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Another Day Older, and Deeper in Debt. PLUS, TWW Update!

NOTE: This is the piece I had planned to run yesterday, before I got sidetracked by fascinating and very relevant financial information (yes, that’s not a contradiction in terms!) about the Trenton Water Works. There is further info on that, below. But first:

Thursday, Trenton’s City Council is scheduled – at what will be the final session for this Council and the Eric Jackson Administration – to deliberate the Second Reading of a number of Bond Ordinances which, if all are passed, will increase the long-term debt obligations of the Trenton Water Works by $18.7 Million Dollars, and that of the City of Trenton by $7.3 Million Dollars. These Ordinances were easily passed First Reading on June 5; there’s no reason to believe that this Council won’t give their final, lame-duck approvals on Thursday.

We don’t know any more about the capital projects being funded by these Ordinances; no one in the City or on Council has responded to my questions, or replied to my comments made at the June 5 meeting. But we do know a little more about the overall debt burden that the City and its associated utilities is carrying.

Since the City will be discussing the Trenton Water Works twice this week, tomorrow at an open public forum at City Hall and in a presentation at Thursday’s Council meeting, I thought this it would be timely to discuss these items today, in the hope that some of you readers might be able to ask a pointed question or two at these sessions.

Each year, every municipality in the State of New Jersey files a number of forms with the Office of Local Government Services of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). These forms provide the State with snapshot pictures of the financial status (I was going to use the word “health,” here, but hey! it’s Trenton we’re talking about, the Sick Man of Mercer County. “Status” it is). These forms are all available for public examination and review, here. One of these forms is called the Annual Debt Statement and Debt Limit Calculation. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that summarizes the debt load of the municipality by each Fiscal Year ending on June 30. It also provides a great detail in separate tabs. The DCA website contains the Trenton forms for the recent Fiscal Years of 2013, 2014, and 2015 (The links will take you directly to copies downloaded from the State website). The two most recent filings, for 2016 and 2017, aren’t on the State website. The City of Trenton released those (those have been uploaded as well) to me in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. These forms give us a pretty good look at the overall debt of the City.

First, here’s a look at the front page of the most recently prepared Debt Statement, the one dated July 31, 2017 for the budget year than ended June 30 of that year. What does it tell us?

debt1

Let’s start with the end. As the Bond Counsel for the City of Trenton, Everett Johnson, explained to City Council on June 5, in New Jersey the statutory maximum debt to be carried by a municipality is supposed to be 3.5% of the total Net Taxable Valuation of a municipality’s total taxable property. It is assumed by the State of NJ that carrying debt above that 3.5% threshold will jeopardize a town’s finances, as more tax revenue goes toward long-term debt service, leaving less available to pay for more current expenses, such as payroll.

We see above that Trenton’s Net Debt is 6.838%, almost double what the State allows and considers a “safe” amount of debt. Mr. Johnson said on June 5 that Trenton has for decades exceeded the statutory limit, because so much of Trenton’s real estate is property tax-exempt. That’s certainly been true for the five years of data we look at today.

In 2013, Trenton’s debt load was 5.902%. In 2014, 6.476%. 2015’s number was 6.855%. And in 2016, the number was 6.360%.

One other very important statistic to take from these forms: On the 2013 form, the three-year average of Trenton’s total taxable property was calculated to be $2,739,777, 815. That total had declined to $2,323,819,357 by 2017. That is a drop in Trenton’s property value over just four years of $415,958,458, or 18%.

To repeat: Trenton’s property value has declined $415 Million Dollars from 2013 to 2017. With a declining tax base, that means there is less revenue that the City can raise for its own operating budget. It also means that every additional long-term debt obligation that the City floats to borrow money will drive that debt-to-valuation ratio ever higher.

And, lest we forget, the City’s shrinking value of taxable property means that commercial property owners and homeowners who already took a beating in last year’s revaluation will feel increasing heat and pressure applied by city government anxious to squeeze as much revenue out of what still has value as they can.

On June 5, I reminded Council that,

At the time of the last issuance of $40.6 Million in General Obligation Bonds, in November of last year, Moody’s bond rating service noted the City of Trenton’s low underlying rating of Baa1, and stated “The rating further reflects the city’s very high fixed costs, and outsized debt burden while also incorporating improved finances.”

Council members, the City was criticized for its “outsized debt burden” in November. Tonight you seek to increase that burden by nearly $27 Million Dollars. What will this do to the City’s underlying ratings, and how will that ripple through to likely large increases to the City’s costs of borrowing?

The Bond Ordinances that Council will likely approve on Thursday will only increase our “outsized debt burden.” By itself, the $7.3 Million general City Bond Ordinance will boost the Net Debt percentage from 6.838 to 7.152%. And that’s even before figuring in any more reductions to Trenton’s property values over the last year.

Trenton’s finances are going in the wrong direction.

One other note on Trenton’s debt, before moving to the Water Works.

On the tab in the 2017 report labeled “muni bonds issued,” there is a list of the current bond issues which the city is currently servicing:

debt2

These different issues total out to $139,279,824. Right below that is a list titled, “Bonds Authorized but not Issued” [Emphasis mine - KM].

debt3This list totals $34,692,575. Seeing this list leads to a number of questions, which I hope someone will ask of Council and the Administration on Thursday (I won’t be able to attend). Such as,

  • If there is previously-authorized authority to issue another $35 Million in bonds, why is there a new request for $7.3 Million?
  • Some of these bond authorizations seem to be several years old, with numbers suggesting 2007 and 2010 for some of them. If these bonds have never been issued, should they be canceled? Will doing so improve the city’s bond ratings?
  • And finally, the same question I asked on June 5: Are all of these proposed projects and expenses, to be paid for with this new borrowing, really necessary right now? Why not hold off until the new Council and Administration can review them?
  • In other words, and to cut to the chase: What’s the rush???

– # –

Now, an update to the Water Works. Yesterday, I posted links to five years’ (Fiscal Years ending June 30 for 2013 through 2017) worth of Debt Statements prepared by the City and submitted to the NJ Department of Community Affairs. In each of these Statements, in the form of Excel Spreadsheets, there are tabs providing summary financial information about other City entities that incur debt obligations under their own authority, such as Trenton Public Schools, the Sewer Utility, and the Trenton Water Works (TWW). These statements indicate that, far from being nearly insolvent  – the impression given by the fact that the utility has for decades scrimped and starved the utility of needed manpower, maintenance, and capital investment – the water utility serving nearly a quarter million Mercer County residents in the City and outside has consistently earned substantial annual surpluses. By one simplistic measure, TWW outperforms some of America’s most profitable corporations, such as Apple, Google, and JP Morgan/Chase.

I thought that was amazing information, and posted it. Alert reader Iana Dikidjieva posted a comment on Facebook in which she said, “I always just read the audits.”

Well! Dang! In yet another of the nooks and crannies of the Trenton City website, a dozen years worth of financial reports and financial statements as reviewed and vetted by the city’s outside independent auditor Mercadien are posted for all the world to see. As I said yesterday, who knew? Not me, certainly! Thanks, Iana!

In this excerpt (page 99) of the 2017 Audited statements, you can see an Income Statement for the Water Utility, with much more detailed information than contained in the annual DCA Debt Statements I looked at yesterday. The format is different, and the date of the audit report – December 29, 2017 – is five months later than the Debt Statement’s July 31 date. It also reflects any post-Debt Statement adjustments made by the City or its auditors.

audit1

Yesterday, I stated that “The operating surplus – some might call it the “profit” for the Water Works – was $15,345,040. The operating margin (surplus as a percentage of total income) was 28.3%.”  On this audited statement, the “Excess in Revenue” for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2017 is stated as $11,758,613. That’s about $3.6 Million lower than included on the July 31 Debt Statement. However, as a percentage of the annual revenue TWW earned (which I use as the “Total Income” figure of $65,533,671, less the “Operating Surplus Anticipated” line at the top of $12,605,359; that’s not actual customer billing or other revenue), the net margin for the Water Works with these numbers is 17.9%. Looking at the numbers for the 2016 fiscal year, appearing right alongside, the net margin is 19.2%.

