Posts Tagged ‘Trenton’

Trenton’s Mayor hates bloggers

As we speak, Trenton Mayor, Tony Mack, is criticizing bloggers at a special City Council meeting. He thinks that people like me criticize him too much.

He probably thinks it unfair, that there are literate people living in Trenton who are wise to his inability to manage a city. He says that “He doesn’t want to be part of anything negative”. Our Mayor has a blind eye when it comes to criticism. He’s under the impression that everything he does is right and that everyone who disagrees is trying to “take down” Trenton.

The foolishness of our Mayor really comes through when he says things like this.

Why would tax-paying residents of Trenton, like myself, spend so much time writing, researching and otherwise recommending ways to improve our city, if all we wanted to do was “take down” the city. No, of course that’s crazy. We and the 8500 voters who signed the recall petition have simply had enough. We know there’s a better way to run our city and that our city can be much better than it is today.

Our Mayor, in another display of foolish management tonight, just claimed in public that he was saving money by using Acting Directors instead of real “qualified and approved” Directors. Given that our charter requires us to employee real Directors in order to manage the affairs of the city in a professionsal manner, the Mayor is essentially saying, “I’m saving money by not managing the city well”. Being somewhat of a student of management, I can assure Reinvent Trenton readers that the “Run it into the Ground” school of management has never really caught on.

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.

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.

    Trenton’s Budget won’t fix itself

    Written for the May 2011 issue of the Trenton Downtowner
    In a democracy citizens get to rule themselves. We elect representatives who are responsible for doing our bidding. The theory of this republican form of government is great; however there’s often a disconnect.

    We forget that democracy was invented thousands of years ago when governments were smaller and simpler. That changed as Trenton and the rest of America became part of a national and global economy.

    We didn’t keep up and now one of the great challenges of our age is reinventing post-industrial cities like Trenton.

    Why should we expect our leaders to know what’s needed to turn Trenton around? They haven’t done it in the last 20 years. Instead we have declined in population and lost ground in income. Perhaps the collective wisdom of voters could provide better insights.

    You might say, “They don’t listen”. Well perhaps we haven’t delivered a clear message.

    Unfortunately most citizen input is undisciplined. Everyone wants everything: libraries; more state aid; more development and less crime. Governments and our economy don’t work like that. There are no magic wands.

    We have to use our budget as a strategic instrument of revitalization policy. It’s not enough just to reduce the budget. It needs to be used wisely to further our goals of investment, safety and standards of living.

    We need to balance investment in livability (safety, trash pick-up and social services) with investment in the future (lower taxes, improved technical inspections and marketing.)

    We can’t just wait for a revitalization savior to show up in Trenton. Instead, we can leverage the wisdom of the masses to help make the tough choices that political leaders can’t make themselves. Priority Based Budgeting provides an opportunity to do exactly that in Trenton.

    A group of fiscally minded Trentonians organized the Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee to work on efforts important to revitalization. One of those efforts is a budget process that includes citizen input as its driving force. Led by Carlos Avila and Bob Lowe we got the Mayor’s and City Council’s support to do this starting in the fiscal 2012 budget (beginning July 1, 2011.)

    With Beautiful Trenton and the Trenton Council of Civic Associations and council members: we held community input meetings. To make sure we collect as much input as possible, we’ve put the survey online and will keep it open through May.

    The output of the surveys will form the basis of a position paper for city council that will communicate its budget guidelines.

    The Priority Based Budgeting process allows citizens to present their own budgets. People’s priorities are different. Some want lower taxes (we have the highest tax rate in NJ). Some want more services. Others want more investment. We all want these things but we have to balance the budget and now voters can make the same tough choices as our leaders.

    We’ve prepared a survey that presents the budget in a simplified form. We ask you to vote on discretionary items. These include our tax rate and the department spending which directly impact the levels of service that can be provided. We held the items that are beyond our control like state funding, debt service, employee benefits, grants etc constant.

    Choices include two or three reasonable levels of spending and several different tax levels. Dollars are converted into points that make the math easier. But the spending has to equal the income.

    The budget survey can be found at FixTrentonsBudget.org. This is our first year using this process and we look forward to continuous improvement.

    In addition to the budget survey, there’s also a questionnaire asking for your opinion on new revenue enhancing ideas. For your convenience there is also a Spanish version.

    It’s our budget and we all have to be responsible for it. If we don’t do it, who will?