,000 people in 4 years

That’s up from 84,913 in 2010. Source: US Census – ACS

Growth in population shows that our city is appealing to outsiders. If we’re attracting people we’ve been successful in making the city livable for existing residents but we’re more attractive to businesses as well.

Population in Trenton is measured by the US Census bureau with a hard count every 10 years and an accurate estimate every year via the American Communities Survey.

Crime Index: Goal is a 20% decrease in one year, 40% in four years.

That’s from 3851 crimes in 2010. Source: Uniform Crime Report

The Uniform Crime report and FBI Crime Index report crime in a standard way and is a widely used statistic for assessing a community’s safety.

Graduation Rate: Goal is 90% graduation rate in 4 years

That’s up from the rate of 78%. Source: NJ DOE

Educators will argue over the use of this statistic but then fail to provide an alternative single measure for the health of a school system. A school system’s overall graduation rate, while not a perfect measure, is a good indicator of success and has the virtue of being well understood by the public. Furthermore, graduation from high school is a solid predictor of a student’s future success in life.

I hope that by publishing these four goals and our current state of affairs. We, as a community can begin to discuss them honestly. Perhaps we’ll change the targets up or down a bit, but in the end we need goals on which we can agree.

Dysfunctional and without a plan

By far my biggest complaint is our city’s lack of a strategic plan. All of the mayoral and council candidates stressed the need for it in the election, all of them.

So here we are one and a half years later and we have nothing, no plan at all. Not even a bad one.

The Mayor says the “state of city” pamphlet is his plan. It’s a document full of past statistics that are mostly irrelevant. Nothing about it discusses our measurable goals and how we’ll use our limited resources to achieve them. There are no strategic themes around which departments can build their operational plans. There is no new thinking. There’s nothing.

When I complain to the Mayor, he says, “I have a plan, just not one you like Dan”. “Really”, I say, “Could you email me a copy?” I’m still waiting.

The other day it hit me between the eyes how bad not having a plan can be.

Great cities are made by bringing creative people together. This isn’t a new thought and it’s been crystallized for me recently as I read the Richard Florida author of The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City. I’ve been thinking about what we could do in Trenton to jumpstart own value generating creative juices.

My idea was to help organize an entrepreneur’s conference in Trenton. It’s something I’d be interested in and perhaps we could pitch Trenton as a good business location.

I went to city council meeting on Dec. 13 and my hopes were dashed.

A local business owner and several other speakers were at council to complain about a rise in the business registration fee from $10 to $300. You can pay even more if you’re a more successful business. Basically our city council and administration are planning to institute a business tax. Nearby Hamilton doesn’t have a registration fee and yet Trenton is going to add a new one. We’re adding a business tax in addition to having the highest property tax in the State.

Is this part of the plan? Is making Trenton the most expensive place in the region to do business part of the grand plan?

And now for the dysfunctional part.

At this same city council meeting, our council members were confused about how and why the business tax was so high even though they approved it. Apparently the ordinance creating the tax was put together by the city clerk with consultation from the Trenton Downtown Authority. However, the Chair of the Downtown Authority, John Clarke, spoke at council to oppose the business tax.

It seems as though the tax is some kind of miscommunication. Wow!

Slapping business owners in the face isn’t all our city council has been busy doing. It seems they have been going through the city budget line by line. They’re doing this not because they want to but because they have to.

According to council members and members of the public who’ve been there, the city’s business administrator isn’t aware of the particulars of our budget. It seems as though department heads haven’t been very involved either. In other words, they took last year’s budget, which was based on the budget from the year before that and have just copied the numbers. There’s no new thought in the budget. Imagine that our city’s only important strategic document has no strategy and no new thinking. In fact, council members are finding personnel and expenses simply shifted around.

Trenton’s dysfunctional government is managing our affairs by wandering around aimlessly, with no serious forethought and without a strategic plan. Please someone email me the strategic revitalization plan that includes rehashing old department budgets and increasing the business registration fee by 2900%.

Go Trenton! Beat Clifton!

Catchy, isn’t it. I’m offering it up as a slogan for the next Mayor of Trenton. In fact, I’m suggesting that it be the entire campaign platform.

Trenton currently has a per capita income of $17,066 per person according the US Census Bureau (2009 numbers). However, as we’re fond of saying in Trenton, “There’s always Camden”, which is $12,777. The average for all of New Jersey is $34,622 . Trenton’s per capita income is half that of the average for New Jersey. This is why we struggle as a city. There’s no money here.

To help clarify our revitalization mission here in Trenton I offer Clifton, NJ. Clifton is a “middle of the pack” city in New Jersey with a per capita income of $30,552. It also happens to be the same size as Trenton with a population of 85,000. Clifton is a great aspirational target in terms of economic activity.

