Posts Tagged ‘Trenton’

Palmer’s Dream, Still a Nightmare

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my first article about the Trenton Marriott shortly after I joined the Lafayette Yard Development Corporation board (LYDC).   which oversees the hotel on behalf of the city.  At the time in 2010, I was encouraged that a new Board would take aggressive action to get us out from under the hotel’s debt burden and operational risk.   A new year and a new attitude at our hotel

After I joined the board and began to understand things better I started saying to anyone who cared to listen, and certainly the LYDC board that: Our hotel isn’t worth very much to us and we need to sell it now.

The LYDC board has a few sophisticated people on it and many others who simply have no business being on the board of a multimillion dollar operation.  This is one of the many follies in having a city owned business; it has to be run by citizens who simply aren’t equipped to make important business decisions.

Two years after I wrote the above, hopeful, article:

  • We still own the hotel,
  • It’s still struggling,
  • We’ve bailed it out to the tune of $500K,
  • And we’ve paid $2.8M in debt payments from our city budget,
  • And I’ve resigned from the board.

The fundamental problem is that the hotel is worth more to a third party than it is to Trenton and it’s not worth very much to us at all.  For instance a third party would be allowed to lease out the restaurant space (we’re not).  A third party could profit share with its manager.  We can’t do that.  A third party could make big decisions quickly.  As a public corporation the hotel has to go before a citizen board and sometimes City Council.  The operations of the hotel are severely limited in flexibility and business model structure.

As an asset, the hotel should be valued to the owner (the taxpayers of Trenton) at the present values of its future cash flows. In a good year we can expect around $100K in cash from operations before our debt cost of $1.4M a year. The value of those cash flows comes out to about $700K. This means that we should be happy to sell the hotel for that amount of money.

Of course there may be a buyer who would pay us more than that but every day we turn down offers for anything more than our own value is a day that we’re losing money (because we pay the debt).

For instance, if, when we had an offer for $22M and had wound up selling for $10M, we would be able reduce our $15M debt by 2/3.   That would save almost $1M a year in debt payment from the city. The board President didn’t even manage to bring that offer to the LYDC board.  He failed to do so at the advice of our bond financiers who felt considering a sale would have gotten in the way of their bond sale, and thus their fat commissions. The bond guys were effectively running the board and had a significant conflict of interest.  I quit the board soon afterwards.

The City of Trenton (taxpayers) pay $1.4M a year on that $15M in debt. Every year we don’t sell the hotel means another year we’re paying that full amount.

I hope to God the LYDC board has at least put the hotel up for sale, but as of the time I left the board, they couldn’t even get themselves organized to do that.

The City of Trenton needs to get itself out of the hotel business now, not next year or the year after. There is no reason to expect the LYDC to manage the operation to greater profitability, experience shows it won’t.  We need to put this bad experiment in mayoral arrogance and public gullibility behind us.

Instead, we continue business as usual.  The Marriott will take away its brand in the middle of 2013 because they are disgusted with us.  Waterford, the organization who has managed not to run the hotel at a profit and who caused the city to have to bail out the hotel, may get replaced.    It will likely be replaced with another outfit recommended by Acquest but without a serious national search for a new manager or owner

Erin Duffy at the times wrote a good summary this week in the Times: Trenton Marriott next to Statehouse could change branding to Holiday Inn.

Trenton is Missing Out on Big Business

If you’ve driven up the turnpike from Exit 7 to 8A then you’ve undoubtedly seen all of the giant distribution centers.

These are businesses that could have been located in Trenton if we’d gotten our act together.

One of the things you do as an aspiring civic leader in Trenton is go to workshops where you’re asked to list Trenton’s assets.  People always give the same answers:  its people, its buildings and its location.

Well our people are going to work on the turnpike corridor in places like East Windsor and Robbinsville, our buildings are empty and our location isn’t as good a one would have thought.

Instead Barnes and Noble, Green Mountain Coffee and likely Amazon along with many others have set up shop in modern warehouse space in the suburbs.

Before the apologist tell me that building new construction space is cheap and Trenton can’t compete, let me suggest that we didn’t even try.  Doug Palmer was asleep at the wheel and Tony Mack is, well he’s Tony Mack.

The explosion in industry just 10 miles from downtown Trenton happened without our city even lifting a finger to figure out how we might be competitive.

We had at least one competitive advantage over the suburbs. Those warehouse facilities are hiring Trenton people.  The Kenco facility that houses Green Mountain Coffee are actually bussing Trentonians to Robbinsville.

