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Where Was Trenton?

A hearing on four Trenton Water Works (TWW)-related bills was held this afternoon by the State Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee. These proposed bills were announced last month by Committee Chair and 14th Legislative District (D-Hamilton) Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, as the first major legislative response to the vast problems of the Water Works over the last several years. As such, this was actually a pretty significant hearing.

Since yesterday’s weather became today’s dig out from under, nicely assisted by spring sunshine, I happened to be around town in the afternoon. I went to the hearing, which was pretty well attended by officeholders and officials all around Mercer County and the State. Well, mostly all around.

About the only people not in attendance were any representatives of the City of Trenton. No one, nada, nobody. No one from City Hall, Administration or Council, and no one from TWW. Only two current city candidates showed up, which to me just highlighted how pathetic it was that no one else was there.

Where was Trenton??

Let me just run down the names and positions of several of those who were in attendance and who testified, by way of showing how notable Trenton’s absence was.

Hamilton Township was heavily represented. Mayor Kelly Yaede was there, as were 4 out of 5 Township Council members: Council Vice President Jeffrey Martin and Members Ileana Schirmer, Richard Tighe, and Ralph Mastreangelo.

Lawrence Township was represented by its Mayor, Christopher Bobbitt. Ewing’s Business Administrator James McManimon attended. As did Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.

The State’s Department of Environmental Protection, the lead agency for most of TWW’s dealings with the State, sent a delegation of four officials, headed by DEP Compliance and Enforcement Assistant Commissioner Ray Bukowski.

Both of the Assembly members representing Trenton, Reed (mayoral candidate) Gusciora, and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson briefly spoke, Gusciora stopping in from another legislative hearing he was participating in one floor above in the State House Annex.

Finally, the only other Trenton voice was provided by mayoral candidate and Deputy County Clerk Walker Worthy. He was the only person who didn’t have a job in the building to show up.

Here are links to each of the four bills, with brief descriptions provided by the Legislaure:

A2420 Water testing-reimb. resid. customers
A3352 Drinking water notices-req certain
A3353 Pub water sys-req publish certain info
A3354 Water supply operator-take exam

Discussion during the hearing indicated that each of these will likely go through at least some revisions and mark-ups. Nearly everyone who spoke spoke in favor of the bills. Many other people listed their names as in favor but declined to speak. NJ Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel was one of those. Mr. Bukowski indicated that he and his colleagues hoped to spend some time with the committee members to mark up each of the bills – amending the bills before further action.

These bills, as they stand now, may not pass. But they do represent the latest – and not the last – major push by the State of New Jersey, and encouraged by all of the other TWW customer Townships as well as the County Executive, to fix the Trenton Water Works.

That hearing room was THE place to be in the entire state to discuss the future of Trenton’s Water Works.

And no one from Trenton was there.

You know, last week at Trenton’s Council meeting, every member of Council pledged their undying pledge to oppose any sale of the Water Works to private interests. That’s something that is not even remotely on the horizon right now. It’s the wrong thing for Trenton’s Council. and the Administration, to focus on.

The best thing that Trenton can do right now, to oppose a hypothetical sale in the long run, is to demonstrate that the City is committed to the job of responsibly fixing the utility, and then running it well.

Unfortunately, the City has failed twice in the last week to show that kind of commitment. Council failed last week to recognize that my request to them to administratively separate out TWW items out from other City business and treat them deliberately and openly would demonstrate Council’s accountability and responsibility to those outside the City dependent on the utility.

And today, the City showed again that it didn’t even make the effort to be in the room when other stakeholders in the County,  in the DEP and in the Legislature met to talk about Trenton’s Water Works.

My feeling after attending the hearing today is that, whatever the fate of these four specific pieces of legislation, the process is now begun that will inevitably lead to major change at the Water Works. Count on it.