Those are not the stratospheric percentages I calculated yesterday. but still a mark of impressive financial performance by a utility that hasn’t provided nearly the same level of customer service and water safety! Even with a lower net margin, it is clear that the Trenton Water Works – from its own annual operating resources – can legitimately afford to spend more on hiring needed personnel, paying competitive salaries, and boost operating repairs and preventive maintenance.

This cache of Audited Financial Statements for a dozen years is bound to reveal other nuggets of useful information. I thank Iana Dikidjieva for pointing me to it.

I will finish by saying that it would have been nice these last couple of months, going back to the February 1 City Council meeting when I criticized Council and Public Works Director Merkle Cherry for not having TWW financial statements available at what was supposed to be a comprehensive presentation on the condition of the Water Works, had someone said, “You know, we have the last dozen years of that data, audited too, on the City’s Website!” That would have been very useful and relevant information to have.

But, no one did. Perhaps Director Cherry nor anyone on Council didn’t know those reports were there?

If so, that’s another good reason I won’t be sorry to see so many of them leave in ten days.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Debt Statement!

This week, Trenton’s City Council is scheduled – at what will be the final session of this Council and the Eric Jackson Administration – to deliberate the Second Reading of a number of Bond Ordinances which, if all are passed, will increase the long-term debt obligations of the Trenton Water Works by $18.7 Million Dollars, and that of the City of Trenton by $7.3 Million Dollars. These Ordinances were easily passed First Reading on June 5; there’s no reason to believe that this Council won’t give their final, lame-duck approvals on Thursday.

I was going to write a piece about the City’s debt burden, and how these proposed measures will only further stretch the City’s fragile finances even further. I will write that piece, but not right now.

Today I want to write about the Finances of the Trenton Water Works (TWW). Because today, we know a lot more about the financial operations of that utility than we knew yesterday. And that’s because what are essentially financial operating statements for TWW have been hiding in plain sight for years, located in a tabbed section of an Excel spreadsheet that’s filed by the City with the State at the end of every budget year. Since the City will be discussing the Trenton Water Works twice this week, tomorrow at an open public forum at City Hall and in a presentation at Thursday’s Council meeting, I thought this it would be timely to discuss these items today, in the hope that some of you readers might be able to ask a pointed question or two at these sessions.

Do I have your attention now? OK, then!

Each year, every municipality in the State of New Jersey files a number of forms with the Office of Local Government Services of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). These forms provide the State with snapshot pictures of the financial status (I was going to use the word “health,” here, but hey! it’s Trenton we’re talking about, the Sick Man of Mercer County. “Status” it is) of each local community in the State. These forms are all available for public examination and review, here. One of these forms is called the Annual Debt Statement and Debt Limit Calculation. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that summarizes the debt load of the municipality by each Fiscal Year ending on June 30. It also provides a great detail in separate tabs. The DCA website contains the Trenton forms for the recent Fiscal Years of 2013, 2014, and 2015 (The links will take you directly to copies downloaded from the State website). The two most recent filings, for 2016 and 2017, aren’t on the State website. The City of Trenton released those (those have been uploaded as well) to me in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request.

These forms give us a pretty good look at the overall debt of the City, which was my original topic today. They also provide more information about the annual operations of the Trenton Water Works than the public has realized is publicly available for years.

The Debt Statement filed with DCA contains tabs where separate debt information for schools and municipal utilities, since those entities and authorities often issue and carry their own debt.

Here’s the 2017 page for the Trenton Water Works, found in the “utility I” tab.

debt5

See those numbers in the section called “Deductions Applicable to Bonds” etc. etc?

Item #1 – “Total Cash Receipts”?

Item #2 – “Operating and Maintenance Costs”?

Item #6 – “Total Debt Service”?

And… wait for it… Item #8 – “Excess in Revenues”

Ladies and Gentlemen, what you see before you is the closest thing to a separate Income Statement for the Trenton Water Works that we are likely to get for at least another long while. They are simplified, and don’t provide much detail. Put that aside for now. Here, stated very simply, are the numbers that TWW customers and Trenton resident have been looking for, for years! And here, they are, buried in an obscure spreadsheet on the NJ DCA website. Who knew?

Simply expressed, in the fiscal year ending June 2017, TWW brought in $54,068,735 of income, most if not all in customer billing. Operating expenses totaled $27,814,162, and debt payments $10,909,533.

The operating surplus – some might call it the “profit” for the Water Works – was $15,345,040. The operating margin (surplus as a percentage of total income) was 28.3%.

That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is amazing. Let me put that in a little perspective.

In 2016, the operating margin for Apple was 21%.

J.P. Morgan/Chase Bank’s margin was 23%.

Alphabet(that’s Google to you and me)’s margin? 22%.

Trenton Water Works beats those companies!!!

2017’s result was no fluke for the Water Works:

  • In 2013, TWW earned a surplus of $11,051,207 on revenues of $46,572,608, a margin of 23.7%.
  • In 2014, the surplus was $10,551,000 on revenues of 43,398,424. yielding a margin of 24.3%.
  • For 2015, TWW earned a surplus of $14,716,827 from revenues of $44,759,726. The margin that year was an incredible 32.9%.
  • Oddly, there are no numbers on the 2016 form. Given the other years looked at, I think it’s safe to say TWW probably had another good year.

Dear Readers, don’t let ANYONE tell you that Trenton’s Water Works isn’t profitable!

The numbers filed with the State for five years don’t lie. Or, I hope they don’t!

Seeing this kind of history proves without a doubt that the problem with the Trenton Water Works is not with its business model, but with its management.

The reason its operating margins have beaten Apple and Google for the last five years is mainly because the utility hasn’t spent what it should have to keep the place running well.

It didn’t hire the numbers of trained and experienced staff it needed to keep operations running smoothly and error-free.

It didn’t pay competitive salaries to those staff it did hire.

It didn’t spend the amount of money on repairs and capital equipment and pipe replacement that it should have.

THAT’s how you beat Apple’s margin! And also how you strangle a water system!

We know the City of Trenton has for years taken these amazing surpluses TWW has earned, and used them to cover the City’s horrid budget numbers. Some of that is fine and legitimate. The level at which Trenton skimped on spending money on the Water Works – at the considerable expense of its customers -  was entirely excessive and inappropriate.

The numbers are here, and the numbers are clear. Trenton Water Works makes plenty good money.

Now, it’s time to spend some of it!!!

Make sure the City hears this from their citizens and customers all over Mercer County. Tomorrow night, and Thursday night.

Outrage

Trenton’s people are strong, unfortunately because they are given so many occasions requiring strength in order to cope.

We’re in the national and international headlines this week, because of what happened at Art All Night early Sunday morning. One dead, a score injured. By gunfire, the 21st-Century’s equivalent of cholera, typhoid, smallpox, or plague in earlier eras: fearful scourges periodically visited upon the public at large that we only know how to contain – more or less – not cure.

Attention is already fading. The injured have been treated. Some have already been released from hospital, and the worst injured have had their conditions upgraded from critical to stable. As the circumstances and motives of the shooters begins to be seen more clearly, there’s been a collective sigh of relief that this was not a deliberate act of mass assault by a mentally-ill “lone wolf.” There’s even more relief that this was not, God forbid, “Terror.”

Tell that, by the way, to the hundreds of people who scrambled for their lives Sunday morning, or who were locked in place for hours while police secured the Roebling Works, making sure there was no further and imminent danger from other gunmen. They were pretty terrified.

The shock and outrage over what happened this weekend, that’s propelled this shooting to front-page news, is due primarily to the venue at which this crime took place. Art All Night is an event that showcases the best of Trenton: its wide range of artistic creativity across all kinds of expression, and a positive energy that propels this annual celebration for 24 hours once every year. It’s one of a very, very few high profile events which draws crowds of visitors into Trenton from all over the tristate region. For the previous 11 years, it’s been produced without serious incident, certainly without the kind of violence seen Sunday night. Something like this wasn’t supposed to happen at Art All Night. Certainly no one who was there expected anything like it.

