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.
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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.
This morning’s Trenton Times, in an article by Cristina Rojas, tells us that “Revaluation notices started arriving in the mail this month for Trenton residents as part of the first citywide revaluation in more than two decades.” Later in the article we read, “Starting in February, the data will be available for property owners to review at www.asinj.com.” That last is slightly off. Data for property owners, at least for 9,258 of the 30,000 properties reported by Ms. Rojas, is available now.
You won’t like what you read. That is, if you are among the nearly 2000 property owners whose assessments have increased by 25%, or more, since the last re-evaluation done in 1992. For some of you, the increase is much, much more than 25%.
Me, I’m personally looking at a 44% increase.And there are another 1500 or so properties facing increased assessments between 10% and 25%.
I told you you wouldn’t like these!!
These draft increases – they are subject to some revision and appeal, but barring any major developments – we’ll get to that in a bit – these increases, or something like them, are likely to take effect, and all at once, soon in the current calendar year.
Before we go any further, I know you are dying to look up your property, and those of your neighbors. You can go here, to the website of the Appraisal Systems, Inc.(ASI) webpage for Trenton, and click on the “Trenton Residential Proposed Assessments (released as of 01-17-17) (xlsx file) link. for the company’s spreadsheet. You can also click on this link, where I have taken the ASI data and added an additional column showing the percentage increase in the proposed property assessments for 2017 over current rates.
Come back after you’ve absorbed the shock.
Back? OK.That was bad, right?
If you can’t find your property, remember this appears to be a partial list, of about one third of Trenton properties. These all appear to be residential, with no commercial data. If you don’t have Microsoft Excel, let me know via a Comment or email if you would like me to look to see if your property is on the list.
Next, let me briefly explain what higher assessments COULD have meant. If, at the end of a process that sees a major citywide rise in property valuations, individual property increases don’t mean all that much. If, for instance, the City of Trenton showed a 30% increase in property values in the last 25 years, then an increase to you of 30% would be about par. A citywide increase in the total tax base would likely reduce property tax rates, allowing a bigger base to pay for the same sized city budget as before the re-evaluation. Lower rates would also help draw in new investments, attracted by lower taxes. Follow?
However, that hasn’t happened here. Of the close to 9260 properties on this website, the total valuation of those properties has barely budged since 1992. All of these properties were worth $656,322,670 in 1992, and only increased 4.45% in all that time, to $685,322,670.
A flat tax base change means – in all likelihood – very little change in property tax rates for Trenton. So an increased valuation of 25% or more will probably mean close to a 25% increase in your property tax bill.
My first look-through of this list shows that the massive increases of 25% or more seem to be highly clustered. I note characteristically large increases in the neighborhoods of Glen Afton, Hiltonia. Berkeley Square, Cadwalader Heights, and The Island. These are all West Ward neighborhoods of largely middle-class single-family households. Massive increases such as the ones we see suggested on this spreadsheet will strike a major blow against what remains of the middle class in this town. Current property owners will have to struggle to pay property tax bills which may rise by a third, a half, or more. Those who will not be able to afford these increases won’t be able to sell their houses.
Who in the world will buy Trenton property at anything close to current market prices that come with a property tax burden so astronomically high? We already are burdened with some of the highest property taxes in New Jersey, and the value we get for those high taxes is abysmally low. If these tax valuations stand, sale prices for many neighborhoods in town will collapse. This will probably result in increases in foreclosures and abandonment in neighborhoods that – so far – have managed to avoid too many of either.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
The 180 or so properties identified as the neighborhood of Hiltonia, increased by an average of 32%. Among those properties, I see typical individual increases of 54%, 49%, and 75%.
Glen Afton’s 215 properties average is a more reasonable – by contrast - 21%, with individual increases seen there of 30%, 35% and 44%.
My own Cadwalader Heights, a somewhat more compact neighborhood of 64 properties, increased an average 39%, featuring individual increases of 44% (me), 49%, 105%, 119%, and one unlucky homeowner’s 438%!
Berkeley Square: average increase of 20% for its 59 properties, with individual increases seen of 33%, 36%, and 50%; as well as a few decreases, of -13%, -16%, and -20%. The scattered decreases apparently helped to keep the average down.
That effect is also seen, more pronounced, on The Island. Its almost-200 properties increased by only 3%. But individual re-evaluations there range from decreases of -12%, -22% and -47%; to increases of 37%, 42%, 127%, and 180%.
It’s cold comfort to know your neighborhood “only” averaged a 3% bump, if you are the guy with the 180% jump in your valuation.
For some neighborhoods to have increased so high, and for the total to stay flat, other neighborhoods have to have had major decreases, right? That is, unfortunately the case.A few examples of those.
The Wilbur neighborhood, at least the close to 750 properties designated as “WBR2″ on the spreadsheet was valued 24% lower than in 1992, with decreases typical of -40%, -54%, -70%, amidst scattered increases.
And the West End neighborhood of 620 properties declined by only close to 5%, with large increased valuations next door to large decreased valuations.
Please note that the last two examples total almost 1400 properties, a far higher number than the total number of properties described above. What appears to have happened here is that, the city’s re-evaluation effort – at least for the close to 10,000 properties on this spreadsheet – has effectively resulted in the decreased valuations from the massive Wilbur and West End neighborhoods of 1400 properties being nearly offset by the major increased valuations to the homeowners of the little more than 700 properties of the neighborhoods such as Hiltonia and Glen Afton. Well out of proportion to their numbers.
And throughout the City, drastic decreased valuations are often side-by-side with massive increases, of 50%, 75%, 100% or more.
Are these realistic or sustainable?
I don’t know. The impact of this won’t be fully felt until all of the 30,000 re-evaluation notices now or soon in the mail are opened and absorbed by individual property owners. It remains to be seen what number of those property owners will seek to appeal their valuations. (Personal Disclosure: I sure as hell will appeal! I can’t afford a 44% increase in my taxes to this town. Are they fucking kidding??)
From what I can see in this spreadsheet so far, as I have tried to briefly show above, is that the impact of these massive increases, as they broadly impact neighborhoods such as my own Cadwalader Heights, Hiltonia, and Glen Afton, will be nearly impossible to absorb. We can’t afford to pay, and we won’t be able to sell.
So what next? Remember that above I talked about “barring major developments,” these increases will probably stick? Well, if the reaction to these draft increases is strictly or mostly on an individual basis, the City will probably be able to wear down and delay individual appeals. Any reaction, opposition or appeal to these increases will be most effective if it’s collective.
Initially, that probably means discussion and or action through your local civic associations. Angry calls and letters to your Council reps and to the mayor.
But, as we well know, civic associations in Trenton possess widely varying levels of commitment, experience and (for lack of a better word) spleen. And our elected officials are mostly non-responsive and ineffective.
This tells me that those who will want to contest this will have to find alternative means of finding each other and fighting.
Let’s see what develops, as the mail is delivered and this news sinks in.
This is a big deal, folks. It really is.
We read this story in last Thursday’s Trenton Times:
In this article, Trenton Business Administrator Terry McEwen talked to Times reporter Cristina Rojas about a new position in Trenton’s payroll department to process transactions for employee payroll and Human Resources activity. Ms. Rojas reported that Mcwen explained that this new person “would have nothing to do with making sure that payroll taxes are paid to the state and federal governments.”
City spokesperson Michael Walker agrees with BA McEwen. The Times quotes Walker as saying, “”What payroll does and what finance does are completely and totally different. The internal controls that are in place so the taxing authorities are being paid on a regular schedule are very different than payroll.”
