Mayor Mack gave his first State of the City address tonight. What a great opportunity to lay out a vision and plan for the city you love. What an opportunity to solidly address Trenton’s number one problem, its economy. What a great opportunity to turn around a tumultuous 1st year term and silence the critics.
What an opportunity not taken.
Reinvent Trenton has been underway for three years and there are 83 posts covering what I believe is a coherent philosophy and approach for revitalizing our city.
Central to that approach are several things
- Create and communicate a vision
- Explain measurable goals and foster transparency
- Build a strategic plan
- Base that plan on analytics that relate actions to goals
- Use the budget as a strategic tool
- Use the tax code as a strategic tool
- Work neighborhood by neighborhood
- Focus on attracting disposable income to the exclusion of other wishes
- Clean up the place
So how did Mayor Mack do in his state of the City?
He talked a lot about a vision and that’s good. In fact, I’ve directly encouraged him to paint a picture of the city after the pain is over. It’s a powerful thing to do and one used by perhaps the greatest speaker of our age when Martin Luther King described his dream. While MLK indeed isn’t here to see it with us, many people believe they will see racial harmony in their lifetime.
A similar dream for Trenton is perhaps equally important. If our urban centers can transform themselves from despair to success, Martin Luther King’s vision of equality will be that much more realized.
I’m sure Tony Mack wouldn’t compare himself to Dr. King, and I won’t either, but he did start to describe a vision. It could use some fleshing out but it’s a start.
Unfortunately, Mayor Mack is also in charge of making his dream reality and that’s where the trouble begins.
The Mayor knows he needs to express measurable goals and foster transparency. Yet right out of the gate he attacked bloggers and the press. Most of what the Mayor’s critics are looking for is accountability. They don’t feel they’re getting it. Indeed, no measurable goals for education improvement (increase graduation rate by 10%), crime (lower index crimes by 20%), economic recovery (increase ratable by 10% and population by 5%) were given. Not one.
If there are no measurable goals, there can be no accountability. Without clear goals, we continue to wallow in the muck of poorly performing programs that must be covered up. We need goals for a government to focus on a clear mission. There were none.
Instead we heard about program after program most of which have been tried in Trenton and most of which were initiated under the previous administration. I don’t begrudge Mayor Mack wanting to spend CDBG money on parks, or state tax credits on development at the train station. But please don’t take all the credit, its unseemly.
The speech failed to present a strategic plan. The Mayor didn’t explain how any of his programs related to each other or built on each other. A strategy links together pieces of a puzzle to deliver a vision. Because there were no goals, there could be no linking of a program to, for instance, an increase in ratables. There was no crime goal that could link together efforts in the court system with a community policing tactic. It was as if all of his programs will stand alone. Because they were conceived outside of a strategic framework, they won’t have the multiplier effects they could have if they had been considered as part of a single plan
The worst omission was that of our tax policy. On one hand the Mayor trumpeted the maintenance of all city services but on the other failed to address Trenton’s crushing tax rate. Trenton’s tax rate is the highest in NJ, and by a lot. That high tax rate will stop the new private investment needed to drive our economy. Mayor Mack didn’t even mention it. While I know the Land Value Tax concept is new in his administration, the upcoming reassessment isn’t. He could have explained how those reassessments would help achieve his vision. He could have laid out a goal to have a lower tax rate next year, but he didn’t. One can only assume he has no intention of ever lowering the tax rate. If this is true, he has no intention of revitalizing Trenton. I hope the omission was just a terrible accident.
And what of development? The Mayor talked about several housing projects (Hope VI, the rescue mission, and the cigar factory as well as several smaller efforts). Yet, his administration steadfastly refuses to answer basic economic questions about those projects. His housing director can’t find the time to tell the public whether a new government sponsored project will cost more in services (municipal + school) than it pays in revenue (property tax). This is an easy calculation that would tell Council and the public whether or not a project is a financial benefit. We may decide as a community that no matter how bad our situation and how high our taxes, we’ll still foot the bill in city services to support a rescue mission, but we should at least know how high that bill is. The Mayor refuses, and I mean completely refuses to provide that basic information.
A good strategy for Trenton will be to systematically develop one neighborhood at a time. We don’t have the infrastructure, police and economic development capacity to fix the city all at once. Yet, the Mayor made no mention of it and instead talked about selling city property, paving streets and policing city wide. A better strategy would have been to lay out a focused approach, “we’re going to apply our strategy to one area this year and if it goes well, two more next year”. This is strategy.
The Mayor clearly did not focus on attracting residents with disposable income. He didn’t mention the concept once. One can only assume he doesn’t know how high a family income has to be in order for it to generate disposable income that funds stores and restaurants. If he had read Reinvent Trenton he would. He lumped all development together, and it is NOT all equal. Our strategy needs to severely over-index on disposable income or we will continue to have a weak economy.
He did stake out a couple of items, that while not put into the context of a strategy will help. He mentioned arts and culture and highlighted a dual track inspection process. Both of these items have Reinvent Trenton articles devoted to their utility in driving high end development.
The Mayor did talk about cleaning up Trenton. This is good. Getting rid of litter, straightening street signs and the like improve the look of our city more than anything else. I’ll never forget my mother’s comment on her first visit to Trenton, “It looks sort of dirty”. I was as embarrassed as if I hadn’t cleaned house before she arrived.
Surely I could go on about the strategic value of all this but cleaning up the joint doesn’t need that kind of insight. Phyllis Holy-Ward is right in her crusade to clean up Trenton. When we clean up the place, we’re prouder of it. The prouder of it we are, the more likely we are to keep it clean. To be honest, I’ve never lived among such a filthy people. Trentonians litter indiscriminately. Parents do it in front of their children and then the children litter at will. Drunks throw their liquor and beer bottle in streets, empty lots and sidewalks. It’s a sight to see.
I don’t know that I quite understand why Trentonians are so messy, but any leadership the Mayor can lend to the effort is welcome. I applaud him for addressing it and hope that the message filters down to regular citizens.
Finally, I’ll say a bit about residency. It’s a fallacy that forcing employees to live in Trenton will fix Trenton. It’s revitalization fool’s gold. What’s far more important is that we have employees who are best in class. The mission is to attract new residents that build our economy. It is not to attract new residents who are dependent on our economy. While it’s good for employees to live in the city, we need about 30 new residents to support every new city employee’s salary and benefits. The marginal benefit to our economy of a single new city employee’s residency is nothing compared to the increased output that we may get from broadening our hiring pool.
Residency just isn’t an important tactic if you do the numbers. Sadly, Trentonians seem to lap up the rhetoric.
Reinvent Trenton has written about all of these issues for many years. The Mayor talks about sitting down at a conference table to discuss this with bloggers and activists like me. Hopefully, with a new cabinet finally forming there will be people in place able to have the strategic discussion.