Posts Tagged ‘Trenton NJ’

Trenton is adrift because it operates without a budget

No organization of any size operates without a budget.  The budget serves as the main record of a plan of action.   For most organizations it includes more than just numbers but also a description of initiatives meant to drive the mission forward.  You can NOT find a CEO or Board of Directors of any corporation who would not agree with the above.

In governments, it’s perhaps even more important.  The budget serves as the legal check and balance over the spending of the executive branch. It provides the mechanism by which the legislative branch controls the executive. Because of this budgets, could be said to be a core of our democracy.

Organizations and governments that fail to budget, fail, which brings us to Trenton.

Trenton’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30th.  However, in recent memory the city has not operated with an approved budget before March.  Trenton fiscal year 2015 budget was approved today, March 24th.  That’s three quarters of the way through the year.  We’ve already spent three quarters of our money without an approved budget.  The money that has been spent was spent with an approval process that has less rigor than a formal review complete with public input.

Our budget and therefore our city are adrift and what’s worse NO one in the Administration or City Council seems particularly upset about it.

The Law Director explained why it couldn’t be done any sooner.  The City Clerk gave some additional reasons.  Basically they are saying that Trenton MUST always and for all time operate without a budget.   The democratic process will apply to only one quarter of the year.  We will remain adrift.

I can’t accept that and call on The Mayor to fix this problem.

  • We may need to seek new State laws. Surely there would be support for allowing struggling cities to have budgets.  The Clerk suggested that we need to change our type of school system vis a vis the State, well OK, maybe we should.
  • We may need to make guesses about State funding. That’s why they call it a budget.  All budgets bake in uncertainty, I fail to see the difficulty in this.  The Clerk suggested we not be dependent on the State.  Perhaps, but that’s like wishing for world peace.  Meanwhile we can budget with only an estimate of State funding.
  • We may need do things in parallel. The City Clerk told me that we couldn’t start work until an audit that takes six months is complete.  I challenge that notion.  Surely Department Directors can prepare their materials and citizens and Council can review and voice their priorities while that is happening.
  • We may have to start work on the 2016 budget NOW. We have only three months until fiscal year 2016 begins.   I fail to see why the administration and public can’t agree on priorities and contingencies in advance of July 1 so that shortly after the year begins, Council can begin voting.  The voting should be the last and most inconsequential part of the process to paraphrase fellow activist Kevin Moriarty.

Several years ago, during the unfortunate Tony Mack administration, I, along with a small band of fiscally minded citizens, formed a group called Fix Trenton’s Budget.  Among other things, we researched, developed and presented a new budget process to the Administration and City Council called Priority Based Budgeting.  Other cities around the country use it to good effect.   It was heavy on public participation, analytic thinking by Departments and timelines.  We held public budget education forums and even collected budget priorities from the forums and over the Internet.    It went nowhere because the Mack administration and City Council were happy to operate with no real bounds or public input.   Let’s hope that is NOT the attitude of this Mayor.

We have it ready to re-introduce to Trenton should the Mayor ask us.

We hope that this Mayor will help re-install the good government and transparency that comes from operating under an approved budget.  We hope that we can budget not just for the months of April, May and June but that he will consider the other nine months of the year as also being important in moving Trenton forward.

Priority Based Budgeting Process (from 2012)

Giving up on Reinventing Trenton

For over five years now and really much before that I’ve studied the issues and policies surrounding urban revitalization especially as they pertain to small post-industrial cities.  In that time I’ve written numerous articles published on this site, commented extensively on Facebook and elsewhere and started up two volunteer groups meant to education the public and potential leaders about the policies that would make a difference in Trenton.

The effort has taken quite a bit of time

And the results have been miserable.  As Trenton has failed and our leaders steadfastly refused to pursue any of the policies recommended on these pages, I must come to the conclusion that I have failed.

I have a lot of critics.  They say I don’t make things simple enough or that I’m arrogant.  They complain that math and analysis aren’t everything. I have theories about what’s really going on and perhaps that’s why I need to step away.