What went wrong?

My guess is that the views on business among the city leadership are simply too provincial to understand what was happening.  Additionally our culture of corporate extortion limits us to dealing with small time developers.  Serious logistics companies like Kenco wouldn’t give a trifling crook like Tony Mack the time of day.

Furthermore we just don’t have a good story to tell.  To attract a 500,000 SF logistics operation we’d need to show why Trenton is a less costly option than a “Greenfield” in Robbinsville.  We’d have needed all the creative business people we could muster to pull that story together.  A difficult task indeed, but we didn’t even make a serious effort.

Trenton misses out on opportunities like this because we are distracted from the job of revitalizing our city.  Instead of attracting world class development, we’re busy playing political games to attract housing projects like HOPE VI.   We spend our days begging for money through grant writing and we reshuffle the deck chairs in our city budget.

I don’t expect Trenton to develop a plan in the next two years.  Rather we’ll need to wait until a new administration is elected.  In the meantime, we need to listen for candidates who have a “can do“attitude about engaging the city in developing a real revitalization plan.

Kenco brings Green Mountain to Robbinsville

The Economics of “Good Corruption”

JoJo Giorgianni has given us his economic assessment of the value of corruption to a city.  His plan was to use Mayor Tony Mack like a puppet to enrich himself as developers bribed his version of Tammany Hall for the right to build in Trenton.  JoJo’ and Mack’s thinking was that they were facilitating investment and should get paid.  Why else would they have gone to the trouble of getting Mack elected?  In his conversation with an FBI informant, JoJo called this “Good Corruption”.

I guess that’s one idea.

But just to spell it out we, need to be clear about why corruption hurts a city.

Corruption distorts a market and creates uncertainty.

Investors HATE uncertainty!   When it becomes known that one developer has had to bribe city officials, all other developers become uncertain as to what level of corruption they will face as they consider investment in Trenton.  A developer would much rather play by a transparent and clear set of rules rather than the murky give and take of Trenton’s underworld.

Furthermore, in a climate of corruption, it is entirely likely that a developer could face a second round of shake-downs further into the project after there was no turning back.  This possibility opens the developer up to a high degree of risk.  What was to stop JoJo and Mack from ordering the building inspector to look again at a project, unless the developer had “Uncle Remus” visit again (their code for bribe money).

Our PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) negotiations are another source of risk and potential corruption.  Every developer negotiates separate deals with the administration on what taxes they will pay.  This kind of uncertainty makes evaluating a deal impossible.  Even when options for a “standard” PILOT have been presented to the Mack administration, they have ignored them.  Why give up the opportunity for graft.

Bribery and extortion create an unequal playing field that raises the cost of business in a place like Trenton. Developers have other options and we need them more than they need us.

Trenton politicians have a history of shaking down developers

Tony Mack isn’t the first politician to require that developers “check in” with the administration before doing business.  Other politicians have required contributions to campaigns as a pre-condition of cooperation.  We should all be suspicious of campaign war chests exceeding $200,000.  That kind of money doesn’t come from normal citizens hoping for better government.  It comes from people who want favors, at our expense.

We don’t want to make it expensive, risky or difficult for developers to build in Trenton.  We can see the results:  very little development happens in our city because of our corrupt climate and heavy handed administration.  I’ve talked to many Trenton developers over the years who’ve refused to work in our city again because of the bad taste it left in their mouths.

We need a completely different approach

In a new revitalization minded administration, we’ll:

  • Clean out our Housing and Economic Development and Inspections Departments and start over with a new attitude
  • Publish a process for development that does NOT include the Mayor’s office
  • Set prices for city owned land in a public Internet based auction system (For the time being, NO more deals).
  • Create a standard PILOT hopefully based on Land Value Tax system that rewards investment and discourages speculation

Trenton has been relatively closed to honest business development for many years.  Hopefully, with the Mack era behind us we can start fresh and turn our city into the easiest place in Central Jersey to develop instead of the hardest.  Given our other issues, we need to be better than everywhere else.

Trenton’s Next Self-Inflicted Economic Disaster

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

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

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

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

So what’s so wrong about Miller Homes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayers have grossly overpaid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of Trenton – by the numbers

July 2012

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

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

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

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

They are

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic Success: D

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

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

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

Average Income: F

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

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

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

School Success:  F

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

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

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

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

Population Growth :  C

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

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

Crime: C

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

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

Should Government Festivals be Our Top Priority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trenton’s 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%.