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Tired of Trenton Being the Fall Guy? Sign the Petition

I wrote last week about Trenton City Council’s unanimous adoption of Ordinance 13-58, which signed up the City to the State of New Jersey’s “Economic Opportunity Act of 2013,” which intends to keep current businesses in the State of New Jersey and attract new ones to the state by providing a number of financial incentives.

It’s a bad, bad deal for Trenton, as I will review below.

There is a Petition being circulated this weekend that asks Trenton City Council for Ordinance 13-58 “be either repealed by the City Council of the City of Trenton or, if not entirely repealed, then the question shall be submitted to the voters of the City of Trenton” in a ballot referendum this Spring.

This petition needs several hundred signatures immediately, this weekend, if we want this on the ballot in May, the same time we will elect our new city officials.

The Petition is being managed by a Committee made up of Michael McGrath (who also managed the 2010 Trenton Water Works referendum that sank the proposed sale of half the city’s water utility to a private company), Karen McGrath, Darren “Freedom” Green, Robert Lowe and Ann Carlucci.

I have copies of the petition, as do all of the members of the Committee, and several  other citizens, such as Jim Carlucci.  We are hitting Trenton this weekend.

If you would like to sign the petition, please let us know. Tonight.

If you would like to get your neighbors to sign the petition, let us know. Tonight.

This incentive program is primarily made of tax benefits and credits to NJ State taxes. However, these tax goodies to businesses – focused on a select number of industries and in many cases specific lucky (and politically connected!) companies – include generous giveaways of local property tax revenues for up to 20 years.

Four lucky NJ cities – Trenton, Paterson, Camden and Passaic – will have the singular honor, courtesy of the State of New Jersey and Trenton’s City Council, of hosting new commercial development, the owners of which will not have to pay one dime of Trenton property tax on any improvements or construction they do on Trenton real estate, for ten years. After the 10th year, taxes will be slowly introduced, in increments of pennies on the dollar, for another ten years.

This is what’s called a Tax Holiday.

Of course, over these 20 years, these new developments will enjoy protection by Trenton Police and Fire Departments, streets and traffic lights maintained or perhaps even improved by Trenton Public Works, and other city services. But these developments will not have to pay for them.

Not a dime for ten years. And pennies for most of another ten.

Nice Holiday!

So, who will pay for these city services? (Here’s a hint: take a look in the mirror!!)

That’s No Holiday for Trenton’s Taxpayers!

Look, if the State of New Jersey – the Governor, the Legislature and the Economic Development Authority – wants to improve the business climate in the state by using State tax money, be my guest!

But when it wants to make a real sweetheart deal by crippling Trenton’s property tax base even further than it has for the last several decades, I have a problem with that.

Do I exaggerate?

The official fiscal estimate prepared by the NJ Office of Legislative Services says – on its cover page – that this program

will result in significantly reduced property tax revenues for the cities of Paterson, Passaic, Trenton and Camden.

So, why did City Council approve this program, unanimously?

I have no clue?

What is in it for the City of Trenton? What do we get out of it?

For ten years, Nothing. For ten years after that, Loose Change.

Sound fair to you? No?

Then Sign the Petition!

Battle of Trenton, 2014

First thing, a little self-congratulatory note, for context.

During the year 2013, this site was visited 326,135 times. Total page impressions viewed were 639,325.

site traffic 2013

See  that little plateau just above in the bottom left corner, toward the end of the year? Those were the “Trenton City Christmas Tree” columns. Very popular, those were! That story hit a nerve, I think.

Not too bad, overall, for a part-time space mostly devoted to the goings-on of a small, Northeastern post-industrial town of 80,000-odd (and many of them are odd, indeed!) that punches way above its weight when it comes to municipal shenanigans. This means that a little under 1,000 people a day on average visit here, and browse a while.

The total number of readers is probably higher, since I doubt that this is a daily stop for many. I figure most of you stop in every couple of days to check for new columns. I have individual daily numbers between 1,200-1,300. For the sake of modesty as well as anything else, I will consider the readership at a nice round One Thousand. For that, before anything else, I must say Thank You! I am glad that you have found this space and this scribbler occasionally informative, or at least entertaining.

I intend to keep going as long as I can find the time, which is always scarce; and as long as I can find the material to write about. Luckily for me, I’ve struck the motherlode when it comes to daily inspiration. Trenton never ceases to fascinate, amuse and anger. Glad you are along for the ride.

End self-congratulations.

The larger context is that having close to 1000 daily readers for a site such as this – in a town when barely 11 times that number actually bother to turn out to vote for their local officials – means that there are at least 1000 people who care about this city, who are passionate and engaged about what goes on here, and who are starved for good information and informed commentary. And all this, in a town where local mainstream print media is fast declining editorially and economically, and which is typically ignored by electronic media unless someone is shot, stabbed, arrested, indicted or tried. Despite this difficulty, there are at least 1,000 Trentonians who try to stay pretty informed, and who are also very opinionated about issues, events and people.

And at least 1,000 Trentonians who are plenty pissed about the last several years, fed up with the bullshit and those who aid and abet the bullshit.We – and I will presume to speak for you in this instance – are more than ready and willing to throw out the trash, and look forward to the election in May to do just that.

Tony F. Mack is finished as a force in this town. As long as he occupies the Mayor’s Office he can and does create further mischief. We will be recovering from the last four years for many more to come, but his time is coming to a close. Five men seek to replace him. I’ve written several times over the last year about these gentlemen, and expect to do so often over the next five months.

The seven members of City Council are finishing their first full terms, and the Trenton Times tells us that they each intend to seek re-election. I believe that not one of these members deserves a second term. They have served Trenton poorly.

As a body, they accomplished almost nothing of note. Much of that record, it must be said, is due to the continual obstruction of three Council members – Kathy McBride, Alex Bethea and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson – who always had the back of the Mack Administration, both pre- and more inexplicably post-Indictment. For their willingness to condone the endless corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, these three deserve to be sent packing.