I’m sure we will continue our downward spiral.  My taxes will go up.  My property will continue to lose value and my family will be less safe.  We will continue to shop outside of Trenton.  It’s very depressing.

We own a home that we can’t easily sell and our son is buried here.  We have good friends that have supported us over the years and we sponsor a 5K to raise money for scholarships for Trenton kids.  We’re tied to the community, but that doesn’t mean I have to keep banging my head against City Hall.

Meanwhile, I’ll focus on making more money to pay for the taxes and to fortify our home against the increasingly bold thugs and bums who wander like zombies up and down our streets.

I do thank those that have gone along with me on this journey with me especially Bob Lowe, Jim Carlucci and Kevin Moriarty.  Carlos Avilla and Michael Goldstein also have unique voices in the city.   But it’s tough.  These guys are ignored by the un-thinking and shouted down by the pompous.

We’re a city of people who feel entitled to be wrong year after year.  What really pushed me over the edge was the recent debate over Thomas Edison State College’s proposal to develop a parcel of city owned land.  The same empty suits that pushed the hotel, the ballpark and the arena on us as revitalization measures (that clearly didn’t work) were at it again.  In a city that says we have too many state buildings, we rushed to build another one. And our City Council who posits themselves as new thinkers just went along with the old thinking like sheep to a slaughter.

We can forgive ourselves the mistake that is Tony Mack, but when the rest of Trenton’s leadership rushes to follow his lead and that of the cast of characters that has provided poor advice to this city since I’ve lived here, well I guess there’s no hope.

Our budget is a mess.  Our tax system is anti-development.  Our police force is understaffed and demoralized.   Our Mayor is a crook.   And we own a hotel that is bleeding us dry.   Our schools are failing and corrupt (by many accounts).   A single shopping center in Hamilton dwarfs Trenton’s total retail sales. There is no corporate base. A third of our housing is subsidized. Our tax base is shrinking.  In every way we are moving backwards.

As for my role, I can’t point to one suggestion that I’ve made over the years that has been enacted.  No Land Value Tax. No targeted development strategy. No Priority Based Budgeting. No transparency.   We’ve elected the politicians who did the worst on the Fix Trenton’s Budget economic scorecard.  We’ve not sold the hotel.   We’ve not even made our government transparent as evidenced by Jim Carlucci’s cottage industry in OPRA requests.   Our inspections department stands in the way of development.   We have NO strategic plan.  We’ve not lifted a finger to sensibly address State funding (the Mayor doesn’t even understand it).   We’ve not taken bold steps to encourage new development.   We’ve not created a methodology to evaluate the break-even on development projects.

If this were a business, our lack of insightful management would have bankrupted us years ago.  But we’re not, we’re a government with the power to tax in order to cover up our mistakes.  So that’s what we do.  We tax and then increase the tax some more.

It doesn’t make sense for me to continue being an activist.  I’m a volunteer but there are professionals lined up to hatch dumb ideas like the TESC deal, one right after another, and they get paid by taxpayers to do it.  I can’t compete with that.  The cards are stacked against me and the other activists hoping to make Trenton a better place for no other reason than to have a better place in which to live.

That’s what the non-activists don’t get.  The volunteers that complain about City Hall don’t have a political purpose other than to have a better life in Trenton.   It’s the city official or Mayor that has something to hide, a status quo to protect and, as it turns out prison to avoid.

Maybe sometime in the future I’ll find a role that will let me apply what gifts I do have (tact is not one of them) to the important work of revitalizing the city.  It certainly won’t be in an elected role, I’m not cut out for that.  However, the people of Trenton are going to have to “wise up”.  Electing the likes of Tony Mack because “we know him from the hood” just can’t happen again.  We’re a national laughing-stock because of our gullibility as an electorate.  We let Doug Palmer drive Trenton’s economy into the ground, but we invited Mack to put a stake into our heart.

Listen to the activists I mentioned.   They can help.  They know the issues and they understand what leadership qualities are needed to turn the city around.


