On this past Tuesday evening, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson and several members of his Administration attended the monthly meeting of the Cadwalader Heights Civic Association (CHCA). It was the latest in a series of meetings with civic associations and other neighborhood groups that his Administration have been conducting in 2017. The Mayor was accompanied by Police Director Ernie Parrey, Housing and Economic Development Director Diana Rogers, Public Works Director Merkle Cherry, and Director of Finance (who Mr. Jackson announced is retiring at the end of this month) Ron Zilinski. I’d like to recap some highlights of the evening.
The meeting was conducted as follows: Mr. Jackson gave brief introductory remarks, followed by remarks by Directors Parrey and Rogers, followed by some Q&A. Prior to the meeting, the Civic Association solicited some written questions, which they forwarded to City Hall before the meeting. Additionally, some questions and comments were offered from the floor. The entire presentation was oral. There were no handouts or visuals. Therefore there was no way to review the information presented during the evening.
This format differed from at least a few other local meetings that I’d heard about. For at least one other Association, for example, only advance written questions, seen beforehand and pre-vetted by City Hall, were addressed; nothing from the floor was allowed. I had expected the same format for the CHCA meeting, and was pleasantly surprised that non-vetted questions were allowed, and pleased that they were frankly answered. Of course, given the venue and the format, they were not extensively answered. And, in one case, perhaps not accurately answered. But, I appreciate the effort put in by the Mayor and his Cabinet in attending this, and the other, neighborhood meetings. Three years into the current electoral cycle, and looking at the prospect of the next one starting up only a couple months from now, may enter a wee bit in to the impetus for this city-wide tour right now, after all.
The Mayor’s remarks gave some big picture context to what his Administration has accomplished. Overall crime, despite some periodic spikes, is down 9% during his term. Nearly 1000 new, market-rate residential units will be coming online within the next 18-24 months, as well as several tens of thousands (I was taking notes and missed his number) of square feet of commercial space in the same time. He named the upcoming CML plant (the upcoming Dunkin’ Donuts facility on the old site of The Trentonian’s offices), expanded facilities for The Hibbert Group, and the recently-announced move to Trenton by Maestro Technologies as positive developments. He also stated that Trenton’s School District has improved the high school graduation rate of its students from 51% to 80%. The Mayor also noted the ongoing construction of the new Central High School as a positive development, and mentioned that Mercer County Community College is pledging its support to provide job training and development services to local residents to support placing them in these new companies setting up shop.
Director Parrey was next up, to provide a couple of bullet points (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). He said that the Trenton Police Department’s roster would stand at 262 officers upon the graduation of the current Academy class. In order to address one of the ongoing public safety issues in the city – the tendency of many of the criminal actors to be those between 14 and 18 years old and not well served in the current courts – he and his department are working with the State Justice Department, the Juvenile Justice Commission, and Municipal Judge Marc McKithen to set up a Youth Court, similar to Newark’s, on a trial basis (OK, I will stop). And both he and the mayor promoted the use of the “My Block” program for residents to report non-emergency neighborhood nuisances. Please note, My Block is NOT intended to report bad local puns.
Housing and Economic Development Director Rogers spoke about some initiatives in her department. She mentioned that a 6.9 acre property (I THINK the same site Maestro is going into; again, I was taking notes, and missed that part) was acquired for the City from the NJ Schools Development Authority. She also said that there is active interest in properties near the new Nursing School Building belonging to Thomas Edison State U, as well as in the Mercer Campus site previously operated as Capital Health Center. She mentioned that she anticipates convening an upcoming community meeting to discuss plans for the Campus; which, as I wrote the other day, would bring us right back to the same place we were in back in February, 2010. The more things change…
Then Ms. Rogers said she wanted to answer a question that had been submitted prior to the meeting, which may have been one of mine. I had asked, about the reported $17 Million in tax credits and subsidies Maestro would receive in order to bring them to Trenton, how much of that $17 Million was City money. In my written question, I referenced that the State’s Financial Incentives programs, as described in the NJ “Economic Opportunity Acts” of 2013 and 2014 includes a 10-year abatement of all local property tax payments, followed by another 10-year period during which local taxes would be progressively phased in, at 10% a year.
With that as context, Director Rogers said she wanted to say that no city resources were being used as part of these incentives. ALL of the incentives were coming from the state. I was wondering whether she meant that was true only for those projects she had just mentioned, or for the State incentives program in general, when she then doubled down. She said the State program was “designed” to benefit communities such as Trenton, and Camden, by not requiring local contribution to these incentives.
Now, I knew that couldn’t be right. I wanted to ask her about her statements, then and there. But I figured I probably only had a chance for one bite at the apple, and wanted to reserve my chance for a question to Mayor Jackson. So I followed up with an email to Ms. Rogers on Wednesday. I won’t include the whole letter, but here’s an excerpt, which was based on a piece I wrote back in 2013:
In its “Legislative Fiscal Estimate” prepared for the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, the Office of Legislative Services included this Statement: “The Garden State Growth Zone (GSGZ) property valuation exemption will result in significantly reduced property tax revenues for the cities of Paterson, Passaic, Trenton, and Camden to encourage potential development which may not occur without GSGZ incentives.” [Emphasis added]
This negative impact on the Garden State Growth Zone communities has been well known since the first Act in 2013, and to my knowledge was not rectified in the Act of 2014. Since this effect was explicitly discussed by the Office of Legislative Services prior to the Act’s adoption, this negative fiscal impact must be a considered a feature of the state’s incentive programs, and not a bug.
In light of these considerations, can you please clarify your comments from yesterday evening that Trenton does not contribute to these project incentives?
As of this morning, March 24, I haven’t received any reply or acknowledgement of my note from City Hall. Until then, I will continue to believe that Trenton’s Director of Housing and Economic Development has some major misconceptions about the nature of New Jersey’s economic incentive programs and how they impact the city she works for.
After Ms. Rogers, the Mayor opened the floor for questions, to him or any of his colleagues. The first question asked when the City’s Cadwalader Park would be cleaned up. Not simply have trash removed, but things such as years of accumulated dead leaves and fallen trees. PW Director Cherry’s response was essentially that the City was working on it.
The second resident posed less of a question than an impassioned plea for advice from the mayor and his team: how, after ten years in the City and our neighborhood, could he think to stay in Trenton with the very serious quality of life issues that he had to deal with. He mentioned a suspected crack house two doors down from his, and a shooting at his corner that very afternoon, an incident that Director Parrey acknowledged.
The neighbor was upset, and his question really went to the heart of all of Trenton’s problems. When drugs and violence are literally on your doorstep, how can you tolerate staying here with family and loved ones? Mr. Jackson and Mr. Parry talked to the man sympathetically, and generally. Mr. Parrey took the address of the suspected crack house, said he was unaware of any problems there, but would look into it. He and the Mayor tried to put our neighborhood’s concerns in some context. The same problems could be found on a daily basis in the Mayor’s Villa Park neighborhood. Public safety is an ongoing issue in all communities, not only Trenton. The City is working on the problem from many directions, including on the street with the Police Department, in the Courts and with County, State and Federal resources, as well as with local neighborhoods and residents, all of whom have a stake in keeping the city safe. Our neighbor was encouraged to stick it out, in hope of better times. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Parry were sympathetic and sincere; I don’t know how reassured my neighbor felt, but I certainly understand that they deal with these issues and incidents like these every day, in every city neighborhood. My neighbor expressed that he was thinking about whether to leave the city for good. He, I and many folks in the City can consider leaving as an option; for a lot of other people, that alternative isn’t so simple. The problem is to make all Trentonians feel safer where they live and work.