I feel that all of the other major stakeholders will give Trenton something  of a grace period to get its shit together. The two private engineering firms contracted at the beginning of the year, Wade Trim and Banc3, will be given time to make their mark. And the upcoming May elections in Trenton may result in genuinely new and genuinely competent City leadership taking the reins from the current incompetents. The window – of any - that the rest of the state is willing to grant to the city to do this may be very narrow indeed, measured in short months if not weeks.

I do think those are the stakes in play right now. Everyone’s patience with Trenton is real thin right now. Trenton has, finally, to step up.

Based on today, though, I am not hopeful.

Where was Trenton?? Nowhere to be found!

Premature Victory Lap? Or, Not Ready For Primetime?

If I were a one-term Trenton City Council member seeking, as At-Large Member Duncan Harrison is, a promotion to the Mayor’s Office after a Council term that was – you pick the best word: Lackluster? Disappointing? Disastrous? – I might grasp at anything that could conceivably be called an “accomplishment” to point to with pride. In a large field of mayoral candidates, you have to find a gimmick, I suppose. It’s just too bad that Councilman Harrison chose to hype up a really minimal action taken by Council week as something that – honest to God, he said this! – “an important change that will move Trenton into the 21st Century and help us build a bright, new future for our city.”

Really, he did. Aided and abetted by the Trentonian, whose utter lack of fact-checking allowed Mr. Harrison to take a very, very premature Victory Lap over the weekend. Instead of taking proportionate credit for a Council initiative, I fear Mr. Harrison is continuing to prove that, although he may have some potential as an effective Council member in the future, he is simply not ready for Primetime as a potential Mayor of Trenton.

On Friday, the Trentonian published a short piece in its “Trenton Election Rumblings” series of reports leading to the May 8 City Elections. This piece was attributed as a “Trentonian Staff Report,” so we don’t know who to blame for it.  The headline is “Harrison praises move that allows residents to pay with credit card for city services.” This piece quotes Councilman Harrison as saying,about an action taken by Council the previous evening,

“I am proud to see my advocacy to accept credit and debit card payments on our city website be enacted. This will result in real change that will help Trenton residents and businesses save time and money.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

I attended that Council meeting. I spoke at that Council meeting. I don’t recall anything like that kind of action taken. What could Mr. Harrison possibly be referring to?

Turns out he was referring to Resolution #18-110, which you can find here. This Resolution was passed as part of Council’s Consent Agenda that night, which approved many actions in one vote. There was no separate discussion prior to the vote that would have drawn attention to it for any reason. It was actually a fairly innocuous action, hardly one heralding “a bright, new future for our city.”

This Resolution’s title says what it does, and ALL that it does. “Resolution Authorizing the Use of Competitive Contracting in Lieu of Public Bidding for Credit Card Services for the City of Trenton.” That’s it. This action authorized one method over another for bidding and contracting for instituting  debit and credit card processing for customer and taxpayer payment for city service. Again, that’s ALL it does.

Let me give you an analogy. It’s like if you were to say today, “I decided I will buy my next house instead of renting. My House-Warming Party will be Saturday. See you there!”

There are just a few important steps that have to be taken between the start of the process and putting your beers on ice! And they can’t be skipped.

Same here. The action taken by Council on Friday simply allow Trenton’s Purchasing Agent to begin the process of putting Requests for Proposals out to credit card companies and/or banks, and wait for proposals to come in. From those proposals, Competitive Contracting allows a quicker and more streamlined process for evaluating proposals and negotiating a contract.

That’s where we are now. As you will see from the backup attached to the Resolution (Page 3), on February 2 of this year Isabel Garcia, the City’s Purchasing Agent sent a request to the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) requesting the authority to use Competitive Contracting. Two weeks later, on Feb 16 (Page 2) DCA Legislative Analyst Paul Urbish agreed to the City’s request. The Council Resolution adopted Thursday night, again, allows the City’s Purchasing Agent to start the process.

At this point, there are no proposals back from potential vendors, and certainly no “enacted” deal in place to start accepting Credit and Debit cards for City Services.