So. Are we all clear on this now? The City of Trenton is very emphatic that this proposed (Council must approve the 2nd Reading of an Ordinance authorizing this new position at a future meeting) new payroll position is, in the words of the above headline, “not a reaction” to the Great Payroll Robbery of 2015, in which the City’s payroll vendor at the time, Innovative Payroll Services (IPS), embezzled in excess of $4,700,000 of city funds intended for deposits due to the Internal Revenue Service and the State of New Jersey for payroll taxes in the second half of 2015.
That means that the City of Trenton has made it official, and crystal clear for the world to see:
- Since IPS started ripping off the City in the summer of 2015;
- Since Eric Jackson told us,”breaking his silence” of weeks on this subject, on February 18, 2016 that city “Staff internally reconciling, looking at recordkeeping documents said something looked awry and began to look further and said to their director, ‘Something doesn’t look right here. We’re finding some inconsistencies’ and they kept elevating;”
- Since March 8, 2016, when Ms. Rojas published a piece asking “How many red flags were missed over Trenton’s payroll problems?” in which she described – based on reporting in this space – how the City ignored several invoices from the IRS and the State about tax irregularities from at least April of 2015;
- Since March 14, 2016, when Rojas reported, “Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson said Monday that the city’s outside labor counsel is reviewing its internal controls and any steps that can be taken to ensure there is no repeat of its payroll fiasco… ‘Not only are we taking an internal audit, but we’re having an outside legal firm look at the processes that not only took place during that period, but the organization that’s set up so we can avoid having similar things,’ Jackson said during a media roundtable. He said the firm is taking a detailed look at how it occurred and what safeguards can be put in place to protect the city in the future;”
Since all of these things, the City of Trenton has announced NO “reaction to [this] embezzling scheme.”
There have been NO reported results of these so-called “audits” and “outside counsel review.”
NO ONE has been fired or otherwise disciplined, as far as we know, for their role in falling asleep at the switch and ignoring nine months of “red flags.” NO ONE has been held accountable, and NO ONE has accepted any responsibility.
There have been NO publicly-announced changes in administrative procedures and policies as a result of the massive internal failures that led to frequent and repeated thefts over a half-year period totaling nearly FIVE MILLION DOLLARS!!
There has been NO explanation given to the fact that what public statements about the Great Payroll Robbery were made to the press by Mayor Jackson and city officials such as Council President and West Ward Member Zachary Chester described a narrative that varied greatly from the version of events that the City described in its legal brief filed in Federal Court in support of its lawsuit.
In summary, from last year to this, Nothing Has Happened in the aftermath of that debacle!
And, as the news story published last week about this new position seems to Officially Confirm, as far as the City of Trenton is concerned, Nothing Will Happen.
OK, then. The City is simply moving on.
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UPDATE: After my piece on Friday, several readers responded to my request for additional data to calculate the Earned Run Averages for our previous two mayors. Thank you!
A couple of you pointed out that the Westside Plaza deal, for the abandoned grocery store rented by the City as part of a plan to put Trenton’s Municipal Court there, was the brainchild of former Mayor Douglas Palmer. I was certainly aware of that, but judged that it was Tony Mack’s unilateral cancellation of the lease in July 2010 that led to the eventual settlement of the case for $1.325 Million. So I charged that “run” to Tony Mack.
I have since reviewed that ruling. Upon consulting the official Rules of Major League Baseball, I find that Rule 9.16 governs this situation. That rule states, in part, “In determining earned runs, the official scorer shall reconstruct the inning without the errors (which exclude catcher’s interference) and passed balls, giving the benefit of the doubt always to the pitcher in determining which bases would have been reached by runners had there been errorless play.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
In this case, Mack’s inept handling of this lease led directly to a $1.3 Million payout during his rotation; he is definitely charged with an error. But Doug Palmer put that runner on base. The underlying deal was so bad, and the courthouse plan so unrealistic, that I can’t envision a scenario in which that deal would not have bellied up,. and in which we would have avoided a lawsuit and settlement.
That runner would have scored had there been errorless play. So I take that settlement out of Mack’s ERA and charge it to Doug Palmer.
In addition, I was reminded that at least one other lawsuit was filed that may eventually impact Mack’s ERA. Roberto Perez, brother of unsuccessful mayoral candidate Paul Perez, filed suit against the City in December 2015, alleging sexual harassment by his supervisor back in 2012, during the Mack Administration. As of today, I can’t find any reference to any settlement or resolution to that case. Should it result in a cash award, that will be charged to Mack. I’ve included this case as Pending, against Tony Mack.
With these adjustments. I’ve recalculated Mack’s ERA down to 3.80. Jackson’s remains unchanged at 8.93. I’ve also been reminded that we had George Muschal as a Reliever for 4.75 months in 2014, after Mack was pulled from the game. That’s a reasonable amount of time for a reliever, so I will look at pulling some stats for him. Stay tuned.
Since this will be a semi-regular feature going forward, I’ve put all the player stats to date in a spreadsheet, the easier to summarize them. The current numbers are below, and will be updated as circumstances require, and as news stories and/or reader submissions come in.
Thanks for playing!
As in Earned Run Average.
Wikipedia defines this as:
“In baseball statistics, earned run average (ERA) is the mean of earned runs given up by a pitcher per nine innings pitched (i.e. the traditional length of a game). It is determined by dividing the number of earned runs allowed by the number of innings pitched and multiplying by nine. Runs resulting from defensive errors (including pitchers’ defensive errors) are recorded as unearned runs and omitted from ERA calculations.”
This has running in my mind over the last few days, after seeing this story about the City of Trenton’s $195,000 out-of-court settlement with Mike Morris. Morris is a City employee who brought suit for his treatment during the Administration of Tony Mack, which included on-the-job harassment and layoff from his job as city Park Ranger to make room for a friend of Mack’s. I wrote about this case back in 2013, but it is just now coming to resolution.
The $195,000 cost of this settlement, approved last night by City Council, should really be counted against the record of the Mack Administration, which created the problem cleaned up during Jackson’s term. Which is just like a pitcher in Baseball who puts one or more men on base and is then removed. If any of those runners score, the runs are charged to the previous pitcher, in most cases. He put the runners in play; they get charged to his record.
So, that’s gotten me thinking. We’re still paying for the disasters incurred in Tony Mack’s Administration. Those should definitely factor into his ERA.
But what about our current hurler, Eric Jackson? He’s running up quite the score himself, and he’s only 2 1/2 years into his current rotation. He will no doubt leave men on base when he leaves office, but we can start to set up a running scorecard to assess whether he’s bound for the Hall of Fame, or whether we should release him in favor of a new left-hander.
Let’s take a look. I’ve briefly gone through a number of stories over the last seven years to compose this first pass list below, based on the reported or otherwise estimated dollar costs of these Hits, Runs and Errors. It’s certainly incomplete, but something I will refine and update as circumstances change and as more stats from previous seasons are dug up.
Hey, anyone can play! For items I have not listed here, please send me the info and a link (if you can), and I will update the info. Thanks!
Tony Mack (2010-2014):
- Mike Davis Settlement – $195,000
- Westside Plaza Settlement (closed Hermitage Avenue grocery story rented as Municipal Court building; project abandoned) – $1,300,000
- Family of Kenneth Howard wrongful death (while in police custody in 2011) – $690,000
- Family of Darren Horton wrongful death (3-year-old who drowned in city pool in 2010) – $1,200,000
- Kenia Leiva police excessive force settlement (2011) – $43,000
- “Mayor’s Learning Centers”/Zombie Public Libraries – $500,000 (? No one really knows how much these cost. Accurate numbers would be welcome)
- Lafayette Yard Hotel 2013 funding ($295,000 cash flow appropriation, and $200,000 transition costs during sale) – $495,000
- Youth Stat (Costs incurred under US Justice Department grant disallowed by Feds) – $55,000
- Heritage Days and Thanksgiving Parades – $100,000 (? See “Mayor’s Learning Centers,” above)
- National Night Out 2012 – $12,000
- Cadwalader Park sign – $17,000
- UPDATE: Maria Richardson settlement (Parks & Rec whistleblower, unjustly fired 2011) – $350,000
I come up with a rough total of UPDATED $4,957,000 for Tony Mack’s ERA over four seasons. Yes, he was yanked before he completed his fourth year, but he left a lot of runners in scoring position. Remember, this is a preliminary number, before all you amateur statisticians keeping score at home have a chance to weigh in.