I asked the mayor about the Audit and internal review of procedures and policies he announced over a year ago, in the aftermath of the $5 Million Dollar theft of city funds by Innovative Payroll Services (IPS). Since that had been the last public mention of that audit, could he please give a brief summary of the results of that review, and of any actions taken in response. If he couldn’t provide a brief summary that evening, could he please commit to a fuller explanation at a later date?
This was the first time I had asked the mayor about this matter since sending am email to him in March 2016, to which he did not reply. To my pleasant surprise, he answered my question at some length and with some candor, which to my knowledge is the first time he has publicly addressed the topic at all since his press conference of March 14, 2016.
The Mayor quickly reviewed the matter, stating the City had been the victim of a crime by an unscrupulous individual. He said something also about this theft happening at a time one year into his term, when his Administration was still, according to him, settling in to City Hall, and learning the nuts and bolts of city administration. He did reveal a few things that the City has done in response to the internal and external reviews and audits. Principally:
- Payroll tax deposits, previously handled by the intermediary of the city’s Payroll Services vendor, are now made directly to State and Federal tax authorities by the City. This is a wise move, and good business practice that should have been instituted years ago/
- Two unnamed individuals have been disciplined for their performance during this theft. He did not name the persons, nor describe the discipline, citing personnel confidentiality. Presumably they are Janet Schoenhaar, the City’s Comptroller, and Mary Henry, a City Accountant. These are the only two City names on months of emails between the City and IPS in 2015 discussing frequent delinquency notes and penalty invoices received from the State and Feds. If these employees were the ones referred to by the Mayor, they are seasoned city employees of long tenure, not recent Administration hires settling in to their jobs and learning the nuts and bolts.
- Additionally, the Mayor said, and was seconded by Finance Director Zilinski, that a large amount of the funds stolen by IPS have been recovered.
He didn’t provide any further details during the little time remaining in the evening. I was glad to finally get some information from the mayor on the matter, and thanked him for addressing it. I do hope this means the mayor may be more forthcoming on this matter, more publicly and to more Trentonians than were able to hear him in our small group on Tuesday.
I thank the Mayor and his colleagues for attending on Tuesday. I hope this represents a new stance on communication and accessibility that will be continued. That this is happening three years into their terms in office is, I suppose, just one of those things.
Thanks to a tip from a reader, this may be the next matter of public interest to watch here in Trenton: today, March 21, [UPDATE: the deadline is now April 12] is the deadline for the City to receive Proposals from interested companies for “Management Advisory Services for Trenton Water Works and Trenton Sewer Utility.”
According to the General Purpose note at the beginning of the RFP, which can be found at this link to the City’s website (click on the “View Printable Documents” section), “The City of Trenton (’the City’) is soliciting sealed proposals through a fair and open process in accordance with N.J.S.A. 19:44A-20.4 et seq from professional qualified individuals or company (’Firm’) to assess the general operations of the Trenton Water Works and Sewer Utility, document the findings and recommendations for improvements, and assist the City in implementing the approved improvements.”
The RFP goes on to describe the scope of services to be provided by the successful bidder for the City’s contract. Some excerpts:
The City is seeking a firm to provide services to perform an assessment and prepare a study of the utility administration, planning, operations, maintenance, and capital programs. This study will also include a review of the customer service, billing and collection aspects for the Trenton Water Works. The study will include recommendations to address deficiencies and approaches to improve the administration, planning, operations, maintenance and programs. The City will review the study and recommendations and approve the recommendations that are determined to be feasible and/or consistent with the City’s objectives. The successful firm may be required to participate in meetings and conversations with TWW and / or City staff to discuss the recommendations, and possibly modify or adjust the same based upon further feedback from the City. Once accepted by the City, the firm is expected to assist the City with implementation. The firm will be able to assist the City to facilitate knowledge transfer and help the TWW/TSU establish the foundation for long term optimization and enhanced performance. These services will be known as Management Advisory Services…
Additionally, through this procurement, the City is also seeking a firm that has experience to identify, evaluate, and recommend improvements to the operations as described in this solicitation (the Study Phase). After the study phase has been completed, the firm will assist the TWW/TSU implement the approved recommendations (the Implementation Phase) that will result in operation enhancements that will reduce the overall cost of operations and/or enhance performance or compliance (the Implementation Phase)…
The Management Advisory Services will include supervisory-level staff or subject matter experts with the requisite qualifications and experience in their respective areas of responsibility including, for example, treatment plant operations, collection, distribution, customer service, and maintenance. These experts will assist in the identification and implementation of approved cost reductions and operational enhancements as described in the following paragraphs.
And, in language that – because of the City of Trenton’s past history in such matters – does not fill me with a sense of confidence:
It is not expected that the contracted services or staff will replace or supersede any existing or proposed TWW/TSU staff to achieve the long-term goals.
“It is not expected” that any staff from the successful company would replace any City employees.
But, you know, situations have a funny tendency to change once things get under way.
Hey, we all know that Trenton’s Water Works utility needs help. For years, it’s been understaffed and undercapitalized, even though it is a profitable enterprise serving not only residents and businesses in the City of Trenton but also thousands of customers throughout other townships in Mercer County. It’s been the source of serious management and labor problems over the years, as summarized in this 2013 Trenton Times article, and more lately questions have been raised about the safety of the system’s water supply. The system does need help, that is obvious.
The City has hired consultants in the past, for example in 2011 to assist in some major capital upgrades at the TWW filtration plant and the project to cover an open-air reservoir. Those experiences went well for the system.
This time, things feel different. For one thing, reading through the City RFP suggests the City is anticipating a more comprehensive management consulting effort this time around. The City is looking for a company to look at all aspects of TWW and Sewer Utility operations, make recommendations and assist or oversee implementation of those recommendations. And, whereas “it is not expected” to involve replacement of city employees by the corporate contractor, it sure does sound like that eventuality is not being taken off the table.
For another thing there are recent experiences, some local, that suggest that such an outcome of (at least) partial privatization of water and sewer utility services is indeed a possibility, and that might not end up being such a great thing.
The City of New Brunswick had a rather unhappy experience with a 15-month contract in 2014 and 2015 with New Jersey American Water (remember them?) to manage their water utility. During that time, according to reporting by Charlie Kratovil of the local “New Brunswick Today,” customers were hit with rising rates and problems with water safety. Kratovil reported, “under American Water’s management, the utility failed to properly treat the water on eleven different days,” and “Just months after approving the 1-year deal with American Water, the City Council voted to increase the rates 5% each year over the next three years.” After only 15 months, New Brunswick decided not to renew its deal with American Water. According to Kartovil, “The decision marks a big win for water rights activists and local community organizations that opposed any renewal of the privatization deal, which is set to expire on September 30 .”
