On this past Tuesday evening, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson and several members of his Administration attended the monthly meeting of the Cadwalader Heights Civic Association (CHCA). It was the latest in a series of meetings with civic associations and other neighborhood groups that his Administration have been conducting in 2017. The Mayor was accompanied by Police Director Ernie Parrey, Housing and Economic Development Director Diana Rogers, Public Works Director Merkle Cherry, and Director of Finance (who Mr. Jackson announced is retiring at the end of this month) Ron Zilinski. I’d like to recap some highlights of the evening.
The meeting was conducted as follows: Mr. Jackson gave brief introductory remarks, followed by remarks by Directors Parrey and Rogers, followed by some Q&A. Prior to the meeting, the Civic Association solicited some written questions, which they forwarded to City Hall before the meeting. Additionally, some questions and comments were offered from the floor. The entire presentation was oral. There were no handouts or visuals. Therefore there was no way to review the information presented during the evening.
This format differed from at least a few other local meetings that I’d heard about. For at least one other Association, for example, only advance written questions, seen beforehand and pre-vetted by City Hall, were addressed; nothing from the floor was allowed. I had expected the same format for the CHCA meeting, and was pleasantly surprised that non-vetted questions were allowed, and pleased that they were frankly answered. Of course, given the venue and the format, they were not extensively answered. And, in one case, perhaps not accurately answered. But, I appreciate the effort put in by the Mayor and his Cabinet in attending this, and the other, neighborhood meetings. Three years into the current electoral cycle, and looking at the prospect of the next one starting up only a couple months from now, may enter a wee bit in to the impetus for this city-wide tour right now, after all.
The Mayor’s remarks gave some big picture context to what his Administration has accomplished. Overall crime, despite some periodic spikes, is down 9% during his term. Nearly 1000 new, market-rate residential units will be coming online within the next 18-24 months, as well as several tens of thousands (I was taking notes and missed his number) of square feet of commercial space in the same time. He named the upcoming CML plant (the upcoming Dunkin’ Donuts facility on the old site of The Trentonian’s offices), expanded facilities for The Hibbert Group, and the recently-announced move to Trenton by Maestro Technologies as positive developments. He also stated that Trenton’s School District has improved the high school graduation rate of its students from 51% to 80%. The Mayor also noted the ongoing construction of the new Central High School as a positive development, and mentioned that Mercer County Community College is pledging its support to provide job training and development services to local residents to support placing them in these new companies setting up shop.
Director Parrey was next up, to provide a couple of bullet points (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). He said that the Trenton Police Department’s roster would stand at 262 officers upon the graduation of the current Academy class. In order to address one of the ongoing public safety issues in the city – the tendency of many of the criminal actors to be those between 14 and 18 years old and not well served in the current courts – he and his department are working with the State Justice Department, the Juvenile Justice Commission, and Municipal Judge Marc McKithen to set up a Youth Court, similar to Newark’s, on a trial basis (OK, I will stop). And both he and the mayor promoted the use of the “My Block” program for residents to report non-emergency neighborhood nuisances. Please note, My Block is NOT intended to report bad local puns.
Housing and Economic Development Director Rogers spoke about some initiatives in her department. She mentioned that a 6.9 acre property (I THINK the same site Maestro is going into; again, I was taking notes, and missed that part) was acquired for the City from the NJ Schools Development Authority. She also said that there is active interest in properties near the new Nursing School Building belonging to Thomas Edison State U, as well as in the Mercer Campus site previously operated as Capital Health Center. She mentioned that she anticipates convening an upcoming community meeting to discuss plans for the Campus; which, as I wrote the other day, would bring us right back to the same place we were in back in February, 2010. The more things change…
Then Ms. Rogers said she wanted to answer a question that had been submitted prior to the meeting, which may have been one of mine. I had asked, about the reported $17 Million in tax credits and subsidies Maestro would receive in order to bring them to Trenton, how much of that $17 Million was City money. In my written question, I referenced that the State’s Financial Incentives programs, as described in the NJ “Economic Opportunity Acts” of 2013 and 2014 includes a 10-year abatement of all local property tax payments, followed by another 10-year period during which local taxes would be progressively phased in, at 10% a year.
With that as context, Director Rogers said she wanted to say that no city resources were being used as part of these incentives. ALL of the incentives were coming from the state. I was wondering whether she meant that was true only for those projects she had just mentioned, or for the State incentives program in general, when she then doubled down. She said the State program was “designed” to benefit communities such as Trenton, and Camden, by not requiring local contribution to these incentives.
