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 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?

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One Response to “Trenton’s Budget won’t fix itself”

  • Aladdin Sarsippius Sulemanagic Jackson III:

    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.

    There certainly is a disconnect.
    You profess to want to help right what is wrong in Trenton?
    Mr.Million pointless ideas and Zeiger/Plumeri criminal cartel supporter.

    Let me guess you learned all about it from one of our highly esteemed
    Institutions of Higher Education?
    How about cracking a book because it seems you don’t know one of the most basic fundamental tenets of life in America.

    Democracy is mob-rule,…we’ve lived under a Constitutional Republic form of Government for a very,…very,…very long time.
    But I’d bet you’d like to change all that wouldn’t you?
    Nice try.

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