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Generic EpiRaise

A couple of weeks ago, Trenton’s Mayor Eric Jackson called himself “a chief executive officer of the capital city.” There’s a recent example in the world of business in which that comparison is not so far out of the realm of possibility.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Mylan Corporation and more specifically its CEO Heather Bresch, has come under an avalanche of condemnation over the drastic price increases the corporation is charging for its injectable epinephrine product, EpiPen. The price increases on that product, more than 400% since 2007, were criticized as being motivated by little more than corporate greed. As CEO, Bresch is the public face of the company, and the chief target of the public’s outrage. The fact that, in seeming lockstep with EpiPen’s product price, her salary increased, 671% in the same timeframe since 2007.

Faced with a firestorm of public criticism, how did Mylan and its CEO respond? How did she and her company attempt to defuse the situation?

With a classic bait-and-switch. Rather than admit to bad decisions attributable to corporate greed and reduce its price, Mylan announced a new, cheaper, “generic” brand of its EpiPen, with a price half that of its marquee product. The generic has the same drug with the same delivery system. It’s the same product, but it’s “cheaper,” see?

Reaction to this move hasn’t been kind. An article in Business Insider captures the mainstream response:

[T]his authorized generic of the EpiPen, a device used in emergencies to treat a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, seems to be more confusing than anything else.

I and others who study these issues full time cannot understand why Mylan thought this would work to quell the widespread indignation over its pricing practices,” Rachel Sachs, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in a Harvard Law blog post about how the company’s decision “baffles” experts.

Professor Sachs, meet Eric Jackson, Mayor of Trenton, New Jersey!

A few weeks ago, the Jackson Administration unveiled a proposal that would grant senior city officials including the mayor a retroactive – to January 1 of this year – 3-year 15% salary raise. City Council approved the first reading of the plan during its August 18, with the second reading and vote to adopt scheduled for September 15. The Mayor and Administration must have hoped this plan would have sailed through Council without much attention, appearing as it did as one item on a busy docket of City Council’s only August meeting.

However, the plan has been opposed. Several citizens, including myself, spoke against the plan at Council’s meeting. None spoke in favor. Since then a committee of citizens, including myself, has formed as the nucleus of an effort to conduct a petition campaign should the plan be adopted by Council, a petition that would lead to a special election to vote on a referendum to overturn the raises. Given the multiple and continuing failures of management and leadership as demonstrated by Mr. Jackson and his colleagues, I and we feel that 15% raises will in effect reward these people for their poor record in office.  As of this morning 135 persons, registered Trenton voters all, but for a handful, have signed an online petition pledging to sign such a petition should Council grant those raises. This opposition seems to affected “CEO” Jackson in much the same way as bad press and a dropping stock price affected CEO Bresch. Eric Jackson has backed off his 15% plan by “clarifying” it.

That’s the term used in the headline of a Trentonian piece by Penny Ray posted yesterday evening, and not the mayor’s word.  Mr. Jackson may as well have called this plan his “generic” raise proposal. “I’m proposing a 1.5 percent increase for each year because that’s the average increase the unions received,” the mayor told the Trentonian. This seems much more reasonable on first impression, constituting an approach that grants the kind of nominal, cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) that I and other speakers at Council stated would be more reasonable and more acceptable.

But the devil is in the details, as it is with most things, and there are many details that remain to be explained here. For instance, Mr. Ray reports “Jackson’s proposed pay increases retroactively cover fiscal years 2015 and 2016.” That says to me that the revised, “generic EpiRaise” plan would be retroactive to two prior budget years. Meaning a 1.5% increase for Fiscal Year ending June 30, 2015, another 1.5% for the year just ended June 30 of this year, 1.5 % for the new budget year we are now in that started July 1. Since those increases can’t be charged to those prior fiscal years, the net effect of the new plan would be a 4.5% increase effective this year, and a 1.5% increase for the next fiscal year, the last one of the current mayoral term. So, to review, the revised EpiRaise proposal would total 6% over two budget years, effectively 3% a year.

This sounds much more reasonable, and 6% probably will be more palatable to squishy and easily-swayed Council members – who voted 5 to 1 in favor of the 15% raises last month, remember! – who will be expected to pass the plan next week. But, to paraphrase the good Professor Sachs, I and others who follow these issues cannot understand why Jackson thought this would work to quell the widespread indignation over its management practices.

If anything, the Mayor’s comments only reinforce how poorly he and his Administration have been leading this City over the last two years. The Trentonian’s account paints a picture, in Mr. Jackson’s own words, of a man very out of touch and way out of his depth.

Penny Ray reports in his piece “Mayor Eric Jackson said he previously asked McEwen to draft an ordinance increasing salary ranges for certain personnel because raises were last ordained in 2005. But he hadn’t read the memo McEwen attached to the ordinance until after the proposed increases were reported by the press. – [Emphasis added - KM]“ He hadn’t read the memo?!?!? A plan that would proposed significant raises to:

  • Himself;
  • His Business Administrator;
  • His Chief of Staff;
  • His Department Heads;
  • His Division Directors;
  • City Council Members;
  • The Chief Municipal Judge; and
  • The other Municipal Judges;

and HE DIDN’T READ THE MEMO?? How can this be? Is it credible? Is he trying to say he was unaware of the size of the increases, and how they would be rolled out? Is he telling us that he didn’t know they would be retroactive? Is he telling us that he doesn’t know the impact to the City’s budget of these raises and that he doesn’t know how we can pay for them?

OK, he isn’t alone in that last bit. No one in the City has yet told us the answer to how these raises hit the City’s budget.

Is it credible that the Mayor did not know the details of this plan? Is it credible that he left it to his Business Administrator to develop the plan and present it to Council for approval without his knowledge? That’s what the man told a reporter!

Sadly, it is credible. In Mr. Jackson’s own words, he has described himself as “a hands-off guy” when it comes to a lot of  day-to-day municipal administration. I have in this space taken him to task for his repeated tendencies to be hands-off of his own Administration. In May of this year, I wrote a post of which 4 months later I don’t have to change a single word.

I don’t have to change a word, but I can add to this list. Eric Jackson must also been “hands-off” during his first year of office, when in a recent city audit “the city was also cited for over-expenditures tallying nearly $105,000, failing to maintain proper payroll records, and hiring consultants and professions without the required state approval.”

And, we see today, he claims to have been “hands-off” of a proposal to give himself and his senior managers a 15% raise. He didn’t even read the memo until he read about it in the press, if we are to believe him. Actually, you have to wonder if he even “read” about this in the press, or had the story told to him. Because the man doesn’t seem to stay up with current events around him, let alone within his own City Hall.

In the same Trentonian piece today, Mr. Jackson offers a pathetic defense of his record. He picks Chris Christie, of all people! to validate his effectiveness in office.

Jackson proudly told Mr. Ray, “When I took over in 2014, the administration was in a mess and we had a governor who wouldn’t come into Trenton for anything except to go to his office. Now the governor communicates with us on a regular basis. We’re promulgating regulations for the capital city’s benefit, and Gov. Christie has even signed legislation on our steps. He and I don’t agree on all issues, but we have a working dialogue, which is something that didn’t exist before. It took work for that to become a reality, it wasn’t magic.”

The Mayor is awfully proud of his relationship with the Governor. To me, that’s very strange, because the Governor doesn’t share the love back with Trenton. Just last week, Christie canceled the state’s Urban Enterprise Program (UEZ), which benefits Trenton and other cities in the state by allowing a lower sales tax rate to be charged by businesses here. The Governor’s veto of a bill to extend the program will hurt this City. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, sponsor of the extension bill, told NJTV, ““We have over 100 UEZ businesses in the city of Trenton, and it’s just going to reverberate. There’ll be less employees, less business.” Thanks, Governor Christie.