Clifton is a quiet bedroom community for New York City with nice parks and good schools. It’s also quite diverse. Given Trenton’s history and location I’m sure that given the same income mix we’d be a much better place to live? “Go Trenton, Beat Clifton”.

Why focus on income as a measure anyway? Everything is tied to income: Housing values, student performance and even crime. There aren’t too many high income areas with run down houses, bad schools and rampant crime. Nobody hopes to revitalize their town by lowering the income.

Per capita income targets give us something at which to aim. How far should we go? Let’s be reasonable and assume that a city should be a diverse, after all we don’t want to be Princeton. Furthermore we’re starting from pretty far in the hole so let’s give ourselves a break and shoot for, say, $30,000. That’s a round number and about the same as Clifton, so when we make it, we’ll declare victory.

Furthermore, a city’s per capita income tells you whether the city is being subsidized by state, county and federal governments (i.e. is it a drain on society?). It tells you whether the tax rate is high and whether it can pay for the things that make a city nice: like parks, public art and libraries.

Make no mistake about it though, I don’t equate the $35,000,000 or so the state currently pays Trenton as “aid”. When you do the math on the State’s property in Trenton, they should be paying a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) of about that amount. However, when we include our schools, it’s clear that the State is massively subsidizing us as they pay roughly 80% of the budget.

If our next Mayor and city council really want to focus on revitalization, they will worry less about attracting affordable housing and halfway houses and more about moving up the ranks of per capita income.

Sounds great but here’s the catch. Given Trenton’s current population of 85,000 people at an income of $17,066, we’ll need to add 79,000 people with a per capita income of $45,000. We’ll be a vibrant city of 164,000 people living in beautifully converted lofts, gleaming high-rises and restored 19th century homes.

To put this into real terms, to reach our goal, we would have to absorb 20 times the population of affluent Lambertville to move our average up to Clifton’s. Imagine that: Trenton will have to convince 79,000 Lambertville-like folks to leave their restored historic houses, fine eateries and antique shops to move to Trenton. That’s a lot of convincing but it’s what has to be done.

This goal has other implications. Remember that per capita means “per person”. Children that don’t earn $45,000 / year will bring down the average. This is a serious realization. It means that we need to work especially hard to attract childless adults who make at least $90,000 per couple. This is especially important when we realize that Trenton’s largest cost is support of children. In order to fix our economy and our budget we need to become an especially attractive place for singles, retirees, gay couples and young marrieds. This formula is a familiar platform in revitalized cities across America.

Every good platform needs planks and for revitalization there are only three that matter:

Bring back the middle and upper class. Whenever a new proposal comes into city hall, department directors would have to ask themselves, “Will this get us to $30,000 per capita income?”. Let’s face it, the only proposal that will pass muster are ones that attract middle class and upper income to town or that provide high paying new jobs.
Institute a pro-growth tax system – Our property taxes are not only highest in NJ but they also discourage development. A land-value tax would tax land at a very high rate but improvements at a very low rate. This encourages developers to build very dense and very expensive buildings. We want that.
Reject new affordable housing projects. Affordable Housing programs like Leewood Village, HOPE VI and Mt. Laurel RCA contributions will be banned from Trenton. As evidenced by the Lamberton Historic Districts stance against these projects, Mill Hill, Berkley Sq. Cadwalder Heights, Glen Afton and Hiltonia have worked hard to raise their standard of living; other neighborhoods want the same success but just don’t want the city working against them.
Listen to what the people want. Take to heart what your current middle and upper class citizens are telling you. They want Arts, Crime Prevention, Preservation and Clean Streets. They can’t be any clearer.

I don’t mean to suggest that taking this radical approach to revitalization will be easy for a political candidate. For years Trentonians have been misled to believe that affordable housing IS revitalization. Also, there is a large part of Trenton’s population that makes their living catering to the poor, either through state government or the various non-profits with offices in town. We’re practically a company town for the underclass. However, to “Beat Clifton” and get to $30,000 we’ve got to move forward.

I challenge out next crop of mayoral candidate to seize the agenda of growing Trenton into a powerhouse city. You will have plenty of support from voters that are ready to welcome 79,000 affluent new neighbors.

Go Trenton! Beat Clifton!

Recall Petition is Rational

I’ve heard otherwise sensible Trentonians give various reasons for not signing the petition to recall Tony Mack. These range from:

    1) I do a lot of work with the city and the Mayor’s vindictive,
    2) I don’t believe in recalls,
    3) The recall committee didn’t print their reasons on the ballot,
    4) I don’t know whose running,
    5) It will cost the city money,
    6) I work for the Mayor.

The first thing to remember is that the recall petition isn’t even a vote to recall. It’s simply a request to formally put the question forward. It’s quite possible that if the recall petition drive is successful, we’ll have a special election and Tony Mack will win the special election. The recall committee and the 8000 or so people that have already signed think there’s enough doubt though to warrant a vote on the subject.

