Posts Tagged ‘Trenton’

Operating a city without a budget is irresponsible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§ 2-78 Budget preparation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trenton is adrift because it operates without a budget

Trentonians favor fewer services and lower taxes

Trenton’s Budget won’t fix itself

Trenton’s 2017 Report Card

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

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

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

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

Crime is up and so were murders

The 2016 Uniform Crime Report represents last year’s crime

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

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

Source: NJ State Police

Trenton is losing population

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

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

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

Source: US Census Bureau

Graduation rates have declined

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

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

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

Because we slid backwards, Trenton gets an D.

Source:  NJ Dept. of Education

Incomes in Trenton are down yet again

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

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

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

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tax Base is up a bit

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

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

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

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

Source: Department of Community Affairs

Is the city turning around?  Not yet!

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

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

Link to the 2016 Report Card

Link to the 2015 Report Card

Link to the 2014 Report Card

How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1 -  CLEAN and NEAT

This chapter will cover:

Chapter 2 – It’s the Tax Base Dummy

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

Chapter 3 – Transparency and Accountability

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

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

Chapter 4 – Making Trenton a Living Hell for Criminals

This self-help chapter will cover:

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

Parks and Re-election

Building parks is what politicians do when they simply don’t know what else to do.

Imagine you’re in charge of a “down on its luck city” with high crime, low income levels, bad schools minimal industry and population loss.  You have only $1 dollar, no make that $20,000,000 left to spend.   The question is, on what do you spend that one time only $20M?

Hmmm …..

If you’re an observer of successful urban revitalization maybe a few things would come to mind:

  • How about a stimulus package for urban homesteaders that would attract investment?
  • How about site development for a light manufacturing facility?
  • How about a big investment in technology and surveillance for the police including body-cams?

All seem worth a thought.   But they have one problem in common.  They aren’t parks.

People love parks, or at least the notion of a park.  Perhaps we have fond childhood memories of playing in a well-kept park with mom and dad.  Perhaps, we remember playing baseball or going on a picnic.

Parks are like catnip for residents that don’t know any better.

“People do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would.” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Parks take regular expensive maintenance.  Parks are magnets for drug dealers and prostitutes.   Parks use up land that could be converted to taxable property.  Unless a lot of operational funding is thrown at a park, it’s at best a drain on a city’s finances and at worst a breeding ground for everything wrong with a city.  Parks are what we should do after we’ve achieved some revitalization success.

Parks are what politicians build when they don’t know how to do real revitalization and when they know they’re citizens can be fooled.

That’s what’s going on in Trenton.  Gov. Christie says new Trenton park ‘first step’ to reconfigure Route 29

Faced with his last year in office and in collusion with a governor also in his last year in office, Mayor Jackson realizes that he can’t point to much that’s moved the needle in Trenton.   Instead, he’s lost or wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.   So, what to do?  Build a park or maybe two.

There are a large number of Trenton residents that will immediately reach for their rose colored glasses and think back to pleasant childhood memories to convince themselves that, yes, absolutely, a park will turn Trenton around.   New residents hoping to build new $300,000 homes will flock to Trenton because of our parks.   Criminals will be repulsed by the beauty of the new park and will immediately forgo a life of crime, go back to school, get straight As and find a well-paying job.   That’s what parks do.  The power of parks.

If parks were the linchpin of our Mayor’s overall grand plan (not that anyone believes that) then why hasn’t he shared it with the public?  Why didn’t he base his campaign on it?   Parks were never part of any plan, they just sort of came up and he said, “yeah, sure, then the people will think I did something positive”.

It’s just the opposite, Trenton is taking money out of the “political capital” bank and instead of investing it in to trans-formative initiatives, wasting it on parks.

Linking the un-linkable in Trenton

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

The answer is, NOTHING.

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

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

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

Citizen response to Palmer and Prunetti’s Op-Ed on Trenton redevelopment

Jane Jacobs is perhaps the most influential writer on urban redevelopment in our time.   Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a bible to many on what works and doesn’t in urban revitalization.   In it, she argues that the infusion of large sums of government money into revitalization projects is cataclysmic.  Instead, gradual money that ebbs and flows, fails and succeeds, is what is needed.

The very premise that a large infusion of government money into downtown Trenton will help, no matter how tempting, is fundamentally flawed.   We don’t have to re-read Jacobs to understand this.   Over $150,000,000 in government funds were spent in Trenton 20 years ago to build what Messer’s Palmer and Prunetti called the “Opportunity Triangle”:  The ballpark, the arena and the hotel.   The promise was that these large government investments (yes, our hotel was owned by the city) would stimulate other development in Trenton.

IT NEVER HAPPENED!

Palmer and Prunetti were wrong, way wrong.   They proved how wrong politicians can be at great public expense (the hotel went bankrupt). Bob Prunetti, defended another government project, Thomas Edison State College’s development of Glen Gairn Arms site, by claiming that the patrons at the ballpark were stimulating development as late as 2014.   There is no evidence of this at all.  He was making up a conclusion that was not founded in fact.   Palmer, as late as 2013 told me that he always wanted to sell the hotel to a private owner, yet he never did. After he left office, the hotel, that was built for $60,000,000, was sold in a fire sale for $5,000,000.   Trenton taxpayers lost millions.