A little further afield, in Pittsburgh, PA, the three-year management contract between that city’s Water and Sewer Authority, and Veolia Water North America – Northeast, is now the subject of lawsuits and charges that Veolia allowed the lead levels of Pittsburgh’s water supply to drastically rise during its watch. According to reporting on the local TribLive.com website,
Among the issues alleged in the announcement [of the lawsuit] — but not included in the formal filing with the [American] Arbitration Association — PWSA said Veolia was responsible for the botched rollout of automated water meters, inaccurate water bills and a 14-month change in chemicals for corrosion and lead control that violated PWSA’s operating permit from the state…
“Veolia met its obligations and fulfilled the requirements of our contract in a fully transparent manner,” the company stated. “We stand behind the work performed on behalf of PWSA and strongly urge PWSA to stop trying to blame others for their failures and fulfill their obligations under the contract with Veolia.”
Water samples in 2013 showed lead levels had climbed to 14.7 parts per billion, just below a federal Environmental Protection Agency warning threshold.
Seventeen of 100 homes tested this spring, after Veolia’s contract expired, had lead levels exceeding the 15 parts per billion limit. PWSA was receiving more lead test requests than usual from customers in the wake of the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
“Veolia’s not responsible for the lead issue PWSA has — these lead issues are the result of the fact we have 75- to 100-year-old infrastructure,” Thomson said. “But we do believe they didn’t aggressively work on these issues when they were running the authority for three and a half years.”
Last year, PWSA customers filed a class-action lawsuit in the Allegheny County Court over water meter upgrades that resulted in inaccurate bills, increased administrative fees and improper shutoffs.
That lawsuit was put on hold in June pending settlement negotiations.
And thirdly, in 2015 the playing field in New Jersey was radically shifted with passage of the “Water Infrastructure Protection Act,” which now allows municipally-owned water systems such as Trenton’s to be more easily privatized and sold – without a public vote to do so – should certain “emergency” conditions be met.
Now, the existence of this Request for Proposals from the City – by itself – does not suggest that Trenton is being set up for an experience similar to what New Brunswick and Pittsburgh went through. This RFP, and the resulting contract,.doesn’t necessarily mean that any new company is going to come in and layoff City employees. The process unfolding also may not lead to the privatization and sale of the Trenton Water Works and Trenton Sewer Utility,
But all of these things COULD happen.
We know this City and this Administration has had a world of difficulty managing the RFP process that led to the clusterfuck of last year’s City Swimming Pools contract.
We know that the City’s new Director of Public Works Merkle Cherry, who among his other duties supervises TWW and the Sewer Works, has no Public Works experience in his career, and will naturally be more disposed to listen to the advice of outside consultants than someone with more relevant experience.
We know that NJ American Water (likely to be one of the companies to submit a proposal today) has been lusting over TWW assets for years, and tried unsuccessfully to buy the suburban assets of the city system back in 2010.
We know that Veolia may be another likely bidder for the city’s contract. Since 2001, Veolia contracted with the then-City-owned Trenton Marriott Hotel to provide heated and chilled water. Since extended, Veolia’s contract now runs until the year 2032. This deal has been heavily criticized for its cost and terms unfavorable to the owners of the hotel, and has been cited as being one of the reasons that the hotel cannot be profitably operated. With that previous track record in Trenton, I’d expect Veolia to want to make more money here, and to tender a proposal.
And finally, we know that the State of New Jersey has now made it much easier for a struggling city such as Trenton to sell its water utility to private companies such as American Water or Veolia without a public vote such as the one that killed the 2010 proposed sale to American Water.
So yeah, to repeat myself, the existence of this RFP process doesn’t mean bad things will happen to Trenton’s city-owned utilities. But from what we do know and from our own experience, this is definitely the next thing for the public to watch – very closely – in Trenton.
A few weeks ago this story appeared in the Trentonian:
This article interested me for a number of reasons. The Mercer Campus, previously owned and operated by Capital Health,. is just a couple of blocks away from where I live. When it was open it was a big part of the life of Trenton’s West Ward. I and my family were treated there on occasion, as were Trentonians from all over the City. When it closed nearly half a dozen years ago, it created a big, old empty hole in the life of the Ward. Jobs were lost, patients had to travel further for health care, and nearly a dozen acres of prime real estate went fallow and dark smack in the middle of the Bellevue-Rutherford neighborhood that the Mercer Campus used to anchor. That it is still closed down, empty, presumably rotting away from neglect, is to me the single biggest problem that the citizens of the West Ward face that is specific to the Ward.
I’ve felt that since at least 2010, when the future of this property was being discussed in the context of the city’s elections that year. When I ran for City Council that Spring, I wrote often about the future of the Mercer Campus and the neighborhood. In fact, this was the topic of the very first piece in this space, waaaayyy back on February 2, 2010.
Since a burst of activity around that time, there hasn’t been a lot to happen with the property since that time. As David Foster related in the Trentonian several days ago, Capital Health sold the site (which it continued to own after it shut down the hospital and other medical offices) in 2013. As this news piece in the Trenton Times at the time of the sale relates, there were high hopes for the future of the site as “a health and wellness complex.” However, nothing happened over the last four years, as Mr. Foster told us in the March 7 Trentonian story. The current owner, Global Life Enterprises, hasn’t proceeded with any development, and since sources at the City told the Trentonian “There are multiple liens on the properties that Global Life owns at the former hospital campus,” there’s not likely to be any.
So now the City is back to the beginning of the redevelopment process, looking for developers to take interest in the project. Mayor Eric Jackson is quoted in the Foster piece as recognizing the importance of the project to the City and the West Ward. “It’s a critical site that we want to see something good for that community to happen there,” he said. Mr. Foster reports that the City had a meeting scheduled this month with one entity called Panasia. Further information about the company wasn’t provided in the article, and a Google search hasn’t yielded any results either. On behalf of his Administration, the Mayor sounded committed. “We want to make sure we’re pushing all we can to have folks take a real good look at that piece [of] land. It’s critical.”
But, how much is the City really doing?
For one measure, in most of the documents found on the publicly-accessible pages of the City’s website, there are almost no references to the Mercer Campus site nor the surrounding Bellevue-Rutherford neighborhood.
The area doesn’t appear on this list of the city’s 41 current formally-designated redevelopment areas. It doesn’t appear on the City’s Redevelopment map of those 41 areas, either. The area is circled in red and pointed out with a red arrow on this excerpt of that City map.
This homepage for the “Trenton250″ Master Plan links to many support documents and reports used to put together what is intended to be the City’s master planning documents for the next two decades leading up to Trenton’s 250th anniversary in 2042. It’s hard to find many references to the area and the opportunities the City wants to promote there. In the final draft Trenton250 “West District Plan” there are 3 paragraphs (beginning on page 3 of the report) which speaks of the area’s “unique assets, including location, existing buildings, existing amenities, and/or the existence of successful revitalization efforts.” The draft goes on to say the areas near the former hospital “have the market conditions to change relatively quickly and are likely to have a significant impact on the housing market if they become successful. This means that the City should be working aggressively in these areas to improve the public realm, enhance open space, address environmental issues, and ensure that they are safe.”
And in the section titled “Economic Development Report” there are four paragraphs on the subject of the former hospital campus, beginning on Page 43. In these paragraphs, the Trenton250 Plan suggests “The City should work with the property owner to create a Mercer Hospital Complex Feasibility Study and Redevelopment Plan. This plan should take into consideration public/private partnerships and the housing options available in the vicinity and how such a redevelopment plan could support the City’s goals of creating strong residential neighborhoods that have a deep sense of community and history.” Since the current property owner, Global Life Enterprises, seems to be MIA as the City looks for new developers, this kind of “Feasibility Study and Redevelopment Plan” isn’t likely to come anytime soon.