Now, I knew that couldn’t be right. I wanted to ask her about her statements, then and there. But I figured I probably only had a chance for one bite at the apple, and wanted to reserve my chance for a question to Mayor Jackson. So I followed up with an email to Ms. Rogers on Wednesday. I won’t include the whole letter, but here’s an excerpt, which was based on a piece I wrote back in 2013:
In its “Legislative Fiscal Estimate” prepared for the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, the Office of Legislative Services included this Statement: “The Garden State Growth Zone (GSGZ) property valuation exemption will result in significantly reduced property tax revenues for the cities of Paterson, Passaic, Trenton, and Camden to encourage potential development which may not occur without GSGZ incentives.” [Emphasis added]
This negative impact on the Garden State Growth Zone communities has been well known since the first Act in 2013, and to my knowledge was not rectified in the Act of 2014. Since this effect was explicitly discussed by the Office of Legislative Services prior to the Act’s adoption, this negative fiscal impact must be a considered a feature of the state’s incentive programs, and not a bug.
In light of these considerations, can you please clarify your comments from yesterday evening that Trenton does not contribute to these project incentives?
As of this morning, March 24, I haven’t received any reply or acknowledgement of my note from City Hall. Until then, I will continue to believe that Trenton’s Director of Housing and Economic Development has some major misconceptions about the nature of New Jersey’s economic incentive programs and how they impact the city she works for.
After Ms. Rogers, the Mayor opened the floor for questions, to him or any of his colleagues. The first question asked when the City’s Cadwalader Park would be cleaned up. Not simply have trash removed, but things such as years of accumulated dead leaves and fallen trees. PW Director Cherry’s response was essentially that the City was working on it.
The second resident posed less of a question than an impassioned plea for advice from the mayor and his team: how, after ten years in the City and our neighborhood, could he think to stay in Trenton with the very serious quality of life issues that he had to deal with. He mentioned a suspected crack house two doors down from his, and a shooting at his corner that very afternoon, an incident that Director Parrey acknowledged.
The neighbor was upset, and his question really went to the heart of all of Trenton’s problems. When drugs and violence are literally on your doorstep, how can you tolerate staying here with family and loved ones? Mr. Jackson and Mr. Parry talked to the man sympathetically, and generally. Mr. Parrey took the address of the suspected crack house, said he was unaware of any problems there, but would look into it. He and the Mayor tried to put our neighborhood’s concerns in some context. The same problems could be found on a daily basis in the Mayor’s Villa Park neighborhood. Public safety is an ongoing issue in all communities, not only Trenton. The City is working on the problem from many directions, including on the street with the Police Department, in the Courts and with County, State and Federal resources, as well as with local neighborhoods and residents, all of whom have a stake in keeping the city safe. Our neighbor was encouraged to stick it out, in hope of better times. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Parry were sympathetic and sincere; I don’t know how reassured my neighbor felt, but I certainly understand that they deal with these issues and incidents like these every day, in every city neighborhood. My neighbor expressed that he was thinking about whether to leave the city for good. He, I and many folks in the City can consider leaving as an option; for a lot of other people, that alternative isn’t so simple. The problem is to make all Trentonians feel safer where they live and work.
I asked the mayor about the Audit and internal review of procedures and policies he announced over a year ago, in the aftermath of the $5 Million Dollar theft of city funds by Innovative Payroll Services (IPS). Since that had been the last public mention of that audit, could he please give a brief summary of the results of that review, and of any actions taken in response. If he couldn’t provide a brief summary that evening, could he please commit to a fuller explanation at a later date?
This was the first time I had asked the mayor about this matter since sending am email to him in March 2016, to which he did not reply. To my pleasant surprise, he answered my question at some length and with some candor, which to my knowledge is the first time he has publicly addressed the topic at all since his press conference of March 14, 2016.
The Mayor quickly reviewed the matter, stating the City had been the victim of a crime by an unscrupulous individual. He said something also about this theft happening at a time one year into his term, when his Administration was still, according to him, settling in to City Hall, and learning the nuts and bolts of city administration. He did reveal a few things that the City has done in response to the internal and external reviews and audits. Principally:
- Payroll tax deposits, previously handled by the intermediary of the city’s Payroll Services vendor, are now made directly to State and Federal tax authorities by the City. This is a wise move, and good business practice that should have been instituted years ago/
- Two unnamed individuals have been disciplined for their performance during this theft. He did not name the persons, nor describe the discipline, citing personnel confidentiality. Presumably they are Janet Schoenhaar, the City’s Comptroller, and Mary Henry, a City Accountant. These are the only two City names on months of emails between the City and IPS in 2015 discussing frequent delinquency notes and penalty invoices received from the State and Feds. If these employees were the ones referred to by the Mayor, they are seasoned city employees of long tenure, not recent Administration hires settling in to their jobs and learning the nuts and bolts.
- Additionally, the Mayor said, and was seconded by Finance Director Zilinski, that a large amount of the funds stolen by IPS have been recovered.
He didn’t provide any further details during the little time remaining in the evening. I was glad to finally get some information from the mayor on the matter, and thanked him for addressing it. I do hope this means the mayor may be more forthcoming on this matter, more publicly and to more Trentonians than were able to hear him in our small group on Tuesday.
I thank the Mayor and his colleagues for attending on Tuesday. I hope this represents a new stance on communication and accessibility that will be continued. That this is happening three years into their terms in office is, I suppose, just one of those things.