Now, Eric Jackson (2014-present):
- FCC Consulting Services (3-year premium over competitors’ lower IT bids) – $500,000 (will go up if options are exercised for Years 4 and 5)
- 2016 Public Swimming Pools Contract – $100,000 (Estimate of actual 2016 costs over those of 2015 after mid-season vendor replacement nonsense)
- 2015 Audit findings – $105,000 (disallowed city administrative expenses as determined after annual audit)
- Lael Queen police excessive force settlement (2014) – $175,000
- The Great Payroll Robbery of 2015 – $4,700,000 (cost of funds stolen by Innovative Payroll Services. Number does not include interest costs on bond floated to replace money owed to IRS and State of NJ, nor legal costs of lawsuit filed to recover part of this amount. This amount might go down if any funds can be recovered, but any likely recovery will be pennies on the dollar.)
Jackson’s total – for only 2 1/2 out of 4 years, remember – comes to $5,580,000.
Let’s drop a couple of zeroes to look at in a way somewhat similar to what we’d see with an actual pitcher. Let’s call it at 4.95 for Mack, and 5.58 for Jackson. Pretty mediocre numbers on their own. Neither of them bring any heat to their game, and we know that Mack was taking money under the table.
UPDATE: Yikes! The ERA calculated for Jackson was just for his 2.5 years served. If I had figured it properly, I should divide that number by 2.5 and multiply by 4, to allow for the effect of a full 4-year (9-inning) term. Doing that, Eric Jackson’s 5.58 becomes a withering 8.93. Unless the guy can hit, he should look for another line of work.
Now, a couple of notes. I’ve only looked at these two pitchers. I haven’t tried calculating the ERA of Doug Palmer. His role in getting the City involved in the Lafayette Yard Hotel debacle in the first place would give him an astronomical average all by itself, if the total cost to the city could ever be accurately calculated.
And I have only looked at dollar amounts here. During the time of Tony Mack the inestimable cost of human life and misery paid by Trentonians during a horrid rise in violent crime simply cannot be calculated, and I won’t even try. But I will say that although the dangerous environment which led to the loss and injury of so many lives during the years of 2010 to 2014 was fostered in large part by the massive 2011 layoffs in Trenton’s Police Department. The man who signed those pink slipss was Mayor Tony Mack, without a doubt. But the guy who has to share a big part of the responsibility for that decision is Governor Chris Christie. By gutting the City’s finances in 2010 by the outright elimination of much of the annual state subsidy of the city’s budget and replacement with an inadequate “Transitional Aid” grant, Christie directly caused much of the financial stress that the utterly incompetent Mack chose to respond to by the horrible (and, in the end, unsustainable) public safety reductions of 2011.
With that said, I think that there is a strong case to be made that, as far as the damage done to the City of Trenton’s well-being by mis-management of its meager financial resources is concerned, the current Mayoral Administration of Eric Jackson is at least as bad, and – on many important measures – much, much worse than Tony Mack’s.
Who would have thought such a thing possible?!?!
If this were a real baseball game, the manager would have walked to the mound a long time ago to send Eric Jackson to the showers.We, unfortuately, have to wait until May, 2018.
We’re only in the fifth inning, folks. Gonna be a long game.
Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, explaining how he thinks his non-profit organization, “Moving Trenton Together,” filed annual tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service, despite all currently available evidence to the contrary:
“I’m almost sure we did because I remember the name of the form.”
I’m sure you agree that this statement is very flexible, and may be used in a number of circumstances. Please feel free to use it yourselves!!
“I’m almost sure I did my homework because I remember the name of the textbook.”
“I’m almost sure I paid the mortgage because I remember the name of the bank.”
“I’m almost sure I remembered my anniversary because I remember the name of my wife.”
“I’m almost sure I parked my car here because I remember the make and model of the car.”
“I’m almost sure I got dressed today because I remember the color of my suit.”
“I’m almost sure my city paid its payroll taxes because I remember the name of the IRS.”
Hmmm, perhaps you may not want to actually use that last excuse. Unless you are absolutely, positively certain you paid your payroll taxes, don’t mess with the IRS. Just don’t!
Listen, this won’t be too terribly long a piece. Basically, because there’s really not much that’s new in this latest news about Eric Jackson.We know he is careless about basic management and proper fiduciary responsibility of the funds of others, whether they are contributions to his political campaigns, contributions to his personal non-profit foundation, or the taxes of ordinary Trentonians and New Jerseyans and Americans which pay for the government of the City of Trenton. There’s nothing new here that we haven’t known for years.
We know that the Trenton Water Works, part of the Public Works Department run by Eric Jackson under former mayor Doug Palmer, was a hotbed of corruption in at least some of the years prior to 2010.Timecards were abused to pad overtime. Direct cash payments were made to City employees to do under-the-table, off-the-books work while on the City’s clock. City equipment was brazenly stolen during a period there were minimal controls on city property. A Grand Jury investigated. Employees were indicted and convicted. Mr. Jackson testified in open court about problems during his tenure. And one of those employees convicted for corruption, himself brother to a disgraced former mayor convicted and still serving Federal time corruption, dismissed Mr. Jackson as ineffective and directed by others: “And so him being a decent person, he’s a pretty decent person but his hand was tied. He really just did what (then-Mayor) Doug Palmer and them told him to do.” When you’ve been dissed as ineffective by “Muscles” Davis, you’ve been dissed by the best!
We know that Mr. Jackson was pretty casual about filing legally-required campaign financial reports for his unsuccessful 2010 mayoral campaign. He didn’t file those reports until 2014, nearly four years late, and only after being publicly and repeatedly scolded, in the local press, by opposing candidates in the 2014 election, and in this space. His excuse in 2014 for ignoring the law for four years, until he decided to run again? “My mind was other places losing. You’re despondent.”
“You’re despondent?” For four years?
We know Mr. Jackson’s 2014 campaign itself had several problems. The campaign was sloppy in its accounting and reporting during the election. During and extending well after the election, there were several questions about questionable donations to his campaign, leading to some – but not all – of them being refunded. And, as David Foster reminds us in his report for The Trentonian today, “But even after winning the 2014 mayoral race, Jackson has not submitted mandatory campaign finance reports for eight quarters, according to information on the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission website. His last quarterly filing was submitted on Oct. 15, 2014, showing a closing balance of $5,208.” This space has also frequently criticized Mr. Jackson for his neglect of state campaign finance law in both of his campaigns.
We know the same whimsical approach to finances that he displayed as a candidate he has repeatedly shown as mayor.
One example: in an audit of 2015 expenses the City was “cited for over-expenditures tallying nearly $105,000, failing to maintain proper payroll records, and hiring consultants and professions without the required state approval. In an attempt to avoid lengthy repetition of charges we are only too familiar with, let me simply summarize some others of Eric Jackson’s Greatest Hits from an earlier post of mine:
- A bad Information Technology deal.
- A bungled pair of contracts for the City’s public swimming pools.
- Being designated by the US Justice Department as a “high-risk grantee of Federal funds.”
- Getting swindled out of $5 Million Dollars of tax deposit funds over several months, despite many written warnings and red flags
So today we read, “since the 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed in 2014, Jackson has not filed a tax return for Moving Trenton Together, raising concerns about where the money is coming from to organize the free events and bring in the big-name talent.”