I seemed to recall just such a report having been done back in 2010, when Capital Health’s departure from the site was well under way. It was the basis of several public community engagement meetings around the area early that year, such as the one I attended and reported on in my very first post in this space. This report, even though it would need to be updated to reflect changes in the neighborhood and property in the intervening half-dozen years, should have been consulted and used in both the Trenton250 process, as well as the City’s current efforts to market the property after the Global Life Enterprises failure. Right? If the City is “pushing all we can” to develop the site, in the Mayor’s words, shouldn’t we be pushing with all of the tools available to us?
I tried to find this old report on the City’s website, but couldn’t. I didn’t find it anywhere on the Division of Planning’s page, nor on the overall Department of Housing and Economic Development page. The list of “Previous Plans and Studies” used to prepare the Trenton250 Plan, which was comprised of reports and studies dating back to 1989, didn’t contain any reference to this report.
So I dug a little further and Googled for it. And found it.
On the City of Trenton’s website.
At this location.
It still reads as a pretty full and comprehensive plan including all the data the City would need to market this neighborhood to prospective developers. This report was prepared by Capital Health working with the City’s Planners, and funded by Capital Health, if I recall correctly. The data will need some updating, but the fundamentals – about the neighborhood and the Mercer Campus – haven’t changed all that much in the last seven years. That’s a big part of the problem, after all. Nothing’s changed.
I don’t know why this report isn’t on the City’s website, when older and presumably less relevant documents are. I don’t know why the Trenton250 Plan calls for a new “Feasibility Study and Redevelopment Plan” to be done with the current owner who’s done nothing with the property, when this is already in the City’s possession. How can the City say they are “pushing all we can to have folks take a real good look at that piece [of] land” if this report, this marketing tool, isn’t prominently positioned on the City’s website?
Do they not know this report not only still exists, but that it is still in the City’s possession?
Has this report, and what it represents, fallen between the cracks at City Hall – just like the old Mercer Campus site, and the Bellevue-Rutherford Neighborhood it sits in, has for the last seven years?
Look, this is only a government report, a study done over 7 years ago with a lot of dry statistics and – even for 2010 – plenty of overly-optimistic scenarios for rebuilding a neighborhood after losing a major health institution that had been there for decades. By itself, it wasn’t about to then and certainly won’t now by itself bring in developers to look the place over. It took three years for the City to land Global Life as a developer, and the report probably didn’t have anything to do with that, to be totally frank.
But it did represent a major effort of time, and effort, and more than that ATTENTION PAID to an area in the City that doesn’t get much from its “leadership.” It represented a collaboration between the City and Capital Health, which despite its departure from the West Ward remains the largest private employer in Trenton, in trying to envision a future for the City, not only for those who are already living and working here, but for those who might be able – even in this poor, post-industrial era for Trenton – to see this town as the place to make their future. This report, and others like them, like the Trenton250 effort, help to promote and sell (these are good things!) this city to the world. When they end up getting buried, falling between the cracks, they are just more lost opportunities, more squandered assets.?
What else might be bumping around City Hall, either physically sitting in a closet or file drawer somewhere, or in a virtual back corner of the Trentonnj.org website that could be used in the City’s toolkit? To “push as hard as you can” you need all the tools you can get.
I wish the City luck in its current effort to revive the Mercer Campus and the neighborhood. But I can’t help feeling that the last seven years have been wasted here, in the West Ward, as in so many other areas in this City.
A very-informed reader who is also a resident of and property owner in Trenton has written to share observations about the property revaluation process that has been under way in the City, as has been discussed on this space a few times over the last few months. This reader does not wish to be identified or closely described , citing likely difficulties at work should that happen. Let me simply say that I can describe the person as professionally qualified to offer informed opinions about the matter of New Jersey state and local regulations, including their drafting, interpretation and enforcement. These qualifications are current, ongoing and highly relevant to the discussion of how accurately the citywide property revaluation has been performed by the city’s contractor, Appraisal Systems Inc. of New Jersey (ASI).
My reader’s judgment is that ASI’s process is fatally flawed. Not only does the reader believe there is ample opportunity to appeal the new valuation of the reader’s own property in the city, it is the reader’s belief that were suit filed in NJ Superior Court against the city’s tax assessor and the Mercer County Tax Board (for whom the Trenton Assessor’s office effectively works) for not complying with the New Jersey Administrative Code, the entire citywide process would likely be thrown out and the City would be compelled to start over. This judgment confirms my amateur’s take on the matter, as described in my first piece of January 18, and a followup piece on January 26.
I’ll provide a few specific examples of where my reader points to specific flaws in ASI’s process. But I want to begin by explaining, as best as this amateur can poorly do, my reader’s main point about Trenton’s ASI process, and how best it can be fought.
According to my reader, case law in New Jersey has established that individual appraisals are deemed to be accurate and fair based on a “Presumption of Correctness.” That is, the information and data compiled for one individual property is assumed by the courts to be as correct as any other; that is, correct. Individual appeals on property valuations are most often unsuccessful, because it is so difficult to fight the “Presumption of Correctness.”
Where the reader believes ASI is vulnerable is to an overall attack on its overall lack of compliance with NJ state regulations. Specifically for starts , Title 18, Chapter 12, Section 4-8 of the NJ Administrative Code (NJAC) (page 16 and following of the PDF document at this link, the section titled “Standards for revaluation”).
The reader identified a number of deficiencies of required information on the property record card pursuant to N.J.A.C 18:12-4.8 (a)8. Whether due to ASI’s sloppiness, or to lack of knowledge of the appropriate regulations, the reader won’t say. In order to preserve the reader’s confidentiality, I won’t cite the specific violations alleged for the reader’s property.
But I will here cite two examples as mentioned by the reader that affect specific neighborhood valuations and those done city wide.
First, my reader describes how according to State law, municipal assessors are required to reassess neighborhoods after natural disasters. As those residents and property owners in Trenton’s Island and Glen Afton neighborhoods will vividly recall, those areas suffered several floods earlier in this decade, specifically including two instances in 2011 that saw neighborhood-wide evacuations of The Island after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Not only were revaluations not done following those floods half a dozen years ago, but ASI’s preliminary revaluations of The Island seemingly fail to reflect the neighborhood’s ongoing extreme vulnerability to the whims of the Delaware River. How else could individual revaluations of individual properties there show increases of 37%, 42%, 127%, and 180%, as I observed in my first piece on the subject, two months ago? Only folks blindingly ignorant of the recent natural history of The Island and Glen Afton would argue for those kinds of increases.
Similarly, my reader explains how data collected for use in the city’s Master Plan and citywide planning documents should have been used when doing a citywide evaluation. In the case of Trenton, that means many of the documents which can be found on this page of the City’s website. These include docs prepared over the last few years for the Trenton250 Master Plan effort, such as the 2015 “Issues and Opportunities Report,” the “Laying the Foundation for Strong Neighborhoods” report also from 2015, and the “City Profile Report” of 2014. All of these documents, including many other draft elements of the Trenton250 Master Plan were certainly available to ASI and the City Tax Assessor’s office throughout the revaluation process. Taken together, these documents draw a picture of Trenton as what it is, a community under social, economic, political and educational stress. In order to formulate a plan to deal with these myriad stresses, as I described in this space last August, the City of Trenton in its draft Master Plan intended to designate the entire City as a “City-Wide Area in Need of Rehabilitation.”
