Trenton Gets it Right... for a Change

Over the six-year (!) life of this space, I’ve found myself being critical of the way the City of Trenton has been governed, more often than not.

No, seriously. I know it’s a shock. I have found on a pretty regular basis that much of what the City has done or failed to do in the last half dozen years has been poorly conceived, executed, managed, and communicated. Time and money have been squandered, momentum toward stabilizing and re-building this place blunted or reversed, and trust and confidence in the ability of this town to manage its own affairs evaporated.

But when the City does something right, something perhaps very small in the grand scheme of things but yet fundamental to the promise that someday, somehow, the folks who are entrusted to govern this city might get their heads out of their asses, well then I have to stand up and take notice. Such an action took place a few weeks ago, when the Administration of Mayor Eric Jackson announced its selections of grant recipients for federal US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds awarded by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.

In the recent past, such as during the plague years of 2010-2014, CDBG funds were treated as slush funds by the City. For example, in 2013, without the approval of City Council, Tony Mack spent $200,000 of funds to support his mis-begotten zombie libraries, the “Mayor’s Learning Centers” opened on some of the sites of the neighborhood branches of the Trenton Public Library closed in 2010. That same year, then-Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson was called out for charging the fulltime salary of one of his staffers, $38,000 plus fringes, to the city’s CDBG grant, in violation of federal guidelines. Finally, also in 2013, the Administration used $450 of CDBG money to pay for the annual City Hall Christmas tree.

As is my wont, I took the Administration to task for the latter two of these ill-considered use of federal CDBG monies, both Mr. Hutchinson’s foibles and (perhaps a little more enthusiastically!)  the Xmas tree debacle.

So, with those instances as background, I am encouraged that the Jackson Administration is taking its stewardship of these CDBG federal funds more seriously than its predecessor did. At least by the most recent instance.

In its June 2 meeting, City Council deliberated the Administration’s recommendations to award $553,797 of funds from its fiscal year 2016-2017 CDBG program to local non-profit service groups for a total of 11 projects. These numbers represented a small portion of what had been proposed to the city. According to Cristina Rojas’ report for the Trenton Times, “42 applications requesting a total of $1.7 million were submitted.” Clearly, not every application from every group was going to be funded. Three out of every four submitting organizations were going to be disappointed, guaranteed.

One of those groups, Meals On Wheels of Mercer County, was quite disappointed, and very vocally and publicly so. Upon being rejected for funding for the second year in a row, Executive Director Sasa Olessi Montano called shenanigans. Ms. Rojas quoted Ms. Montano telling City Council, “(The mayor) has chosen to blatantly disregard the needs of the homebound adults in Trenton … for reasons that at this point can only be described as a political agenda perhaps. We will make sure that, come election time, they will not forget that their city has abandoned them.”

Ms. Montano that evening failed to substantiate her charge of “a political agenda perhaps,” at least as reported in Ms. Rojas account. But her position was supported by at least a few members of City Council. As quoted in the Times, “‘This is not about Meals on Wheels; this is about somebody not liking Sasa Montano,’ Councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward said. ‘She spoke up, she embarrassed people and it has been decided that she will never get funding.’”  Although less conspiratorially-minded than Ms. Holly-Ward’s comments, Members George Muschal and Marge Caldwell-Wilson also spoke in support of the failed Meals on Wheels application.

At the Council meeting, the Administration’s acting Director of Housing and Economic Development Diana Rogers defended the City’s decision to deny the Meals on Wheels application, instead awarding $10,000 to the other applicant in the “Nutrition” category of grants, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). Referring to the evaluation and scoring process used to rank all of the proposals, the Times reported “They [Meals on Wheels] and Trenton Area Soup Kitchen were the only two applicants in the “nutrition” category. Neither scored above 70, but because the city felt it was an important category, $10,000 was awarded to TASK, which had the higher score between the two.”

