Posts Tagged ‘NJ’

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

    How did Trenton get to this point?

    As Trenton’s low point approaches, let’s not forget that it was 20 years of previous administration that led us here. The current group has just put the final nails in the coffin.

    We’re laying off 105 police officers because our municipal budget is over $200M and Trentonians already pay the highest tax rate in NJ just to contribute $70M of that amount. Contrary to popular belief, the State of NJ would pay almost that same total, plus almost ALL of our $300M school budget.

    Trenton’s taxpayers are nowhere close to being able to pay for their own government. The state currently owns roughly 25% of property value in Trenton and pays over 40% of the cost of municipal and school budgets.

    We could keep the police officers but our property taxes would have to go up an additional 12% or so, thereby bankrupting many of us.

    How did we get here?

  • For 20 years we’ve added more affordable housing than any other city in NJ *. This kept our average income and housing price low relative to the rest of the state and continued to push up our police and school costs. We are overindexed on families with low disposable income. This makes Trenton unattractive for retailers.
  • Through inattention we’ve driven away almost every large private employer. We’ve agressively, beat down developers with arrogant demands. We’ve failed to reinvent our tax code so that it now punishes new development.
  • We’ve elected officials who failed to understand the linkage between budget, policy and our city’s health. Voters had only to spend 60 secconds during the election and they could have discovered that most of our current leadership was not up to the task of saving the city from its current plight.
  • Its been ignorance and pride that have brought us to this point. At some point Trentonians will have to do the hard work of taking responsibility for their city. The State can be a partner but Trentonians must cooperate in good faith. We must show a plan for recovery. We need to lead.

    * BTW – According to COAH’s Guide to Affordable Housing Trenton has 7799 affordable housing units (even before including Trenton Housing Authority or section 8). Readers should be aware that there are only 22,000 or so households in Trenton. This means that over 1 out of every 3 homes in Trenton is affordable housing.

    Trentonians favor fewer services and lower taxes

    This report was produced by The Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee and is reposted here
    ———————————————————————————————————————
    As part of a broad Priority-Based Budgeting exercise initiated jointly between the Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee, Beautiful Trenton and Trenton Council of Civic Associations with support from The City of Trenton, an in depth survey on budget priorities has been conducted amongst city residents.

    Over the last four months 202 Trentonians have completed a comprehensive budget survey either participating in person at Ward budget forums or online through a specially designed survey tool. The survey was unique in that it used actual budget numbers and asked respondents to make forced choices between taxes and spending increases or decreases in levels of service. For instance, if citizens wanted to increase the number of police on the street they had to either increase their own property tax or reduce service in other areas such as recreation or public works. It mirrored the tough choices elected officials have to make when balancing the budget.

    “This is the first time such a large and in-depth survey of Trentonians has been conducted about the budget and how their tax dollars are spent”, said Carlos Avila of Fix Trenton’s Budget. He added,
    “Other cities such as Philadelphia and San Jose, CA have successfully used citizen input like this to help make hard choices in spending.”

    By holding forums in familiar neighborhood locations, each sponsored by a City Councilperson, the organizers were able to reach a large cross section of Trentonians. In addition, the web based survey allowed a broader response. Our sample size of 202 was enough to provide 95% confidence that our results were representative of the 37,479 registered voters in Trenton with a 7% margin of error for each answer. Nevertheless, we hope to every year improve the methodology of this exercise and attract more participation from residents.

    We’ve tallied the results and found that Trentonians favor lower spending. Of the $92,000,000 in departmental spending included in the survey, respondents voted to trim the amount by $7,000,000 to $85,000,000, a reduction of 7%. The total city budget for 2011 is $205,490,000 which also includes debt payments and benefits. The survey showed that Trentonians expected this savings to result in an 8.5% decrease in property taxes or roughly $400 per $100,000 in assessed value.

    The following chart shows the weighted results of departmental budgets if left to all 202 respondents.

    In particular Trentonians favored less spending in the following areas.
    The following chart shows the percentage of respondents who voted to increase, maintain or decrease spending by department.

    Perhaps as a hint of dissatisfaction with the current political climate, 64% of the survey takers favored reducing the administrative budget which includes the Mayor’s salary, his aides and City Council. However this cut amounts to only $1,000,000. Respondents also voted overwhelmingly to withhold pay raises for city employees.