Maybe the Mayor didn’t read that memo. And maybe he missed the stories earlier this summer which reported the Governor was using the state’s Transitional Aid Program as a political football in his dealing’s with the state’s Legislature. Christie sequestered $100 Million in funding, of which Trenton desperately relies on around $20 Million to balance its budget. Last week the Governor released $54 Million of that amount, but it seems the remainder of that money is still being held hostage.

Canceling the UEZ Program. Freezing Transitional Aid. Doesn’t sound like “a working dialog” to me between East State Street and West. Sounds to me that Trenton represents to this Governor is what it’s always been: a chance for an upwardly-grasping politician with his eyes set on a national job to polish his resume by alternately rewarding and punishing urban municipalities as needed to keep his own political future alive. It has nothing to do with Mr. Jackson, and never did.

But I’m sure Jackson didn’t get that memo either.

With the report today of Eric Jackson’s claim of obliviousness to his plan for significant raises – a claim that rings all the more hollow when read with his argument just a few weeks ago that “Leadership does cost money.” He wasn’t talking about any 1.5% cost-of-living-adjustment with those words, just as  his “chief executive officer” claim wasn’t trying to justify a nominal COLA.

No. Just as CEO Bresch is transparently trying to do damage control after a disastrous series of bad corporate decisions and PR blunders, our own “CEO” Mr. Hands-Off Jackson is attempting damage control to rescue his own poorly-conceived plan to reward himself and his colleagues for a job well done.

This revised plan to grant generic “EpiRaises” under another name is still flawed. Unless and until more details are provided, and any retroactive portion be dropped, I cannot support this plan. It’s also clear that an omnibus approach – lumping all of the categories listed above under one plan – is not fair. Council has already exempted themselves from the bill. The revised bill needs to be defeated, and separate proposals for each class – mayor, department heads, directors, judges, and so on – made.

It remains to be seen whether Mylan, more specifically, Heather Bresch, can survive the disaster they brought down on their own heads.

In Mr. Jackson’s case, I think his claim of being left in the dark about his Administration’s policies, and his record over the last two years, sadly proves that he presides over yet another failed Mayoral Administration in the City of Trenton.

A 15% Raise for On-The-Job Training? NO!!!

“[O]ur city needs a leader who does not require on-the-job training, a leader who has worked in every aspect of municipal government, a leader who has never abandoned Trenton when the going got tough.” – Candidate Eric Jackson, Op-Ed piece, Trenton Times, June 2, 2014

Well, that’s good. Because the going is getting tough.

“In the city’s fiscal year 2015 audit, the city was cited for expending money on employee meals and entertainment, like [Trenton Chief of Staff Francis] Blanco’s meeting snacks…. This was the first audit that applied to the Jackson administration since the mayor assumed office in July 2014. The audit ran from July 1, 2014 until June 30, 2015… In the audit, the city was also cited for over-expenditures tallying nearly $105,000, failing to maintain proper payroll records, and hiring consultants and professions [sic] without the required state approval.” – Trentonian, August 30, 2016

So, maybe the folks in the Jackson Administration do need “on-the-job training?”

“Trenton Business Administrator Terry McEwen said Tuesday in a phone interview that he did not “want to go in too much specifics” when questioned about the unauthorized expenses.

“’These are areas that we need to improve in,’ McEwen said. ‘This was done in 2014 … and so we’re improving in all of these areas.’

“City spokesman Michael Walker added that one of the reasons the annual audit is conducted is to ‘bring these kinds of things’ to the city’s attention…  ‘I think that we are careful as to how we pay for them and the source of the funds, and that is demonstrated by the fact that we hire the auditor to come in to rate our financial performance and to test individual transactions to ensure that they comply with our own standards and those standards of DCA.’” – Trentonian, August 30,2016

Hmmm, I thought the City “hires the auditor to come in” because it’s required by law?

Look, the prohibition against spending City funds on food and entertainment isn’t something that, as BA McEwen is implying, was something brand new to the City of Trenton when he, his boss Eric Jackson, and the rest of the new Administration came into office in July 2014. By the time they did so, this prohibition had been on the books, and in state Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) for four years.

Since the very first Transitional Aid MOU was signed between the City and the NJ Department of Community Affairs in December, 2010,

NJDCA MOA cover 2010

language – pretty clear and unambiguous language, to boot -  to that effect was included in the text of the MOU.

NJDCA MOA 2010

So, even though folks in the brand-new Jackson Administration might not have known the terms of the MOU – rather hard to believe, since the State’s Transitional Aid had become crucial fiscal life support for the City’s finances for four years, and one would figure that anyone not needing “on-the-job training” would already be familiar with its terms and the history of its Administration. After all, the history of the 2010-2014 Mackatastrophe would be incomplete without the many instances of conflict between the City and the State about the City’s fidelity to the terms of the Agreements.

One would figure. One would be wrong, apparently.

UPDATE: Thanks to Trenton ex-pat Jim Carlucci, we have the Fiscal Year 2014-2015 MOA, which Mayor Eric Jackson signed on his very first day in office, July 1, 2014. The language hasn’treally changed since 2010. No excuses, then!

So Mr. McEwen just dismisses the problems revealed in the audit by saying, “This was done in 2014 … and so we’re improving in all of these areas.”

He and his colleagues are “improving in all of these areas.”

Just as you would imagine people would improve over time. After, you know, two years of “on-the-job training.”

Except, they really aren’t “improving.” This audit is only the most recent demonstration of the poor leadership and management record the Jackson Administration is compiling.

  • A bad Information Technology deal.
  • A bungled pair of contracts for the City’s public swimming pools.
  • Being designated by the US Justice Department as a “high-risk grantee of Federal funds.”
  • Getting swindled out of $5 Million Dollars of tax deposit funds over several months, despite many written warnings and red flags
  • And more.

One of the major selling points of Eric Jackson’s 2014 mayoral campaign, as referenced in the opening quote, was that he represented Experience. Competence. A firm and steady hand tempered by years spent in public service, especially in Trenton. Which he knew like the back of his hand. And not just him personally. All of his senior managers and appointees. That’s why he wrote in that 2014 Op-Ed, “That is why I am running to be the next mayor of Trenton. It is a city where I was born and which I have never left. It is a city that has seen good days and bad – and I have been here for every single one of them.”

And now Mr. Jackson, and many of the same Department Heads and Division Directors, Business Administrator, and Chief of Staff who have presided over the last two years, have approached City Council with a plan to grant themselves a handsome raise of 15% over effectively the next two years (between now and 2018).

Although it is not being presented as such, this kind of increase over this span of time, in this kind of impoverished city, represents nothing more than a hefty raise to be paid to them ALL for their “on-the-job training.”

Is there any other way to look at this?

I don’t think so.

Generally, new employees receive nominal increases – if any – while they are training. It’s only after that training is successfully completed – and there really doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that in Trenton, New Jersey’s City Hall, don’t you think? – that salaries are raised to a more reasonable level.

The Administration of Eric Jackson begs to differ. They are looking forward to their 15% raise, thank you very much. If City Council approves this plan on September 15, as Council is scheduled to do, they will get it.

Unless enough of Trenton’s citizens collectively say,

“No 15% increases for On-The-Job Training!”

You can say that, and say it LOUD,  by signing a petition, which will be circulated during a very short 20-day period following September 15, if Council approves the Administration’s proposal.

You can also say the same thing, NOW, by signing your name (if you are a registered Trenton voter), to this petition on Change.org. This pre-petition, if you will, allows a Committee of Trentonians in opposition to this plan to know who you are, and how to find you easily to sign the actual written petition, in the last half of September. State law doesn’t give us a lot of time to make an effort like this easy, so we are using the time between now and September 15 as a head start.