It’s an Art Show, for goodness’ sake!! There are no gun battles at the Met, or the Whitney, or the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. That’s not supposed to happen! That explains all the headlines. That explains all the attention. The incongruity of bullet casings and police crime scene tape strewn about alongside murals, sculptures, and oil paintings is too vivid not to end up on the news. Until its place in the news cycle is replaced by some new outrage or horror, no doubt.

In Trenton, though, this particular incident will linger in our thoughts and – hopefully – our actions, because it’s both so singular and so typical.

Singular in that this was the first time that one of the marquee annual public celebrations in Trenton has been marred by this kind of violence. Over the last day we’ve heard and read that this incident will doom Art All Night, as the crowds who’ve visited the city attended in years past will stay away in droves. Other voices quietly say that we need to continue producing this event, showing that the City won’t be intimidated by a single incident.

Me, I think that as long as there is a need for Art All Night – and I think there is a great need for it – it will continue. The event began as a way for the arts community in this city to publicly share their work once a year, with each other and with the public, to re-energize their own individual creativity and celebrate their community in Trenton of fellow artists. If the event is smaller for the next couple of years because of lower attendance, that will probably be ok. Art All Night started out as a basically Trenton-only event, which built a reputation over the years that attracted visitors from all over. If it happened before, it can happen again. No one will soon forget what happened at the 2018 Art All Night, but I think people will move on. There will be Art All Night in the future. Perhaps smaller for a while, and surely safer, at least indoors. But I think the DNA of the event will be the same.

In a larger sense, what happened Sunday morning is all too typical of Trenton. If the accounts available this morning are correct, then the violence broke out between groups of people who knew one another, perhaps even falling under the all-encompassing but sometimes awfully vague label of “gang-related.” As such, Sunday’s incident is all too familiar. Over the last few years, Trenton’s citizens have seen all too many shootings that have been just as shocking, if not as attention-grabbing as the one at Art All Night.

Remember in 2014, there was a shooting at the church funeral of a man who himself was shot and killed in a street attack attack that left two others wounded. I can’t think of anything more outrageous than shooting up a funeral, at a church, no less. But the carnage there was far less severe than Sunday morning’s, thank goodness. Dense crowds at the Roebling Works provided a ready environment for multiple casualties, whereas the 2014 shooting at Galilee Church took place outside the service which was attended by around 100 persons, who all remained safe.

The folks who run the website Trenton Homicide Watch are kept plenty busy with the news of murders and their legal aftermath. And those stories only cover the occasions in Trenton in which people perish due to acts of desperate violence. Other occasions on which persons are “merely” wounded often don’t get many column inches to tell their tales. The only people who know about those are often the victims, perpetrators, and their families. These incidents often don’t make the Trenton Times, let alone the New York Times. But they are part of the daily background noise of life in Trenton. Seen in that light, what happened at Art All Night is less shocking and less unexpected to those who live here, remarkable in the degree of injury and violence rather than kind.

National attention will fade after the weekend, and we will once again be on our own to face the frequent and continuing outrage that fills our lives in Trenton. Sadly, there will be no shortage of funerals for those dying prematurely at the hands of others;  and a steady supply of mourners grieving their loss. Just as outrageous, if not more so, is our ongoing coping with this as the normal course of life in Trenton. At the very least, this past weekend shows us what the rest of the world sees when they infrequently turn their attention our way: shock and sadness.

Art All Night, I think will continue in future years. With increased attention to safety, the hope and expectation being that we can prevent future outbreaks of violence such as this weekend’s. At that event, at least.

The hard work will be to reduce the number and severity of all the other acts of violence, of large and small scale, which the people of Trenton daily endure, well outside of the national spotlight. This is where the future of this City and its people will rise or fall.

Trenton's Deal With Comcast is Up for Renegotiation. So Far, We Are Doing Nothing

Over the next several months, until September 2019, Trenton has a literal, once-in-a lifetime opportunity to renegotiate the underlying terms of its business relationship with the cable company that has been operating in the City for the last 25 years under a contract that was likely obsolete on the day it was signed.

So far, Trenton has done nothing to prepare for this imminent negotiation and so jeopardizes the available opportunity the City has to require the cable operator to provide – at its cost – public access channel space, equipment, and other consulting services that would allow the city of Trenton to provide its citizens with access to public information, city services, live or on-demand recordings of City public meetings, and other essential services already being provided to communities in Mercer County and elsewhere in the State. The new Gusciora Administration and City Council taking office in July has an early opportunity to make a deal for the City that has the possibility of transforming its information infrastructure.

Looking at the big picture of all of the issues facing Trenton during this transition period, providing it with a city-run cable channel or streaming site is not among the highest in priority.  But, any service that could help more people connect to its local government might in the long term boost civic engagement among its citizens, and perhaps aid in nudging up voter turnout from the pathetic 22% seen this week.

As I hope you will realize as you read on, this is a subject where a lot of resources are already available, with more that could be identified and made available to the city by upcoming negotiations – if the City decides to move quickly, that is.

Also known as Xfinity, or Kabletown, Comcast is along with Verizon FIOS one of two corporations providing Trentonians with an expanding menu of information services including Cable TV, Internet connectivity and Voice (traditional telephone).

These companies are actually more properly called “Franchisees.” Comcast – as all similar companies in the United States – operates under local municipal franchise agreements, renegotiated periodically, under the umbrella of Federal law and regulations. In New Jersey, Verizon FIOS operates under what is called a “system-wide franchise agreement,” which means that the State of New Jersey negotiates and manages the Agreement with Verizon that is in effect in communities statewide. The current system-wide franchise agreement took effect in 2014, and is in force until December 18, 2020.

This state-wide arrangement is due to the pre-existing historical status of Verizon (né NJ Bell) as the predominant (if not only) traditional Telephone company in the State. Verizon has long had a statewide footprint of equipment and services, and is subject to statewide regulation by the NJ Board of Public Utilities. More traditional, cable-only companies had, and continue to have, much smaller footprints in the state. Historically, firms such as Comcast, Cablevision and RCN to name three, expand their businesses and build their systems community by community, which is the rationale that Federal law uses to grant a good deal of regulatory authority to the level of local municipalities such as Trenton.

The franchise agreement with Comcast, however, is handled by the City of Trenton. The current deal was approved by City Council via Ordinance way back on September 16, 1994. It was a 15-year deal that was automatically renewed for another 10 years, in 2009. That means this current arrangement expires on or around September 15, 2019.

It is likely that there is not one single person working in City Hall today with knowledge of, let alone participation in, the 1994 process by which Comcast was granted its 25-year license. By itself, this puts Trenton at a very serious disadvantage when facing the imminent prospect of negotiating a new franchise agreement that may remain in force for perhaps another quarter-century.

We live in a telecommunications environment that has over the last 25 years utterly transformed our global culture and economy. One has only to reach into one’s pocket to find a tool granting instantaneous access to our global culture and economy to realize what’s happened over that 25 years. Companies such as Comcast create, manage, and profit from, these transformations, while communities such as Trenton seldom have ability to track these changes, let alone influence how they affect their citizens, for good or ill.

The City of Trenton has a narrow window of opportunity until September of next year to actually have a measurable influence on this process – at least as it involves Comcast’s franchise agreement. But that window is fast closing.

First, a little bit of background.

Under Federal Law, local communities are entitled to annual license fees payable by the franchisees authorized to do business in them, calculated as a percentage of the franchisees’ customer income on basic subscribed services as defined by federal law. In the City of Trenton’s Adopted FY 2018 Budget, the total amount of those license fees is itemized (on Page 22, Account #08-122) as $678,957.18. That figure is an actualized amount. The cable franchisees make a single annual payment to the City, in January, based on the income received from the previous calendar year from their customers.

The FY 2018 figure does not itemize payments by each company for that period. In FY 2017, the amount paid by Comcast to Trenton was $319,717.29, and from Verizon the amount was $355,559.89.