The Fix Is In

On Friday afternoon, (Jan. 11, 2013) Trenton first heard that Thomas Edison State College was to acquire the former Glen Cairn Arms (GCA) building at 301 W. State St.

The deal is that they pay a one-time fee of $300K and then never another dime to Trenton for all eternity.  TESC wants to construct a nursing school on the site.

To those of us that have observed the RFP process for GCA and the city’s broader attempts to market the city over the years, we know that our failure to interest a developer was due to lack of imagination, financial acumen and hubris.   The city under Doug Palmer had paid a substantial amount of money to acquire and settle lawsuits regarding the building, in excess of $3M.   We always thought we were better than any developer thought we were.  A Walgreen’s wasn’t good enough or a developer wouldn’t pay enough of the demo cost.  Or maybe other payments weren’t made.

In 6 tries over 16 years the city has not found a proposal that it liked enough to accept.  They’ve turned down proposals that would have had a positive return on investment for the city (i.e. paid more in taxes that our cost to make the site read).   And meanwhile, they never presented a plan to make the area around the site attractive to developers.  Over the years both Palmer and Mack have slowly let the city deteriorate in general both in its ability to fight crime but also to function as a working government.

So here we are.

In comes George Pruitt to present a deal to the city for the site that gives us nothing and for all time.

Tonight’s City Council meeting was obscene in the degree to which those of us working to help fix our approach to government were dismissed.  It was as if we were on the wrong side of the negotiating table with TESC, City Council and the administration lined up jointly to oppose us.

George Pruitt and his subjects threw out comment after comment hoping to convince, I don’t know who, that the project was a good idea.  They didn’t need to convince Council because they’d already been dealt with before the deal was announced.   Council and the city administration have given up on the city’s ability to affect change in marginal areas of the city.

This is a scary thought.  By giving up on Glen Cairn Arms, which has quite a bit going for it in terms of location, they’re saying that they don’t know what to do in any marginal part of the city.  They don’t know how to stimulate development.   It’s a hard thing to accept especially when the city administration and council don’t even know that’s what they’ve done.

But back to Dr. Pruitt’s comments on the numerous benefits to the proposed project:  Bob Lowe called them second order effects, which is what they are if you could even prove that.

For instance, he insists that by erecting a shiny new building property values would go up.  However, there’s no evidence in Trenton to suggest that.  It didn’t happen with the ballpark, hotel or arena in the so-called opportunity triangle.  It didn’t happen with the Hughes Justice Complex and it’s not happening with the new County courthouse.   The theory just isn’t supportable with the evidence.  And even if it was, it wouldn’t help our revenues because we don’t revalue our property, ever.

Second, Diana Rogers of the CCRC strongly supported the project.  Well that’s wonderful but who cares.  Ms. Rogers’ contribution to the “logic gone wild show” was to suggest that students at the nursing school would move to Trenton.   Wow! That was a doozy.   So what she thinks is that nursing student from around the world will pass by all of the other nursing schools in between them and Trenton just to come to TESC so that when they get here they’ll need a place to stay.   It’s hard to believe that a person that calls herself a redevelopment professional actually said that in public.

Next we hear the obligatory jobs argument, both construction jobs and permanent jobs.  I’d like for just once somebody to put pen to paper and show exactly how that translates into municipal revenue.  Unless new workers are being recruited from other areas of the country and need housing, and then when they get her happen to decide they want to live in Trenton, new jobs don’t equal new revenue.   Or maybe Dr. Pruitt thought that TESC would be hiring unemployed homeless people already in Trenton.  I don’t know what he was thinking other than he knew the public would like hearing it.

Finally we hear the nursing school compared favorably to other schools like Princeton, Rutgers and The Naval Academy.  The argument goes that those schools spin off industry and stimulate the economies of their host cities.  There is evidence that research universities have contributed to the development knowledge economies.   There just isn’t any evidence that nursing schools do that.  If there was then wouldn’t we be experiencing the boon Dr. Pruitt and others predict given that Mercer County Community College already has a nursing school in downtown Trenton.  I’ve read a lot about the linkage between universities and economic development.  I just haven’t come across the same linkage for nursing schools.