Therefore I’d like to address the reasons not to sign, one by one:

First “The Mayor is vindictive and he’ll hurt my business”. Well, that should tell you something. Aren’t we done with bullies in this society? If you’re not the one to stand up to a bully, then who is? And who’s to say the Mayor’s not bullying someone else that is less able to stand up to it than you. This is exactly the reason to put the Mayor’s status up for a vote.

Second, “I don’t believe in recalls”. What’s not to believe in? The NJ legislature has provided this very democratic method for correcting terrible mistakes. The fact is that a Mayor can do significant damage to a city through mismanagement without doing anything illegal. In four years that damage can become irreparable. That’s where Trenton is heading. If you think our Mayor has behaved ethically, is managing the city well and has a plan for its recovery, that’s one thing. If you don’t then not believing in recalls is like believing your city is doomed.

Third, “The recall committee didn’t print their reasons on the ballot”. I actually heard this. Hopefully, the committee has hand-outs. But if not, their web site is trentonrecall2011.wordpress.com. Let me also suggest kevin-moriarty.com.

Fourth, “I don’t know whose running”. You should venture out from under your rock. Jim Golden has announced. Eric Jackson may be in the race. I didn’t support Jackson in the first campaign because he was a re-hash of Doug Palmer. However, he was worlds more suitable than Mack and did run the public works department. Golden is interesting. He comes across as thoughtful and it doesn’t hurt that he’s run the police department. I’ve not met with Jim to discuss all of his policy thoughts but from I know so far, we’re on the same page.

Fifth, “It will cost the city money”. A recall election will cost about $100,000. That’s small change compared to the $2M in transitional aid we already didn’t get this year because the Mayor has consistently thumbed his nose at DCA. It’s small compared to the ground we’ve lost in our efforts to revitalize because we don’t have a plan, or the misspending of our budget that’s happened either because of fraud or, more importantly, because we don’t have a high quality set of department Directors in place. Trenton’s budget is $185,000,000 next year. $100,000 is a small price to pay to get a Mayor qualified to spend that amount to our mutual benefit.

Sixth, “I work for the Mayor”. If you do, I apologize on behalf of all voters. You probably shouldn’t sign unless you’re looking forward to getting to know “wrongful termination” lawyer George Doherty a lot better.

There’s hardly a reason not to sign the recall petition. It’s only a petition to request a vote. If during the special election Tony still winds up being the best choice, then so be it. But, if you think Trenton is on a terribly wrong course, then recall is the only rational answer.

MCCC needs to be better educated

In the October 15th Trenton Times, Carmen Cusido’s article “County College has plans to expand” explains Mercer County Community College’s plans to increase its downtown Trenton presence.

For most people this sounds like good news, and in general it is. The second most important thing a city can do to revitalize is to provide job training. So MCCC’s decision to increase classes in Trenton where they can be easily accessed by Trenton residents is a great thing.

So why in the world would a guy like me who does almost nothing but lobby for smart revitalization in Trenton complain?

Because, the school is making dumb revitalization claims. MCCC argues that in addition to promoting the benefits of education to Trentonians, it is also providing an economic stimulus. They are not.

By expanding their programs, the college claims that more students will be milling around downtown presumably buying things. Here’s where MCCC logic breaks down. They are arguing that by students shifting their spending from one part of Trenton to the downtown it will have a marked effect on our economy. Somebody at MCCC needs to retake Economics 101.

The second point MCCC makes is that they will be spending money on construction on the expansion. I should remind readers that MCCC is funded with taxpayer dollars and that the proposed expansion will be tax exempt. So even though over half of Trenton’s property is tax exempt we’re going to get even more at the expense of Mercer County taxpayers.

I’ll give a couple of examples of what’s happened in downtown Trenton. Several years ago I made an offer on a building that’s since become part of the Daylight Twilight School. I was outbid by the school system. My project would have paid taxes, the school does not. The same happens with MCCC, they will outbid private investors using taxpayer money and we’ll be left with no new revenue. We’re also building an expensive new County courthouse on Market Street and county officials have the nerve to call this revitalization as well. Trentonians need to stop drinking the Kool-Aid of government spending. We need to elect officials who understand this and will be skeptical to the point of being openly hostile to the idea of anymore tax exempt development in our city.

That said, job training is a still a good thing. However the article on MCCC points to unclear thinking about what is really important in Trenton’s revitalization. We can’t afford to be vague.

The Face of New Jersey Racism

In this political season it’s useful to point out what may be the most racist proposal put forth in New Jersey since city-wide school desegregation. It is the “Fair School Funding” bill and comes from Senator Mike Doherty of Hunterdon County. He probably would say he’s thinking about all New Jerseyeans. Yet, he’s proposing a policy that would push our state backwards from schools that are “separate but equal” (a poor starting point), to “separate but unequal”, where much of the South was in the 1950s.