This is an income stream that is regular, guaranteed, and subject to likely nominal annual increases. Federal law (47 U.S.C. S542(i)) provides that the US government will neither regulate the amount of franchise fees paid by a cable company, nor the use of those funds by the local community, other than to place a ceiling on cable companies of 5% of gross billing to their customers for such purposes.

In New Jersey, the main regulatory structure is provided by N.J.S.A. 48:5A-2 et seq, within the broad umbrella of Public Utilities. In the preamble to this section of State code, Paragraph c, the explicitly-stated objects of such regulation include, in part, “(2) to encourage the optimum development of the educational and community-service potentials of the cable television medium.”

Clearly, although Federal law is deliberately silent on both the collection and use of local franchise fees as seen above, New Jersey statute has long intended the existence of local cable systems to serve the public interest. Therefore, it would fulfill the spirit of state regulation to use the entirety of the annual license fee to further the objectives as stated in Paragraph c.

However, in a financially distressed community such as Trenton, these funds have – not incorrectly – been considered as unrestricted revenue and applied against the city’s annual operating budgets. This has been consistently done with the knowledge and approval of the Local Government Services division of the state Department of Community Affairs, as indicated by the only correspondence on the matter (linked) released by the City in response to an Open Public Records request filed last year.

This background is likely more detailed than it needs to be at this point. However, the main takeaway to keep in mind is that, as far as building a capacity for the City of Trenton to provide an advanced platform for civic information and interaction, there does exist by federal law an annual income stream that has long been intended to be used – at least in part – to support and subsidize the annual operating costs of such a capacity.

To assist local communities in the preparation of a negotiating position for a community such as Trenton as it looks to renegotiate the master agreement with a cable franchisee such as Comcast, there are resources available. The State Board of Public Utilities publishes a “Guide to Franchise Renewal,” revised as of February 2012, to provide “municipalities and cable companies with the information needed to negotiate a successful franchise agreement.

The first half of this guide explains the first part of this process, begun in Trenton in September 2016 and now more than half over. As explained in this guide,

“Ascertainment is the term utilized to explain the fact-finding process described in the Federal Act. The purpose of ascertainment is to examine the past performance of the cable operator and identify the future cable-related needs of the community.

“The OCTV recommends that the municipality engage in the ascertainment phase of franchise renewal for the reasons outlined below. Although ascertainment is optional, it is necessary if the municipality wants to substantially modify the terms of the franchise or to deny the franchise renewal outright. The community’s needs may have changed since the initial franchise or the previous renewal. Moreover, the record that the municipality develops during ascertainment will help the municipality effectively complete negotiations with the cable operator. During negotiations, a municipality may require certain provisions in the municipal consent ordinance (”ordinance”) only if the requirements are based on a record developed during ascertainment. For example, a municipality may require public,educational and/or governmental (”PEG”) access channels and equipment, a system rebuild, expanded channel capacity, etc. (see “Franchise Proposal List”) only if such requests are based on the community’s cable-related needs established during the ascertainment phase and provided that costs are reasonable in light of these needs. There are additional items that the municipality can negotiate for during renewal. (See “Franchise Proposal List” for a full discussion of these items.)”– Emphasis added [ KM]

This is the key language to understanding this process. A municipality may legitimately require a franchisee, as part of its renewal negotiations, to provide at its cost dedicated cable channel space as well as production and distribution equipment to support what’s called the Public, Educational and/or Governmental (PEG) channel. But ONLY if requests are based on needs as determined during the ascertainment phase, going on now and already half-over without any city consideration or preparation for the upcoming negotiations.

The Guide does provide a great deal of information, checklists and bullet points to allow a community to construct and conduct this Ascertainment Phase. With Trenton behind the 8-ball by having allowed so much time to have passed without action, this is an invaluable guide.

Time is short. Data collected in the Ascertainment phase must be collated in an official “Municipal Report.” Per the Guide,

The municipal report must be issued no later than one year before the cable franchise is due to expire. If, for example, the municipality’s franchise expires on August 10, 2009, the report would be due on August 10, 2008. This permits the timely filing of the application for municipal consent.

It should be noted that one or both parties might request an extension of the due date in writing. Because state law mandates these time frames, the OCTV can neither grant nor deny extensions. However, if both parties have agreed to the extension and there is no harm to the public interest, the OCTV will permit the process to continue. The municipality should be aware that there has been no adjudication of the extent to which operating outside the franchise renewal time frames would affect the subsequent rights of the parties in administrative proceedings or in state or federal courts.

Trenton’s Municipal Report is technically due in September of this year, a highly unlikely deadline to meet. Therefore one of the first actions to be taken by a new Administration would be to request an extension to as late in 2019 as possible.

There are some additional resources that the City can draw upon during this process. The “Jersey Access Group” is a membership group of municipalities, school systems and higher education organizations describing itself as follows:

“ The Jersey Access Group (JAG) is a professional advisory organization that informs, educates, and recommends in the areas of technology, legislation, and regulation that shape and direct the use of multi-communication platforms for content creators and distributors on behalf of municipalities, educational institutions, and other public media facilities.”

Specifically, JAG provides assistance and leadership to PEG operators both current and potential in the following areas:

JAG actively analyzes and addresses emerging issues in areas such as:

Cable Franchising

  • Use and management of public rights-of-way
  • Franchise agreements and renewals
  • Regulation of rates and service standards
  • State franchising laws in lieu of local oversight

Operation of Public, Education and Government (PEG) Media Facilities

  • Maintain the integrity and professionalism
  • Program sharing platform
  • Funding and equipment donation sources
  • Station operating procedures, staffing, and volunteers
  • Educate, inform, and promote community involvement
  • Formation of new PEG stations
  • Problem solving strategies

Local Government Communications and Internet Policy

  • Social Media strategies
  • Consumer protection and net neutrality
  • National Broadband Plan, access, and funding
  • Public safety spectrum
  • Public rights-of-way management and policies
  • Service to anchor institutions like city halls, police and fire stations, schools, libraries, universities, hospitals, county services, courts, and community centers.
  • Emergency alert systems
  • Local government networks, wired, wireless, fiber and coaxial

New Technology Initiatives and Advancements

  • Developments in the telecommunication industry
  • Capital equipment purchases
  • Advocacy through local communications initiatives
  • Digital transition of PEG programming
  • Web 2.0 and beyond
  • Integration and best practices of communication platforms
  • Use of wireless networks
  • Converging technologies – impact on your laws

I reached out to JAG several months ago, to find out if Trenton had ever been part of this group or had otherwise been in communication. The answer was no on both counts. They are looking forward to assisting Trenton in any path forward.

One other area of resources. Federal, State, and City law mandate public participation in this process at every step. The City’s Ordinance covering the Cable Television Franchise, A317, provides for a Citizens Advisory Council (Section A317-11), to monitor the operation and service afforded by the company, and may make such recommendations as it deems appropriate to the company and the City Council.”

This Advisory Council has never been constituted by the City of Trenton, as confirmed to me by The City Clerk’s Office.

I hope this brief summary has provided an introduction to the opportunity before the City of Trenton. There is a very real prospect that – for the first time in a quarter-century – terms and conditions of a new contract with the city’s Franchisee Comcast – to establish a real municipal cablecast or streaming capability for the next several decades.

We have an opportunity to negotiate a deal requiring Comcast to provide channel space as well as production and distribution equipment to the City, at their cost, as well as training and installation assistance.

We have opportunity to designate at least some part of the dedicated annual license fees payable by Comcast, totaling almost $700,000 per year, to pay for operational costs.

But we can only do so within a formal license renewal process that began – with no action or even awareness in City Hall – 1½ years ago, and which is half over.

Given the timeframe available to us there are some alternative bargaining positions the City could take. Since traditional cable channel space is still very valuable, a fallback request to asking for the usual PEG channel as operated by many NJ communities might be instead to ask for equipment and services to allow Trenton to set up a digital streaming – live as well as on-demand – capability on the City Website, to allow streaming of public meetings and information in that medium. This could also be a good opportunity to overhaul the City’s website more generally, with the assistance of Comcast.

Three are several resources available to the City to assist it in conducting the franchise renewal process in a way that will help it to achieve at least some of these objectives by the time we are ready to renew a contract with Comcast in September 2019.