That’s not what the Councilman would have you believe. He told the Trentonian that last week’s action “will help Trenton residents and businesses save time and money.” [Emphasis mine - KM] In an indirect quote, the paper additionally claims,

“Accepting credit and debit card payments will cost the city nothing and will make it more convenient for Trentonians to pay bills and fees. It will also expand the city’s budget by making it easier for those who live outside Trenton to pay their bills and fees on time.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

The Councilman can’t truthfully make claims like that, although he has. Remember, WE HAVE NO PROPOSALS yet, let alone actual AGREEMENTS.

Yes, the sample [the City's emphasis, not mine - KM] scope of services to be sent to potential bidders says (Paragraph 14, Page 6), “The City of Trenton will not be obligated to pay for any fees specified in the proposal.” [Again, the City's emphasis, not mine - KM]

That’s what the City would like to see in the proposals it hopes to receive. But, you know, we haven’t gotten any proposals back yet. We don’t know if any potential vendors will actually include in their proposals that it will cost the City nothing to do business with them.

But that’s not what Councilman Harrison promises. To him, it’s a done deal.

Also, without a deal in place, how does the Councilman intend to resolve the problem as to who WILL actually pay for credit card processing. He claims both that the City will pay nothing to accept debit and credit cards, AND that this action “will help Trenton residents and businesses save time and money.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

When banks and credit card companies process payments, someone always pays for the service, whether it’s a merchant (in this case, to be the City) or a Customer. Here’s a sample chart, selected at random, showing the range of charges per transaction listed as a percentage of the transaction. Sometimes credit card companies charge a “flat convenience fee” of $3.95 or $4.95 per transaction.

card fees

The point is, this process has its costs. If Mr. Harrison tells us the City of Trenton won’t pay any fees, that means the customer will. And how does the Councilman square that against his statement that using credit cards will save time “and money?” If you want to pay your $100 water bill with a Credit card, and the “convenience fee” is $4.95. Congratulations! you will pay a premium of 5% on top of your bill for the privilege. You might be saving time, but you sure as hell will not be saving money!

Is this a good deal? I don’t know! I do know that, from the Trentonian article Friday, Councilman Harrison said this program had been “Enacted.” That is, a real plan, adopted and ready to implement. We are far, far away from that point. Any real deal or system ready to implement is at least months away. That, however, would likely be after the May 8 election. So, to get the biggest bang out of this very dubious “plan,” he had to play this up now.

On Saturday, I wrote to Mr. Harrison with a list of questions about this proposal. As of Noon Monday, he has not yet responded. In the absence of any clarification or new information from him that would put more meat on the bones of this very thin announcement, I have to believe that my interpretation of this proposal – that it’s nothing more than hype, and months away at least from a real plan – is correct.

I thought Duncan Harrison was better than this. I didn’t expect that he’d try something like this, schmoozing a newspaper to highlight his personal role in “enacting” a deal that is only just smoke and vapor at this point. But this is Trenton’s silly season. You can’t blame a candidate from trying to put one over on the electorate, but you also can’t blame the electorate for calling out bullshit when it sees it.

The Trentonian also needs to be called out on this. Whichever anonymous writer put this “Staff Report” up did so with zero fact-checking. He or she bought all of what Councilman Harrison was selling. Hook, line, and sinker.

We have less than two months until the May 8 election. I hope the candidates can play it straighter, and that the local press watches them with at least a little deserved skepticism.

In the meantime, this one mayoral candidate, Councilman Duncan Harrison, looks much less mayoral and professional after this. His apparent record and qualifications going into this race looked to be among the thinner end of the field. He does his reputation, and his electoral chances, no good at all in the aftermath of this.

Comments Delivered at Trenton City Council - March 15, 2018

NOTE: I offered a public comment at last night’s Council meeting, the text of which is below. Most of it should be self-explanatory. But it will make very little sense if you don’t know what a “Consent Agenda” is. As the snapshot of last night’s agenda (below) shows, it’s procedure by which Council votes an entire list of Resolutions, up or down, at one time, with minimal or no discussion. My request last night was to separate out all of the Resolutions concerning Trenton Water Works, and consider them separately, for the reasons I stated to them.

consent 3-15
As it turned out, Council declined to discuss my request. Councilman Alex Bethea responded to my note with comments and questions about items I did not mention last night, at all. Rather, he brought up items from this past January. Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson inadvertently confirmed the concern leading to my remarks when she admitted that she depends on the presentations of the Water Works and the Administration to guide her vote on technical matters.