The remaining four members offer nothing to cheer about either. Collectively, they never came to fully grasp the powers and authority granted to them as Trenton’s Governing Body. They lacked the self-confidence, the skills and the knowledge to assert themselves and their voting records reflect this, time and again for the last four years.

These seven failed in a responsible exercise of their advise-and-consent role on mayoral appointments by allowing a revolving door of “Acting” appointments to head city departments that led to among other absurdities, eight Business Administrators in one year. And Council failed to rein in and discipline other mayoral appointments even when they suborned City rules and regulations, and/or outright lied to Council (Looking your way, Anthony Roberts!)

With their legislative work, they distinguished themselves only in their questionable decisions:

This Council voted against spending more money to hire back police, but they did vote to waste more on the dying city-owned Lafayette Yard Hotel. They would have thrown even more millions of dollars at the hotel had it not finally sunk under the weight of its own losses.

Early in its term Council promised to more closely oversee its operations, then failed to follow through. A pattern they frequently repeated over and over again with promised financial oversight of the Administration’s finances. Even Charlie Brown knew that Lucy would pull the football away from him. This Council never learned.

This Council made the financially-questionable decision to take one of Trenton’s most desirable parcels of real estate off the city’s property tax rolls permanently by deeding it over to a local college for pocket change.

And this Council’s indifference to the ill health of its 53%-tax-exempt property base led it just weeks ago to unanimously endorse a state program that will let select developers put up new projects in the City and not have to pay Trenton a dime for 10 years, and then pennies on the dollar for the following 10.

Individually, they may be nice people. They may have perfect credit, love animals, plow your street when the city snows up, and they may be good for a daily inspirational quote cribbed from a fortune cookie. Great people.

But they have failed as legislators.

According to the newspaper today, very few challengers are in the wings to take on the current incumbents. I hope that changes.

We have been fighting a war in Trenton for the last few years. A war against corruption and criminals inside our City Hall, yes, but a war also against ignorance, complacency, incompetence and entitlement.

And too, lest we forget, a war to be taken seriously by the State of New Jersey, and not patronizingly bought off with enough “Transitional” cash to keep things from boiling over but not enough to fairly compensate the city for hosting the state’s government on its most valuable property. A war in which its citizens are lulled into accepting the false promises of “new development” that won’t earn the city a dime.

It’s a war over whether Trenton has Any Reason To Be, anymore.

The election this May will be a major battle in that war.  I am sick and tired of the way this war has been fought over the last four years. We are losing. I want all of the current team out, and I want to see the best people we can find go in to fight for our future.

If you are reading this, then chances are that you are one of at least another Thousand who feel the same way.

Here we go.

Patricia Stewart

If you are a reader of this space, you likely know by now of the passing of Patricia Stewart.

I’ll miss Pat. I served with her on Trenton’s Zoning Board for a dozen years. She cared a lot about this town, which she adopted as her home as did I. It seemed she was involved with just about everything going on. She was an early and a strong supporter of the effort years ago to establish a Foundation for the Trenton Public Library, and was crucial in steering some very large grants to the fund. She was a very effective woman.

She was characteristically direct to the point of bluntness. If a neighbor speaking before the Zoning Board objected to a proposal on the docket on quality of life grounds, she would often bark out something to the effect of, “Quality of Life? Have you happened to notice you live in a city, sir? Noisy, crowded and dirty is what all cities are, and Trenton is no different. Suck it up!”

Pat was equally direct with her blog. She took the nom de plume Lamberton Lily, and posted less frequently, and more succinctly (ahem! Guilty!), than others around here. What she had to say still resonates, and will be on my mind as we start this New Year.

For example, a few months ago as she surveyed the landscape of the upcoming election season, she had these words for us:

Before voting, Blogolanders, PLEASE DEMAND of all candidates their plans to solve the various city problems, and I don’t mean vague answers like, “We need more jobs;” We have to improve our eeducational system [sic]; ” We have have increase our tax base;” We have to fight crime.”  No shit!  But how?  That’s what, we the voters need to ask; that’s what, we the voters need to know.

And where a candidate was born and raised, went to school, what sports played,  means nothing.  What plans the candidates have matters.

Should you, the voters, decide not to go this route but instead follow the usual campaign crap, then do not bitch and moan if another group of losers gets elected.

It’s like she was psychic, or something! This morning’s Trentonian website features a piece allowing some of Trenton’s current Council members reviewing the city’s bloody 2013 just ended, and speculating on what 2014 may bring. Councilman Alex Bethea is quoted:

I’ve been an educator for the last 39 years, and I understand the educational system in Trenton. I know the high school dropout rate, and from what I understand it’s a high number. It’s somewhere around 48 percent, I think. That’s unacceptable. And if we as a city allow that to continue, we are asking for trouble. If young people in an urban setting are not educated, not working, and don’t have money, the outcome will be bad. But we can fix this. We can fix this through education, and we can make sure we have jobs for these young people. When they don’t have jobs, they look for alternative ways to get money; and usually it’s through criminal activities. And that leads to violence. We have to put more emphasis on engaging our young men with programs that will prevent them from dropping out, and ensure they learn basic skills early in life.

No, Pat wasn’t psychic. She just knew Trenton, and its many characters, all too well. Including its many elected losers, of whom Mr. Bethea certainly sits at the top of his class:  “‘We need more jobs; We have to improve our educational system; We have have increase our tax base; We have to fight crime.’  No shit!  But how?

Damn straight, Pat!

Rest in Peace, Pat. We’ll miss you.My best wishes and condolences to her son Nick and the rest of the Stewart family.

Along with folks such as Dion Clark and Frank Weeden, also passed in 2013, their voices will be sorely missed as we try to rebuild the city after years of chaos. We’ll miss Pat’s voice, yes, but we should be mindful to pay attention to what she was telling us while she was here.