If you don’t believe in giving 15% raises for On-The-Job Training, sign this petition online now, and the written one next month.

change petition

An Ode for Trenton's City Parks

As sent from Trenton City Hall:


xmas tree 2016

For use in case you see any City workers in any of our public parks this Fall:


woodman

Falling On Deaf Ears

Yesterday evening, I was one of about a half-dozen citizens speaking on the matter of the proposed Trenton Salary Raise Ordinance. All spoke against the proposal, including myself. Most spoke on behalf of themselves. Paul Mitsis also spoke on behalf of the Glen Afton Civic Association. Most spoke well. One, Daryl Brooks, spoke incomprehensibly, of how when Donald Trump is elected President towns like Trenton will be governed well, He also self-promoted a new TV show he will be on. SMDH, my friends. SMDH.

None spoke in favor. Despite the clear expression of public sentiment on the matter, which apparently fell on deaf ears, the Clowncil voted to approve the First Reading of the matter.

Second Reading, which will include a public hearing on the ordinance, is scheduled to take place at their September 15 meeting.

This is Trenton. I’m sure a lot will happen between now and then to provide further context for this proposal. This being Trenton, I doubt much of it will be good.

My comments, as delivered, are below.

Good Evening, Mr. President, Councilmembers – I am here to oppose Resolution 16-50. In the city’s present condition, and after a series of failures of management and leadership to date by the Mayor and many of this Administration I strongly feel that the 3-year 15% raise that is under consideration tonight is inappropriate.

Tonight’s proposal is presented to you as cost-of-living increases. I don’t oppose nominal adjustments for cost-of living, say in the 1-2% range from current rates. There is no realistic way we can afford to catch up a dozen years of frozen salaries in the next three. Anything over 1-2% from current salaries constitutes de facto merit increases for the Mayor, Council, and others, as does making these increases retroactive to January 1, in a prior fiscal year. Not only can this city not afford merit raises, in my opinion the current Mayor and senior Administration officials simply do not deserve them.

“Leadership does cost money,” the Mayor tells us. That may be so. However, the lack of leadership has already cost us much, much more money. We have been paying so much out due to the failures of management and bad decisions by this Administration that we cannot afford the kind of “Leadership” Mayor Jackson proposes.

To be sure, competitive salaries are helpful for recruiting and retaining quality managerial talent to head Departments. I once worked for a company whose President told the New York Times, “We have the best employees in the business, for the money.” No one wants to feel they are the bargain basement talent. And no one wants to recruit in the basement. I get it. I get it.

But it is at least as important for recruits to Trenton’s government to feel they are coming to a city that is well and competently managed, with good morale and clear policies and procedures that are consistently and fairly applied. Instead of the situation that we actually have now. “You couldn’t pay me enough to get involved with that” is a phrase that I have heard, many times, applied to the City of Trenton, by those inside and out of the place. Don’t try to tell me you haven’t heard, or used, variations on that theme yourselves. To many, it’s a literal truth. For a lot of people a lot of the time, especially those who choose public service, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the job.  We’d certainly like to do better by people, but here, now, cost of living is all we got.

Regarding his own position, the Mayor told the Trentonian,“A chief executive officer of the capital city, that’s what I am.” Since many of this country’s CEO’s over the last few decades have, through their management and corporate policies, been greatly responsible for gutting the American economy from the inside, don’t compare yourself to a CEO and ask me to be impressed. Far from it.

As a brief aside, for a self-described municipal CEO, Mr. Jackson continues to have ongoing CEO-type issues with his mayoral campaigns. Campaign finance reports due with the state for his 2010 run were outstanding as the 2014 race got under way. After public and press criticism on that matter were made by me and others, Mr. Jackson hurriedly caught up on his reports in time for the most recent campaign. However, with that election behind him and comfortably installed in City Hall, old habits apparently came back. The last legally-mandated quarterly report was filed with NJ ELEC in November 2014. We’ll probably see the next batch of filings delivered in Spring 2016. Or next week, if the press picks up on this tidbit this evening. This action-only-in-response-to-public-spotlight kind of thing makes one think more of CEO Donald Trump rather than CEO Steve Jobs. Don’t try to pass yourself off as a CEO, Mr. Jackson.

Just be a Mayor. Try to be a good one.

The posted salary for the mayor’s job didn’t deter Mr. Jackson from aggressively seeking this job in both 2010 and 2014, nor did it keep all the many others from running in both of those years. Salary wasn’t an issue in either election, and I don’t see how it’s become one of a sudden. What, will this, or another future Mayor, tell us: “I’d really like to take the offer, but Princeton is offering a better salary and more vacation time?” Really?

In the Mayor’s 2015 State of the City Address, he told us, about his governance strategy supported by eight pillars, among which were: Communications, Accountability, and Transparency. The actual record of the Jackson Administration to date is full of publicly documented instances where those “pillars” have been either ignored, or distorted beyond all imagining, not just by the Mayor but throughout the Executive Branch.  The promulgation of these “pillars” by Mr. Jackson proved to be no more than lip service for a citizenry desperate to think we’d put the bad days of Tony Mack behind us. We’ve been sadly disabused of that over the last couple of years. We don’t need a 3-letter agency to come in and tell us so. A lot can be wrong even if it’s not illegal.

Example: The City selected as its Information Technology vendor a company that submitted the third most expensive proposal out of 12 submitted companies. The winning company did not come with the experience, depth and credentials of its competitors, nor was it of a size that included the kind of overhead to justify its extremely high cost structure. Since its selection, the IT processes and infrastructure has experienced   frequent and debilitating problems, and costs much higher than they needed to be.

Example: In September of last year, the US Department of Justice listed Trenton “a high-risk grantee of Federal funds” due to its failure to make required changes in its operations to cure problems discovered in audits of past grant programs. This kind of judgment is never lightly taken and was a major critique of the city’s quality of management and leadership at all levels. This announcement that didn’t get the attention it deserved, lost as it was in the background noise of other events at the time.

Example: This summer, the City contracted with a company to manage the City’s swimming pools. Due to bad communications from both sides throughout the entire process, this company and the City parted ways, mid-way during the summer. Another, far more expensive vendor has been brought in to finish out the season. This vendor, in turn, is imposing – on its own initiative – additional costs on the City in excess of the conditions outlined in the original RFP, and the City is paying those costs. Due to Trenton’s miscues and the mismanagement of its vendors, this summer the City is now spending 65% more than 2016’s original contract amount, and about 50% more than the 2014 contract. Allowing a 50% increase in costs over two years for what is, however valuable and desirable, a non-essential service is unacceptable.

Final Example: The final example, of course, is Innovative Payroll Services. There is not enough time in the entire evening to review what an unbelievable disaster this has been. I will simply summarize in the three main phases of this scandal the Administration’s past and ongoing Management and Leadership failures.

FIRST -  From no later than April 2015 to the end of that year, and possibly much earlier, multiple and frequent notices from State and Federal tax authorities were sent to Trenton, notifying the City of late and missing tax deposit payments. These notices usually led to communications and inquiries between a City analyst and IPS, correspondence that throughout were copied to the City’s Chief Financial Officer and known to her, at least, from April to the end of the year. From all the public statements and city documents released to date, there is no evidence that these frequent, serious red flags led to any investigative or corrective action at all on the part of any Senior Manager in the City of Trenton. In fact, on two occasions during 2015, in June and December, the City actually extended the contract with IPS, despite the existence of these red flags from the tax authorities.