I hope the new Council and Administration will recognize the opportunity we have here, and take immediate steps to begin the process that should have begun over a year ago.

Twenty Five Minutes, Thirty Six Seconds

Based on one loose and entirely subjective measure, as applied to one extraordinary piece of video, Paul Perez is already acting as if he has been elected Mayor of the City of Trenton, and has entered his fifth month in office.

That subjective measure is the “Tony Mack Scale of Unfair Media,” as used to bash the local press. Specifically, the Trentonian newspaper. The trail that Mr. Mack blazed eight years ago looks to be the same path being followed by Mr. Perez. And the copycatting does not suit the man. If anything, it should increase a sense of alarm that this man is a close contender to be elected Mayor next Tuesday.

I speak about the comments, unscripted and passionate, pretty non-specific and rambling, made by the candidate in a very extraordinary 25-minute, 36 -second video posted on Tuesday.

The video, initially posted on Facebook Live and now streaming on YouTube, was apparently occasioned by receipt of a new mailer published by Perez’s opponent, Reed Gusciora, Mr. Perez held the flyer in front of him throughout the video, referring to it frequently. The candidate attacked the flyer throughout as an unfair personal attack on his character and his own personal history, but directed specific and heated criticism at the publishers of the piece for sourcing some of the material from The Trentonian newspaper. At 6:10 in the video, he said, “Many of you out there that read the Trentonian have your own scale of credibility, when it comes to the Trentonian… I won’t disrespect them. I will just say it’s not really reliable.” He then attempted to pivot away from discussion of the newspaper and the Gusciora flyer, saying (6:38) “all we want to do is make a difference.” But 20 seconds later, he sheds some tears and becomes very emotional. The Gusciora flyer stays on-camera the entire time.

Eight years ago, disgraced federal convict and former mayor Tony Mack had his problems with the Trentonian. At one of his first press conferences, remember, a plain-clothes Trenton police detective physically intimidated that paper’s editor Paul Mickle, as he aggressively questioned. Mr. Mack later imposed a short-lived “ban” on having copies of the newspaper physically present in City Hall. That was five months into that mayor’s term. Paul Perez is showing himself to be as prickly about this newspaper as Tony Mack. That’s saying something.

Look, we are in a transitional period for our local media. NJ Advance Media, owners of the Trenton Times, has seemingly made a deliberate decision to reduce – it feels like a total elimination – its local Trenton coverage. And that’s a shame. The local print media is now dominated by the Trentonian, as the only local daily featuring original reporting and commentary of interest to those who live and work in Trenton. This is not a brand-new development. It’s been happening here for years, as well as everywhere else in this country.

In November 2010, in the midst of Tony Mack’s Trentonian “ban,” I wrote in this space,

The Trentonian, for all of its many faults and wrinkles, has been doing some good journalism over the last several months. With an aggressiveness seldom seen during the Palmer Administration, the newspaper has been breaking news, posting frequent updates online, using video, and generally proving the continuing value of a strong local news presence.

In comparison, the Times has been lagging in its city coverage, reduced often to reports of press conferences and Council sessions, as well as ripping and re-writing press releases from outside sources.  This is no doubt the inevitable result of a long process of downsizing at that newspaper, and the hollowing out of local resources in favor of concentrating them at Star-Ledger headquarters up north.

I’m not saying the Trentonian doesn’t make mistakes. Too many stories are rushed onlne and into print without corroboration, relying only on single unnamed sources whose credibility on a given story can’t be evaluated by the average reader.

I don’t think those lines need much revision. I’ve been very critical of the Trentonian over the years, sometimes pretty bluntly. That much hasn’t changed. But a lot has changed in this country over the last few years that put Mr. Perez’s comments in a very different, and more troubling light.

Professional journalism is under attack, and the value of a free press challenged, from the very top level of our national government on down. Even though the main motivation for these attacks by the Current Occupant of the Oval Office has been revealed to be a cynical effort to “‘discredit’ journalists so that negative stories about him would not be believed,” the example set by the Current Occupant has been picked up by many others in the country and used to continually de-legitimize a professional and free press and those who work in the profession.

It is sad and disappointing to see and hear Paul Perez take up that cause and propagate it in the City of Trenton.

Mr. Perez is done with his specific discussion of the Trentonian at about the seven minute mark in the video, although it – like the ever-present Gusciora mailer – is an unnamed player of the subtext throughout.

The remaining 18 minutes are taken up with rambling, disjointed, defensive commentary, flitting from topic to topic without ever naming the names or dating the dates of what he’s talking about at any given time. As noted in the Trentonian’s own story about this video, Mr. Perez keeps talking about unnamed opponents in the third person plural, using a lot of “They’s”  and “Them’s.” “They” are apparently everyone else not backing the Perez campaign. Mr. Gusciora, certainly. Many of his former opponents who have endorsed Mr. Gusciora. The permanent floating Democratic “establishment” working against him. The Trentonian, obviously.

When watching the entire video, the whole thing kind of rushes over you in a stream-of-consciousness style in which one topic flows to another. Always concerning “them” and what “they” are doing in this election. I think it’s only by isolating specific statements and comments that one can realize what a remarkable video piece, and how damaging it is to Mr. Perez’s reputation in the closing days of this campaign.

8:30    “They’re trying to manipulate us all!”

11:38   “Now I was advised not to do this video, but I can’t help it.”

13:10   “It’s sickening and upsetting.”

15:40   “We’ve seen what they’ve done to people connected to me.”

18:20   “They darkened my face.”

18:33   “I apologize that I have to come out and talk about this.”

19:03   “We still have to fight these career politicians and the incredible machine they have.”

20:09   “They jump from one team to another, and then they try to justify why they’re doing things.”

20:18   “They try to act like they’re a state agency at times, and tell you what the rules are.”

20:25   “It’s amazing, amazing, amazing, to see these actions.”

20:33   “We’re not going to let them get us down.”

21:55   “We’ve had enough of these guys.”

And, finally,

22:00   “We want to put them on display and let you know who they are.”

Mr. Perez apparently believes that he’s done just that. But, other than the Gusciora mailer that never leaves his grip, he hasn’t mentioned a single person or fact or incident!

In the middle of all of this, curiously, Mr. Perez make a quick detour to talk about – again, with his same annoying vagueness – his own campaign. He responds to unspoken and undescribed criticism of his campaign, which he is quick to blame on an all together other set of unknown “Theys.”

13:18   “I don’t have any power over what they call Political Action Committees.”

13:39   “That material is is marked very clearly as to who it’s from”

13:47   “Sometimes they don’t even get that information right.”

13:57   “It goes to show you there’s no coordination between us and them.”

Whew. That was exhausting to watch.

What are we to make from all this?

To me, first and foremost, this demonstrates – along with his behavior and comments at last Sunday’s candidate forum, as well as a newly-published but three-week-old interview with the Trentonian posted last night – that there is a huge disconnect between what his campaign formally stands for, and what the candidate is showing us about himself.

Mr. Perez and his campaign has done a very respectable and comprehensive job of considering all of the important issues facing the City of Trenton, and presenting ideas and proposals for how many of these issues would be confronted by a Paul Perez Administration.

Since the first round of the election last month, though, he has put the issues aside and has allowed his ego and his personality to take center stage as the most important factor in the campaign, to him. Yes, he has a good story to tell, of a son of Trenton who served his nation for several decades, rising to a pretty senior position in uniformed and civilian service. He has a lot of which he can be proud.

However, we need more than a positive personal history in Trenton. We’ve recently had one mayor who served ten years too long. Another led away in handcuffs. A third sleep-walked through his term. Now this guy who is one of the two persons who will be elected the next mayor on Tuesday is setting the stage for four years of turbulence and personal drama. No, thank you.

We don’t need to elect a man whose ego, ambition and temper outstrip his talent.