Oh, well. It was worth making the effort last night. And, as I told them, their inaction is now on the record. An opportunity was given to them last night for Council to pro-actively demonstrate that they were paying close attention to every matter associated with the Water Works, to try to reassure Trenton’s residents as well as other County water customers about the management and safety of their home drinking water.

They failed to take the opportunity.

Good Evening, Council President and Council Members –

I am here to speak tonight about Resolution #18-112, Resolutions # 18-127 through -130, as well as Resolution 134. These are all business items concerning the Trenton Water Works.

Collectively, most of them seem routine and quite ordinary. With the exception of Resolution #18-112 (which has no direct quantifiable calculation attached to it), the total cost of these items is in the neighborhood of only around $300,000.

But we all know that nothing is routine with the Trenton Water Works these days. After years of decay, neglect and budget games, the condition of the Water Works has reached – I hope – its bottom. The City has contracted over $2 Million Dollars – with the amount increasing weekly, it seems like – with two private firms to provide operating professionals at TWW facilities over the next year.

In spite of that effort, there are still problems. Today’s mail brought another letter notifying customers of another water quality failure, from October of last year. Last week, a very temporary technical failure led to figurative alarm bells going off around the area. It ended up being no big deal, but in the aftermath of the last few years, can you blame anyone for having a short fuse when it comes to our water quality?

No, nothing is routine with the Water Works these days. Tonight, you are reviewing a number of items regarding the Water Works, perhaps the first set of multiple items since the operations contracts with the new vendors were approved. Perhaps the first batch since Council heard the extremely poorly-prepared and incomplete presentation on February 1 by the Water Works and the Director of Public Works.

You have these items scheduled to be acted upon as part of tonight’s Consent Agenda. I ask you this evening to sever these Resolutions from your Consent Agenda, in order to discuss, deliberate and decide them individually. Because there is nothing routine about the Water Works these days.

Most of you are running for re-election in May. Some are even running for a promotion to higher office. In either case, voters will be considering your candidacies based on your records, which includes your spoken. written and oversight record on the matter of the Water Works. I understand that at this week’s candidate forum the issue wasn’t discussed once. I find that entirely hard to believe, but what happened,  happened. Here and now, tonight, you are faced with your public service obligation as elected officials to consider these important matters, and to give us your rationale for your vote.

It is not enough to vote on these matters tonight as part of the Consent Agenda. It’s not enough to say you are voting them up or down because of what you have been told by the Public Works Director, or the Business Administrator, the Chief of Staff, the TWW Superintendent or even the Mayor. Each of those individuals have been repeatedly wrong, misleading, dissembling and uninformed, often at the same time. They have no credibility.

No, Mr. President and Council Members, such arguments won’t work tonight.

As you consider each of these measures, I want to hear each and every one of you making statements explaining WHY you support or oppose them. I want to hear your personal reasons, pro or con.

Such as, “Since February 1, I have seen the financial statements and organization charts of TWW, I believe and trust in them, and I believe these items tonight are reasonable and appropriate. I am in favor.”

Or, “I have met with TWW’s management and the new consultants from Wade Trim and Banc3. I have confidence in their day-to-day judgments and believe these items are fair and routine.”

Or, “I’ve seen and reviewed the quarterly status report sent by the City to the Department of Environmental Protection on March 8, and I am satisfied with the pace of improvement at the utility, for the following reason.”

Or, “I support competitive contracting at the Water Works as preferable over competitive bidding for these reasons.”

Or, “I don’t support paying this amount to Cash Cycle Solutions because customer billing in the last half of 2017 was horribly mis-managed.”