SECOND – The period from roughly December 2015 to February 2016 describes the period during which the City finally realized the problem for the emergency it obviously was. This is the time when attention was fully paid by the Administration, when law Enforcement on the state and federal level was involved, and when the matter was first revealed to the public. During this time, several public statements were made by officials including the Mayor and the President of Council that described the problem, its timeline, and the actions taken by the City that are at serious variance to documents that have become publicly available since that time; namely, copies of the tax notices and emails, and court documents filed against IPS and its principles. The discrepancies between those public statements and the documented record have not yet been publicly reconciled, from then to now. Which leads to,

THIRD – In the aftermath to this scandal, after the change of payroll vendors, after the criminal complaint and indictments, after the civil lawsuit, the dust settled. The Mayor announced in March that the City was “taking an internal audit, [and] we’re having an outside legal firm look at the processes that not only took place during that period, but the organization that’s set up so we can avoid having similar things.” Since March 14, we have heard nothing more about either the City’s internal audit, or this outside review. Neither the Mayor nor any other Administration official have made any more statements on the matter. Council has not been involved with any effort. And we know of neither any personnel nor policy or procedural changes instituted by the City to prevent someone else from again swindling Millions of Taxpayer Dollars from under the noses of our public officials. We have no assurance that anything is happening in this regard. Five months on, the Mayor’s announced  “audit” and “legal review” and his promises to keep Council and the Public informed look to be as credible  and legitimate as the legal review of Bridgegate commissioned by our Governor.

In this respect, the aftermath to IPS represents to me the worst – and still ongoing to this day – Failure of Leadership on behalf of Mayor Eric Jackson and his Administration. What happened to Communications, Accountability, and Transparency? His Eight Pillars are Eight Empty Promises.

Even Tony Mack didn’t lose Five Million Dollars! For all his faults, Tony was just a penny ante crook, remarkable only in that he betrayed so much public trust for such little illegal personal gain. We’re in the Big Leagues now: Five Million Stolen by just one scheme.

So, a 15% raise over the next 3 years for those during whose watch this took place? Please!

If they were perfectly honest with us, and with themselves, the Mayor and his Administration would tonight say to us, paraphrasing William Shakespeare and Edward R. Murrow, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our compensation packages, but in ourselves.”

In summary, Mr. President, I want to state again my strong opposition to Resolution 16-50, in its specific terms and in general to the idea of any Merit raises for the Mayor and the named officials over and above nominal cost-of-living adjustments as of July 1, 2016.

As an alternative plan, I would suggest looking into a variation of the 27th Amendment for Trenton, in which any proposed raises would not take effect until after the next new Council/Mayoral term of office begins.

Let current officeholders, including yourselves, stand behind their action on this issue when they seek re-election. Thank you.

Giuliani-on-the-Delaware

“We’ve had good, consistent, managerial, quality leadership. We haven’t been bogged down in scandal, we haven’t had any of the three-letter agencies running into our government.” – Trenton Mayor, Eric Jackson, as quoted in The Trentonian, 8/16/2016

Ummm…

It seems Rudy Giuliani isn’t the only one with a highly selective memory. At least Rudy conveniently forgot something that happened 15 years ago. Eric forgot this small matter from only six months ago!

ej 2-18-2016

The Comedians

If, as has been said, the Secret to Comedy is Timing, then those folks down at City Hall should rename their digs the Trenton Friars Club. Because they have some exquisitely-timed jokes scheduled for this coming Thursday night’s session – or should I say set? – at City Council.

I refer to this agenda item, the last scheduled docket item of of the evening:

salary ordinance header

That’s right. Along with their brethren at the Mercer County Board of Freeholders, Trenton’s Council will deliberate raises for themselves as well as Mayor Eric Jackson, his chief of Staff, the City’s Municipal Judges, and Department Directors.

Before talking about this Trenton raise proposal, a few lines about Mercer County, to compare and contrast the City’s plan. At the beginning of this year, the Freeholders voted for themselves, County Executive Brian Hughes and several department directors a raise of 4%, retroactive a full year to January 1, 2015. I had problems with that  proposal and shared my opinion with the Freeholders at the time. You may be interested to know I received not one reply to my note. So much for constituent communication. Whatever.

This morning, we read that the Freeholders will vote this Thursday, barely seven months later to award themselves, as well again as County Exec Hughes and some department directors an additional 2 percent bump, once again retroactive but this time only to January 1 of this year 2016.  The two actions represent then a total six percent increase over 2 years, an average 3 %.

Compared to Trenton’s plan, the County comes off as models of fiscal rectitude. Attached to the text of Ordinance 16-50, helpfully provided by Jim Carlucci – thanks, Jim! – is a memo by City Business Administrator Terry McEwen outlining the proposed salaries for the city’s officials over the next three years. They are generous increases.

For Mayor Eric Jackson, BA McEwen, Department Directors, and Judges, the proposed salary bumps are stated as 3.3% this year (retroactive to January 1; I suppose some in City Hall have watched what the County does!), then a big jump of 5.8% in 2017, and a more reasonable (compared to 2017, that is) adjustment of only 5.6% for 2018. The cumulative increase is 15.5% for all of these officials, or around 5.2% on average. This is well above the Freeholders’ measly 3% annual raise over 2 years.

Councilmembers will do almost as well as the Administration. For their part-time positions, the increase for 2016 is proposed to be a whopping 12.5% compared to last year, with the subsequent bumps for 2017 and 2018 only 1.1% each year.

However, the big winner out of this proposal is Francis Blanco, Mayor Jackson’s Chief of Staff. Ms. Blanco is set to receive increases over the next few years totaling 19.68%, or 6.56% on average per year. Sweet!

All of these proposed increases should be looked at against the general economic background of the last few years, when inflation and cost of living increases have been hovering around the 1%-2% range. Any wage increases in that range can be considered simply keeping up with inflation. I believe this is the general range that the City of Trenton has been seeking in some of their labor negotiations for new union contracts.

Wage increases above the rate of inflation are generally considered merit increases. I would then feel very comfortable in saying that the increases being sought by the Jackson Administration for themselves constitutes merit increases. And that is hilarious.

To be fair, these proposed increases are not as outrageous as those proposed by Tony Mack a couple of years ago, but they are still pretty funny.

So, you may ask, what’s so amusing about this proposal? It’s all in the timing! Coincidentally, this Salary Ordinance is included in the same docket that has several other items that show Trenton is no better off, and no better able to afford merit raises for his elected and appointed officials now than it was 4 years ago.

Let’s take a look!

Thursday’s Council Meeting will also include several other docket items of interest. For instance, this one:

exec session header -hovnanian

Hmm, pending litigation? About the de3velopment at the former Champale factory site? What’s that about? Since this is to be discussed in Executive Session, we may not hear any details about it. Then again, we might. Later on the agenda is this item:

resolution header -hovnanian

Looks like this matter is actually pretty far along, and as usual, the City is paying to settle the matter. How much? I expect we’ll find out. Trenton often settles, and always pays. Googling the phrase “Trenton Council settles” returns quite a list. Here’s Page One of the results. Spoiler alert: one of these items doesn’t belong to Trenton. NJ. Everything else, sadly, does.

trenton council settles

You get the picture. Trenton Gets Sued, We Pay The Dude!

But wait! There’s more:

tax sale header

We all know what Hotel is located at 1 West Lafayette Street. Five months after we read of ongoing financial problems at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, problems that included a balance of unpaid property taxes to the City of $632,510 and unpaid sewer and water charges of $28K, we see that a Tax Sale Certificate for the hotel property may be assigned. This generally, but not always, is an action that takes place as part of a foreclosure action. What does this all mean for the formerly City-owned hotel, for which the City is still responsible of millions of dollars in annual debt service? I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound good. Is it possible that one of the largest, if not the largest, privately-owned property, as well as commercial employer, is in danger of closing, again? Will this jeopardize the future possibility of collecting the assessed annual $1.9 Million in property taxes the place is supposed to pay? Will this be another multi-million dollar hole to fill in the City’s Budget?

The above are just the items that are on the Council’s docket along with the proposal for the salary raises. This also should be looked at in the context of a number of other incidents over the recent past that must call into question the management skills of this Administration.