So we’ve got $16.7M in state spending that will make Trenton look a little prettier, give students another nursing option and construction workers another 6 months’ worth of work.  But Trenton gets nothing.

But we expected those banal arguments.  It’s what people say when they have to run away from the hard truth that a public project won’t benefit the host community.  We’ve heard this story too many times to count in Trenton.

What we didn’t expect to hear was the outright hostility to the idea that maybe we should take some time to think about this idea before we act.  I suggested that we form a group to look into the claims that were made by TESC and their paid contractors.   Shouldn’t we verify that there is no hope for site?  Shouldn’t we calculate the city’s cost in supporting this building for all eternity?  Shouldn’t we find a way to determine how nursing student lunches will translate into municipal revenue?   TESC made a lot of claims and didn’t provide any calculations to show how the city would actually benefit.  Shouldn’t we look into that?

And what about the city?  How is it that an economic development department can go 16 years and not figure out how to turn around one of the most trafficked blocks in the city?   How is it that a Business Administrator can’t figure out that a demolition loan at 2% would be a bargain if it generated a 4% return in taxes?  It’s not hard math.

Shouldn’t we do a little due diligence?

Nope rather than allow citizens to help look into these questions, our city council angrily shut the door on meaningful analysis and research.  They literally suggested that if we wanted to, we could  try to come up with something on our own. We could, but we’ve only got two weeks.   I’m sorry but we have jobs.  TESC told the Council that they had been working on this plan for two years.  Trenton taxpayers working as volunteers have only two weeks.

And to top it off, it was suggested that if we as taxpayers were so concerned why we didn’t do something about it before.  With whom?   Tony Mack hasn’t had the same person in the same job for more than 6 months for the past 2 ½ years.  Activists have tried to work constructively with the administration but it’s like walking on quicksand.   Further, I’ve been writing about this very subject for years.   I’ve written post after post about how to deal with land that has negative value.  I’ve proposed that we subsidize demo costs as early as 2008.  I’ve written extensively about neighborhood level development and land value tax.  These are measures to which the Palmer or Mack administrations or Council could have listened.  But instead they’ve chosen to chase business as usual and cede more Trenton land to the State of NJ.  They’ve chosen to be influenced by the same people who have influenced Trenton into the hole it’s in.  They’ve chosen to make us more dependent on the State, not less.

The lack of questions, the suspension of logic and the shutting out of meaningful public comment is proof positive that once again, in Trenton, the fix is in.

Other blogs/write-ups on the subject:

Jim Carlucci’s write-up of the Council meeting

Reasons to be Cheerful. Not.

Glengarry Glen Cairn

Tony Mack’s Worst Deal Yet

“The State’s Role in Fixing Trenton (Part 2): Using the State’s Power to Re-invent Trenton”

  In Part 1 of “The State’s Role in Fixing Trenton” I argued that New Jersey should fund a portion of Trenton’s revenue and I presented a simple calculation for a fair funding level, $70M.  However, there are several big changes that only the state can make that will truly re-invent Trenton’s economy and potentially all of New Jersey’s urban centers.

Over the years, state and federal governments have adopted policies favoring the creation of suburbs:  most notably road building, tax advantaged mortgages for single family homes and electrification.  Technology also played an important role in making urban centers less important as telecommunications, trains, power generation and eventually container shipping spread manufacturing out of town. [1]

These policies and technologies, among others, led to urban decline over the last 50 years.  Urban renewal and the riots in the late 60s were just nails in the coffin.

These are powerful mega-trends but their influence is waning and new mega-trends are taking over: Read the rest of this entry »

Trenton’s Ethical Dilemma

We have a difficult choice to make in Trenton’s mayoral race on Tuesday, and not in a good way.

Neither of our candidates, Manny Segura or Tony Mack have a real plan for Trenton.  They both talk revitalization gibberish so it’s really a bit of a ugly toss-up from a policy perspective.  Read the rest of this entry »