Please, express your approval or opposition to any or all of these, or whatever, while giving your reasons and not relying on the Administration for your position. They have no credibility on this matter left, at all.

Do you get what I am asking, Councilmembers? Tonight you have the obligation to go on the official record this evening, demonstrating your personal commitment to fixing the Water Works. And that means treating these Resolutions, and any and all that come in at least over the near future, as anything BUT routine. Because they have to do with the Water Works, and things there are not normal. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you personally buy in to the process of fixing the Water Works for all its customers around Mercer County.

Your words, or your silence tonight, as I have said, will be on the record. Expect to hear your words and your actions on this matter, from tonight and other occasions, over the remainder of this campaign.

So, make them count, tonight.

This dais has been the source for a great deal of empty incendiary rhetoric lately about the Water Works, the City and its relationship with the previous State Administration. Let’s end that now, shall we? Show that you are taking seriously your individual obligation to participate in the rebuild of the utility by providing your due diligence and responsible oversight, while also making your individual argument for further public trust, for whatever office you seek.

Council members, time to walk the walk. Sever these items from your Consent Agenda, and let’s hear what you think about each of them, and why.

Mush, the Machine, and Mud

Walker Worthy’s first campaign for Mayor of Trenton in 2014 was notable for three things.

First, a rather mushy policy platform centering on an economic development plan for the City featuring the idea of a Trenton-based gambling casino. The less said about this plan, the better.

Second, an extremely close and somewhat inappropriate self-identification with the Mercer County Democratic Party, which gave him his boost in local politics and his long tenure at the County Clerk’s office. It was somewhat inappropriate in that Trenton’a elections are supposed to be non-partisan. And also kind of irrelevant. Trenton is such an overwhelmingly Democratic town, that specifically drawing attention to yourself as a Dem is actually pretty silly. Seen from one perspective, in was kind of cute in a junior high school, I’m-in-love-and-I-want-the-world-to-know-it kind of way, but also kind of embarrassing.

In the absence of any relevant local Trenton experience, ideas and general enthusiasm within his own candidacy, he transfused as much as he could from the local Party. To this person, at least, the result of his efforts to identify with the County Democrats made him look all the shallower as a potential Trenton mayor.

But, itt didn’t stop Mr. Worthy then, and doesn’t now (more on that below).

tree2

The third item Walker Worthy’s campaign four years ago was known for was a rather pathetic, late attempt to smear Eric Jackson. Mr. Jackson, then the leading candidate and eventual winner of that mayoral campaign (even though he is not a candidate for re-election this year, retiring after his only four-year term), was accused by Mr. Worthy of severe personal financial difficulties potentially compromising his potential term in office. This city had just seen the previous elected mayor, Tony Mack, convicted in Federal court of corruption charges including bribery. Mack’s fall from grace was at least in part caused by desperate personal finances which left him vulnerable to taking easy money under the table, which ended up coming from a federal sting operation.

Whatever Mr. Worthy’s intention in flinging that kind of mud on Eric Jackson – of whom it must be said, although his administration was a clear failure, no accusations were ever made against him of personal impropriety or of any misconduct driven by any adverse personal finances – it came across as a last-minute move of desperation on the part of a candidate who offered little on his own.

Despite the extreme shallowness of his ideas, his reliance on County connections, and his resort to dirty politics, Walker Worthy came in third in 2014. With the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Eric Jackson from this year’s election, Worthy got back in to the race, hoping to be more successful this time.

So far, we are seeing what looks like a rerun of his last campaign. First, where most people get past their junior high years and infatuations over the course of four years, Mr. Worthy is out of the gate once more wrapping himself in the embrace of the Mercer Democratic Party. As discussed in this space a short while ago, Worthy’s first argument for his candidacy is based on the depth of “relationships” he has with key people in county and state government, connections that will help Trenton make a better case directly to decision-makers who can send more resources to this poor town. As I wrote in that piece, I am not persuaded that a Walker candidacy built on the strength of his relationships being his leading attribute is that strong.