For instance, just this month we’ve seen the problems associated with the contracts to operate the City’s public swimming pools. This year, the City managed to attract only two proposals to run the pools this summer. The City hired the low bidder, USA Management, but fired them half way into the season. The City then turned to the other remaining bidder, the Trenton YMCA, to take over the contract until the end of the summer. This mishigas, I wrote last month, ended up costing the City, as these things usually do: “It looks like we are on track to be spending about: 65% more than the original USA contract amount; 20% more than the Y’s bid this year; 42% more than the Y’s 2015 contract; and about 50% more than the Y’s 2014 contract.”

Don’t forget a City contracting process that resulted in the award of the City’s Information Technology contract to a little-known and little-qualified company that was the third most-expensive out of 12 proposals received.

Last, but certainly not least, the same City Administration that saw Five Million Dollars of payroll tax money swindled right from under its collective nose, and which so far has refused to say if it has taken any action to prevent a future similar occurrence, now wants to give itself a raise.

For a job well done, no doubt.

THAT’s what I find so funny about this!

Recent history before this week’s Council meeting shows how many bad decisions this Administration has made – and continue to make – and how arrogantly they have refused to take any actions to either replace the personnel responsible or fix broken policies and procedures. That no one has been fired in City Hall for the Payroll theft is still mind-boggling to me. That many of the Administrators and Directors are still employed who ignored multiple warnings and red flags is an ongoing scandal that no one in the City is willing to face up to.

And they pick this week to ask for raises, when Council’s docket for Thursday nicely demonstrates we are still drunkenly spending money like we’re literally made of the stuff.

That’s just hysterical! Who writes all their material? They are comedy geniuses!

Too bad the joke is on us.

Trenton as a “City-Wide Area in Need of Rehabilitation”

I’ve been aware of the activities being conducted under the banner of the Trenton250 Project. This is the City of Trenton-led effort to involve local residents, property and business owners, planning experts and officials, and other stakeholders in a long-range Master Plan to re-develop the City over the next several decades in advance of Trenton’s Sestercentennial (I had to look it up) in 2042.

I’ve been aware of it, but not very conscious of it. Over the last several months, the Project has convened many public meetings and issued several documents and surveys in advance of its efforts. Sorry to say, I will admit, I’ve missed all of them.

This week, a neighbor of mine and current member of the Trenton Planning Board, David Peiffer, alerted me to an impending deadline of this coming Monday, August 15, for members of the public to submit formal comment to Jeffrey  Wilkerson in the City’s planning department on the many draft documents posted for review since mid-July.

David directed my attention to a specific document, the “Housing Report Brief” that can be found via a link on this page.  Upon reading the section that David pointed out to me, I was moved to send a letter to Mr. Wilkerson. You can read more below, but the gist of the specific draft proposal I read would involve designating the ENTIRE expanse of the City of Trenton as an “Area in Need of Rehabilitation.” That is, the ENTIRE City would be designated for redevelopment and eligible for a range of measures that, up until now, only specific areas in one of the city’s many, many, many legally-defined redevelopment areas could qualify for. Among other things, this would mean the entirety of the City of Trenton would be formally considered “a blighted area.”

So, you may ask yourself if (like me) you are a property owner in a neighborhood that you don’t consider to be “blighted” in the least, what does that kind of label mean to my property value?

That’s a good, question, and one that I asked of Mr. Wilkerson. Read on, below.

If you have a chance this weekend, please take a look at some of these draft proposals and, if you see something odd or potentially bad, or innovative and potentially wonderful, send a note by Monday, August 15, to Jeffrey Wilkerson at info@trenton250.org.

Thanks again to David Peiffer for bringing this to my attention!

As emailed, August 12, 2016:

Jeffrey Wilkerson

Planning Director

City of Trenton

319 East State Street

Trenton, NJ

Dear Mr. Wilkerson:

I would like to commend you and your colleagues who have been working on the Trenton250 planning process. It has been, to date, a thoughtful effort at looking ahead at the City’s future in ways that incorporate the participation of expert opinion, professionals in and out of the City, and the public. Having served as a member of the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for 12 years, and having participated on the taskforce which previously revised Trenton’s Land Use Ordinance, I am personally familiar with many of the issues involved, and appreciate the value you place on the importance of public transparency and participation.

Today, I will reserve my comments to one part of the Housing Report brief I find troubling, as it has been presented in this draft. As the Trenton250 effort proceeds to the next phase, I look forward to expanded discussion on this matter, and further background. On Page 5, in your section titled “Develop Tool Kit to Improve Housing Conditions,” I read this:

“City-Wide Area In Need Of Rehabilitation Designation: Designation of an Area in Need of Rehabilitation is a special designation allowed under New Jersey Law that empowers the City with tools for improving the area designated. Specifically, it would allow the city to (1) undertake a program of repair and improvement to structures, including providing five-year property tax exemptions and abatements to support redevelopment and rehabilitation of properties; and (2) Exercise all the redevelopment powers EXCEPT acquiring private property by eminent domain. Of particular note, the designation would provide the city with enhanced tools for the disposition of property. Specifically, the city could transfer property to certain entities without having to go through auction. As a result, the city could choose developers who are best equipped to achieve their goals and to set a price for the transfer of properties that is appropriate for the type of development it seeks.”

I am concerned to read of an action that would so designate the entire city as needing rehabilitation as it is defined in the state’s authorizing legislation. There are many, many, many areas of the city, as discussed elsewhere in your Draft, that are the locations of specific redevelopment plans, many of extremely ancient vintage. I understand the appeal of an approach that holds out the prospect of reducing much of the complexity of neighborhood redevelopment. But I do wonder if such a wide, shotgun-style approach is suitable for neighborhoods not in redevelopment zones and not in need of the kind of rehabilitation envisioned by the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL).

Of the several criteria defined in NJSA Title 40A:12A-5, there are many areas of the city, such as the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood in which I reside and own property, that don’t honestly meet any of them. There are no buildings that are substandard and unsafe; no abandoned industrial buildings; none that are “detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community;” and so on. As a property owner, I must frankly say that I am concerned about the future value of my property and my neighborhood when it becomes designated by city ordinance as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation.

Trenton has difficulty enough attracting new citizens, investors and property owners. I moved to the City nearly 20 years ago because I and my family fell in love with our house and our neighborhood. We knew nothing about the City when we first started looking here. I can guarantee you that if we were prospective homeowners from outside the City or State looking today on Realtor.com or Zillow.com, and we saw a notation on a listing to the effect that “the property is located in the Trenton Area in Need of Rehabilitation,” and found out that such Area encompassed the entire City and is legally considered a “blighted area,” well, we would pass over the entire City without a second thought. Regardless of the beauty of a specific house or neighborhood, such a designation will affect the value of that house and neighborhood.

Speaking as a property owner, what will that do to the value of my investment? I look forward with great anticipation to hearing more about this matter during the next phase of your planning process. I imagine my fellow residential property owners in Cadwalader Heights will, too, as no doubt those in the rest of on the City.

Speaking as a former member of the Zoning Board, I read Title 40A:12-6 as a description of a process under which the determination of such Areas in Need of Development is to be done in a very deliberate and careful fashion, to be supported, in the words of the statute, by “substantial evidence” (40A:12A-6 b.(5)). I fail to see how such care and deliberation – and “substantial evidence” – could possibly be provided for every area in the City.

Since the LRHL was authorized in 1992, I will ask that the next phase of the Trenton250 process include case studies of the actual experience municipalities in New Jersey have had with this law, with special attention given to case studies of municipalities that have defined their entire towns as Rehabilitation Areas.