And we are Just. Not. Suprised. One. Little. Bit.
For his campaign style, as well as his management style as Mayor since 2014, I called Eric Jackson “Mr. Hands Off” in May. Seven months later, we can easily add “Mr. Careless” and/or “Mr. Deadbeat” to those nicknames.
Oh. One last thing to note about the newspaper article this morning about “Moving Trenton Together.”Mr. Jackson may in fact “remember the name of the form,” IRS Form 990 which is is the main document needed to file a tax return with the IRS.
But Eric Jackson is mistaken – big surprise, right? – when he says “It’s not an annual” form. According to the IRS website, “In general, exempt organizations are required to file annual returns.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
So, Mr. Jackson, once again, Oops!
Are you really sure you’re cut out for this line of work? I’m not. Even more than ever.
Arithmetic, actually. It’s not that difficult, at all.
This morning, the Trenton Times printed an article by Cristina Rojas on the current effort to overturn Ordinance #16-50. Council passed this Ordinance, as well as Resolution #16-591 which the Ordinance authorized, on October 20. This Ordinance created salary ranges for Trenton’s Mayor Eric Jackson as well as its Business Administrator, Chief of Staff, Municipal Judges, and Department and Division Directors. Within those ranges, the Resolution set specific salaries for most all these officials (excepting the Chief of Staff, whose salary can be set by the Mayor directly).
Those salaries are 3% higher than their current salaries. These raises will be retroactively calculated to January 1, 2016. They won’t become effective until 20 days after the Council passage of these measures. That would be November 9.One more point: this action has been taken well before we have an approved Annual Budget for the Fiscal Year that began on July 1 of this year and runs until June 30, 2017. So we don’t even know what the impact of these raises will be to the City’s finances.
You follow so far? Good.
The Jackson Administration’s first proposal was presented to Council as a 15% raise over three years. City Council, of course, passed this original plan on its First Reading by a vote of 5-1 on August 18.
But then again, our City Council is a little dense sometimes.
After Council passed the first reading of this plan, after a very shallow examination of the plan and no budgetary analysis of this plan at all ( I was there, I know!) , there was a great deal of public pushback from several Trentonians, including myself. Pushback that included the formation of a citizens committee to, should the proposal have passed, lead a petition drive to force a public referendum to overturn the raises.
After a few weeks of criticism, Mayor Jackson “clarified” his plan. There was a lot of “confusion ” about it, according to the Mayor. There was “no way in heck” he meant 15% increases. Heavens, no! “”I would never do that.”
Except that his own Business Administrator Terry McEwen had done exactly that. On August 18 he explained to Council on August 19 that exact proposal.
Well, after the Mayor threw Mr. McEwen under the bus, his Administration came back with what they publicized as a more reasonable, a more “modest” proposal. This would be nothing more than a cost of living increase, of 1.5% a year for this budget year and the last one, calculated to be retroactive to January 1, 2016.
Certainly this revised plan sounded much more reasonable to Council., who rubber-stamped, umm, approved, it on October 20 (In order to avoid any political fallout from their vote, however, they removed their own raises from the plan. That’s ok. We’ll remember anyway).
We still oppose this plan.
On September 16, when Council was first scheduled to vote on the proposal (they postponed action to October), I spoke to Council on behalf of the citizens committee. I said that we had no problem with the principle of raises for all of these officials, as long as they were fair and equitable. I concluded those comments this way:
Be assured, we will support such a fair and equitable plan – one that provides only Cost-of-living adjustments, is considered as part of the approved Annual Budget, and which only goes forward from the date of adoption of that Budget, providing for no retroactive payments. We will oppose a plan that does not do these things.
The plan as passed by Council does not fit those criteria, and so we continue to oppose it, and are circulating a petition to repeal Ordinance 16-50. That’s what Ms., Rojas was reporting in today’s Trenton Times.
We seem to have pressed a few of the Administration’s buttons with this opposition, because the Mayor released a statement today intended to defend, again, the “modest” nature of this plan. Unfortunately, the Mayor (or his spokesperson Michael Walker, whose name is also on the statement) and his Administration seem to still be as confused as they admitted to being last month. Because today’s Statement reveals a lack of understanding of municipal accounting, and even of arithmetic.
The statement is very brief. It’s worth posting in its entirety.
Here the Mayor states that this is a “one-time three percent increase for 2016.” He continues to justify this as a 1.5% increase for Fiscal Year 2015 and 1.5% for FY 2016. This is all it is, according to the Mayor. Increases for the fiscal budget year we are currently in, 2017, and 2018 “must be presented via resolution to City Council for its approval.” This will be an action that can be taken at a later time, presumably. The Mayor is reserving the right to propose yet further increases in this current fiscal year, since these raises only go to December 31, 2016. There’s still six months of budget year to go at that point, remember. What would be so wrong with another 1.5%, or even more?
You still follow? It sure sounds simple, right? What’s the problem? I’ll tell what the problem is. And I will warn you, it’s an important point., so I will yell.
THE CITY CAN’T COUNT THIS AS INCREASES FOR FISCAL YEARS 2015 AND 2016!
ALL OF THOSE YEARS ARE LONG PAST, AND THE BUDGET BOOKS CLOSED.
ALL OF THE INCREASES WILL COUNT IN THIS YEAR, 2017, AND NEXT YEAR 2018. THE INCREASES ARE MORE THAN 1.5% PER YEAR.
THEY COME TO 4.5% THIS YEAR, AT LEAST. AND THAT IS EVEN BEFORE ANY FURTHER INCREASES THAT MAY BE PLANNED, ACCORDING TO THE MAYOR’S OWN WORDS!!!
Whew. Sorry for the shouting. But I wanted to make sure that I got this point across. When the Mayor (or Mr. Walker) say they are calculating this increase against two old fiscal years, he is either greatly confused, or HE IS LYING!
Sorry, did it again!
Back in August, when Council first discussed it, in the one -and only! – discussion of how this might affect the City’s budget, North Ward Councilmember Marge Caldwell-Wilson had the following brief exchange with Business Administrator McEwen. These quotes have been transcribed by me, from the audio recording of the August 18 meeting made by the City Clerk’s Office. The numbers before each quote indicate the timestamp of when the comments were made during the meeting. Comments in [brackets] are mine.
2:52:40 Caldwell-Wilson: This is based on doing retroactive [to January 1, 2016, in the prior FY 2016]. So in the last budget [FY 2016], I don’t recall us being apprised that there was money put into the budget to cover the retroactive salaries.
2:52:54 McEwen: We put it in this year’s budget [FY 2016/17], because it’s retroactive in this year. So it’ll still be in this year’s budget.
2:53:00 C-W: But I don’t recall, we had temporary budgets, we’re just now putting this in?
2:53:03 McE: We would if this is approved.
There you have it. The City’s BA admits these payments will all be in THIS YEAR’S BUDGET, WHICH WE DON’T CURRENTLY HAVE
Dang! Still yelling!
Anyway, Mr. McEwen admitted to Council that the fiction that Mayor Jackson continues to tell us – up to and including today – about “1.5% in FY 2015 and 1.5% in 2016″ is Bullshit. And, I believe, that is even the proper Accounting Terminology for that.
Another aspect of this: the impact to this year’s budget will not be the 3% the Mayor is telling us. It is going to be 4.5%, at least.
How does that work? Although the Salary Resolution sets the salaries as being in effect from only January 1 to December 31, 2016, these salaries will remain in effect beyond that date, unless there are further increases, as I will describe below.
So, these individuals will enjoy a 3% increase – at least - for the 12 months of the fiscal year July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017. Since this Resolution is retroactive to January 1 of this year, they will be paid a 3% increase for an additional six months! Therefore, an effective increase of 4.5%, all chargeable to this current year!