Comments Made at Trenton City Council, June 5, 2018

NOTE: I delivered the comments below at Trenton’s City Council yesterday evening, after voting took place to approve, 4-1 (Phyllis Holly-Ward in opposition to all the measures, and George Muschal absent), 3 Bond Ordinances that would authorize borrowing almost $27 Million  – in the final month of this Council and Administration – on a long list of capital spending projects for the City in general (almost $7.7 Million) and the Trenton Water Works ($18.7 Million).

Copies of the draft Ordinances were available at the meeting. I scanned two of the three. Here’s a link to the text of the general City bill; here’s the one for the Water Works.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Hey, are any or all of the items on the TWW ordinance required as part of the new Administrative Consent Order in force with the NJ Department of Community Affairs?” Good question! I read no reference to that in the Ordinance. And the subject didn’t come up during last night’s discussions. So that’s still a mystery.

Before Council’s vote, a lawyer from the city’s Bond Counsel since 2016, Everett Johnson of the firm  Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer, made a brief oral presentation about the proposed bills, and provided some of the context I asked for in my remarks.

In this state, local communities are allowed to take on long-term debt obligations up to a maximum ceiling, defined as 3.5% of the Net Taxable Valuation of the town’s property. In Trenton’s case, as of 2017 the total value of Trenton’s property is $2,395,945,829. According to the State’s formula, 3.5% of that number would be $83,858,000.

Last night, Mr. Johnson estimated the total debt load for the City as currently in excess of $152 Million, almost double what State law says it should be. Mr. Johnson explained that Trenton has been well over the statutory maximum for over 20 years. This is primarily due, he explained, to the fact that – relative to its population – so much of Trenton’s property is exempt from taxes.

He did not provide, nor did anyone at Council’s meeting ask for, any information about how Trenton’s debt load has gone up or down over the last several years.

What we can say is that, if these three Bond Ordinances worth $27 Million Dollars are passed for final approval, the City’s debt burden would immediately jump 18%. That’s a mammoth increase to push through at any one time, let alone in the final weeks of a lame duck Council and Administration.

Pushing this through does, in fact, appear to be the plan. West Ward Council Member and current Council President explained that the measures were on the docket for first reading last night, unusually in a Council Conference session, so that they could be sent to the NJ Department of Community Affairs Local Finance Board – which must approve them – so they can come back to Council for further action.

And that further action, according to Mr. Chester, will be taken at the Council’s final working session on June 21. Public hearings for these three measures will be held at that time, as well as the final vote to approve.

These are big bills, worth a lot of money, for a long laundry list of items – both for the City and the Water Works – that as of this morning, we don’t know if we really need. In normal times, in this town, these wouldn’t get the attention and the clarity they deserve. In these final weeks, these measures look like the Administration is emptying the cupboard of all its wish list items, leaving the new Mayor and Council – and our poor taxpayers – a huge brand-new debt burden without any kind of thorough review or attempt to explain to the public what these items are and why they are all needed now.

I don’t like the way this is being done. If you live in Trenton and pay taxes, or if you live outside of Trenton and pay a Trenton Water bill, I think you shouldn’t like this either.

June 21, 5:30 at City Council looks to be the only chance left to say or do anything about this.

– # –

Mr. President and Members of Council -

Last week, at your West Ward Town Meeting, Mr. President, you were asked what was going on with the Trenton Water Works. What with several new contractors on board, a newly-inked Administrative Consent Order with NJ DEP, new RFP’s and large multi-year contracts listed on the City website, and with several transactions on Council docket, it has been obvious for several months that there is a lot going on. But there has been no attempt by this Administration and Council to put all of these changes in some kind of meaningful context. There has been no attempt to let Trenton’s citizens and other TWW customers know what all this means for the immediate and long-range future of the utility that provides drinking water to much of Mercer County.

At your meeting, you said that there would be a status report given about the Water Works at the last meeting of this body, as presently constituted, later this month. That was welcome news.

In the spirit of that openness, Mr. President and Council Members, tonight I ask for more information about and question the immediate need for the three Bond Ordinances on your Agenda tonight, #’s 18-27, 18-30 and 18-31. Collectively, if all Ordinances are passed tonight, these would collectively add almost $27 Million to this City’s long-term debt obligation. And we have no way in which to understand what that means to the City’s underlying financial health.

From the only information available for review prior to this evening’s meeting, it appears that each of these measures represents new obligations and initiatives, not the re-financing of existing debt.

As such, I think it is appropriate to ask for statements from the Administration asking for how these measures impact our finances.  Any consolidated statement or pro forma Balance Sheet, showing the City’s total long-term debt obligations and how these new ordinances would add to that load, would be essential to our understanding.

Any statements showing how an additional $18.7 Million adds to the debt burden of the Trenton Water Works, would be essential to our understanding.

From Mr. Johnson’s presentation this evening, we know that all of these Ordinances would, if approved, balloon Trenton’s total debt load by nearly 18% in one blow. That’s a huge increase on top of what Mr. Johnson tells us is already a total debt load in excess of the State-mandated maximum.

How does the City and the Utility intend to service these obligations? Are these intended as General Obligation instruments, or are there dedicated revenue streams attached?

What will these do to the City’s overall debt rating? At the time of the last issuance of $40.6 Million in General Obligation Bonds, in November of last year, Moody’s bond rating service noted the City of Trenton’s low underlying rating of Baa1, and stated “The rating further reflects the city’s very high fixed costs, and outsized debt burden while also incorporating improved finances.”

Council members, the City was criticized for its “outsized debt burden” in November. Tonight you seek to increase that burden by nearly $27 Million Dollars. What will this do to the City’s underlying ratings, and how will that ripple through to likely large increases to the City’s costs of borrowing?

I mention the TWW ordinance because it is the largest and the one that affects more people and rate-payers throughout the County. But I also want to find out about the $7 Million plus for “Capital Acquisitions and Improvements for the City in general. What’s up with that?

Are you absolutely certain all of this is necessary, at this present time? Are these actions by a lame-duck Administration and Council required now, tonight?

If so, it is the obligation of you on Council to explain to the public, and to require the Administration and its Bond Counsel to explain why that is the case.

I look forward to the release of more information and analysis before the final reading and adoption of these Ordinances.

It’s a lot of money, it’s late in the day, and very late in your term. We need to know more about this.

Thank you.

I Smell Smoke!

From the Sunday June 3 Trenton Mayoral Forum:

2:17:41 REED GUSCIORA:           “Paul, at the NAACP Forum, you called for ‘military-style’ policing. And I don’t know how you’re going to have a Sanctuary City with ‘military-style’ policing. And that’s documented. And don’t believe me. Don’t believe me. Read the transcripts, folks! But, this is the reason why we need to give drivers’ licenses, undocumented residents, and we need to tell Donald Trump – another inexperienced chief executive – we have to tell Donald Trump, ‘Hands off the Census.’ Count, we need to count everybody in to make sure we have federal aid, and to make sure our federal representation is kept up. So those undocumented residents are fully represented, not only in the State Legislature, but in the Congressional delegation.”

2:18:45 PAUL PEREZ: “So, here’s what I would say: Liar, Liar. Pants on fire.”

2:18:48 GUSCIORA: “Look it up. Look it up. Paul, look it up.”

2:18:55 PEREZ: “Because that’s not what  said. That is not what I said.”

– # –

From the NAACP Candidates Forum, March 12, 2018:

naacp

0:06 PAUL PEREZ: “Full disclosure: As a military officer, I spent fifteen years as a criminal investigator. I was also a Homicide Detective. And I actually worked on these things. So one of the things we always talk about is that, in the City of Trenton there’s a high level of gun violence. There’s a high level of drug distribution. There’s also a high level of human trafficking. But, guess what? We don’t make guns in Trenton. We don’t bring all the drugs, [unintelligible]. The drugs that come here, they come from somewhere else. And what we really need to focus on, is a military-style, kill-the-supply-line. We need to figure out where that stuff is coming from. We have [Highway Routes] 1, 29, 206, 33, 31, where these guys shoot up and down, unabated. Nobody stops them. They can shoot somebody in South Trenton, and then West Trenton, in two seconds. Nobody stops them. We need to bring back traffic police. We need to have a real, physical police deterrent that says to people ‘I need to take a second thought about what I’m about to do. Because I might get caught.’ And right now, we don’t have that in Trenton.”