I also read in your Draft, in the same section quoted above, that the City would be allowed under the LRHL to “Exercise all the redevelopment powers EXCEPT acquiring private property by eminent domain.” In my reading of the law, in Title 40A:12A-6, the use of Eminent Domain is an explicitly authorized option to a municipality.  It is most definitely NOT prohibited:

“The resolution authorizing the planning board to undertake a preliminary investigation shall state whether the redevelopment area determination shall authorize the municipality to use all those powers provided by the Legislature for use in a redevelopment area other than the use of eminent domain (hereinafter referred to as a ‘Non-Condemnation Redevelopment Area’) or whether the redevelopment area determination shall authorize the municipality to use all those powers provided by the Legislature for use in a redevelopment area, including the power of eminent domain (hereinafter referred to as a ‘Condemnation Redevelopment Area’). – [Emphasis mine - KM]

There are many other references in the legislation to the power of Eminent Domain as something that can indeed by invoked by a municipality as part of its tool kit. I understand that would the intention of the City, at the present time, to avoid the use of this power, but the implication in your Draft that this is outright prohibited is, in my reading of these provisions, incorrect.

This poses, in my opinion, another problem to the proposal to designate the entire City to be a zone to fall under the terms of this law. Although we may be able to depend on the levels of professionalism and integrity of the current Administration and Council to forswear the use of eminent domain, I remain unconvinced of the likelihood this would remain the case in the future. As long as the law allows it, it must be considered a real, however distant, possibility that it would be used, on some basis, in Trenton.

This represents to me another serious defect in the draft proposal to designate the entire City of Trenton as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation under the New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.

I will conclude these comments on this note. Once again, I thank you and your colleagues on the Trenton250 planning process to this point. I look forward to the next phase of the project, and to further clarification of the points I’ve made today.

Respectfully,

Kevin Moriarty

The City Keeps Paying, and Paying, and Paying

Was this supposed to make us feel better?

” ‘The city never had any financial difficulty. This was never about financial difficulties,’ city spokesman Michael Walker said. ‘This was about performance of the contract, safety of city residents who are using the pools and our fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers. … We expected them to deliver what they promised within the scope of services in the bid and they did not do that.’ ” [Emphasis mine - KM]

The water is getting murkier in the matter of the management of the City of Trenton’s public swimming pools. Last week, the Jackson Administration recommended to City Council, and Council unanimously approved, that the City and USA Management part ways at the end of July. USA is the Georgia-based company that was one of only two bidders for Trenton’s business. The other bidder was the YMCA of Trenton, which had managed the city’s pools for the 2014 and 2015 summer seasons. As of August 1, the “Y” will once more manage the pools until their mid-September closure.

Michael Walker attempted to ease the minds of Trenton’s residents about the financial stability of the City in its dealings with the issue of the pools last week. Ironically, questions about the shaky finances, or at least the accounting functions of the City were raised by Trenton YMCA Executivce Director and former City Recreation Director Sam Frisby. Last week, he explained to the Times that City Hall just kind of shuts down for much of July:

“Frisby said the YMCA largely received its payments on time, but acknowledged that July is a difficult month for the city. Its fiscal year ends June 30 and checks are not cut for two weeks, he said.

” ‘The problem with recreation is that they’re just starting up summer programming when the city is shutting down,’ said Frisby, who previously served as the city’s recreation director under former Mayor Douglas Palmer. ‘You can’t ask for checks early. … You’re typically not going to get it until the end of July.’ “

So, Frisby’s quote didn’t do much to shore up Mr. Walker’s claim that this was “never about financial difficulties.” Oops. Also, last week Walker himself was quoted in local press accounts as saying that the problems were in fact, about money:

We believe that USA Management has grossly underbid the contract, which prevents the company from managing the pool program per the requirements in the scope of services detailed in the bid,” city spokesman Michael Walker said, citing concerns about the lifeguard-to-swimmer ratios and charging residents for swim lessons. “We will not compromise the safety of residents who are using our city pools and we will not burden them with additional costs to enjoy them.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

So, which is it, Mr. Walker? Did the City part ways because USA Management “grossly underbid the contract” (an admittedly bizarre excuse for anyone who’s ever had any kind of business contract – if you underbid and your work costs more than you planned, you eat the extra costs) or was it because of USA’s performance? I am confused. I am also scratching my head about the “we will not burden [city residents] with additional costs to enjoy [the pools], because that’s exactly what we are ending up doing.

The original contract with USA, we were told last week, was $185,188. Pro-rating that sum for the approximately six weeks they provided their services, I estimate they cost us about $90,000, which includes a $41,000 payment to USA last week that had been overdue by two weeks.  The new  contract with the Y for the remainder of the summer is reported to cost $158,160. PLUS, in a week-ending report by Cristina Rojas in the Trenton Times, we were also told “In its termination letter, the city said that, all told, it had to incur at least $58,523.40 in additional costs because of the company’s ‘mismanagement.’ ” This “mismanagement” referring to the alleged failure of USA to be “responsible for the payment of all employment taxes and social security taxes related to the employment of said personnel.” (Now, where have I heard THAT before? Hmmm… It’ll come to me)

Taking all those numbers together, I come up with a figure approximating $307,000. To put that number in some perspective, according to Ms.Rojas, “[The YMCA's] total bid [for this summer] cost had been $256,487. Last year, its contract was for $216,761 and in 2014, $205,515.

If Michael Walker wanted to assure us that “we will not burden [city residents] with additional costs to enjoy” the pools this summer, he kind of failed. It looks like we are on track to be spending about:

  • 65% more than the original USA contract amount;
  • 20% more than the Y’s bid this year;
  • 42% more than the Y’s 2015 contract; and
  • about 50% more than the Y’s 2014 contract.

How fucked up is that?

In the same July 22 Times article referenced above, in which Michael Walker attempted to tell the City’s side of the conflict with USA Management, Trenton’s Business Administrator Terry McEwen provided additional detail that, if true, frankly paints a picture of the City’s total inability to manage its contractor efficiently. Again, according to Cristina Rojas in the Times:

The city requires that there be one lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, or four per shift. But despite assurances that USA Management would provide that number, the city later learned that USA only planned to staff the pools with two lifeguards per shift.

In email exchanges between USA Management’s Alison Abbott and Fiah Gussin, the city’s recreation director, Abbott said the company follows the national standard based on square footage and that the extra lifeguards would cost an additional $77,540.

“We are willing to accommodate your request if you would like the additional zones and hours for the costs,” Abbott wrote in a June 20 email.

A July 6 email explains that USA Management instead chose to allocate the money that would have been spent on security toward the extra lifeguards. In total, another $13,037 would have added to the bid cost, making it $198,225.

“It’s not fair to the city to have the awarded bidder start to increase the pricing to the city because that incurs an additional cost to our taxpayers that wasn’t put into the process,” McEwen said.

The city also says USA Management failed to disclose in its proposal that it planned to charge residents for swim lessons.

“That was supposed to be a free service,” McEwen said. “That’s something that we were not going to allow.”

He said the city also took issue with the fact that USA Management classifies its seasonal workers as independent contractors, meaning that taxes are not withheld from their paychecks.

The city’s bid, however, required that the vendor be “responsible for the payment of all employment taxes and social security taxes related to the employment of said personnel.” In a July 8 email, Abbott said it would be in the lifeguards’ best interest to receive 100 percent of their money.

Sheesh, this all sounds to me that this vendor was entirely out of control! If the City can not properly monitor the performance of its contractor on compliance with the basic terms and conditions of the service contract, then what good are they? Because this sounds like the City is claiming that USA didn’t pay any attention to some of the most basic elements of this contract: namely, staffing levels, security, and the proper employment status of its hires. The City effectively let USA call its own shots, if we are to believe Mr. McEwen.