Trenton Water Works is Another Sewer Works

I wasn’t intending to post anything today. The Christmas holiday is beginning today on a bright, clear crisp note that I am reluctant to do anything to endanger. But, my hand is forced by an article by Alex Zdan in today’s Times. So here I am.

Alex Zdan interviewed Stanley “Muscles” Davis, the brother (a full brother, we find, not the half-sibling relation that we’ve been told for years) of the Indicted Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office, serving criminal time for his corruption conviction while working as an employee of the Trenton Water Works. The headline to the Times article announces that Davis is telling “his side” of the story that has led him to jail, and that all but promises to land his two brothers in prison jumpsuits before long, too.

I won’t describe the story in detail here. It is a good read, one that is full of self-justification and self-pity, with a tone of self-awareness and frankness that I found kind of surprising, frankly. Talking about the bribe taking that led to his arrest and conviction, he says “I really, I was greedy. Because I didn’t need the money. [Taking a bribe was] a bad judgment call, something stupid I should have never done… I had maybe a total relapse of who I was, maybe a sense of arrogance, and I did it.”

What brings me to write on this Christmas Eve is not what this article tells us about the last four years, but what it announces about our future. Specifically, what it tells us about the future of the Water Works and the City of Trenton.

Our last municipal election involved the Water Works, and the effort by former Mayor Doug Palmer and his Administration to sell the assets of the Water system located outside the City limits to a commercial water company. That sale was signed by Mayor Palmer and approved by City Council, but decisively overturned by an overwhelming public vote on the same day in June 2010 on which Tony Mack was elected.

This election, also, I believe will heavily involve the Water Works. This time, I think the main issue will likely be whether the City of Trenton deserves to continue to own and operate this utility that provides water not only to the city’s citizens and businesses but to customers in Hamilton, Ewing, Lawrence and parts of Hopewell.

In 2010, I defended the city’s claim to retain the entire TWW system. Now I am not so sure. I have doubts whether City ownership and management can survive the ongoing revelation of an ongoing climate of corruption at the Water Works in place long before the IO took office.

In today’s interview, Davis characterizes the Water Works as “Corrupt. From top to bottom.” And, according to him, it has been crooked for long before his time there and his crimes. Of course, a lot of these claims have to be seen as little more than self-serving defense, attempting to make his transgressions look less unusual, less onerous, less criminal in the context of a place where corruption like his was common.

The article quotes several former and current city officials to counter Davis’ claims. Current Director of Public Works Luis Mallinedo refutes Davis by saying, “What Mr. Davis is commenting to is what happened when he was there, and he was leading the corruption. What he’s referring to is history. … It’s the past.” Doug Palmer is quoted as also quoted, denying he condoned corruption on his watch.

However,  it is left to Eric Jackson to provide a greater defense at length of the environment at the Trenton Water Works under his watch as Director of Public Works under Palmer. As a declared candidate for mayor in next May’s elections, Jackson is naturally being sought out for comment on a situation that has become toxic. He needs to defend his record and convince folks that he managed the Water Works well, if he wants us to take his candidacy seriously.

But all of the many reports I have read over the last few weeks have only increased my doubts about Mr. Jackson’s prior record at Public Works, and therefore I have only increased doubts about his candidacy.

Davis charges that Jackson attempted to improve discipline and root out corruption while he ran Public Works, but was hampered by his boss, Mayor Palmer. “[H]e’s a pretty decent person but his hand was tied. He really just did what (then-Mayor) Doug Palmer and them told him to do.” Palmer and Jackson of course deny this.

Jackson claims that he attempted to discipline the corrupt internally. In today’s article, Alex Zdan writes, “Jackson put together a discipline hearing, where he was expecting testimony [against Davis] from witnesses who never materialized. ‘We had the attorneys there, ready to take it to administrative law and the witnesses did not want to come forward,’ Jackson said.

This internal approach to solving the problems at the Water Works has been described by Eric Jackson a few other times in the last few weeks. Giving testimony last week at an Office of Administrative Law trial involving two Water Works employees,  he said he implemented policy changes that reduced massive overtime charges, the padding of which was a principal method of stealing from the Water Works.

And two weeks ago another article in which Alex Zdan reported that a Grand Jury in 2011 had looked into allegations of corruption and theft at the Water Works both during Mack’s term and before – that is, during Jackson’s tenure under Mayor Palmer. In that article, Jackson again described and defended his actions: “Jackson said he had received some information that employees [such as Davis] were hooking up water to customers without authorization, but did not obtain enough information to make a case against anyone. ‘There were allegations we investigated, but not corroborated,’ Jackson said. As director, Jackson said, he inherited staff and procedures, but worked to increase accountability even as some of the employees tried to counter with other ways to perform illicit activity.”

According to this December 11 article by Mr. Zdan, there were many serious problems at the Water Works over the years. In addition to payroll padding, there were several thefts of equipment including incidents in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008. A lot of incidents.

Mr. Jackson’s response each time, as stated in these three separate news accounts? Investigations, disciplinary hearings and administrative findings. All internal.

What I would like to know, after all these stories, is whether Mr. Jackson ever called in the Trenton Police or talked to county prosecutors about this rampant corruption?

We know that there was criminal activity at the Water Works; that’s why Muscles Davis is serving time. Equipment was walking away, and individuals were falsifying time cards. Did any of this lead Mr. Jackson to involve law enforcement? If not, why not? Why did the only criminal prosecutions stemming from corruption at the Water Works occur after Palmer and Jackson left City Hall, if the situation was similar back then?

I think we also need to Mr. Jackson to explain what other measures he put in place to reduce problems at the Water Works. We read he cut down on overtime abuse. Were additional security cameras installed to control equipment walking away? Were inventory controls and equipment sign-out procedures revamped? Did TWW management exert more effective oversight of their staff?

While we are at it, why did maintenance of the suburban assets of TWW allowed to slip in the run-up to the 2010 referendum, and why were so many staff openings for service technicians left open during that period, leaving the Water Works short-handed as the Mack Administration started up?