He’s continued to play up his “Democratic” credentials, for better and for worse. He tried, unsuccessfully, to include his party affiliation on his official ballot entry, a practice prohibited under State law.

He’s announced a big fundraising event, sponsored by prominent County Democratic figures – held outside the city of Trenton. This only reinforces the image he had 4 years ago as someone with no Trenton credentials, no Trenton credibility and no real feel for the town he seeks to govern.

He’s been quoted in the Trentonian as defending the Mercer Democrats, actually using the “M” word: “The Democratic machine did some really good things in Mercer County.”

Hey, first rule of Democratic Machine: you do not talk about Democratic Machine!!!

I mean, really! One uses words like “the Committee,” “the Organization,” or better yet, “the Party.” Machine?!?! You don’t use that word when you are on the inside! That reinforces all kinds of negative connotations, and frankly reveals the person using the word as politically inept and tone-deaf.

And now, so far by-passing the Policy and Ideas stuff, he’s gone right to mud-flinging. He name-checked the current mayor and two of his current opponents yesterday with criticism for their role in the recent Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) “debacle,” in which the City lost out on a potentially significant amount of state funding for local street and other transportation infrastructure, because the City failed to apply for the grant.

Hey, as I’ve written here, there is certainly plenty of blame to go around in connection with the TTF screw-up. Lord knows. Since Walker Worthy has been utterly silent on municipal issues and problems – from the end of his last campaign four years ago to the day he announced this current one – it strikes me, at least, that coming out of the block to immediately blame others instead of offering any solutions is kind of small and petty.

I tend to agree with Mark Matzen, identified in the Trentonian as the campaign manager for Councilman Duncan Harrison, one of the two other candidates blamed by Worthy, when he said to the paper, “It is sad that Mr. Worthy stooped so low to name calling when what we need are bold ideas to move our city forward. It’s a sign of a desperate campaign that seems to be going nowhere.”

I’m not quite ready to write off Walker Worthy’s campaign just quite yet. However, so far all he has done is wrap himself up with the party “machine” – remember, his word! – and throw mud at his opponents.

He has an opportunity now to become competitive, if he starts to present serious ideas, proposals and policies that would have a chance to help this city out of its mess.

But the window on that kind of opportunity is closing fast. If, after the Machine and the Mud we’ve seen so far, all he offers is more Mush, I think he’ll be done.

It's Nice to Have Home Court Advantage!

With official certification given by the Trenton City Clerk’s Office to all Mayoral and Council Candidates who have qualified for the May 8 ballot, there’s been no time  wasted announcing the first of what I hope will be several candidate Forums and Town Halls. The first is happening this Monday evening, sponsored by the Trenton Branch of the NAACP,  and will be held at the Auditorium of the Trenton Board of Education.  This is according to an announcement appearing on local bulletin boards yesterday.

IMG_3847

Since they haven’t included any language in the announcement disclosing the connection, I hope that the organizers of Monday’s event will properly inform the audience of their current relationship with one of the  mayoral candidates, Alex Bethea.

That their may be some current relationship isn’t apparent from a casual reading of the Trenton NAACP Facebook page, in terms of any list of officers or committees  that I could find.

However, according to that Facebook page, the official mailing address of the Trenton Branch of the NAACP is listed as 117 Cadwalader Drive in the West Ward’s Hiltonia neighborhood. Which is the home address of Alex Bethea.

IMG_3849

That Candidate Bethea is a former employee of the Board of Education is a fact that has been a central element to all of his political campaigns to date in the City, for city Council and now the Mayor’s office. It’s a major part of his resume that he is sure to play up on Monday night, as often as he can, I’d predict.

Appearing at a town hall event at the Board of Ed, sponsored by the Trenton NAACP, gives Alex Bethea a “home court advantage.” I suppose.

It’s always nice to have a home court advantage. But it’s only a fair advantage if all of the other players know under what rules the game will be played.