“It Doesn’t Matter Where You Put a Building”

It’s not often that a public figure, such as a candidate for elected office, will offer up a succinct soundbite that – in a dozen words or less – serves as a quick and handy guide into that person’s political mindset. In Paul Perez, we’ve seen a moment like that in each of his mayoral campaigns, his first back in 2014 and the current one that will be won or lost next Tuesday, June 12.

In 2014, the recently returned (after an absence of nearly 30 years) Perez surveyed the political scene in Trenton and judged he was the right person to fix the City. His diagnosis as written up in one of his first press releases of the main problems in the City was pretty spot on and concise – “Th[e] absence of a secure environment negates any possibility of economic development and investment in the city, therefore the poor jobs situation and limited tax base.” But, in his very next words, he blew whatever credibility he had been seeking. “The problem is not that difficult to correct, however, it does require seasoned business acumen to get it done.” [Emphasis mine - KM] I wrote a piece in response to that press release and a Trenton Times (remember them?) article in which Mr. Perez made another big promise, saying “Make me the mayor today, and tomorrow you will have 105 police officers back on duty.”

More than anything else, those two lines, appearing days apart, summarized Mr. Perez’s 2014 candidacy in a nutshell: grand, bold, over-confident, over-simplified and under-informed.

You have to admit, to a great extent it worked pretty well for him. The statements quoted above didn’t really seem to hurt him any, and he upped his game significantly over the following year. The recently returning native son and political newbie came in as a very impressive second-place finisher in 2014, although carrying a great deal of electoral baggage unresolved to the present day, in the form of un-filed campaign finance reports and evidence of multiple violations in those reports that had been filed for his first race.

By the way, today’s reported endorsement of Mr. Perez by retiring mayor Eric Jackson represents an alignment of two fellow campaign finance scofflaws, for what that’s worth. The news today does nothing to advance the compelling public interest that Trenton’s citizens have in knowing that their mayors are fully transparent with their campaign finances and compliance with state law. On that scale alone, I hold Eric Jackson’s endorsement of Paul Perez as a net negative, leaving me even less inclined to vote for Mr. Perez next week.

Hubris has not been in short supply with Mr. Perez the politician, from the time he returned to Trenton five years ago to the present day. For someone who is openly running against what his campaign disparagingly calls “a career politician,” Paul Perez has certainly become a “second career” politician, seeking Trenton’s mayor’s office nonstop since his return, and including a couple of bouts of testing the waters for other county and state offices as well. He’s been well truly bitten by the political bug, with his several private commercial ventures often spoken about but never really visible other than as props to burnish his resume.

This year, Mr. Perez is running a strong race, having finished first in the first round on May 8. He arrived yesterday at the downtown Trenton campus of Mercer County Community College, location of  the final public town hall event before next Tuesday’s runoff election as if he was  already elected, accompanied by an extensive entourage and a readiness to mix things up with his opponent, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora.

The Trentonian’s account, written by David Foster, accurately catches the often-combative tone of the afternoon’s discussion. But Foster’s article missed the one single line spoken by Mr. Perez that summarizes this year’s campaign as neatly and revealingly as his “the problem is not that difficult” line four years ago.

In a discussion about the prospects for economic development for the City, reference was made to the fact that Mr. Perez changed his stance on a key State of New Jersey initiative begun in the last months of the Chris Christie Administration to demolish several currently-occupied state office buildings and build their replacements far from downtown. This plan, announced last year, generated a great deal of opposition among Trenton residents and business-owners, who argued that the State’s decision to abandon Trenton’s downtown was a heavy blow to other efforts by the city and other redevelopment organizations to draw business and traffic in, as well as action in serious opposition to Trenton’s long-range Master Plan, Trenton250. This opposition, which went as far as an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the plan filed by several people including Mr., Gusciora.

Mr. Perez initially joined that opposition, but later reversed his stance to support it. The timing of his reversal suggested to many in Trenton that it was a cynical and politically expedient move, made in order to gain the politically potent endorsement of the Mercer County Building and Construction Trades Council, which strongly supported the Christie plan for the new office buildings, providing jobs for Trades Council membership, regardless of the impact to Trenton’s Downtown, its Master Plan, or its local business community.

In his statements yesterday, Mr. Perez pretty much, however inadvertently, confirmed the cynical, politically charged view of his reversal on the State Building plan, in a one-liner that deserves to be remembered.

“It doesn’t matter where you put a building,” he claimed, at 2:44:08 in to this video recording of the event, in a dismissive comment that will come as a true surprise to anyone who works in city planning and development, anywhere and anytime. He went on to say that no matter how far away from downtown the city puts these new buildings, workers and visitors will engage with downtown attractions and business, and suggested the main factor involved with this would be public safety, and not geography. “If the city is safe, people are going to walk distances.”

He then went on at length to minimize the importance of this State building project. He is seeking to develop Downtown as a whole, and the entire City. “[W]e don’t need just two buildings. We need the City to be developed.” He even went as far as to say that the State plan to move the buildings downtown was really unconsequential. “Because they moved it, you know, two feet away, now people aren’t going to walk? How many of you believe that?” he asked the audience. He was visibly taken back by the strong response to that rhetorical question.

Many in the audience were clearly more familiar with the history of Trenton’s development follies over the last 60 years than Mr. Perez was. They’ve seen too many times that state office buildings cut off from the economic hearts of the city in downtown and the Transit Center do not contribute to Trenton prosperity. They’ve seen that it sure as hell does “matter where you put a building!” They know that if, for instance, Trenton’s only hotel had been sited closer to the Route 129 Arena, it very well might have seen much more business over the years, and have become a successful business.

As they say in Real Estate, “Location, Location, Location.” It DOES matter where you put buildings!!

And this state office project has to be seen not as “just two buildings.” It’s a major initiative by the State of New Jersey, which is still de facto the biggest developer in play, by far, in this city, and the state’s decision to build far away from downtown makes all other plans and aspirations for the area incalculably harder to pull off.

Many in the audience got all that yesterday. Mr. Perez didn’t, and it sure looks like he changed his mind in order to receive a political endorsement and the likely contributions that came along with it.

There were other moments in the discussion in which, both Mr. Perez and Mr. Gusciora struck some odd notes. Mr. Perez conflated the current budgetary impasse between State House Democrats in the Legislature and the Governor into what would be an unlikely long-term retreat by the State from facing responsibility for its Capital City. He also tried unfairly and inaccurately to pin the Eric Jackson Administration’s failure to apply for Transportation Trust Fund monies on Mr. Gusciora. For his part, Mr. Gusciora’s discussion of dining with Governor Murphy as proof of access to the levers of state power were less than compelling.

Most of what was said yesterday will probably be forgotten by most people by the time that they go back to the polls on June 12. But, in my opinion, “It doesn’t matter where you put a building” deserves to be remembered. And not in a good way.

Don't Underestimate a Taurus

Councilman Zachary Chester: [W]ith Council, we don’t have stipend, or we don’t have funding to send out messages…

Q: You don’t have any way to contact your constituents? I mean, any funding to do  that?

Chester: No. And Council would have to be willing to put funds into our budget, which we keep our budget at bare minimum, in order to do that. - Interview with Nubian News, 5/23/2018

twitter1

Just imagine how much more Mr. Chester could tell us about being a Taurus, if only he had taxpayer funding to help him communicate with us!!

#Taurus – You never know what they are capable of!

Zachary Chester 2.0

I suppose finishing Second in the first round of your re-election does give one a strong jolt of humility, perhaps teaching the lesson that what you’ve been doing in the past might not be enough anymore.

That’s the only explanation I have for the way too little, way too late reinvention of two-term West Ward City Council member Zachary Chester taking place in the final days before his June 12 run-off against first-time candidate and first-place finisher on May 8 Robin Vaughn.

Mr. Chester has scheduled a Town Hall meeting for the residents of the Ward – his first in eight years, if memory serves – for the end of this month. And a 25-minute YouTube interview, under the auspices of the “Nubian News Afrikan Awareness Forum” reveals what looks like a brand-new candidate. Call him Zachary Chester 2.0.