For me, if Eric Jackson cannot show that he at some point in his tenure brought in law enforcement to investigate the situation at TWW, that will sink his candidacy. He cannot be seriously considered as a potential Mayor if he allowed a culture of corruption to survive unchecked at the utility without trying to call in the cops.

Beyond the candidacy of one man, though, the integrity of the Trenton Water Works is vital to Trenton’s residents. Right now, TWW smells like a sewer. The past four years has been enough for many critics and angry water customers outside of Trenton to argue that the Works should be taken out of city hands and regionalized at the County level, at least. Every new revelation of past corruption, and waste, and theft that precedes the Mack years hurts the City’s case for its future stewardship of much of Mercer County’s water supply for its residents.

And were we in May’s elections to select individuals from that past to lead Trenton past 2014 might prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the Water Works as Trenton’s.

In Any Language, It Screws Trenton

Wikipedia describes the phrase “pig in a poke” as “something is sold or bought without the buyer knowing its true nature or value, especially when buying without inspecting the item beforehand.”

It’s a concept that’s very easy to grasp. In fact, as the article goes on to explain, the English phrase dating from the Late Middle Ages has equivalents in several other languages around the world. For example,

Language Local Expression Translation to English
Irish ceannaigh muc i mála buying a pig in a bag
Latvian pirkt kaķi maisā to buy a cat in a sack
Lithuanian pirkti katę maiše to buy a cat in a sack
Luxembourgish d’Kaz am Sak kafen to buy the cat in a sack
Macedonian да купиш мачка во вреќа to buy the cat in the sack
New Jersey pass a pro-developer law to screw urban taxpayers
Norwegian kjøpe katta i sekken to buy the cat in the sack
Polish kupić kota w worku to buy a cat in a sack
Portuguese comprar gato por lebre to buy a cat instead of a hare

Oh, are you unfamiliar with that New Jersey vernacular above? Let me explain.

About ten days ago, Trenton’s City Council unanimously passed Ordinance 13-58, which can be found here. I think it is a bad ordinance, poorly considered and adopted for reasons I will explain below. There is a petition being circulated at the initiative of Hiltonia resident Michael McGrath which calls for its repeal. It can be found here. I have signed it, and ask you to do the same.

Ordinance 13-58 signed the City of Trenton on to the terms contained in a new State law, titled “The New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act of 2013;” you can find a copy of that law here.

According to the Trenton Times account, by Jenna Pizzi, of the Council session in which the bill was passed, the City’s Director of Economic Development Walter Denson told Council that they had only a few days to meet a State deadline to sign on to the new state law and therefore had to pass the Ordinance immediately. Even though, well, how can I put this gently? there were “still some gray areas in the law and there are unanswered questions regarding the city’s oversight of the projects.”

Other than that, things were just dandy and good to go!!

So, what does this new law do? Well, it Promotes Development. How? The law  “would give automatic approval for developers building projects in Trenton, which create urban development entities, to qualify for a 10-year tax freeze. The freeze would begin when the developers receive their certificate of occupancy for the building. Denson said the developer would continue to pay taxes on the property, but not on any improvements made to the land.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

The 10-year tax freeze in question, in case you were wondering, is a freeze on any new city property taxes on new developments. That means, Trenton doesn’t get any taxes from new development! After the 10th year, property taxes would start to come in: 10% of what the applicable tax rate would have been during the 11th year; 20% the 12th, and so on to Year 20, when 100% of the applicable rate would be paid by the owner.  In addition, there are multi-year exemptions from state taxes that would otherwise be due from the businesses undertaking these developments. More on that below.

Did you notice how I emphasized the phrase “automatic approval” above? Does that mean that the City of Trenton would have no way to block a project that a developer proposed for the City, if for whatever reason the City thought it might not be a net benefit for the city and its residents?

Maybe, maybe not. According to the Times, Director “Denson said the project will still have to go through the usual planning and zoning approval process in the city, but if the program stays as it is, the city will not be able to pick and choose which projects to subsidize.” [Emphasis mine - KM]  But he also did say “that there are amendments being made to the state law that could mean changes to the program.” And, according to Denson, Council could always repeal the ordinance if it turned out not to be such a great idea.

Could. Mean changes. If the amendments are passed. And that’s only if those amendments end up improving the law for Trenton and similar cities, and not make it worse. If.

Right now, according to the official analysis done by the state’s Office of Legislative Services (OLS) prior to the adoption of this new bill,

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 mine - KM]

Significantly reduced property tax revenues. Will result. For Trenton.

That sounds like a real horrible outcome for the City. Surely there is an upside to this deal, statewide, right? Surely even if cities such as Trenton will lose money on this deal. there’s bound to be a big return for the state overall, right? Right?

In that same analysis OLS says, Maybe.

The law’s intent is that to qualify for the tax credits eligible under this program, an analysis would be done by the State to show that a proposed project would over the course of its life bring in in new tax revenues 110% of the amount of the tax credits, making the whole thing worthwhile by earning a 10% return for the State. From the way it looks, that’s 110% of state tax revenues; the eventual return for cities like Trenton isn’t directly considered.

Overall, this is not a small program. According to the analysis, this new law is intended to replace current tax programs that cost the state $1 Billion in tax credits in 2012. Under this new law, the program would annually cost the state $1 Billion in tax credits, while seeking to bring in new tax revenues of $1.1 Billion.

But (and you knew there was a but), the OLS concludes,

Due to these uncertainties in what impact these programs have on the larger economy and related businesses, as well as the possibility that a company will relocate or close operations before the State fully realizes benefits from the incentive programs, there are downside risks that make net revenue losses under the program possible, despite a net benefits test [that 110% measurement, from above - KM]

The Office of Legislative Services finds that the revenue impact of the substitute is indeterminate with certain losses due to tax incentive agreements which may or may not be fully offset by revenue increases from expanded business activity. The magnitude of the revenue losses from tax incentive agreements cannot be known because [earlier programs had no caps on the amount of tax credits.] – [Emphasis mine - KM]

So, with guaranteed losses in property tax revenues to the City of Trenton, and possible losses statewide from this program, why in the world did we sign on to this, especially since there were so many “grey areas and unanswered questions”?