Let me quickly illustrate, using Mayor Jackson’s own salary.
His current (before the raise) salary is $126,460 per year. His new salary will be $130,253. That’s an increase of $3,793. Three Percent. Yep. That’s what he will get for the current budget year from July 1 to next June 30. But, the new salary is retroactive to January 1 of this year, so he will receive an additional bump of around $1,897 for that six-month period of time.
That makes his total increase $3,793 + $1,897, or $5,690. That’s eighteen months of raise to be paid over 12 months, or an actual, effective raise of 4.5% over his current $126,460 salary.
That’s also true for the other officials getting raises under this plan.
Do the math!
And that’s only if this is the last increase we see during this budget year!
Mr. Jackson calls this a “one-time [his emphasis] increase for 2016,” a budget year now closed, as we have discussed above. He also says that increases for the fiscal budget year we are currently in, 2017, and 2018 “must be presented via resolution to City Council for its approval.” This will be an action that can be taken at a later time, presumably. The Mayor is reserving the right to propose yet further increases in this current fiscal year, since these raises only go to December 31, 2016. There’s still six months of budget year to go at that point, remember. What would be so wrong with another 1.5%, or even more, right?
The Mayor is today clearly telling us he is keeping his options open to do exactly that: Go back to Council for more raises in this budget year.
Or maybe he will do it in the next budget year, and make THAT one “retroactive,” too!
That is why we are circulating our petition!!!
We do not believe that this Mayor and this Administration deserve any increase over and above a cost of living adjustment. One Percent. One-and-a-half, tops.
Not after all of their failures over the last few years.
We do not believe that these raises should be retroactive. As demonstrated above, “Three Percent” becomes FOUR-AND-A-HALF PERCENT when you count – as you have to, as Terry McEwen admitted to Councilmember Caldwell-Wilson – the “retroactive” portion in THIS YEAR’S BUDGET.
And, oh yeah, a reminder. WE DON’T HAVE A BUDGET.
I’m done yelling. Honest!
I’m done writing. For now.
Sign the Petition, before November 9!!!
If you would like to know how, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Trenton’s City Council approved Ordinance #16-50 on Thursday evening. This Ordinance sets salary ranges for the Mayor, Chief of Staff, Business Administrator, Municipal Judges and Departmental & Division Directors. By separate Resolution, Council authorized 3% raises, retroactive to January 1 for all the above, excepting the Chief of Staff.
We believe 3% is too much for these officials, in the middle of a term of office that has seen Millions of Dollars stolen over a period of months.And we don’t believe raises should be retroactive.
We intend to let Trenton’s voters decide whether these raises are justified and have been earned. Between now and November 9, registered Trenton voters (only) can sign an official petition calling for this Ordinance to be overturned.
If you would like to sign, please contact me or any other of the following individuals.
Gino Nicolas Hernandez Villavizar
If you signed the unofficial Change.Org Petition a few weeks ago, we will contact you.
If you have any questions, please ask any of us. Thanks!
Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson has a problem.
Under considerable pressure by citizens to say something and do something in response to a severe uptick in violent crime in Trenton over the summer months, and facing criticism for being mostly silent and invisible during the weeks when frequent shootings were wounding and killing people at a frantic pace, Mayor Jackson convened a press conference on Tuesday morning “to announce a new plan for confronting the deadly gun violence that spiked within Trenton in recent weeks,” in the words of a press account of the event.
In the previous post in this space, I described the high expectations for this “plan” that the Mayor and his Administration created. In the runup to the press conference, Mr. Jackson told Trentonians “In lieu of just coming out and saying what we the city are doing to combat this spike in violence — specifically shootings — I’m going to take a different approach. I need to come with something that I think will help create a systemic change.”
I also described how I feel that Mr. Jackson, and the other public officials who attended and spoke at Tuesday’s event, fell far short of that marker in the proposals they outlined to the press. I noted on Wednesday, 24 hours after the event, the City’s website contained no reference to any proposals that were discussed and any actions to be implemented. As of this morning, now 72 hours after the event, there is still nothing on any page of the City’s website talking about any such “different approach” or any proposal that “will help create a systemic change.”
This is bad enough on its own. After weeks of steadily escalating crime on Trenton’s streets – violence that continues seemingly unabated this week, as we read of yet another young man seriously wounded by multiple gunshots this past Wednesday evening – Jackson delivered far less than what he promised. Trentonians were disappointed, and those other public officials who showed up to voice their solidarity with Trenton’s mayor and its people must also feel disappointed and embarrassed by their support of a “plan” that offered very little more substantial than Jackson’s pledge that “There is no option we are not going to look at” to fight an intolerable situation.
This is bad enough, but Eric Jackson has another problem.
As one might expect, the entity at the leading edge of confronting Trenton’s crime problems head on, day in and day out, is the city’s Police Department. What little detail and few proposals we heard on Tuesday involved TPD. Police Director Ernest Parrey described how his immediate plan for confronting the upsurge in violence involved a tactical effort to concentrate on a half-dozen areas in the City, to “light those areas up” in order to suppress criminal activity in those areas.
Mr. Parrey also announced an outreach effort to local communities, starting with, as Greg Wright reported in the Times, “engaging children in schools to have conversations about the perception of officers amongst community members, saying police and the community need to be on the same team. ‘It’s not us and them, [Parrey] said. ‘It’s us.’”
This outreach would further one of the few main goals announced by Jackson and “nearly every speaker” at the event. And that was,
“calling for a cultural shift within the communities where citizens see crimes occur but don’t report them.
“On Sunday, 19-year-old Lance Beckett was shot several times in broad daylight. Witnesses say that the shooter then stomped on his head. Jackson pointed out how there were witnesses, yet nobody called police.
“‘Take back our streets,’ State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said. ‘Say something if you see something.’
“Officials acknowledged that cultural shifts are difficult and slow to develop, which is why they were not without their own solutions.”
And that’s the problem that Eric Jackson has: the main “solution” he and the other officials offered has its own major problem.
And that problem is the Trenton Police Department.
The very same day, mere hours afterward, that Mr. Jackson and all the “bevy of officials” spoke so emphatically of the need to fight Trenton’s endemic violence, relying largely on the Trenton Police Department to bear the initial heavy load of that fight, the news broke that members of the Department were under investigation by both TPD Internal Affairs and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) for what, from initial reports, seemed could turn into a major sex scandal involving at least one and possibly several more serving officers. Several press accounts, including incredibly unprofessional and needlessly salacious reporting by the Trentonian’s David Foster, alleged on-duty sexual indiscretions with an accused prostitute at a Police Department facility.
The initial reports were shocking enough, and turned sadly tragic when the officer at the center of the investigation, a 22-year veteran of the Department and the specific subject of what should be career-ending reports by Mr. Foster, took his own life on Wednesday. His family and colleagues in the Department grieve this week, and the Trenton Police Department now faces what is likely to be intense scrutiny and further investigation.
And that’s a big problem for Mr. Jackson’s proposed response to Trenton’s criminal activity.
First off, as described in the more responsible reportage in the Times, the MCPO investigation began last week upon the arrest of the alleged prostitute. In other words, the investigation was well under way days before the Mayor’s press conference, which stressed police department outreach “engaging children in schools” and appealed to community members not to remain silent about crimes of which they had knowledge, but to reach out to the police.
How in the world did Mr. Jackson go ahead with those parts of his proposal? Did he know that a major sex scandal in his police department was about to burst in the open? If he knew, I believe it was a major failure of judgment on his part to have spoken as he did, when he did. And it was an embarrassment to all of the other officials, such as Senator Shirley Turner, to have spoken so extensively and warmly of TPD as they did, when they no doubt had no inkling of the pending scandal.If I were an official such as Senator Turner, I would frankly be livid at Mayor Jackson for being corralled to show up at a supposedly important event like Tuesday’s, speak in solidarity with Trenton’s citizens and public safety departments, and then see that department blow up later that day.