This designation, which you will recall would among other effects label the entire City of Trenton as “a blighted area,” will apparently allow the City to seek a range of redevelopment tools in its attempts to deal with the City’s many, many intractable problems. However, the use of that designation raised many issues for me back in August. In a letter sent to the City’s Planning Director Jeffrey Wilkinson, I wrote in part,
I can guarantee you that if we were prospective homeowners from outside the City or State looking today on Realtor.com or Zillow.com, and we saw a notation on a listing to the effect that “the property is located in the Trenton Area in Need of Rehabilitation,” and found out that such Area encompassed the entire City and is legally considered a “blighted area,” well, we would pass over the entire City without a second thought. Regardless of the beauty of a specific house or neighborhood, such a designation will affect the value of that house and neighborhood. Speaking as a property owner, what will that do to the value of my investment?
My concern then is the same one I have now. The efforts of the City’s Planning Department, and the documents it has created in support of those efforts – documents and their underlying data which should form much of the basis of a citywide property valuation effort such as one undertaken by ASI - effectively work to negatively impact property values in the City
In short, as my reader suggests, these efforts can simply not be reconciled with the results of ASI’s property evaluation preliminary reports. Reports which, as described here, show -probably pretty accurately – that residential values citywide may be collectively flat, but which also contain many thousands of individual property increases of 50% and more up to 438%, and massive neighborhood increases such as Hiltonia’s 32% and my Cadwalader Heights 39%. And reports containing a commercial average citywide increase of 70%.
There is a stark dissonance in these reports that cannot be explained away. The City of Trenton cannot say on the one hand that the entire City is a “blighted area” in need of rehabilitation throughout the City limits – with inevitable impact to the City’s market image and market values, and on the other hand say the market value of the City’s commercial properties has increased 70% over the last couple of decades.
I intuitively felt this dissonance when I first saw these ASI numbers in January, and knew something had to be wrong with the process. What I now believe, thanks to one well-informed and knowledgeable reader, is that the ASI process is fundamentally flawed due to its failures in compliance with State regulations and statutes.
So, what is to be done?
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, my reader tells me that individual property appeals will likely not be entirely successful, due to the “Presumption of Correctness” principle.
Instead, my reader suggests the best approach to be a collective one. Since it is not likely to be able to identify the person, I will quote my reader: “The city attorney or council attorney should consider looking into the work ASI did and appeal to the Treasury and Department of community affairs. City council could draft a resolution with a vote of no confidence in the revaluation if the attorney backs up my claims. This revaluation in its current form will be very detrimental to the business community.”
And, “An effective strategy at this point I believe would be to draft a letter from the council members and any concerned citizens addressed to the Treasurer of NJ and the Director in charge of municipal taxation, copying Mercer County, Trenton Mayor, and Tax Assessor. Probably a good idea to copy press as well. The letter would include sample PRC’s from ASI and noting the deficiencies wrt the regulations in my e-mail. Plus any other arguments deemed important. This would most likely result in a hold on the revaluation because all the subordinates of the Treasurer (director, County) will need to review the ASI work product deliverables so they don’t look incompetent.”
And, there is also the threat of litigation, which could be best taken as a group or groups of property owners suing the city assessor and/or Mercer County tax board, each demonstrating their own revaluation processes and failures in regulatory compliance. Let’s table that alternative, for now.
My reader’s suggestions rely on City Council to play an active role in this process, to represent the interests of property owners in the City, Residential and Commercial. Since January, I have written to Council – collectively and in some cases individually – with my concerns. I’ve made many of the arguments and cited many of the numbers that you’ve read in this space. I’ve appealed to them to oppose the ASI reports and preliminary evaluations, both as our representative and as individual property owners. I pointed out that several of them are facing significant prospective increases in their valuations. They have as much at stake as the rest of us.
It won’t come as any surprise to you, dear readers, that I have received almost no reply. Apart from one or two individual members of Council writing back with general expressions of nonspecific support, Council has declined to respond to my concerns.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t contact the Members with your concerns. I ask you all, if your experience with ASI has been less than clear, if the preliminary evaluations you’ve received for your property don’t seem credible, if your neighborhood as a whole is being evaluated sharply upwards, if you live in Glen Afton or The Island and your new valuation doesn’t reflect that you live in a pretty active flood zone, WRITE TO CITY COUNCIL. CALL CITY COUNCIL. CONTACT CITY COUNCIL.
Here’s the City of Trenton Contacts page, with email and phone links for each and every City Council member. Let your voice be heard.
Let’s see how things develop over the next couple of weeks. Until then, this matter is To Be Continued…
What Trenton’s City Council Didn’t Do Last Night. [PARENTAL WARNING: SCOTTISH PERSONAL EPITHETS BELOW!!]
Trenton’s Council didn’t review and approve Twenty-One “Communications and Petitions,” comprising:
- 12 Civil Foreclosure, Default or other Mortgage Actions
- 4 Tort Claims: one for property damage, 3 for personal injury
- 5 Other miscellaneous Orders and Reports
Council didn’t approve One Raffle Application from the MVC Social Activities Club for nineteen 50/50 Raffles. But the raffles aren’t scheduled to begin until April 7, and they run through December. No worries, MVC; you have time!
Four Sets of Meeting Minutes weren’t approved. Two sets were of Budget hearings, and two for regular meetings and conference sessions.
Council failed to deliberate on Twenty-Eight Resolutions, including as examples:
- 2 Resolutions to reject bids repairing and restoring (Thanks, Eliz Yull!) the Fireman Statue and its Pedestal that used to sit in front of City Hall until it was vandalized four years ago. I don’t know why the bids were being rejected. Council didn’t have a chance to tell us last night!
- 1 Resolution “Confirming the Governing the Governing Body Certification of the Annual Audit (2016).” Will we ever find out what’s in that Audit? Who knows?
- 1 Resolution “in Support of Pursuing Trenton’s Bright Solar Future and Making New Jersey a World-Class Solar State.” So we’ve THAT going for us. Eventually. Maybe.
- 1 Resolution “Authorizing a Meeting which Excludes the Public (Personnel: Deputy Municipal Clerk).” Well, that’s Ironic!
Two Ordinances scheduled for 2nd Reading and Public Hearing will have to be re-scheduled, including one measure to lease the City-owned property on 1115 Greenwood Avenue to “Howard’s Healthy Choices.” Nice to know we’ll have Healthy Choices for our Bright Solar Future! Well, maybe not, since Council didn’t have a chance last night to approve either measure.
Three Ordinances which were intended to be Introduced for their 1st Readings last night.
And, of course, no Public Comment on these or any other matters of public interest and concern were addressed to the Honorable Members.
None of these items were heard in Council last night. No action was taken, no comments entered into public record. Another night of inaction by the City of Trenton?
Why was this, you may ask?
Because, after nearly seven years for most of the Council members, and almost three years for one of them, these guys do not have one fucking clue how to run a meeting, let alone do their jobs.
In this specific instance, Council failed to properly oversee and supervise the one City department it has jurisdiction over, the Office of the City Clerk. This account in the Trentonian by David Foster politely calls last night aborted meeting (after a full 40 minutes of inaction, however!) a “train wreck.”