A few Council members raised some objections. Kathy McBride was described as finding it “difficult to approve the ordinance because there was still some questions unanswered. ‘That makes it real sticky for me because what they are asking us to do is jump into this project without clarity,’ McBride said.”

As to repealing the city’s ordinance and pulling out of the program at a later date, Marge Caldwell-Wilson noted the city’s famed short attention span and suggested if the City’s experience turned sour, no one in the City would notice. “My concern is that nobody is going to be looking into this and pushing [for improvements].

Despite their misgivings, McBride and Caldwell-Wilson ended up voting for the measure anyway. Remember, the ordinance passed Unanimously.

City Council bought a pig in a poke. The members signed on to a big new bill that has a lot of “unanswered questions,” “gray areas,” and which “will result in significantly reduced property tax revenues”  for Trenton, as well as the possibility of “net revenue losses” for the State of New Jersey.

So, one would be excused for asking, who would possibly favor this?

Find out in Part 2, after Christmas. In the meantime, sign the Petition, here.

Merry Christmas to all the readers of this space. And to all a good night!

Bad Credit Report

It’s a little ironic that, after a month in which a lot of the civic conversation in Trenton was devoted to the question of whether candidates for public office in the city should be encouraged to release copies of their personal credit reports,  the credit of the City of Trenton itself is at rock bottom.

Jenna Pizzi reports today in the Trenton Times, “Another contractor has said they have been waiting for two years to be paid by the city of Trenton for public works projects they completed in 2011. Diamond Contracting owner and President John Kovacs said his company was hired to install handicapped ramps in the city’s sidewalks as part of a federally funded grant project, but is still owed $122,000 for the work.”

No one contests that the City owes the money: “Kovacs said the company sued the city in 2012 and got a judgment four months ago from a Superior Court judge saying that the city should pay the company the $122,000, but despite daily calls to the city engineer, Kovacs said he hasn’t seen a cent.”

Another vendor cited in today’s Pizzi article claims they are owned $98,000 by the City, also for work dating back more than 2 years. Today’s article does not mention what Pizzi reported a week ago, that the failure to get paid by the City created a  cash crisis leading the owner of that company, Jonico Inc, to close its doors. “The [City of Trenton] literally put us out of business,” according to Joe DeLuca. DeLuca is suing the City for $600,000 to recover the money owed, plus interest and attorneys’ fees.

Anyone care to wager that he won’t win his case?

For its part, the City isn’t even making an effort to defend its position to the media. According to today’s Times, “City Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson referred all questions about the payments to the law department. Law Director Caryl Amana did not return several messages seeking comment.”

Of course.

In both cases, the vendors got stiffed by Trenton because federal grants won by the City to perform street and sidewalk reconstruction around the city were lost due to the City’s usual incompetence. In this case “the city failed to meet the reporting requirements of the Federal Highway Administration” in the management of this federal grant.

None of this is news. The local media, and this space, have been talking about this for a long time; for example once in March 2012 and again in August of that same year. My take on things from that March is still pretty valid:

Tony Mack and his Administration are ruining this city. Costing us millions of dollars, and almost as much in whatever Good Will may residually remain among those state and federal agencies who keep us afloat. They are causing the severe distress of several of the small businesses unlucky enough to have chosen to work with us, and probably scaring away all the others! They continue to drive away talented people, with no one lined up to replace them.

At the risk of once more repeating myself, all of this – the City’s ruinous management, the waste of public funds, and the individuals responsible for it – has been known for going on four years now. Little to no corrective action has been taken, or even attempted by a City Council that has been by turns too timid, confused, divided and distracted to take any meaningful action. As a result, the wreckage that this Administration has caused, aided and abetted by this Council, will take years to clear. The best they could manage was a weak voluntary resolution asking city candidates to, pretty please, consider maybe perhaps releasing their personal credit histories. A measure that didn’t even get passed.

At this point, Council could at least try to regain a shred of professionalism and dignity and haul “Where in the World is” Sam Hutchinson and Caryk Amana into public session and ask:

  • When will these vendors get paid?
  • Why is Diamond Construction still not paid four months after a judge ordered the City to pay?
  • Why does the City always let these matters go to court when it knows it has no case and will get its ass kicked?
  • When will those individuals responsible for this be held accountable?
  • When will there be consequences??

You know, I don’t think the seven members of this Council need to worry about releasing their personal credit reports. We already have pretty conclusively poor reports and bad track records from them.

'Tis The Season...

Good Morning, – I have just spoken with Cordelia Staton at the City Clerk’s Office.

Donations to help defray the City’s cost of this year’s holiday tree may be made by writing a check to the “City of Trenton.” Notation should be written as “2013 Holiday Tree.”

If you mail the checks to her attention, she will “make sure they are properly deposited and accounted for”…

As you do so, please note it with a , so we can keep a running total of the amount.

FYI. It was an interesting conversation. I asked her how one could make a donation to help pay for the tree. She told me, “The City isn’t accepting donations because it found the funds to pay for the tree.”

I told her that I understood that to be the case, but since the funds so “found” were from our Federal CDBG grant, I wanted to reimburse the City so that the Federal expenditure was unnecessary. Since the City had been so active in seeking funds for the Thanksgiving Parade, I said, surely it would accept donations for this worthy cause.

Then she laughed, said she understood, and then told me the above information.

Remember, send your checks to Cordelia’s attention. She will “make sure they are properly deposited and accounted for…”

My $60 is written and ready to be mailed.

Per Jim Carlucci (thanks, Jim!), mailing info is as follows:

Deputy Clerk Cordelia Staton

Trenton City Clerk’s Office
City Hall, 319 E. State Street
Trenton, NJ 08608
Happy Monday!