If Mr. Jackson, on the other hand, did not know about the investigation under way, then Director Parrey owes him and the public some major explanation about that major breakdown in communication.If the Director did not tell his boss about the storm about to break, and allowed him to make a fool of himself on Tuesday morning, we need to know why.
This scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for Mr. Jackson’s already thin “plan,” and will likely leave it in tatters. To the extent he had any strategic objectives to push this week, the Mayor’s proposals leaned heavily on an appeal to Trenton’s citizens to end a culture of silence in the presence and knowledge of criminal activity they either witness or have knowledge of. That appeal – both implicitly and explicitly - is addressed to the public, asking them to open up to the police about what they know. That appeal is a much harder sell in the wake of this scandal.
It may be weeks or months, if ever, before we find out how many officers were involved in this scandal, and how much on-duty, on-city-premises indiscretion is involved. Even if there end up being no officers other than the one at the center of attention this week who were personally involved, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that there may have been some in the department who knew about what happened, and said nothing. If more than one officer was involved, and it’s revealed that this happened more often or repeatedly, it’s likely than even more people knew, and said nothing.
How can the Mayor and his Administration possibly appeal to the public to tell the police what they see on the streets if the public knows that the police hide behind their own “blue wall of silence?”
Even further, the appeal to the public made of Tuesday also relies on an implicit pledge to them that whatever they tell the police and other officials will be held in strictest confidence and confidentiality by law enforcement, not least to protect them from intimidation and retaliation. This scandal, and other recent history, renders that implicit pledge rather hollow.
Earlier this month, former Mercer Sheriff’s officer Christopher McKenna was sentenced to two years of probation after being convicted this May of illegally leaking last year confidential records of a minor who was involved in a officer-related Trenton police shooting last year. That leaked information – which, since it concerned a 14-year-old, should have been legally sealed – was published, as it turns out, in the Trentonian.
The information in David Foster’s Trentonian reportage this week, highly detailed information of a confidential investigation in progress, could only have been leaked by someone internal to either the Trenton PD or the Mercer Prosecutor’s Office. Regardless of the source, the Trentonian – again – irresponsibly published the information with far too much unnecessary detail.
Both of these occasions send a message to the community far stronger than the one delivered on Tuesday by Mayor Jackson, Director Parrey, Senator Turner, and the others.
These officials are telling the people, “Come to the police. Tell us what you see and what you know. We will keep your information confidential, and we will keep witnesses safe.”
What the people have are perceptions that there are police who themselves keep quiet about improper activities among their own; that law enforcement on several levels in Mercer County who feel free to betray confidences and their oaths, releasing closely-held material when it suits their own purposes and agendas, whatever they may be; and that there is at least one local media outlet that does not hesitate to inappropriately and unprofessionally publish that material.
Which will have the bigger impact on most Trentonians: the earnest but empty words spoken by Mayor Jackson and the others on Tuesday? Or the actions of Mercer law enforcement and corrupt media?
I think I know the answer, and so do you. And that’s why Mayor Jackson has a problem. And that’s why we all have a problem.
As Wednesday night’s shooting suggests, the bad guys have not yet been impressed by Mayor Jackson’s “bold” proposals. I believe, both because of its lightweight, inadequate ideas and because of the serious internal weaknesses of local police as revealed most recently by this week’s scandal, the Mayor’s and Police Director’s initiative will quickly sink without a ripple, as Tony Mack’s Comprehensive Crime Initiative also did four years ago.
Too bad for all of us!
For my own part, I am disgusted by the Trentonian’s reporting this week. For the last several years, I have been among their roster of Community Blogs directing readers to this space. Although it is a very limited and indirect association, it is one I can no longer stomach. This morning I sent an email to the Trentonian, asking its “editors” – a very loose term, as this week demonstrates – to strike my name and blog from their roster. Good Luck and Good Riddance to them.
There was quite the building-up of expectations for yesterday’s presentation on public safety in Trenton by Mayor Eric Jackson. Expectations created and managed by Mr. Jackson and his Administration. A Monday headline in the Trentonian proclaimed, “Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson to take drastic measures against violence.” In the article under that headline, Mr. Jackson sure talked a good game. He was quoted in the piece by David Foster as saying, “In lieu of just coming out and saying what we the city are doing to combat this spike in violence — specifically shootings — I’m going to take a different approach. I need to come with something that I think will help create a systemic change.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
It sure sounded like he was casting a wide net of people to consult in coming up with his new approach. In that same article, we read “On Friday morning [September 16], Jackson met with State Sen. Shirley Turner, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, Assemblywoman Liz Muoio, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, interim Trenton Public Schools Superintendent Lucy Feria, and Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler, as well as representatives from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, State Police, Trenton police and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.”
That sure sounded like he was canvassing a lot of the relevant players in city, county and state governments to devise a plan that would have an immediate, meaningful impact on the City’s recent rash of violent, and often particularly brutal, crime. Mr. Foster put the situation in context: “So far this year, there have been 21 homicides in the city with the latest coming on Sunday afternoon. In that killing, 19-year-old Lance Beckett was shot numerous times and witnesses said they saw a man stomp on the victim’s head as he lay dead on the ground.”
The City’s murder rate for 2016, always a bellwether metric for the other categories of violence, is on track to reach close to 30, if the current pace continues and Mr. Jackson is unsuccessful in finding his “different approach.” That number of slain would be nearly twice as much as last year’s 17 violent deaths, which was itself closer to the long-term 30-year average from 1985-2015 of 18. To reach the threshold of 30 murders this year would take us back to the bad old days of 2013 and 2014, which saw the nauseating totals of 37 and 34 for those two years.
Last year’s reduction in the murder gave Trentonians some evidence that new leadership in the City and new resources in Public Safety, such as Federal grants to hire new officers for the city’s Police Department, was finally having an effect. This latest upswing in 2016, which over the last couple of weeks have included incidents such as Lance Beckett’s death as well as one hectic night last week in which no fewer than six people were shot in a span of only twelve minutes. So, with all that as context, it’s more than a little disappointing to write that what we got from the Mayor yesterday didn’t add up to very much, at all.
In the Trenton Times, an article by Greg Wright reports “A bevy of local political and community leaders came together in front of a city firehouse Tuesday to announce a new plan for confronting the deadly gun violence that spiked within Trenton in recent weeks.”
Now, the word “plan” has, in the context of Trenton’s public safety problems, been thrown around a lot in the last couple of weeks. Last week, in the absence of any action by Mr. Jackson, At-Large City Council Member Duncan Harrison convened his own press conference to discuss his “plan” to specifically address the violent acts committed with guns that drive Trenton’s crime rate up. Mr. Harrison presented many ideas, several of them worth of serious consideration. The main points of his strategy, as also reported by Greg Wright: “Harrison called for the city to take four steps to reduce violent crime: 30 new police officers; 100 new surveillance cameras; 500 streetlights; and an expansion of the city’s ShotSpotter gunfire detection system.” Good ideas, Mr. Harrison. But not really a “plan.” In my mind, a Plan consists of an Idea, plus a credible path to turning that idea into reality. An idea needs resources of money and or manpower, and it needs a timetable for making it happen. A Plan = Idea + Resources + Calendar.