Let’s call it what it really was: a cluster fuck perpetrated by the inept, helpless, incompetents we elected (and re-elected, for 6 of them) in 2014.
God help us, we have no one but ourselves to blame that we sent most of these witless fucking cocksplat gobshites (thank you, Scotland,!) back to another term in office after making such a mess of things in their first terms.
Can’t we do better than these utter twonks?
Over the last several months I’ve found myself returning to many of the same stories again and again. I suppose nothing ever really resolves in Trenton!
Anyway, I worked up a little “cheat sheet” with some stories put in a little chronological context. You may find this useful, or at least entertaining. If you click on the picture, you will be taken to a PDF version of this, with live links to the relevant news articles.
When I posted yesterday’s piece about the “Staton/Holly-Ward Report” discussed at Trenton’s City Council meeting on Thursday night, I had done so before this story by [Correction!] Kevin Shea had appeared in the Trenton Times.
That was some session, according to the newspaper!
First, council members debated several aspects of the incidents between Deputy Clerk Cordelia Staton and Councilwoman-at-Large Phyllis Holly-Ward and if Holly-Ward should be taking part in a vote on a resolution to accept the $25,000 investigative report.
Later, residents lambasted the council, saying the incident continues to give the city a black eye. And three former city council members rose to the microphone to offer their opinions on the matter.
And then the council sparred over a council-formed committee they revealed had been formed to investigate leaks of information about the incident to a local newspaper.
One councilman left during the meeting without explanation, another said she was not going to “deal with this BS anymore,” and the city clerk rejected a councilman’s request to have something read into the record…
“This is not bringing investors here,” said Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, saying she has just toured the Roebling Lofts project that day. The city does not need this dominating headlines, she said.
“Step aside from this issue,” Reynolds-Jackson said to Holly-Ward.
Whew! Folks seemed to be awfully upset about this whole kerfuffle.
Except, “the issue” here – that seems to have been entirely forgotten during Thursday’s meeting, at least according to Ms. Rojas’ account – is not the one that Councilmember Reynolds-Jackson wants us to “step away from.”
It seems to me that the Administration of Eric Jackson, which is suppressing the Report and three members of Council – President Zac Chester, Duncan Harrison and Ms. Reynolds-Jackson – are primarily concerned with both keeping a lid on the Report, and tracking down sources of leaks to media. This has been bubbling since late October, when we first heard about this matter when it was disclosed that the Administration requested the Mercer County Prosecutor to investigate Ms. Holly-Ward after she tried to make a photocopy of the Report – a Report which, remember[on Thursday night], is about her – in City Hall. And now, Rojas reported “a council-formed committee they revealed had been formed to investigate leaks of information about the incident to a local newspaper.”
Neglected in all this, by the Administration and by Council, is what the Report actually contains! At this point we do not know any specific details about what this 30-page report includes, but on Wednesday an article (poorly written, but that’s par for the paper) by David Foster in the Trentonian contains some pretty serious hints about what’s in there. “There’s harassment in it, there’s theft in it, there’s talk about somebody taking unauthorized money in it, and the mayor is mentioned in it,” the paper quotes Ms. Holly-Ward as saying. Foster reports, “[Councilmember George] Muschal said the clerk’s office is ‘totally out of control’ and the employees who work in the department are ‘crying’ over the situation. He also said Clerk Richard Kachmar even released a letter stating that Staton faces insubordination charges.”
THIS, I suggest, is “the issue!” Not a word was said of this on Thursday night, nor at any time since at least last October. This report, written at a cost of $25,000 by the law firm DeCotiis Fitzpatrick, has been completed and in the City’s possession for over 3 months. We know it contains serious allegations about improprieties in the City Clerk’s Office, and its findings have now been officially accepted and endorsed by Thursday’s vote at City Council. So it is a legitimate report, professionally investigated and carefully written.
And what has the City done with it? Has any action been taken on the substance of the report, to fix an office “out of control” with several “crying employees?”
Nope! Not a thing.
Instead, the Administration has suppressed the report. It sought to investigate and prosecute the Councilmember who was a subject of the report. And Council formed a Committee to investigate leaks, not the Clerk’s Office.
This sure seems like a classic case of a cover-up to me.
How else to explain that a 30-page independently-investigated report with serious allegations of professional improprieties and malfeasance in a major City Department has sat on the shelf for over 3 months with no action at all, other than to make sure the report stays on that shelf?
A lot of people who spoke at City Hall on Thursday night wanted Council to move on from this matter, and resolve what everyone seems to want to continue to characterize as a personality conflict at its heart. Even some Councilmembers, such as Ms. Reynolds-Jackson want to “step aside from this issue.”
But as long as the Administration and Councilmembers Chester, Harrison and Reynolds-Jackson continue to cover up the substance of the 30-page DeCotiis report; as long as they conceal its allegations and charges from the public; as long as they fail to take any actions to address serious and documented problems in the Clerk’s office, just as they continue to fail to address problems in the City that aided and abetted the $5 Million theft in the Great Payroll Robbery; this is no time to “step aside from this issue.”
Instead, it’s time to Step Up to it.
A long-running dust-up between a Trenton City Council member and the city’s Deputy Clerk leads to an investigation by one of the Trenton’s many outside law firms, resulting in a 32-page report, several closed Executive sessions of Council, and a bill from the law firm which is reportedly in the $25,000 range.
THIS is worth all this effort, according to the City. THIS requires a Report!
Trenton’s payroll service steals nearly Five Million Dollars over at least a six-month period. During that time, and for months beforehand, several warning notices and bills are sent to the City of Trenton by the Internal Revenue Service and the State of New Jersey. Apart from a few email exchanges between one city clerk and the payroll service, nothing seems to have happened for almost a year. Clearly, a combination of People, Policies and Procedures all failed. On a massive scale. Five Million Dollars worth.
THIS, however, doesn’t get an investigation. THIS doesn’t get a report!
Oh, sure, last March Mayor Eric Jackson announced an “audit” and “internal review” of what led to The Great Payroll Robbery. But that was the last anyone has heard of that. There has been no Report, no Council Executive Sessions, no firings, no restructuring. In fact, the City was very emphatic that recent staff hires had nothing at all to do with the aftermath of the Payroll Robbery.
Seems to me that the Eric Jackson Administration and City Council have some pretty skewed priorities, when an intramural conflict gets a Report, and a Five Million Dollar robbery doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. The so-called “Staton/Holly-Ward” report strikes me as serious. The allegations made by Councilmembers Phyllis Holly-Ward and George Muschal about what is contained in the report are serious. It does sound like there are major problems in the City Clerk’s Office that were uncovered by the investigators from the DeCotiis Fitzpatrick law firm, and written up. It also seems to me that the City is anxious to keep the 32-page report closely under wraps because its findings and conclusions probably differ from those the Administration hoped it would discuss. This report probably finds fault with the person the City did not want to find fault with. All this secrecy reflects major embarrassment on the part of the Administration, if you ask me.
If Cordelia Staton is, as suggested by Ms. Holly-Ward to the Trentonian, applying for the main City Clerk’s position, then the DeCotiis Report will have to be publicly released. There is no way that Ms. Staton, or anyone in her position, could be considered for a promotion while a major investigative report highly relevant to her performance in her current position is being withheld and kept from public knowledge.