So why is it that the Trentonian thinks these two should have an audience regarding the use of public funds in Trenton redevelopment?  (Guest Oped: Palmer and Prunetti: Trenton needs to follow successful examples from other cities)

They shouldn’t.

They had their chance and don’t have anything to show for it.  In the 90s, when they were in power, the country grew economically while Trenton slid backward.   They simply failed to position Trenton to ride the wave of growth that swept the country and  therefore set the city up for the current trend in urban re-population.

Even one of the examples of success they reference in their Op-Ed,  an expensive but uncompleted project in Atlantic City is dubious.   A project that hasn’t even been completed can’t, by definition, be called an economic development success story.  Spending money with no results isn’t success. Who would think otherwise?

Governor Christie’s plan for Trenton has already been roundly criticized by citizens that actually live and work in downtown Trenton.   It’s a tone-deaf proposal that Ms. Jacobs would have railed against.

Prunetti and Palmer propose to change the investment a bit and morph it in to different mixed use project.   However, this still represents a big, risky government directed project.  It’s fundamentally predisposed to have cataclysmic results like stifling streetscapes, crowding out other projects or simply failing (like the hotel).

Who knows why these two former politicians decided to pitch this specific plan.  Perhaps they are somehow connected to it?   Perhaps they haven’t learned the lessons of cataclysmic government money and really think this will work?   I don’t know.  What I do know, and all rational Trentonians should know, is that their track record has been disastrous for Trenton.   The Trentonian has done a disservice to Trenton in publishing their Op-Ed and giving it the credibility that comes with “print”.

Trenton’s 2016 Report Card

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

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

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

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

Crime is slightly up but murders were down

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

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

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

Source: NJ State Police

Trenton is losing population

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

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

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

Source: US Census Bureau

Graduation rates have improved

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

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

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

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

Source:  NJ Dept. of Education

Incomes in Trenton are down again

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

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

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

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tax Base is down

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

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

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

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

Source: Department of Community Affairs

Is the city turning around?  Nope!

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

That’s not progress.

Link to the 2015 Report Card

Trenton’s 15% raise for the City’s top brass is a bad idea

Let’s imagine the City of Trenton was managed like a company.   Many have pondered this notion including a few of our Council members.

Of course no one really thinks cities and companies are the same thing.   I certainly don’t.  But I do know that a few basic business principles apply to any organization.

At the top of the list of basic tools is “managing by objective (MBO)”.

Managing by objective is when you give your employees targets to hit and compensate them with a bonus or raise for reaching or exceeding them.    Sounds pretty basic doesn’t it.  Many, if not most management level employees in this country work under some form of MBO plan.

Not in Trenton city government.

We not only do not have objectives; our administration has proposed a 15% raise for the city’s top brass in the face of management failure after failure.  Some of the most egregious of those are listed below.

  • Trenton’s tax base has been stagnant and our tax rate has gone up not down.
  • Was asleep at the wheel while payroll taxes were stolen – ~$5M hit to the budget.
  • Operated without an approved budget for both of its fiscal years.
  • Hired an incompetent IT firm.
  • Messed up the swimming pool contract and wasted money to hire a new contractor.
  • Stole a Christmas Tree from a city park.
  • Set a new record in spending on lawsuits
  • Oversaw a downgrade of the city’s credit rating.
  • Epically failed to plow the streets during our one snow storm in 2016.

The Business Administrator made the pitch for his and the Mayor’s raise by suggesting that it would otherwise be tough to attract talent.   City Council is being asked to consider ONLY this pay hike as a solution.

But consider the argument.

Our Mayor spent $100s of thousands of dollars to get the job he’s got and he knew the salary going in.    All of the employees knew their salaries.  It’s as if a salary pay hike were the only possible improvement the administration could think of to make Trenton a great place to work.

I can think of plenty of ways to make working in Trenton City government attractive.

How about setting objectives for the city and its departments?

People love having clear goals in their job.   Great companies are great because their employees are fixated on common measures of success.  For instance, should top city execs be working towards objectives for increasing our tax base, lowering crime rate, increasing the population, improving our per capita income, increasing the graduation rate and lowering taxes?

What if we gave bonuses tied to meeting or exceeding those objectives?

If I’m an aspiring economic development director, I’d love a chance to put my plans in to place and profiting from my effort.   I’m sure most citizens wouldn’t mind at all if a Department Head made a big bonus based on our property tax rate going down.

What if we got rid of our residency requirement?

It’s just common sense that a high performing local employee from a neighboring city would be wary of uprooting her family to move from East Windsor or Princeton just to take a job 7 miles away in Trenton.  What company forces their employees to move 7 miles in order to take a job?

What if we improved working conditions?