Although I was unfamiliar with the two organizations involved or with their specific applications, the charges of political favoritism in the competitive evaluation and scoring process rang some bells with me. Over the last several months, in the instances of the awards of city contracts for its information technology services and – more notoriously – its payroll services, the city’s management of these services has to me been anything by objective and above-board. I found severe problems with the evaluation and scoring process that led last fall to the selection of the under-qualified and over-priced FCC Consulting Services for the City’s IT work. And, even though the contract process happened much earlier, initially back in 2009, the process by which the City awarded its payroll contract to the criminal enterprise Innovative Payroll Services (IPS) was badly flawed.

So, reading Ms. Rojas’ account of the charges raised by Ms. Olessi Montano, I was skeptical that the City had acted professionally and ethically in its treatment of the Meals on Wheels application. In the Times account, neither Ms. Rojas nor the Council Members quoted referred to actual applications submitted by both organizations. Perhaps there, I thought, the allegations of political favoritism and political vendetta made by Ms. Olessi Montano and Ms. Holly-Ward might be substantiated.

I have to admit, I was wrong. As a layman, looking at the actual proposals from both Meals on Wheels and TASK, I have to say I find the latter’s proposal to be stronger and more cost-competitive.

First off, I was surprised and pleased to find out, as directed by a City staffer, to find that all of the applications for the City’s CDBG funding were publicly available online. I didn’t have to file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to pry the relevant files out of the City’s grasp, as I had to research the IPS boondoggle. All of the applications can be found at this link. Meals on Wheels’ submission is here, and TASK’s, here. Although the actual scoring sheets used to rank the two applications are not online (as far as I can tell), the differences between the two proposals is stark.

Using two crucial criteria, that of individuals benefited by the proposal and cost per individual benefited, the Meals on Wheels application is much less competitive relative to TASK’s:

  • TASK’s proposal (Responses #17-19) requested $20,000 to serve 3,000 Trentonians, at an annual per person cost of $6.66.
  • Meals on Wheels application (#17-19) requested $50,000 to serve a total of only 34 individuals, at an annual per person cost of $1,471.

That comparison alone would have led me to select TASK over Meals on Wheels. With dollars enough to support only 1 out of every 4 applicants generally and only 1 out of these two specific applications, the bigger bang for the buck is clearly provided by TASK. For a dollar request 1 1/2 times that of TASK’s, Meals on Wheels proposed to support only 3 dozen Trentonians, just about 1% of those proposed by TASK. Now it is true that TASK was awarded an amount that was half its request, so its actual impact will be less, and the numbers referenced above may change somewhat. But I think it is a safe assumption to say that the scale of TASK’s funded activities will likely still be substantially greater per dollar, and reach more Trentonians, than those that would have been undertaken by Meals on Wheels for more money.

TASK’s application also suggests a broader and more robust range of activities throughout the course of the grant year that would be supported by the City’s CDBG funding. TASK’s Project Timeline (excerpted from their application) shows this:

TASK timeline 2016-2017

Here is Meals on Wheels:

MOWMC timeline 2016-2017

Elsewhere in their proposals, both institutions describe their activities and their mission to under-served residents of the city in extensive and persuasive detail. I find it unfortunate that both institutions were unwittingly set in competition with each other, but that was the inescapable result of a process that had too many applications chasing too many dollars. In that environment, the application from Meals on Wheels was simply, sadly, too expensive and served too few individuals compared to TASK’s. And that’s what the decision-making process boiled down to.

Both organizations are vitally important to the residents of Trenton, and do crucial work to improve the daily lives of its citizens. But at least as suggested by these two proposals when set side by side, I believe the City made the right call by granting the award of its limited resources to TASK and not Meals on Wheels. The City’s evaluation process, at least in this instance, was professionally and ethically managed. Politics, or a personal vendetta against Sasa Olessi Montano, had little or nothing to do with it, at least as substantiated by the actual proposals themselves.

By publishing those allegations of political favoritism without reporting the actual content of the two proposals, both the Times and, in a similar account by David Foster, the Trentonian failed to supply the needed context to this issue, and instead just served to politicize the CDBG process. Lord knows, in the past – and who knows, perhaps again in the future – CDBG monies have been ripe for politicization and municipal abuse in the City of Trenton. But not this time, looks like.

This time, at least, I think the City of Trenton got it right. For a change.

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