Mr. Harrison had some good ideas, but they were nowhere near implementation. As Mr. Wright reported last week, “Few doubt that these measures would lower violent crime, but there is a large funding hurdle for the proposal to overcome. Harrison said he anticipates that the money could be made available through capital funding, a Community Development Block Grant and the city’s general operations budget. He estimates the total costs somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000. Officials at City Hall say that those estimates are too low and point out that hiring 30 new officers would cost around $1.8 million after medical benefits… Harrison said that his proposal is not yet fully developed and that he would have more details in the future.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
I felt the same way reading the account of yesterday’s press conference. Mayor Jackson and others had some good ideas, but it’s nowhere near a “plan” ready to be implemented. It’s not “drastic,” as the Monday headline in the Trentonian teased (The Trentonian, teasing, you say? Unheard of!). It sure doesn’t sound like the “different approach” suggested by the Mayor, nor does it look to provide the “systemic change” he also said the City needs. And is certainly not “bold,” the description given by Councilman Harrison at yesterday’s event.
So what does the Administration intend to do?
The most immediate and tangible measure on tap, according to City Police Director Ernest Parrey, is to concentrate on six “hot spots” of activity in the City, and target them for close attention. “We will light those areas up,” said the Director. Although this kind of action will certainly be welcome in the areas involved, and are likely to result in some immediate results, the action seems conventional, strictly tactical, and not likely to have a long-term impact on city crime statistics. Activity in six targeted areas will likely move to other, less-covered areas, as it has in the past. Criminal activity doesn’t usually have a fixed base; bad guys finding their usual areas “lit up” can easily move back into the darkness, unfortunately.
Another specific proposal, with the prospect of new resources, came from the Acting Mercer County Prosecutor, Angelo Onofri. According to Mr. Wright, the Prosecutor “announced the availability of money for the school district to hire truancy officers to aid in increasing school attendance in city schools.”
But, oddly, the Interim Superintendent of Trenton’s School District, who attended the event, responded by basically saying “Thanks, but No Thanks.” The Times reported, “Interim Superintendent of Schools Lucy Feria was grateful for the announcement, but said that she only wants to use truancy officers a last option. She prefers the school take ownership of truancy rates by identifying which children are chronically absent, why they are absent and then take steps to solve that problem. Feria said that all city schools are working on individual plans, similar to the one in place at Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School, to reduce absentee rates.” [Emphasis added - KM]
That strikes kind of an off note to the account of yesterday’s event. With the “bevy” of officials and community leaders on hand, the underlying message of such an occasion was surely intended by the Mayor to be one of unity of purpose and plan. The press account describes an event, and the underlying initiative the event was called to promote, that was kind of unfocused and all over the map. Along with the proposal to “light up” those six areas, and the truant officer funding that Ms. Feria is definitely cool to, we heard about a police outreach effort in the schools, sending officers to meet with students and “have conversations about the perception of officers amongst community members, saying police and the community need to be on the same team.” We also heard appeals from several speakers to community members to speak up and report crimes when they see them, to step up and be counted when attempting to bring criminals to justice. State Senator Shirley Turner said, “”Say something if you see something.”
Drastic? Bold? To be honest, not really. Is this all even a plan? There again, I don’t think so. From the Times: “After the conference, Mayor Jackson acknowledged that funding for law enforcement and various initiatives the city would like to implement or expand is an issue. He said the city needs to bring in more tax revenue through economic development, but also needs more grant funding and aid from state legislators and the governor’s office” [Emphasis added- KM].
So, just as we saw at Mr. Harrison’s press conference, we heard ideas and proposals, but without a credible path to implementing them, without Resources, without a Calendar, we simply Do Not Have A Plan. What we have is earnest expressions of compassion with the citizens of Trenton, and frustration with the existing situation, but not much more than that.
This is what we waited to hear the Mayor say, during those weeks when the shootings and the deaths ramped up to critical numbers? This is what the Mayor spent a lot of time and energy to say to us about “a situation he calls ‘unsettling’ and ‘unnerving?’ ”
Mr. Jackson’s overall message yesterday was summarized in his statement that “There is no option we are not going to look at.” Unfortunately, when I read that in the paper, I heard “There are no option that we have yet decided to concentrate on.” I am afraid that the soft, unfocused presentation we heard yesterday will result in soft, unfocused results.
You may notice that my description of the Mayor’s proposals came exclusively from a press account in the Times. That’s entirely due to the fact that as of this Wednesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after this press conference, there is nothing on the City’s website that details the Mayor’s proposals or those of the rest of his Administration. No press release, no charts, no timetables, no list of bullet points. There is a press release advertising yesterday’s event, but nothing after. No followup of any kind. Nada. Zilch. I find that highly disappointing.
Even Tony Mack, with his so-called “Comprehensive Crime Initiative” of 2012, a stillborn plan that failed primarily because he failed to involve anyone else – including those departments and individuals who would have been charged with actually implementing his proposals - with creating the plan; EVEN TONY MACK!!! published his plan on the City website for all to see.
Where’s Eric Jackson’s Proposal? I shudder to think that, at roughly the same point in his Administration that Eric Jackson is now, Tony Mack was more disciplined and productive in his messaging and communications with the public!
I think referencing Mack’s “Comprehensive Plan” from four years ago serves another purpose. I think it shows that we have, over the last half dozen years and more, become so accustomed to progressively poorer results and performance from our City government, that our expectations have also sunk lower and lower. We are likely to judge the effectiveness of this current Administration and Council more on the basis of their good intentions and empty acts of political theater such as we saw yesterday; and less on any real results and progress, which we are coming to believe we are unlikely to see.
But ideas are not enough. Impassioned cries of “There is no option we are not going to look at” don’t cut it. We need a Plan, not platitudes. People are dying in Trenton, while this Administration struggles to find their direction forward.
If this Mayor and Council do not understand the difference between Ideas and Plans, then we need a new Mayor and Council.
Last night, Trenton’s City Council met in a regularly-scheduled session. As had been reported the day before, Council did not discuss or vote on the Salary Range Ordinance #16-50 or the implementing Resolution #16-591, having postponed the matter until its upcoming October 20 meeting. However, a few members of the salary petition Committee attended the session. Mike Ranallo and I addressed Council, Jacky Vargas and Dan Dodson did not. City Clerk Richard Kachmar attempted to prevent us from speaking during the portion of the meeting reserved for Public Comment only on docket items scheduled for the evening session; he wanted us to wait until the end of the meeting, during the General Comment period. I replied that public notice of the session included the salary measures as scheduled docket items, so I was going to speak about them. My comments are posted below.
Council did not reply directly to Mike’s or my comments, nor did they speak about the salaries question at all. However, Member Alex Bethea did make some remarks that addressed our remarks in general. In doing so, he proved once again that he is perhaps The Dumbest Person in Trenton public life, and that is a crown for which there are many, many contestants.
He said he appreciated our comments and our interest in the matter, but that we didn’t understand the need for the City employees in question to receive some salary increases, a little “bump,” after so long without any raise. He totally mischaracterized our position on the matter, since we – last month and this – expressed our endorsement of reasonable Cost-Of-Living Adjustments (COLA’s), as long as they were not retroactive, and implemented only with the adoption of a formal full-year City Budget. This distinction was apparently meaningless to him, but no matter.
What moved his comments from the category of merely annoying to offensive was his defense of the record of the Administration. He parroted Mayor Eric Jackson’s line about their record being less than “perfect,” and he did acknowledge what he stated as “some mishaps here and there” (I’m asking for a CD of the audio recording of the session so I can get his exact statement).
Some. “Mishaps.” Here and there.
Really. He said “mishaps.” I was tempted, at the end of the evening, to reply to him and ask him what he considered to be some of those “mishaps,” listing a few of the likely candidates. If he considered things like: messing up the IT and swimming pool contracts; or getting rapped on the knuckles in an audit identifying $105,000 of disallowable expenses during 2014; or getting swindled, in slow motion, of $4.7 Million Dollars by our payroll company. If he considered episodes like those to be mere “mishaps,” I’d be curious to know what he’d considered out-and-out unambiguous fuck-ups!