    Survey takers put Fire and Police spending under pressure as well. A surprising 38% of respondents favored decreasing Fire spending and only 7% voted for an increase. Trenton Police did a little better with 35% supporting reduced police protection and 15% hoping for increases. This is significant as Fire and Police make up one quarter of Trenton’s total city budget. While roughly half of the survey participants voted to keep spending the same, the downward pressure on spending is at odds with the administration’s past priority of maintaining current levels. The study shows that the recent realization that budget levels may have to be reduced will not meet as much resistance as expected. According to comments in the survey, the “4 on, 4 off” police scheduling policy was unpopular among respondents.

    Public Works showed weak support as 42% of survey participants wanted to decrease spending while only 13% favored an increase. Health and Human services also had weak numbers with 49% of respondents calling for a decrease. Several respondents commented that the County should take over Health and Human Services.

    Several departments attracted pleas for increased investment.

    Inspections and Economic Development received support for increased budget by 32% of respondents. This is attributed to the belief that spending in this area will lead to increased levels of investment in the city and better quality of life. Many respondents wrote in comments such as “limit affordable housing to 20% of total”, “Kill off the Miller Homes project”, “We need more market rate housing” and “Focus redevelopment in a few areas”.

    A substantial 31% of survey participants favored reopening all of the Library branches. However, 51% were OK with just the main branch being open and just over 17% favored closing down the entire library system. Similarly, 39% of respondents favored increases in Recreation spending and 11% favored eliminating the department.

    In addition to concerns about departmental functions, respondents left a large number of other comments about the budget.

    Survey participants seemed anxious for a new relationship with the State “The state should pay its fair share” was a popular sentiment. Others felt that Trenton should “discontinue police protection in the State House district”.

    Respondents were not short on additional ideas for raising revenues. Parking taxes and improved violation enforcements topped this list. Privatizing trash collection and charging more for pick-up was a popular idea. Trentonians especially wanted to tax non-residents by way of “commuter taxes” and increased fees on non-resident landlords. Enforcing laws was also seen as sources of income through fines for loitering, increase court fines and using drug seizure money for community benefit. Other ideas included running a Police Academy for profit, an entertainment tax, a wage tax on non-profits and selling the Marriott.

    The results of this survey are illuminating. They show a willingness to sacrifice but more importantly show that Trenton residents have specific priorities in how they would like their government to invest its scarce resources. Both the Mayor and City Council have supported this effort so Fix Trenton’s Budget and Trenton citizens look forward to the incorporation of these results in the 2012 budget.

    Property Tax: Friend or Foe

    No matter what you hear from boosters selling you rose colored glasses or what you hear from detractors who think everyone who visits the Capitol City gets shot, Trenton’s economic situation is bad.  Our per capita income is about half the average for New Jersey as is our assessed property value.  We can’t afford our own municipal government, much less our schools.

    We’re overburdened given our size and even with state and federal aid, our tax rate is high. The plain truth is that our tax rate for 2011 will be the highest in NJ.  In this regard, our property tax is definitely, “foe”. Read the rest of this entry »

    Let’s Fix the Knowledge Gap on Trenton’s Finances

    Trentonians have been kept in the dark for far too long about our city’s budget and economy.  Oh sure, administrations have done their perfunctory job of presenting numbers to the city council and the papers have carried a story here or there.  But no one’s ever explained the problem.

    This coming Monday, February 7 that all changes. Read the rest of this entry »

    City’s Housing Director should be fired

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

    A new year and a new attitude at our hotel

    Ten years ago the Palmer administration decided Trenton needed a full service hotel.    With the help of a group of boosters, including local businessman Shelly Zeiger , the administration shopped the idea around to investors. No one bought.  That didn’t stop this group.  They convinced the city and the state to fund a $46,000,000 hotel with a Marriott brand. 

    The city effectively owns the hotel and manages it through a non-profit entity called the Lafayette Yard Community Development Corporation (LYDC).    The Mayor appoints the board and during the Palmer administration it was largely controlled by the city business administrator.  Read the rest of this entry »

    Big suggestions for Fixing Trenton

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

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

    Discipline and Focus – Learning to say “NO”

    While at the November 23rd City Council meeting I noticed, buried in the back of the ordinances section of the docket, some details that show our government is not yet focused on Trenton’s economic recovery. 

    Most budget-minded Trentonians bemoan the high proportion of tax-exempt property in Trenton due to our status as a state capital.  Not only do we house a large number of tax-exempt government buildings but we also house tax-exempt buildings owned by non-profits.  Non-profit organizations tend to cluster in state capitals and in urban areas.  We also know that Trenton’s heavy proportion of subsidized low income housing has added to our cost structure without a corresponding revenue benefit.  Trenton outpaces all other Mercer County towns in low income housing combined.  As a result, our population can’t afford to support the services we all want. Read the rest of this entry »