Desegregation in our state was done on a city-wide basis, unlike in southern states which were integrated at a county level. The differences in effects are stark. Southern schools achieved racial integration because county districts limited white flight. In New Jersey, white families simply moved over a city line and created their own new racially segregated school districts, like West Amwell, Hamilton, and Ewing.

As a result, New Jersey has 590 school districts for a population of 8.7 million people while North Carolina has 115 districts for a population of 9.4 million people. This is how schools became comparatively “separate”.

This system of city-wide integration gave rise to New Jersey’s current level of segregation, which ranks the state as 12th in black-white segregation and 6th in Hispanic-white segregation according to a study at the University of Michigan based on US Census data.

The 1985 “Abbott vs. Burke” decision by the NJ Supreme Court further adjusted New Jersey’s educational landscape. It mandated that poor districts receive equal funding to rich districts. This is how schools became “equal”.

For those who aren’t students of civil rights history, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that “separate but equal” wasn’t good enough. While school systems across the country and particularly in the South resisted integration, forced school busing in these new county-wide districts, in many ways saved southern cities from the white flight that drained resources from their northern counterparts. It was a blessing in disguise.

Rather than propose ways to finish the job of racial integration in New Jersey, Senator Mike Doherty of Hunterdon County proposes to gut our “separate but equal” system of educational apartheid and replace it with a “separate and unequal” system.

Senator Doherty’s plan is called Fair School Funding. It seeks to equalize school funding from the State to a formula that equates to $7,400 per student no matter what school system that student lives in. In Senator Doherty’s PowerPoint presentation, he compares West Amwell (which is mostly white) to Asbury Park (which is mostly black). In his example, West Amwell would receive an additional $6000 per student from the State while Asbury Park would lose $17,000 per student. West Amwell could then spend $20,000 but Asbury Park could afford to spend only $10,000.

In the presentation given to a West Amwell Town Hall meeting, Senator Doherty uses a particularly “high handed” statistic that says 85% of school districts will get more money. However, I suspect that 50% of students will benefit and 50% will not because the large urban districts like Newark, Trenton and Asbury Park would be the losers.

The Fair School Funding web site is very well done and happily reports how much money every school district in the State would gain or lose. Trenton would lose over $130,000,000 (about 45% of its total) and Newark would lose over $370,000,000. Meanwhile, Princeton will gain over $23,000,000.

It takes a lot for me to call a thing racist but this plan just is. It’s based on the notion that it’s good that our schools are separate and furthermore that children in New Jersey’s poor (mostly black and Hispanic) districts don’t deserve the same public education afforded those in wealthy (mostly white) districts. If it weren’t, Doherty might have a Trenton or Newark co-sponsor to explain why property taxes would have to triple in those cities to make up for the loss in funding.

I fully expect Senator Doherty to trot out New Jersey’s Home Rule laws to defend his bill, much like George Wallace used “states rights” arguments to defend racial segregation. America has moved forward, leaving New Jersey behind, and now Doherty wants to take us all the way back to 1954.

Neither a State nor a civilization should want to institute a radical plan like Doherty’s Fair School Funding as it would effectively close urban schools. This proposal is like a “final solution” to the black and Hispanic urban populations.

If nothing else, this proposal shows how messed up New Jersey really is. The fact that a State Senator is proposing this should concern us even more. Senator Doherty needs to be called out. He apparently hopes to rise in the Republican Party and seek state-wide office. This should not happen.

It’s clear though that New Jersey needs to rethink how it wants to govern its society in order to overcome the fear and loathing that has bred Mike Doherty.

It’s fine to think that Asbury Park and Trenton need to do better at running their cities, they do. But really, other forces have caused West Amwell to be like it is and Asbury Park to be like it is. None of those forces have anything to do with how those cities are currently managed.

There are better ways to deal with schools and school funding and I call on Republicans of good will to lead the charge for a better New Jersey.

I’ll offer my counter-proposals.

  • Integrate school systems by county. This will force county-wide funding formulas that equalize education spending while leaving control in the hands of county tax-payers. It also provides real integration which will serve to break up existing pockets of poor achievement.
  • Provide all education funding from the State. This is a weaker remedy but at least accomplishes the goal of shifting funding away from property tax.
  • Combine the two proposals. Shift most school funding to income tax and allow the state to fund twenty-one county districts.
  • New Jersey needs to fix its social fabric before the economic fabric of its cities and suburbs can work well together. The people of New Jersey need to reject segregationists like Doherty and embrace the goal of twenty-one modern, efficient and integrated public school systems.

    References

    Fair School Funding web site – http://www.fairschoolfunding.com/

    University of Michigan Institute for Social Research – http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/dis/census/segregation.html