But I resisted the temptation. After watching Council work for a few hours, I was anxious just to leave, you know?
Anyway, the next step in the salary matter for those citizens who expressed their support in opposing the City’s initial proposal of granting 15% increases over the next three years will be to wait and watch.
As you will read below I, on behalf of our Committee, stated that we will continue to oppose any revised plan by the City that proposes to grant any discretionary increases to management personnel (and these non-contractual increases are, in fact, purely discretionary) that are retroactive in any way, and which would be implemented before the City adopts its Annual Operating Budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1, nearly 3 full months ago. Proposed discretionary raises must be considered in the context of all of the other budget items the City proposes, and all of those set against the anticipated revenue resources we expect to earn or otherwise receive this year.
If Council passes next month an Ordinance and Resolution that allows retroactive payments of their bumps, and if they pass these before an Annual Budget is adopted – even if the increases are nominal Cost of Living Adjustments – we will circulate a petition to overturn that Ordinance.
Stay tuned to this space.
Comments as delivered to City Council, September 15, 2016:
Mr. President, and Members of Council – On behalf of 160 citizens of Trenton, I present to you this evening a petition, which was hosted on Change.org, objecting to the adoption of Ordinance #16-50. This petition has, of course, no formal legal force, but I hope will provide some sense of public opposition to the plan as it was introduced last month.
We understand that further action on this Ordinance and accompanying Resolution #16-591 has been continued to Council’s October 20 session, to allow further deliberation an research, a decision I applaud. Please be advised, however, that should you and your colleagues on Council approve this Ordinance 16-50 and Resolution 16-591 in substantially their present forms, implementing specific salaries for the Mayor and several officials retroactive nine months to January 1 of this year, these 160 – and more – Trentonians will sign an official petition to overturn the Ordinance.
Mr. President, last month the Administration presented – and Council approved 5-1 ! – a proposal to grant salary increases amounting to over 15% above current compensation to these officials over the next three years. It was extensively described by Business Administrator McEwen as a move predicated on fairness to employees who have not seen raises in their classifications in over ten years, even though, of course, many of the current incumbents in these job titles have only had their positions for slightly over two years. The BA said, and I quote, “All we are looking to do is take the 2005 salary grid that we are currently at, look to implement the 2008 Ordinance that was approved by Council at that point in time,” unquote, before that Ordinance was later overturned in Court.
During your discussion on the topic, you all – Council and the BA – spent a great amount of time revisiting those events of 2008 and 2010. Now, I remember 2008 and 2010. There are a lot of things I miss from that time that aren’t around anymore: Pontiac. Oldsmobile. “Battlestar Galactica.” “Celebrity Family Feud with Al Roker.” Capital City Aid.
All these things are all gone now. They may continue to fill the airwaves and roll down our streets, but they are gone. Irrelevant to how things are now. The world, including our small piece of it, has changed utterly since 2008. Your discussion on August 18 was, somehow, bafflingly, conducted entirely without recognition of this basic fact.
The City’s finances have transformed since 2008. Capital City Aid, and its near $40 Million in financial assistance to the City’s annual budgets, was canceled in 2010 by our Current governor. It’s gone. Replaced by “Transitional Aid,” which you remember, by its name, is something that is designed to go away eventually. As it stands now, the City receives financial assistance at only about HALF the level it did in 8 years ago. Transitional Aid is definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile. As you review the Administration’s proposal over the next month, you must keep that in mind. What we have to work with as our benchmarks are not 2008 salary ranges, nor 2008 revenues, but the resources and expenses we have in 2016. Here, and now, is where we must start.
Despite that, the Administration – the Eric Jackson Administration – presented a plan, in writing, OVER the name of the Business Administrator but IN the name of the presiding Mayor, which definitively and unambiguously detailed raises totaling 15% above current levels, over the next three years, for the Mayor, the BA, the Chief of Staff, the Chief Municipal Judge and other Municipal Judges, as well as all Department Heads and Division Directors.
The Mayor has spent much of the last several weeks disowning his plan. He hadn’t read the memo, he said. It was a mistake, he said. He “no way in heck” didn’t intend the raises to be 15%. He always intended these raises to be a small cost-of-living adjustment for this and next year. 1.5% this year. 1.5% next year. City Council, you guys, would have the power to do this or not. It was all a misunderstanding. There was “confusion.” So he says now.
Let’s be entirely clear. The proposal, in writing – in this memo – was unambiguous: Mr. McEwen wrote, “Upon second reading [of Ordinance 16-50], presuming no substantial changes, it is our intention to also introduce a Resolution fixing specific salaries within the ranges as noted below.”
All of those salaries were pretty carefully calculated for all employee categories over three separate years. By 2018 salaries were 15.5% higher than the current salaries for all but the Chief of Staff, who was awarded a 19.7% increase.
That memo addressed to City Council was dated July 15, a full month before the matter was discussed in open Council session. That’s a long time for the Mayor to “not have read the memo”. A long time for a BA not to have discussed a salary plan with his boss that personally benefited the both of them. And a very long time for all of you not to have made any comments nor raised any objections.
On August 18, you voted for that plan. Five to 1. That was no “mistake.” That was not “confusion.” That was a bad decision.
This was, simply, a proposal that would spend more than the City can afford at present. A proposal made without an approved City Budget against which this can be evaluated. A proposal made when the City’s finances are more fragile than ever. And a proposal that would, in its effect – as I said to you last month before you voted to do the very thing – reward the very same Administration for all of the failures and legitimate “confusion” and “mistakes” of the last two years. And this was a proposal that the Mayor abandoned when he was challenged on it. By every citizen who spoke here on August 18, by the press, and by any citizen who wondered what the hell you all were thinking for proposing 15% raises in this climate, and how the hell you guys voted 5 to 1 in favor of it!
Mr. President, you and your Council colleagues now have an opportunity before you to take the Administration’s revised proposal, and fix it.
Yes, let’s try to provide cost-of-living adjustments, but not retroactive in any way. Tie the approval of any COLA’s not to the beginning of the calendar year, which would – by the time you consider the revised proposal next month – provide for almost 10 months of retroactive back pay increases– but to the adoption of the City’s Fiscal Year budget, and make them effective from the date of that budget’s adoption. You need to ensure that discretionary increased costs – and to be frank, that’s what these non-contractual increases are – can be paid for. In last month’s discussion on the topic, you barely touched on the implications of this plan to the budget. That was another failing of this plan as originally proposed. Now, and even next month, is not the time to build in further encumbered costs to a budget that doesn’t yet even exist.
And yes, by all means, let’s try to attract better managerial talent. Competitive compensation is an important factor in accomplishing this, but more important is the talent we try to recruit.
In a day and age when officials such as Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, David Vitter and members of the United States Secret Service show us how not to conduct themselves in public service, surely we should be able to attract stronger and more qualified candidates to head our Departments than those who ended their last tenure with this City by exhibiting highly unprofessional and entirely inappropriate personal behavior, with a City colleague, on the office furniture in City Hall. We can, and must, be much more professional than that in our recruitment and hiring, regardless of compensation packages.
I thank you, Mr. President and your colleagues on Council for calling for a much-needed pause on this proposal. I, and the members of my Committee, sincerely hope you will use this opportunity to make this proposal a fair one for the current city employees involved and prospective recruits, as well as an equitable plan for the city’s finances and its taxpayers.
Be assured, we will support such a fair and equitable plan – one that provides only Cost-of-living adjustments, is considered as part of the approved Annual Budget, and which only goes forward from the date of adoption of that Budget, providing for no retroactive payments. We will oppose a plan that does not do these things.