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.

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4 Responses to “Trentonians favor fewer services and lower taxes”

  • toyotabedzrock:

    Did you give them a choice of a millionaire tax? I think not.

    Did you survey home owners or the majority of people in Trenton that only rent.

    I would guess the former.

    It’s easy to get the result you want from a biased survey.

  • I don’t know how the survey was bias.

    The options we gave were the ones the administration could conceivable provide. There’s no such thing as a “Millionaires” tax in municipal taxation in NJ. I assume you were confused with the State tax of the same name.

    As for renters, we tried as hard as possible to attract all sorts of people. I don’t guess you took the time to participate in any of the 5 budget seminars we conducted at locations in each of Trenton’s 4 wards. If you had, you’d know that we spent quite a bit of time explaining how the budget and taxation affected renters.

  • MoeC:

    202 respondents hardly qualifies as 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.”

    You sampled the few that actually get involved in the city. Your questions were also geared toward the moderately-educated and higher crowd; that segment of population is hardly representative of the whole.

    You also let your biases slip into the interpretation of the results. You lead off by saying 38% of respondents favored cutting the fire budget and 35% favored cutting the police budget. You didn’t begin by saying 7% favor increasing…, or that 55% favor not cuts at all. You opted to start with the decrease number, which I suspect was probably your choice on the poll.

    Whats more, you injected an adjective into the result when you said “a surprising 38%…”. Surprising to who? Is it truly surprising or just a means to make it seem more impressive?

    “A substantial 31%” favored reopening all the libraries? How did you determine what is a substantial number and what is not? An adjective that WOULD have applied here is majority; that being the majority of respondents, 51%, who want no change in the library.

    This survey is dangerous because the group at city hall is floundering and liable to see these results as a barometer of public opinion. I think an enlightened few do no represent the public.

  • BrotherMou:

    Of course taxpayers want lower taxes at the expense of services until it directly effects them. Not exactly groundbreaking work here. This is an irrelevant exercise. The city’s tax revenues don’t even cover its debt service responsibilities, benefits and pension liabilities. Double the tax rate and the city still wouldn’t even be covering 70% of the budget.

    I feel sorry for the individual property owners because they’re the one’s bearing the burden here. I could care less about the absentee owners (most notably from Lakewood, Brooklyn, and the Bronx which now own about 5 percent of city residences).

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