If that is in fact true, this is indeed a failure of the City’s ability to manage its contractors. That this may be indeed a true tale can be seen in the way that the City is letting the successor to USA – the Trenton YMCA - impose its own terms in how it will deal with the City’s contract, in contravention to the City’s specifications.

For example, one of the City’s complaints about USA’s performance is that whereas the City requires 1 lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, USA ignored that requirement and provided half that number. Well, the YMCA also ignores that requirement, providing DOUBLE the number of lifeguards that the City requires, and charges the City for the extra manpower. In his proposal to the City, Sam Frisby “wrote that they had a full staff in the mornings when there could be as many as 60 to 100 campers brought in. The bid required one lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, but the YMCA’s standard ratio is 30-to-1.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

Similarly, the YMCA proposal ignored the City’s specified hours for operating staff. In the same YMCA proposal, “CEO Sam Frisby said an extra hour per day was calculated for unit costs than what was called for since they knew from experience that the first hour was often spent cleaning up from people who broke in at night.” Rather than postpone opening the pools in question later in the day to allow that kind of clean-up, which is what one would expect a contractor to do if he were limited in his resources, he just unilaterally included “an extra hour per day” over and above the specifications laid out by the city, and passed those extra costs along to the City.

Those are among the reasons, I suppose, that the Y’s cost proposals grew by 25% in just two years. The City literally allows the YMCA to write its own deal. The specifications and terms in the City’s Request for Proposals (RFP) are, I guess, looked at as being more a point of departure to be added on to than a description of strict limits and constraints.

So, let’s summarize, shall we.  The City of Trenton claims it was being jerked around by a vendor that failed to provide the minimum level of service it promised to in its reply to the City’s RFP. Its solution is to bring in a vendor who, in its proposals, jerks the City around by providing MORE services than the City asked for it to do, and charges the City handsomely to do so.

Got it? OK, then.

I will finish this piece by repeating what I said last week. This episode with the City’s contracts for management of its pools proves that nothing has changed in Trenton. Its purchasing and contracting procedures are broken. Since it allowed the theft of more than $5 Million Dollars by another poorly-managed vendor – without making any transparent, public, significant changes to its management structure and procedures – the Administration of Eric Jackson still fails to provide competent management and oversight of its contractors, and the City simply continues to pay and pay, and pay. It’s losing precious money, of course. It’s also losing something infinitely more valuable. It’s losing trust.

In the Deep End

“Frisby said he felt many pools were ‘concrete, ugly spaces.’ The YMCA pulled out beach chairs and lawn chairs to ‘make it look like a country club, but not a country club,’ according to Frisby. ‘When the pool area looks better, people treat it better. We want to give residents what they deserve: a stellar, safe and self-inviting pool.’”  – Trenton YMCA CEO Sam Frisby, June 23, 2015

– # –

“When the pool closed, they would come in around midnight and party. We would have to come in to repair the fences, clean up the condoms, beer bottles and other stuff and then get ready to open up the pool for camps at 10 a.m.”  – Sam Frisby, July 21. 2016

Trenton’s public swimming pools are in the news this week, and not in a good way. Last night, City Council ratified the recommendation by the Eric Jackson Administration to cancel the contract between Trenton and USA Management, a Georgia- based company that had been awarded the management deal for the pools this summer. Although the pools had been open for only around 4 weeks this season, the City had already fallen two weeks behind in its payments to USA, and the company could no longer float (sorry) their payroll expenses until Trenton paid its bills. The Company requested to be let out if its contract, and the City agreed. Taking over for the remainder of the summer will be the Trenton YMCA, which managed the pools in 2014 and 2015. The “Y” was the only other organization to bid for this contract. Its proposal was about 40% more expensive than USA’s.

Add one more disgruntled business to the list of those unhappy with their experience working with this town. In the flurry of media articles over the last few days, LA Parker of the Trentonian reported that USA had provided to him a recording of a phone call, allegedly from Trenton’s recreation director Fiah Gussin. Parker reports the recording as saying, “I was calling in regards to not speaking to the media in regards to what’s happening here in the city of Trenton with our pool program.” Mr. Parker calls that recording, if it is from Ms. Gussin, an attempt at a cover-up. I won’t disagree.

Why might the City’s Rec Director want to cover up “what’s happening here?” Why might USA be disgruntled and unhappy about their experience with the City of Trenton? Apart, that is, from not getting paid, which is plenty reason enough to me.

Thankfully for us, USA ignored this alleged advice in regards to not speaking in regards to what’s happening. A spokesperson for the company spoke to Cristina Rojas of the Trenton Times, who suggested that their company had been set up by the City. Elle Anderson of USA told Ms. Rojas, “We did get a source that had communicated that (the city) had no intention of paying us and that we were considered their budget relief so they could let us go and pick up with the YMCA who they wanted to use in the first place, but could not afford,”We did get a source that had communicated that (the city) had no intention of paying us and that we were considered their budget relief so they could let us go and pick up with the YMCA who they wanted to use in the first place, but could not afford.” That’s quite the allegation, for which Ms. Anderson offered no proof. But the Trenton “Y” will be running the pools from August 1 to September 12, for the reported sum of $158,160. This amount is only slightly less than the amount that USA had agreed to take to manage the pools for the entire summer.

Trenton once again is resolving its problems the way it always seems to: by spending its way out of them.

Why are the “Y’s services so much more expensive than the vendor it is replacing. According to Mr. Frisby, his workers provide more services than USA. As reported by Ms. Rojas, “The bid required one lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, but the YMCA’s standard ratio is 30-to-1.” So, despite what the City asks for in its Request for Proposal, the YMCA wants to provide twice as many staffers, whether the pools need them or not. “The YMCA’s standard ratio” apparently counts for more than the city’s specifications, I guess.

For another example, as quoted at the top of his piece, the Y crews spend time each morning cleaning up from unauthorized overnight use, when people “come in around midnight and party,” in Mr. Frisby’s words.

This troubles me a lot, and hasn’t yet come up in any of the news pieces I’ve read so far, not addressed by anyone in the City, the two vendors involved, or by the reporters. Mr. Frisby acknowledges this late-night activity as a matter of fact. It seems to be pretty regular all over town, and very well tolerated and accepted. It’s even built into the schedule, when pool crews “come in to repair the fences, clean up the condoms, beer bottles and other stuff and then get ready to open up the pool.” (So much for “When the pool area looks better, people treat it better,” by the way.)

What happens when something goes wrong? What happens when someone gets hurt? What happens when a midnight partier gets drunk, falls into a pool and drowns? What happens when someone gets assaulted, sexually or otherwise? Who is responsible? Who is liable?

Remember that in 2010, a 3-year-old drowned in a Trenton public pool. Four years later, the City settled with his family for $1.5 Million, admitting that the lifeguard on duty at the time of the accident had been distracted. That sad incident happened during regular public hours, with trained and certified lifeguards on duty. Who is liable for an incident that might happen during an overnight “party,” when the pool’s managers – and the City?? – have full knowledge that such parties happen on a regular basis? Not only does Mr. Frisby not seem to describe any actions to the press that he and the Y take to prevent such partying, he charges the City of Trenton a premium to clean up after overnight parties on a regular basis.

Does that sound right to you?  Mr. Frisby admits he openly condones and accepts potentially dangerous breaking and entering on City property on a regular basis. On the strength of that statement alone, I think the YMCA has disqualified itself from being considered a responsible manager of public facilities on the City’s behalf. It’s probably to much to ask for the City to cancel the new contract with the Y and look for yet another vendor, but it’s certainly reasonable to ban the organization from any future contracts such as this one until it demonstrates a commitment to safety and security of the sites it manages.

