Posts Tagged ‘Trenton’

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?

Property Tax: Friend or Foe

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

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

Trenton’s Rebirth

“Trenton is in rebirth.”

That’s the claim Mayor Mack’s aid, Lauren Ira, made in her op-ed piece in the Trenton Times.  Along with that she criticized people like me for questioning the Mayor’s ELEC habits, the city’s poor contracting, it’s improper and misguided attempt to sell city homes.  We are chastised for complaining about the Mayor’s failure to discipline his brother, delays in appointing a cabinet and lack of a city budget along with other public missteps.  Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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

City’s Housing Director should be fired

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

A new year and a new attitude at our hotel

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

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

Big suggestions for Fixing Trenton

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

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

Discipline and Focus – Learning to say “NO”

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

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

The State’s Role in Fixing Trenton (Part 1): “What a Good Community Partner Should Do”

Gov. Christie’s “money with strings” approach to giving charity to NJ cities (and Trenton in particular) is to be applauded.  Our democratic form of government requires clear distinction between the roles of government at each level (city, county, state and national).   When funds are intermingled and distributed between levels as they have been in NJ, voters no longer have direct control or responsibility over their government and we get NJ politics.  NJ’s urban centers are almost totally dependent on state aid and for that reason we have no real responsibility for the actions of our elected officials.  The state always bails out Trenton and the others. Read the rest of this entry »

Who is Dan Dodson and what’s he done in Trenton anyway?

My Trenton Resume

Apparently, one needs Trenton “cred” to be part of the political discourse in Trenton.  It’s obvious that “clear thought” isn’t a pre-requisite.  So to try and establish a bit more “right to talk”,  here’s my Trenton story.

Unlike a lot of people involved in Trenton politics and revitalization I wasn’t born and bred here.  I was born in Alexandria, VA and was raised mostly in North Carolina.  My wife, Michelle Emerson, and I moved to NJ from Dallas in 1998 and to Trenton in 2000.  That’s 11 years in Trenton, not exactly born and bred, but pretty long. Read the rest of this entry »