Councilmembers Muschal and Holly-Ward suggest that the findings of the report are so damning that they will make it impossible for Ms. Staton to keep her current position. That may be, or it may not. Without access to the actual report, those claims are hard to evaluate one way or the other. But I feel that further suppression of the DeCotiis report should be a deal-breaker for any consideration of Staton for Clerk. No public release, no promotion.
Back to my main point. All the brouhaha over the “Staton/Holly-Ward Report” from DeCotiis does deserve to be taken seriously, on its own merits.
But all of the attention over the conflict in the Clerk’s Office which led to a $25,000 Investigation and Report only serves to underscore the LACK of equivalent – or more, considering the scale of that disaster!- attention paid one year after to the Great Payroll Robbery and its failures, and the ABSENCE of any investigation and Report on that matter.
That we ARE talking about the “Staton/Holly Ward Report” and NOT talking about any “Payroll Robbery Report” shows that priorities in the City of Trenton are pretty skewed.
No, let me not mince words. The priorities of the Jackson Administration and Trenton City Council are just fucked-up.
Where’s the “Payroll Robbery Report?”
More information has come available about the current property revaluation and re-assessment process coming to a conclusion in Trenton. As is true of many things about this town, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. In fact, it’s downright screwy. The results that are coming online seem to indicate a massive economic disconnect in the City between its residential properties and its commercial/industrial ones, a disconnect that I can’t frankly believe. Either the company that has done the assessments, Appraisal Systems Inc (ASI), or the City of Trenton, think we are living in a fantasy town with limited connection to economic reality, a La-La-Land-on-the-Delaware. Compared to a number of other NJ towns with comparable property values, Trenton’s numbers are extremely odd.
So what else is new?
First off, ASI has updated the spreadsheet listing Trenton’s residential properties, from the one that was posted last week. This one now seems to be more or less complete, with 21,371 individual properties listed with a total current 2016 assessed value of $1,359,802,270. You can find the spreadsheet, called “Trenton Residential Proposed Assessments,” at this page. Or, along with a column calculating the % increase or decrease in assessed valuation for each property, at this location. The net result of this updated list shows, as was suggested from the data in the first version and as I wrote last week, that the change in valuation of Trenton’s entire residential property has been flat, without adjusting for inflation, since the last major assessment in 1992.That’s flat, flat, flat. Trenton’s residential property is worth 99.26% of last year’s value, which is largely based on the 1992 numbers.
OK? So far, that’s nothing new from last week. The substantial individual property valuation increases of 60%, 70% and more that we saw last week are almost exactly evenly offset with substantial valuation decreases, to end up with no appreciable impact to the city’s total residential values. We are, as in so many things, a town of extremes.
We now know – without any level of detail comparable to that of the 21,371-line residential spreadsheet, though – what the results are for the revaluation of Trenton’s commercial and industrial properties. Before I get to that, a few words of background and context.
Now, one shouldn’t expect residential and commercial properties to increase or decrease in value in any kind of synchronized way. There are a wide number and variety of different factors at work that determine if a given town is considered an attractive – and therefore, valuable – place to live compared with a place to do business. Those factors don’t change in lockstep for the residential and commercial/industrial side of things.
And yet., there are many ways in which both sides do relate somewhat closely with each other. Both residential and commercial properties are located, literally, in the same world. They share the same streets, utilities, access to highways and railroads, are protected by the same police and firefighters. The fortunes of businesses established to serve local residents – such as groceries, laundries, restaurants and bank branches – rise and fall in some direct relation to the rising and falling prosperity of their local neighbors.
So, even though you wouldn’t expect the numbers or the trends in valuation for commercial and industrial properties in Trenton to be identical to those of the city’s residences, you’d expect some correlation, right? That is, in the normal world, you would. And in most instances, even in New Jersey, you’d be right.
Welcome to Trenton. It’s a very special place all its own. The result of the very same property revaluation process that states that the total value of Trenton’s residential properties FELL by 00.74%, basically flat as we’ve seen, tells us that the value of commercial and industrial property in Trenton INCREASED by 69.50% in the same time period!
How can this be, you ask?
Damned if I know! But here, take a look!
This is an excerpt from another document on the ASI website, called “Trenton 2017 Revaluation Tax Impact,” which you can download by clicking on the link to the left, or view or download here. You can see in the excerpt above the differing valuations for the different classifications of property in the City, and how they have increased or decreased. The GRAND TOTAL for the City indicates an overall increase in the total valuation of property in the City as being 22% higher than the previous valuation. However, because residential properties have stagnated, the entire amount – ALL of it – comes from commercial and industrial valuation (plus some Apartment properties). As a result of that net increase of 22%, the provisional draft tax rate for the City – as seen in the full version of this sheet – has, for the time being until valuations have finalized after appeals, and after the new city budget (for the current year more than half over) has been adopted, dropped from $5.753 per $100 of valuation, down to $4.732.
In the hypothetical example shown on the sheet, a property owner previously assessed at $64,100 and now assessed at a lower $63,500 would come out owing $682.73 LESS in Trenton property taxes. If you are among the nearly 12,000 residential property owners whose valuation went down, Congratulations! You stand to save some tax money.
However, if you are among property owners – residential or commercial – whose valuations increased, Too Bad! you are going to pay. In my own case, my valuation increased by 44.68%, but my taxes will rise by a somewhat lower 20%. I stand to be paying about $2,100 extra under this scheme.Ouch.
For a hypothetical commercial property owner, the bite is likely to be much bigger. We don’t have a spreadsheet showing individual increases, but we know the aggregate increase is close to 70%. If you own a commercial property currently assessed at $100,000, a 70% bump will bring that to $170,000. Your tax bill will jump 40%, a bump of $2,300 per year. Yikes!
Of course, as we have seen in multiple examples of residential valuation, especially in the West Ward, some increases are as high as 80% or more, even though the city as a whole averages out to 0%. It’s safe to assume that several commercial property owners have been opening envelopes this week revealing individual increases WAAAY higher than the average 70% for that classification.
A lower tax rate by itself is generally a good thing, and may help draw in some new investment. But from what can be seen from the currently available numbers, it looks to me that the lowered tax rate was made possible only by massive residential property tax increases assessed on a small number (15% of the total) of residential property owners, and the entirety of the commercial and industrial sector.
The revaluation disconnect between the total residential and the commercial/industrial sector seems highly distorted to me. I can’t tell based on what we now know whether this process has been manipulated in any way, but we can see that this distortion – 0% increases in the residential sector and 70% in Commercial – is not seen in other New Jersey towns of similar valuation who were reassessed by ASI in the last several months.
Below are charts for the Tax Impacts from the revaluation processes conducted in three NJ towns: Ramsey, Passaic and Maplewood. I chose these three samples for a few reasons. 1) they were all reassessed by ASI; 2) similar Tax Impact charts were available for them, as opposed to other ASI clients; and 3) their aggregate property values, as well as the residential/commercial mix, are similar to Trenton. Take a look. (Please note that ASI doesn’t format their sheets the same way for all their clients, which may cause a little confusion. Bear with it, though. These tell a story)
In Ramsey (you can see the entire form here), we see a town initially valued at $2.853 Billion, compared with Trenton’s $2.022. It was re-valued at $3.474 Billion, an increase of 22%. In this town, Residential properties went up by 19.12%, and commercial up by 32.57%. Not in sync, certainly, but hella closer to each other than 0% and 70%!