The Grinches Who Let HUD Pay For Christmas

Well. I didn’t think I touched a nerve with my last post. But I suppose I did.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Council President George Muschal noted that, in a departure from past tradition, there would be no Trenton Christmas Tree outside City Hall this year. “This is a disgrace,” the Councilman was quoted as saying Tuesday night.

In a rare flash of instant response to the concerns of Council, the Administration whipped into action. Lo! and Behold! a tree was procured for City Hall, which should be arriving soon to take its place beside other festive holiday displays hurriedly arranged by staffers. Councilman Muschal, in last night’s Council session, pronounced himself pleased. “The good news is, I was informed we are going to have a tree,” he said according to the Trenton Times.

But (and this is Trenton, there is always a but!) there is a downside. Councilman Muschal again: “The bad news, I think, is that I was informed that there is a price tag coming with the tree.”

The price tag is $450, in fact. Not a huge amount of money in the course of Trenton Municipal Finance, but an amount that was not budgeted, for an item that does not usually incur any costs at all, being usually donated to the city according to Councilman Muschal in the Trentonian’s coverage.

Without a donated tree, and in the absence of any other alternatives the Administration could find, the City used its fallback, default mechanism for these sorts of things: let the taxpayer pay for it! From The Times:

The city will use Community Development Block Grant trust funds set aside for the recreation department to pay for the tree, said business administrator Sam Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the CDBG program, said he and the city’s CDBG coordinator Marc Leckington signed off on using the federal funds for the tree.

Hutchinson came under fire last month when council members learned that Hutchinson had been inappropriately paying a clerk in his office with CDBG funds.

City Council grumbled at this last night, with Wes Ward rep Zachary Chester questioning the need to pay for holiday decorations. But Council basically agreed to let Mr. Hutchinson and Mr. Leckington buy the Tree with Federal funds.

This morning, I took exception to that and suggested that our current Council members and potential candidates help out the City and its Federal grant money, and offer to reimburse the City from their campaign accounts. I mean, it’s only $450, right? Why couldn’t all of them say, “The Taxpayer Bucks Stop Here? We’ll take care of this!”

It was a somewhat flippant suggestion, but only partly. Current regulations allow public office holders – such as all of our Honorable Council members – “iii) The making of donations to charitable or non-profit organizations or
activities that promote the welfare of constituents, such as the sponsorship of
a neighborhood sports team.” This falls under the category of “permissible ordinary and necessary expenses of holding public office,” namely “Costs of communications to constituents.”

I figured, If funding a little league team counts as “constituent communications,” surely a holiday tree does too, right? Current candidates seeking office may not be able to use their campaign accounts to pay this kind of expense – they don’t have constituents yet – but there’d certainly be nothing to prevent them from writing a personal check.

Remember, we’re only talking about $450. Split several ways, it’d be what – $50 to $60 each?

Naively, I thought that my suggestion would embarrass the lot  of them, or at least the more politically astute among them, sensitive to the potency of a small but important symbol.I kind of thought they would be tripping over themselves offering up their checkbooks to save the public exchequer. Only $450!!!

There are surely more pressing issues and critical problems facing this town and Council. I have no argument there.  But here at least was one small issue that could be quickly and easily resolved, saving the city’s Federal Housing and Urban Development grant a couple of bucks, and showing the personal and civic generosity of our public officials, and wannabe public officials. During the holiday season. And for a Christmas Tree!!

Slamdunk, right?

Wrong.

After posting my note this morning, I heard a response from only one council member, Marge Caldwell-Wilson, and that was via Facebook.  That she took the time and energy to engage with me on this is something I appreciate, and thank her for.

But as to the content of that engagement? Oh, boy. Let me re-post that dialog here, from both my personal page and the page of “Friends of Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger (FOTIB).”

My page:

  • Marge Caldwell-Wilson Kevin, donations to my campaign account are supposed to be used for the campaign, I would love to donate to the tre, but do I ask my donors if that is ok
  • Kevin Moriarty Marge, ELEC states you can use campaign funds for “iii) The making of donations to charitable or non-profit organizations or activities that promote the welfare of constituents, such as the sponsorship of
    a neighborhood sports team.” You can explicitly do this as “permissible ordinary and necessary expenses of holding public office

    I would respectfully suggest that if you can sponsor a little league team with a campaign account, which you can clearly do, then I see no difference from a municipal holiday tree that, this year at least, there are no funding sources other than CDBG to pay for, and which will promote constituent welfare and good will.

  • Marge Caldwell-Wilson I do not sponsor anything out of my campaign account, it comes out of my own pocket
  • Kevin Moriarty Fine, Marge, that is a personal decision that you have made. All I am saying is that you are entitled to do this under the ELEC rules, as I read them, and that I consider this as an alternative to paying for this tree using CDBG funds.

    In that case, would you offer to pay a share of this tree, and encourage your colleagues to do so, out of all your personal funds if you think this inappropriate to use your campaign account?

    Are you and your colleagues willing to say, in this small but I think highly symbolic way, “The Taxpayer Buck Stops Here!”

    Or will you prefer to let Mr. Hutchinson let HUD pay for this?

  • Marge Caldwell-Wilson And I will make that decision if necessary. I have more important things on my mind right now other than the Christmas tree at City Hall
  • Kevin Moriarty I’m sure you do, Marge! I know you do.

    But this is a symbol of what’s going on down there. I didn’t raise the issue of the tree. The President of Council did.

    I didn’t scramble to put up a tree, the Mayor and his minions did.

    I didn’t inform the City that I was going to pay for this tree with Federal funds, Mr. Hutchinson did.

    But I didn’t listen to Mr. Hutchinson and not raise any objection to him using HUD money to pay for a tree that is usually donated. You did, and your colleagues did.

    And I have not considered this whole thing newsworthy. The newspapers have.