This is all pretty upsetting. There are a lot of issues here to address, and as usual in this town, nothing will likely be done. Until something shocking and tragic happens. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

I’m surprised to hear about this sort of thing happening, with new problems the City is experiencing with its purchasing, contracting and accounting processes. It doesn’t seem that much has changed since all of the substantial management changes and business procedure upgrades implemented since the City was swindled out of $5 Million by its payroll vendor Innovative Payroll Services last year.

Oh, that’s right! Silly me! There have been no management changes nor business procedure upgrades since IPS ripped us off last year!!

So, in other words, same old, same old in the City of Trenton. Six years running, and no sign of any change in the future.

Anguish

We have been here before, as a nation. As victims of this nation’s original sin, we will be here again. What we, as a civil society, choose to do now will determine how bad the next time will be.

Around 225 persons will have been murdered in the United States this week. Each of them had their stories ended too soon, violently and for no good reasons. Each and every one of those lives were treasured by their families and loved ones, their losses keenly felt by them but by few others. We hear about most of them, if at all, only in passing. Seconds of video over a local newsperson’s shoulder. A few lines in the news section of a local newspaper, a few more on the obituary page.

There are only three things that they all have in common with each other. They will no longer grace us with their continued presence, their passions, their souls. Their number will continue to rise. And they will pass and eventually be forgotten with the rest. As a nation, we have come to accept a butcher’s bill of 12,000 homicides each year as normal. We are numb, most of the time. I am, at least. There are too many, too often.

This week, seven of those 200 deaths have shocked me as few others have. One was in Baton Rouge, one in a Minneapolis suburb, and five in Dallas. I am of an age where to hear the words “snipers” “shots fired” “Dallas ” and “Dealey Plaza” together in news reports chills me to the bone. All of these deaths are shocking.

Earlier in the week, we saw yet more sets of cellphone videos showing African American men shot at close range by white American police officers. According to the Washington Post, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are two of over 500 people shot and killed by police officers so far in 2016. So far, this year is on track to match the year 2015, when 990 citizens lost their lives. Of that number, 258 – a little over a quarter – were black, while the majority, 494, were white. However, blacks are shot and killed by police at a rate disproportionate to their numbers, and often in highly questionable circumstances and frequently by police officers with work histories of violent and prejudicial actions against African Americans. That many of these questionable slayings are, upon investigation, not prosecuted as criminal offenses or, if they are prosecuted, do not lead to convictions, can’t be contested. This is what has been happening in America.

For the decade from 2005 to 2015, of the roughly 1000 annual police-related killings, only an average of five officers per year faced charges; in 2015 that number was 18. Fewer still are convicted. According to reporting in the Huffington Post, over that same decade, the average number of convictions for murder or manslaughter per year is one. For 2014 and 2015, that number was zero.

Confronted frequently with images and video such as we’ve seen this week from Louisiana and Minnesota – and the dozens before that in the last year – compounded with the facts of the numbers, is it any wonder that African Americans feel especially vulnerable to death by police, deaths for which there will likely be no accountability? I don’t think so. Which goes a long way to explain the mass of protests, demonstrations and organizing around the country known collectively as Black Lives Matter. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are promised to us in our national Declaration of Independence as inalienable rights endowed on all of us by the Creator. I don’t begrudge the black community for feeling that the first of these might be kind of tenuous whenever they deal with law enforcement. Of course, most daily interactions between police and citizens end, if not always well in the case of those arrested, peacefully.

In the grand scheme of things, in the hundreds of millions of daily interactions we have in this country, most people are law abiding, as most law officers are professional, well-trained and honest in dealing with citizens. But it’s out at the margins, at the bleeding edge, where people can get killed.

Dallas shows us that. A peaceful demonstration in Dallas last night turned into chaos, as at least one gunman and perhaps more assassinated five police officers and wounded several more. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Omar Cannon, Misty McBride, and Jesus Retana were killed, allegedly by a former US Army Reservist, if current news reports hold up, quoted by the Dallas Police Chief as having “told police he was ‘upset at white people. “The suspect stated that he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”

Dallas is still reeling, as the city tries to cope with last night’s shock. The families of officers killed and wounded should be in our thoughts and prayers, as they should be with the families in Baton Rouge and Minnesota coping with the loss of their loved ones. In this, Dallas takes the place in our heart that Orlando filled such a short while ago. Who will be next?

It’s impossible to look at the events this week outside the context of America’s original sin of historical and ongoing racism towards African Americans. The problem predates by a century and a half the independence of this country under the principles of the Declaration, mentioned above, that still remain aspirations for many of our citizens, and not guarantees. After weeks such as this, tempers are raw, racial tensions are high, and we must grieve.

It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to react to the murders this week as proving we are in a new spiral of racially-motivated violence and reprisals, especially focused on police. There is, for example, no “war on cops,” as irresponsibly charged today by Executive Director William Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations. Policing is an inherently dangerous profession, and always has been. But historical trends over the last 85 years, since the Great Depression, have shown significant decreases in police line-of-duty fatalities. Those decreases, as reported last year in the Washington Post, are in several categories: absolute numbers, fatalities per capita of population and per capita of police officers. Graphs in that report show a major spike in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but since around 1975, the numbers have shown major improvements. Over the last few years, police deaths have been at low numbers not seen since the 1950’s, when the US population was half what it is now. Mr. Johnson said on Fox News today, “It’s a war on cops. And the Obama administration is the Neville Chamberlain of this war.” But that doesn’t make it so.

In fact, it would also be wrong, irresponsibly so, to call political violence against police as being exclusively or even largely racially motivated by revenge-seeking blacks. Remember that eight federal law enforcement agents – along with 163 others – were assassinated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in 1995’s Murrah Office Building bombing in Oklahoma City. And it is Cliven Bundy, his two sons and two others who are under Federal indictment for “launching a ‘massive armed assault’ on federal officials, gaining hundreds of followers by spreading lies on the Internet, and encouraging their supporters to take sniper positions on highway bridges above government agents, unarmed adults and children.” In that last incident described in the quote, around 50 federal law enforcement agents were literally under the sights of up to 200 “patriot militia” members, looking for a fight, and ready to kill police. That that day did not turn out as bloody or worse than Dallas last night is only due to the fortitude of the federal agents on the scene, who deliberately avoided any actions that could have turned that day tragic.

As these incidents show, if there is in fact a war against cops, long-running and ideologically intense, it’s almost – but not entirely – directed mainly against the Federal government and its law enforcement agents. And it’s on the part of “Patriot Movements” such as those associated with McVeigh, Nichols, and the Bundys, and many of the 998 anti-government groups identified this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It would most definitely not be waged by Black Lives Matter.

So what can be done, after we mourn our dead this week, and dread the next ones to die?

Well, perhaps one place to start is the one suggested by Nancy Tourneau in the Washington Monthly yesterday. As incidents far afield as Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas, and South Carolina show, ours are national problems. Our pain is felt across the country, the blood spilled is spilled from sea to shining sea, and new graves are dug in all 50 states. Tourneau suggests a national approach:

Throughout our history, all of the major gains we’ve achieved in civil rights have come because of federal action. It started with ending slavery via the Civil War, but continued with everything from the Brown v Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court to the undoing of Jim Crow laws via the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. None of these things would have happened if change had been left up to individual states.

Today we must face the civil rights issue of our time – both the over-incarceration of black and brown people and the police abuses that have been capturing the headlines once again. One of the reasons so many people are frustrated is that most of the control over these issues is currently in the hands of state and local governments. Progress is – at best – a patchwork, and tends to come in jurisdictions that are probably already in the lead on addressing them.

If we are to learn anything from our past, it is time to start thinking about how the federal government should be enabled to respond.

It’s a tall order. And one that will take time, and hard work, and good will. After a week such as this one has been, the latter may be in short supply. But it’s the only way that I can think of to make an honest effort to ensure that the anguish caused by these seven deaths this week is not cruelly repeated, again and again and again, into our shared future.