Passaic’s total valuation spiked, from $1.320 Billion up to $3.085B, a whopping 233% increase. Here again, though, the increase of the Residential sector, at 216%, bears some relation to the Total Commercial sector’s increase of 262%.
One more example, Maplewood:
The total valuation of Maplewood increased by 27%, with the residential sector going up by 25.92% and Total Commercial by 38.93%. Once again, and for the third of our examples, there is some correlation between the new values assigned to Residential properties, and to Commercial.
To look at these summaries for the results of the revaluation processes for Ramsey, Passaic and Maplewood, you can easily get a sense that the commercial and residential sides of these communities are located in the same towns. There’s a solid impression that you get that these numbers make sense, they come close to reflecting a credible reality in these communities.
When you look at Trenton, you see two different towns. One, economically struggling, town in which increases in residential property values are utterly flat – on average, but which individually careen wildly from decreases of -80% all the way to +100%.
And a second, pretty successful commercial and industrial city, with market assessments up by a healthily average 70%.
Do these look like the same town to you?
Which one is real?
Which one has been accurately recorded by the revaluation process coming to a conclusion in the next few weeks?
The residential one? The commercial one?
Right now, to me, both Trentons depicted by this revaluation seem equally fantastic and not very credible. These are fairytale versions of the town we think we live or work in, thanks to ASI and the Jackson Administration.
Welcome to La-La Land.
I meant to post this yesterday, before the news of the property tax revaluations broke. I’ll get to it in a minute. Bear with me for a bit.
Regarding yesterday’s piece on the tax valuations, I want to state again how the figures on the spreadsheet made available by Appraisal Systems, Inc (ASI) should be interpreted at this point. For those folks who commented, on Facebook or via email, that valuation increases on individual properties by themselves don’t mean much until the new property tax rates are set. That’s true as far as it goes. We don’t know what new property tax rates are likely to be.
But, we do know that rates can’t change a great deal, given both the data that was released over the last few days, and what we know of the economic condition of Trenton over the last 25 years.
The total base of tax able property in the City of Trenton has not appreciably changed since the last property valuation in 1992. It is essentially flat. I explained yesterday that, for the sample of nearly 10,000 properties on the spreadsheet (out of approximately 30,000 parcels in the City) values not adjusted for inflation increased only 4.4% over the last 25 years. I felt comfortable in using that yesterday as a representative sample.
This trend has been citywide over the last decades, and can be confirmed in the State of New Jersey’s data on municipalities, found on this page. With this data (which does only go back to 1998, not 1992, but the trend is still consistently flat, flat, flat), we can see that the total tax base (called “Net Valuation Taxable” in the State’s data tables), increased 5.5% from 1998 to 2015. Pretty damned close to the 4.4% in yesterday’s sample.
Let’s wrap this up then. The city’s tax base is flat, after 25 years. The valuation of about half the city’s properties has gone, in some areas significantly. The city will therefore have to seek MORE money from those whose property valuation has gone up, in order to raise the same amount of taxes to pay for a City Budget that doesn’t change just because of this tax re-valuation. That’s what will happen.
It’s almost a Newtonian law of taxation for Trenton: with a flat tax base, property valuation actions downward in some neighborhoods will have offsetting valuation reactions upward in other neighborhoods in order to raise the same amount of taxes. Those whose properties are being re-valued at rates 40%, 50% and higher than their current values will have the honor of paying higher tax bills of 40%, 50% and more.
We don’t yet know the actual new tax rate, yes. With a flat tax base, as well as pretty consistent city budget and state financial support number, the rate has really not much room for change one way or the other. Even without a new tax rate, we can confidently conclude that the property owners who will receive these massive increased re-evaluations we see on the ASI spreadsheet will – if they continue to stand – later receive property tax bills from the City that will reflect their City tax bill increasing by about the same rate.
– # –
Now. As I was saying, I meant to talk about this yesterday. A couple of news headlines over the last few days have led to updates to the Earned Run Averages of our recent and current mayors. And, I think it’s fair to add two more “pitchers” to the rotation of our home team, what I call The Trenton Blunder.
The City of Trenton has been ordered to pay $968,000 in the resolution of the harassment suit brought against the City by former city firefighter Jesse Diaz. We award that run to former mayor Tony Mack, which raises his ERA to 5.33.
I have added some numbers to calculate an average for reliever George Muschal, who served as acting mayor for a little over 4 months in 2014. A couple of the numbers are estimates, at least for now. Attorney Joseph Alacqua was hired as a special counsel to help unravel the mess caused by City Clerk Richard Kachmar concerning the May 2014 city elections. Barry Collicelli was hired by Mr. Muschal as a covert investigator looking up dirt on some city Directors. I guesstimate those costs. We do know that the City spent $95,000 on legal costs associated with Muschal’s unsuccessful effort to dismiss the city’s Fire Director Qareeb Bashir in April 2014.
George Muschal certainly had a busy and entertaining four months in office. But at this point, the monetary damages he caused are not that substantial, compared to his other mayoral brethren. For now, I calculate his ERA at 1.53.
And this article, reminding us that former Mayor (1990-2010) Doug Palmer somehow believes he is still relevant in politics. And not just locally, but nationally. Mr. Palmer – who apparently is still hoping for a job in the Hillary Clinton Administration – has endorsed former Labor Secretary Tom Perez in his run for Chair of the Democratic National Committee. How lucky for Mr. Perez, to snag such a valuable and distinguished endorsement. Good Luck to him.
Anyway, this story got me thinking that Mr. Palmer’s record is worth a look, and some stats. And so, Douglas Palmer debuts here on the ERA list with a hefty 7.98.
Palmer’s high average is largely attributable to his record of big projects, with mostly negative results.
First and foremost, The Hotel. The City originally bonded $15,000,000. On top of that, during Palmer’s term, the State of NJ took over, in a process called “defeasance” annual payments in lieu of taxes that the City had been receiving for its budget on a property worth $16,800,000, in order to make hotel debt payments. One of the City’s Business Administrator, Dennis Gonzalez, slipped an unauthorized $500,000 to the Hotel as an illegal additional subsidy.
Yeah, The Hotel by itself really boosts Palmer’s stats. But there are more hits, runs and errors to charge to him.
Two police substations, built without need at $5,000,000 and all but abandoned. $1,400,000 to buy the wreck of the Glen Cairn Arms, which lay dormant until Thomas Edison State U took it off our hands for a song. Massive payments, so far TBD for my stats, for an aborted Trent House Square development project on a state Department of Justice parking lot. And a couple of other miscellaneous settlements and legal fees for good measure.
Welcome Doug Palmer to the rotation! An average of 7.98 over a 20-year career is nothing to be proud of. We are still, as a City, paying for Doug Palmer’s mistakes.
After these additions and updates, of the four pitchers I am following, the leader is still the current guy on the mound, Eric Jackson. 8.93 over only 2 1/2 years is very problematic. He still has some time to improve his numbers, I suppose. But he is still on the mound telling us, “I feel good! I’m getting in my groove!” He’s still never owned up to the Great Payroll Robbery, and never showed us that he’d shuffled up his team in its aftermath.
With headlines such as today’s “Crime was up in Trenton last year, led by 40 percent jump in shootings,” we see that he’s still loading the bases with no outs.
For now, here are the stats.