    What I am doing, and I freely admit to it, is to point out the heavy symbolism in this decision of the Administration, and Council’s passivity to it, in yet another instance, small but highly visible, of clearly wasting taxpayer funds, Federal funds this time.

    Maybe I am making a bigger deal out of this than it’s worth. But I would think that, as a public official and a politician, you would recognize that this is one occasion – one small but meaningful occasion! – where you can actually protest this kind of waste.

    And for only $60!!! Marge, this is a great opportunity for some Ho! Ho! Ho! Good Cheer!

    I appreciate your engaging with me on this. You are the only member of Council to do so. BThat means something.

    But since I can see you are so resistant to the very idea of making this kind of gesture here. You are simply oblivious to the issue here. And I am sorry to see that.

And from the FOTIB page:

  • Marge Caldwell-Wilson I do not and will not use my campaign funds for Christmas trees and the likes. If I decide to donate it comes out of my pocket and that would be my decision
  • Kevin Moriarty OK, Marge, will you do so? Will you encourage your colleagues to do the same?

    Tell you what, I will put my money where my mouth is, even though I hold no office, nor am I running. I will write the City of Trenton a personal check for $60 as my share.

    Can you get your colleagues to match that? That’s $480 from all 8 of us. The tree was $450.

    What do you say? Do we all pitch in, or does Mr. Hutchinson let the US Department of Housing and Urban Development pay for it?

  • Marge Caldwell-Wilson No, I am not going to organize this Kevin, I really do have other pressing issues to deal with
  • Kevin Moriarty Bah, Humbug! in other words. Eh, Marge?

Now, I have to say, I did not expect that, at all.

Since those exchanges, I will say that other Facebook friends on the FOTIB page jumped right in and made their pledges of $50. Without any effort, ordinary citizens recognized the importance of making this small, but symbolic gesture.

But not Councilwoman Caldwell-Wilson. She refuses to even entertain the idea that this would be something worth considering as a public official.

What a mindset! How telling is that, that the Administration just made this decision and Council refused to stop it, or to offer an alternative.

I really find this hard to stomach. These guys really are The Grinches Who Let HUD Pay For Christmas!

But, not all of them! As of this afternoon, I did hear from one person who agrees with me.  One person who Gets It!

James Golden I will support this effort with a personal donation.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the next Mayor of Trenton!

I would like nothing more than to show the Administration, and Council, what real civic spirit is this holiday season.

On Monday, I will call the City and find out how I can send my check to help pay for the City Christmas Tree, to reimburse it for the HUD funds they are all to willing to spend.

There are a half dozen Trentonians in on this already.

Jim Golden is in on this.

On Monday, I will let you know how to join in.

And, if there are any other Council members or other candidates interested, that would be great!

Have a great weekend. Happy Holidays!

A Modest Proposal

From The Trenton Times, 12/5/13, by Jenna Pizzi:

TRENTON — Christmas will be coming to Trenton after all. In spite of Council President George Muschal’s fears, the city will be able to purchase a Christmas tree for display in front of City Hall during the holiday season.

“The good news is, I was informed we are going to have a tree,” Muschal said. “The bad news, I think, is that I was informed that there is a price tag coming with the tree.”

The 20-foot Norway spruce will cost the city $450, said Paul Harris, a Trenton Water Works employee who volunteered to help arrange the Christmas display. Harris worked previously as an unofficial aide to Mayor Tony Mack and coordinated the holiday displays in the last two years.

…The city will use Community Development Block Grant trust funds set aside for the recreation department to pay for the tree, said business administrator Sam Hutchinson.

As of their latest disclosure reports filed with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission, as of September 30, 2013, the campaign funds of the declared Council and Mayoral candidates stood at the following balances:

Candidate Reported Balance Notes:
Caldwell-Wilson $11,785.09
Chester $11,102.79
Golden $5,788.31
Hall $18.20
Harrison $2,760.98
Holly-Ward $734.93
Jackson $16,941.79
McBride $675.00 as of 6/30/13. Report likely   inaccurate.
Muschal $335.89 a/o 6/30/13
Perez $7,846.77
Reynolds-Jackson $4,449.84
Worthy $23,268.59

Most of the candidates have probably raised more money since then. Lord knows they haven’t done much campaigning yet with what they’ve raised!

So, how about one of those guys, or maybe all of them, pitch in to reimburse the City for its tree?

Why should taxpayers – in this instance United States taxpayers since Trenton’s city government could not find a single alternative way of paying for the darned thing other than a government grant – be stuck with the bill?

In the spirit of the holidays, in the spirit of the public service all of our candidates supposedly endorse, in the spirit of saving the taxpayers a few bucks, come on guys! Buy us a tree!

Will any candidate have the grace to step forward? I don’t know. However,  in the words of Councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward ($734.93),  it will be “a check mark if you do, but a red flag if you don’t.”

Do it for the kids!

And the Walls Come Tumbling Down

In a rundown of the latest news in Worldwide Bribery and Corruption in government and private industry, a blog on the Wall Street Journal’s website  this week mentions the impending federal trial of the Indicted Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office.

The Trentonian’s daily countdown (It’s T-Day -32, people!) to the scheduled January 6 trial of the IO and his co-defendants is listed third in this week’s rundown. The Indicted One is in some pretty serious company.

Mentioned first is a scandal involving international shenanigans over West African mining rights. According to a Forbes article to which the Journal links, “It’s a plot worthy of a Hollywood thriller: a deceased West African dictator, lucrative mining rights and an elusive Swiss-based billionaire.”

Number Two on the Journal’s list? Italy’s biggest oil and energy company denies claims that it paid bribes and kickbacks to get business in Algeria.

Next up: “The countdown to the bribery trial of Trenton Mayor Tony Mack continues.”

Rounding out this hit parade are links to stories about a former Bear Stearns financial adviser being sentenced to prison by a US Federal judge for his conviction for bribing a Texas judge; and from the India beat, a story from the Times of India about the sentencing of two former officials of the Indian Supreme Court after they were found guilty of soliciting kickbacks from those seeking justice from that Court.