This is a broad category but do we really think Trenton is the best organization on the planet to work for?   Does it provide a transparent management environment?   Are goals clearly communicated?   Do customers (i.e. citizens) respect the organization?   Do we provide employees modern tools like E-Government?  Do departments have ways of measuring success, for instance citizen satisfaction?

Handing out raises beyond the 1-2% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is just throwing money away.   We need to be smarter than that.   Trenton does need to attract top performers, but they need to be the kind of people that are OK with tying rewards to success.

What can you do?

Trenton’s leaders are immune to this kind of thinking as is evidenced by City Council’s positive vote on an ordinance to grant the administration’s salary increase request.   Every member of the pubic that spoke at the meeting was against it, yet our Council voted for it anyway.

A group of petitioners has set in motion an effort to overturn the measure should it succeed on its second reading in two weeks on September 15 (all ordinances in Trenton need two successful votes).    The petitioners are asking citizens to sign an e-petition in advance of the vote to provide an indication to Council on the likelihood of a petition fight.  If the ordinance passes, the petitioners will have 20 days to collect just over 800 signatures.  The e-petition will make that task easier.

Link to Petition to oppose Trenton’s 15% salary increase for top management

How Pork makes Trenton Roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can change the government if it’s not working for us

Trenton “peaked” decades ago.   My cursory research into the city’s history points to a high point either the late 1920s when the city’s population was around 140,000 or perhaps in the 1950s when much of America was enjoying a post war boom.   However, since then broad, and well known economic and social forces have conspired to challenge industrial cities like Trenton.

Some cities have responded to the challenge and have reinvented themselves.   We know about Savannah, Pittsburgh and to some extent Cleveland and Cincinnati.   Cities in the South like Winston-Salem and Richmond managed their way through the change.   It can be done.   Trenton didn’t do it.

Instead of revitalizing, Trenton has sunk to lows unimaginable in America’s new suburban townships.   We’ve squandered millions of dollars on publicly owned hotels and parking garages.   A Mayor has been sent to a Federal penitentiary.  Our graduation has sunk to below 50%.  Below 50%!   Our murder rate has flirted with being the highest in the nation.  We’ve had almost $5,000,0000 stolen from right under our noses.  Our water has been unsafe.  Our taxes are the highest in New Jersey.  We’ve lost population.   Over half of the land in the city is tax exempt.   We’ve closed our libraries.   Our City Council has failed to provide oversight and occasionally Council meetings turn in to fist fights.  The list goes on.

However, the people of Trenton are not helpless.  We can take control of this problem and provide the ultimate fix.

We can tear down our form of government and start over!

In 1962 Trenton did just that.  The Trenton Council at the time formed a citizen’s commission to study the problem of whether the current form of government was appropriate for the times.  That group took a year and developed a very considered opinion that “no, it wasn’t”.  They therefore recommended that the City adopt the now familiar, Strong Mayor form of government as outlined under the Faulkner Act of the State of New Jersey.   The Faulkner Act spells out several different forms of government including a strong Mayor, a weak Mayor and a City Manager approach.  So no, we’re not locked in to what we have now which spells out 7 council member (4 of them At Large), a Mayor and a Business Administrator.   We can decide that this isn’t working for us.   The evidence (population decline, tax base decline, income decline relative to the State, graduation rate decline and high crime rates) would suggest that it hasn’t “worked” for some time.

Link to 1962 Commission Report

Link to 1962 Ordinance Forming our new Government

One of three things can happen:

1)      The Trenton City Council can take action to form a citizen’s commission to look in to the matter and if needed propose a change.  The change, if recommended would be voted on in a city referendum.  This process would take about a year.

2)      Citizens can form a committee on their own to force the creation of the citizen’s commission.  This action would be similar in scope to Trenton’s recent recall ballot measure, our Pay to Play ballot initiative and smaller ballot measures to simply stagger terms in office for City Council

3)      We can do nothing and hope for the best

The most interesting of the several options under the Faulkner Act is the Council – Manager form of government.  This would allow our elected City Council to hire a professional manager. Typically, this is used in smaller cities where the local talent pool isn’t likely to produce a professional city administrator.   The upside is that we can give this “employee” goals, they can be selected from a national pool of candidates with resumes and the Manager can be fired if they aren’t doing a good job.  The downside is that, much like a school superintendent, the positions is very political and the manager serves at the whim of City Council.

It’s worth thinking about.   Much has changed in Trenton since 1962.  We’ve gone downhill.  Our city’s population has radically changed, the industrial economy has collapsed and the Internet economy has been established.   Not much has changed in Trenton’s government.

Activist like myself and Kevin Moriarty have talked openly about mounting such an effort.  Others have voiced support.  But like the recall, it’s a big effort, especially if our City Council stands in the way of at least considering a change.   We assume they and the current administration will resist even thinking about it.   But that shouldn’t stop the long suffering citizens of Trenton.

Voice your support for the idea of considering a change to our form of government.   Let us know.  From where I sit, it’s much easier to lead if you know you have support.  Better yet, let our City Council know that you want to consider a Faulkner Act change.   A Council action to form the commission will immeasurably simplify the effort by avoiding a costly public referendum.