These efforts, plus likely others he’ll try in the next two weeks, won’t work. This is a sad attempt to reverse in mere days a record and a persona that has been set in stone for the last eight years.

As recently as this past January, Mr. Chester was well known for pontificating from his position as City Council president, blaming his Hiltonia neighbors and Trenton voters in general for failing to help him do his job. Remember his comments at Council on January 16?

[W]e as a Community find everything wrong with this City. And then I ask folks, “Help out!”

My neighbors in Hiltonia, they don’t even drive down Stuyvesant Avenue. They take the back way to 29. My house sits right there. I sit on my porch. I see who ride past my house.

But then we talk about our City. We live here. This is our City. Today is a new day for our City. We have a new Governor. A Governor that stated that he would help the Capitol City.

But no one’s going to help us if our own people are fighting against us, and not trying to understand.

And I say to all of them, all of those, all of those who want to post the picture of me and the Gravy Train, “What have you done for your City? Which elected official up here have you worked with?”

Because I know when I had an election, and I ran against folks, and they said, “No matter who, we”… We were in a meeting, a debate, and everyone said “No matter who wins, we’ll work with that person.”

I wait. Because we can do more working together, than always fighting, and putting misinformation out there. Because individuals in this City believe Black and Brown folks in this City are not educated, and we don’t understand.

Because if you can call me for a pothole, call me for policy.

That’s right, said Mr. Chester in January. We didn’t call him enough on matters of policy. Our bad!

In his latest comments, Mr. Chester sounds almost contrite, 180 degrees from the arrogance on regular display in Council Chambers.

Right off the bat in his Nubian News interview, Chester for the very first time publicly mentions the elephant in the room that he ignored for the last four years, and which he uses to explain the entirety of his performance in office over the last four years.

The very first question from the unseen, unnamed interviewer is, at the 0:15 mark is, “Many people in the West Ward complain you’re nowhere in sight and not pro-active. What say you?”

Chester’s reply, from 0:26:

Well, many, I think many of the residents of the West Ward were not aware of the divorce that I went through. Going through a divorce and Council Presidency, which was a lot of responsibility had me more focused on getting my personal life together.

It’s something I did not, did not make public.    It happened.   Went through it, came out on the other end, still standing, with the responsibility of managing Council, and working.

So, in moving forward, in the upcoming Council – you know, because,I believe, that I am going to be successful – that I am not going to be seeking the Council Presidency. I’m going to focus on the Ward. Actually, I am in the process of reconnecting with the West Ward residents. I have several community meetings set up to sit down and reconnect with the residents of the West Ward.

So, that’s supposed to explain things? He was distracted for the last four years because of his divorce?!?! That’s why he was disengaged from constituents? That explains why he presided over four years of inattention and negligence?

Why, under his leadership, his Council twice re-approved the contract of the payroll vendor stealing millions of dollars from the City? Why his Council raised no objections to the ongoing deliberate withholding of resources and attention from the Trenton Water Works leading to its current state?

And now, that he has explained that the last four years are really better off just forgotten, he says he won’t run for Council president! He’s “reconnecting” with the people he represents in the West Ward! He won’t be distracted!

One obvious follow-up question begs to be asked, but was not by the interviewer: “If you were so distracted and out-of-touch during the past four years, why didn’t you, at the very least, step down from the Council Presidency to focus on your Ward then? Why did you push through, admittedly distracted?”

That’s a good question to ask him at the May 31 Town Hall, by the way!

Even in this apparent admission of failure intended to appeal to voters for another chance, he uses language that tries to deflect any personal responsibility for his record.

In the words above, which really do sound as if he recognizes his shortcomings and is asking voters to overlook them and his record during the last term, he can’t even bring himself to explicitly ask the voters for their support. He doesn’t mention at this point the upcoming election or the need for votes. He merely says that he “is going to be successful” in the “upcoming Council.” He doesn’t even acknowledge that he needs the approval of the majority of the June 12 election voters to send him back to the “upcoming Council!”

The next section of the interview is somewhat surreal, when you consider this man has been a sitting Council member for two full terms, eight whole years! In response to questions about how Mr. Chester intends to reconnect with his West Ward constituency, Mr. Chester explains that he’s now – only now!!! – going to put together a database of his constituents. At the 2:19 mark:

Moving forward, you know,  figuring out how to capture constituents’ contact information, whether it’s cell number, or email, to be able to email out information, text information out to residents. One of the challenges in doing that, is you know first getting the information, and then being able to afford to send the information. So, text message, for those residents that are willing to share their numbers, that’s very low cost. Because with Council, we don’t have stipend, or we don’t have funding to send out messages.

You see what he did there, at the last? It’s been really so difficult for him to communicate with his constituents in the West Ward because there’s no money in his City Council budget to do so!

The interviewer picks up on that and follows up.

3:04       Q: You don’t have any way to contact your constituents? I mean, any funding to do  that?

3:08       A: No. And Council would have to be willing to put funds into our budget, which we keep our budget at bare minimum, in order to do that. [Emphasis mine - KM]

Enough.

It isn’t Council’s, or the City’s, collective obligation to keep individual members in touch with their voters. It’s not up to the taxpayers – who fund Mr. Chester’s Council budget, after all – to do that.

It’s the sole responsibility of a Council member to do that, and the success or failure that the member has is on no one’s head but his or her own. If an eight-year member of Council has to talk about starting to put together a list of constituent contact information, you know that’s an admission of his ongoing failure to have done so up until now. And, in the waning days of his eight-year tenure on this Council, to blame a lack of City resources on his failure to communicate with residents is appalling.

How much does Twitter cost? How much does Facebook cost? How much does a basic website cost?

Next to nothing! Cost isn’t a good excuse here.

Neither is lack of resources. At the end of 2014, after his successful re-election the year before, Mr. Chester had $2,643 dollars in his campaign account. That was even after incurring over $10,000 in non-election expenses such as contributions to other political campaigns and non-profits.

Do you think he had enough money then to spend on constituent communication?

Over the following four years, he continued to raise funds for and spend money from his campaign account. Going into the beginning of his re-election year this January, he had $3,038 in his account.

Do you think he had enough money over the last four years to spend on constituent communication?

His most recent campaign finance report, filed on April 27, disclosed he had $20,038 cash on hand, more that several mayoral candidates.

Do you think he has enough money NOW to spend on constituent communication?

Of course he’s had plenty of resources available to him for each and every one of his eight years in office to communicate with his Ward!

Just in case there’s any doubt on the matter, the manual for all political candidates and elected officeholders in the State prepared by the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission explicitly states permissible uses of campaign funds. Among those are (page 33):

a.) Costs of communications to constituents, including:
i.) The production, circulation, and postage of newsletters, mailings, or
other written materials for officeholding duties;
ii.) The sponsorship or holding of a seminar or other meeting to be
attended by constituents

In this interview, Mr. Chester attempts to explain his poor record and failure to communicate with the people he represents by the distraction of his divorce, the lack of constituent contact information, and the lack of taxpayer funds.

Bullshit.

Mr. Chester would have been much better off in these last few weeks doing just as he has over the last four years: nothing. His efforts this week – a last-minute Town Hall and non-apologetic apologetic video interview – only emphasize how ineffective and out-of-touch he has truly been.

I won’t summarize the rest of the interview. The link above will take you to the whole piece. Overall, it is a very unsatisfying piece. Many of his answers and explanations are very highly edited, so that is impossible to get an idea of what Chester intended to say in his response. In any case, after the first three minutes of defensiveness, non-apology apology and deflection, you get a sense of where the whole thing goes.

I do applaud and agree with his call that, over the next four years, City Council and the rest of City Government need to focus on “getting back to the basics” of local representation.

In Zachary Chester’s case, it’s way, way too late for him to participate, or even to apologize.

By his poor performance in office, he has proven to the residents and voters of Trenton’s West Ward that the Best Basic we can work for right now is a brand-new Council member for this Ward.