Wow. Pretty heady stuff for a small New Jersey city,  to hang out in the big leagues of global sleaze,  corruption and bribery. For the first time in quite some time, Trenton is Making and the World Is Taking!

At the same time that the world is hearing about the imminent trial next month, we in Trenton are reading all kinds of stories alleging uncounted numbers of other incidents of corruption associated with members of the current Administration. After three and one-half years of hearing news on a weekly basis of new scandals and missteps on the part of the IO and his minions, over the last few weeks the pace of disclosures is rapidly incre4asing. It’s like the walls around the few remaining secrets and scandals yet to be revealed are all coming down.

It ain’t pretty.

We’ve been reading that the IO has been a deadbeat on his city property taxes and his water bill. Federal prosecutors revealed claims of many more instances of bribery and kickbacks discovered during the investigation that led to the charges now pending in Federal Court. This morning, a local t-shirt vendor is defending himself and his company against suggestions made that their success at bidding for a Trenton city contract required paying a kickback to city officials. The vendor’s defense is not helped by reading in Alex Zdan’s Times article today that his company’s bid “was $2,300 higher than the closest competing bid, records show.” That the t-shirt in question at the heart of this particular story read “Celebrating 25 Years: Keeping Trenton Clean” just provides another instance of the kind of extreme irony we’ve seen a lot of in the last 3 years.

You can’t make this up.

“This week’s new allegations against Mack and others are contained, almost as an afterthought, in a motion by the U.S. Attorney’s Office” writes Mr. Zdan in his piece today. He himself broke the news last week that the IO failed for almost five years to receive a bill for water usage in a building he owns on West State Street.

All of these disclosures coming from the Feds and the media must be an embarrassment to the office of Mercer County Joseph Bocchini. Apart from the conviction of the IO’s half-brother Stanley “Muscles” Davis and colleagues for crimes committed while on the job for the City’s Water Works, and the failed prosecution of former union official and city employee David Tallone, the County Prosecutor’s office have been silent bystanders in the midst of so much rampant corruption.

Two years ago I suggested that Mr. Bocchini had “a terminal case of the slows,” when it came to investigating and prosecuting all the nonsense that was going on in City Hall that was known way back then. In fact it’s now been revealed, in another article by Alex Zdan that “Members of a grand jury debated whether Mayor Tony Mack should face indictment in the Trenton Water Works corruption case that led to the conviction of his half brother, but a prosecutor advised them against charging Mack in early 2011 because of ‘insufficient evidence to prosecute the mayor at this point,’ according to transcripts of the grand jury proceeding obtained by The Times.”

Federal investigators didn’t seem to have a problem with collecting sufficient evidence for their case! In fact, as we read this week, they collected evidence of so many crimes they apparently had their pick of the strongest one to pursue.

I can only wonder what kind of reception these revelations are getting in the County Prosecutor’s Office, and that of the NJ Attorney General, and even the Governor’s Office. That there were allegations of corruption made against the mayor of New Jersey’s capital city serious enough to be discussed before a Grand Jury THREE YEARS AGO, dating back almost to the first days of his Administration, and not pursued “for insufficient evidence… at this point” is astonishing.  A lot of people in New Jersey’s criminal justice system were asleep at the switch for three years. If not for the FBI and the Federal Department of Justice, I doubt any action would ever have been brought.

Speaking of “asleep at the switch,” let me just make a passing reference to the members of Trenton’s City Council. I almost hate to: this Council and these members are such easy targets, it’s almost like kicking a cat. But I can’t let one aspect of this morning’s news go by without comment.

David Foster in today’s Trentonian reports that at least two council members were approached by city employees near the beginning of their terms in 2010, and told “the Mack administration was asking them for money to keep a job or to get a job,” as quoted by South Ward rep and current president George Muschal.  According to Mr. Foster, at-larger Council member and former president Phyllis Holly-Ward “corroborated Muschal’s comments.

These statements follow one of the specific claims made by Federal prosecutors “that revealed a scheme by Mayor Tony F. Mack, his brother Ralphiel Mack, close associate Joseph “JoJo” Giorgianni and former city recreation employee Charles Hall III to collect kickbacks from city employees in exchange for keeping their jobs.”

This article doesn’t explain what those two council members did upon receiving those charges from the city employees. It is known that council members have in the past approached prosecutors and law enforcement with information about other incidents. They may have done so on this occasion, too. I don’t know. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they did so, only to have their information go into the black hole of the County Prosecutor’s or state Attorney General’s office.

What I do know is that Council members have failed for nearly four years to take any effective meaningful action in their capacity as elected public officials on Trenton’s governing body that would have disciplined or removed the officials involved, or to fix the city processes and procedures that made such kickbacks possible. Without compromising the integrity of any investigations then under way, it would have been possible to shine public light on what was going on in our crooked City Hall.

I grant you that effective legislative action would likely have been stymied by the 3-person defensive line for the Administration’s team made up of members McBride, Jackson and Bethea.

But any or all of the other 4 members could have and should have done a much more substantial job of communicating public outrage and providing disciplinary oversight to the Administration than they proved capable of.

All we ended up getting were photo opportunities of them in matching yellow t-shirts and “safe” boxes. Not worth very much, is it?

I re-post a link here to an article from February 2011, with this Council facing many of the same issues and obstructions they face today (including asking the whereabouts of a missing-in-action Sam Hutchinson).

They were frustrated, helpless and unproductive then, and they have made no progress in almost three full years.

As a meager defense, really an epitaph, of their actions and inactions, Ms. Holly-Ward is today quoted by Mr. Foster:

Given the recent developments, Holly-Ward said she is trying to find the next steps in council’s role.

“It’s just a list of things that we have to investigate and follow up on,” she said. “We really are chipping away at it the best we can.”

Ms. Holly-Ward, if that is the best you can offer after nearly four years – “chipping away at it the best we can” – it is not nearly enough.