I hope and expect the Trenton Branch of the NAACP and the Board of Education to fully disclose and explain their connections with Mr. Bethea, so that Monday’s forum can be seen for what it should be: an open forum for all candidates, run by an entity acting as an honest broker, disinterested in the candidacy or candidacies of one or more specific candidates.

Trenton doesn’t need any electoral shenanigans this year.

Oops, Walker Worthy

As emailed to Trenton’s City Clerk’s Office, 3/8/2018:

Good Afternoon -

Below is a screengrab of the list of qualified Candidates for Mayor as Released by your Office.

Walker Worthy is listed with the notation “Democrat for the People.”
I must point out that Trenton’s Municipal Elections are non-partisan. As such, any affiliation is prohibited by state law. The relevant statute is N.J.S.A. 40:45-5 and following, the “Uniform Nonpartisan Elections Law.” Section 40:45-10 reads, in its entirety, with the relevant language highlighted:
NJSA 40:45-10. Designation of candidate on ballot

Any candidate whose name is to be printed on the ballot may petition the municipal clerk to print, opposite his name on the ballot, such designation, in not more than six words, as requested by him in the petition, for the purpose of indicating either an official act or policy to which he is pledged or committed. The designation shall not indicate political party affiliation. On the filing of the petition the clerk shall cause the designation to be printed opposite the name of the candidate upon the ballot. If several candidates for the same office shall petition that their names be grouped together and that the one designation named by them shall be printed opposite their names, the clerk shall group their names in a bracket, and opposite the bracket shall print the designation. Petitions requesting a designation or grouping of candidates shall be filed with the clerk on or before the last day fixed for filing the petition for nomination. If two candidates or groups select the same designation, the clerk shall notify the candidate or group whose petition was last filed, and that candidate or group shall select a new designation.

L.1981, c. 379, s. 6, eff. Jan. 1, 1982.

I would appreciate it if you correct this entry for Mr. Worthy at your earliest convenience.
Thank you.

I Suppose This is Her Answer

In January of last year, the first preliminary assessments made during the property revaluation performed for the City of Trenton by Appraisal Systems Inc. (ASI) were made public. They didn’t look good for many homeowners then, and the final results bore out the trend glimpsed in the preliminary numbers. Citywide, on average residential properties stayed flat, although that total included massive valuations up and down throughout the city. Commercial property jumped on average a staggering 75%. Again, on both sides of that average, some properties went way in value, some way down. By the time these results were finalized and new tax bills were mailed, many home- and business-owners were slammed with increases of 50%, 100%, 200% and more. Several others saw bills dropped significantly.

A lot of people complained to the City, and to ASI, with varying results. After staying mostly silent on the matter, as usual, the outgoing Mayor proclaimed in August to David Foster of The Trentonian, “‘I’m really concerned about the revaluation,’ the first-term mayor said Friday in a phone interview. ‘I’m not a tax expert. I’m not a reval expert. But I’m bringing people in who are to meet directly with our community, our residents and our business owners to have a one-to-one dialogue in the next week or two.’”

Some community meetings were held, some homeowners saw their assessment appeals granted. Apart from that, nothing much happened.

As the preliminary results were revealed, I wrote a few pieces about how screwy the whole thing seemed to me. In the linked piece from late January, I looked at the results in other NJ towns of reassessments done by ASI, as context for showing how flawed the process in Trenton was.

I also sent a letter to City Council in January, appealing to them to review the valuations and throw the results out to start again with a fairer, more thorough process. The whole letter can be found here, but I just want to quote a part of it here. At one point, I appealed directly to a few individual Council members, whose own properties had significantly  increased in assessed value [Emphasis added by me]:

If these preliminary valuation increases in my neighborhood and others in the West Ward  are made permanent, and the remaining valuations do not result in a significant increase to the City’s total Net Valuation Taxable, the subsequent city property tax bills that I and my neighbors receive will be a disaster for the Ward and for the City of Trenton. Who will be able to afford tax increases of anywhere near 40%, 50% or more? Not me, nor most of my neighbors.

And, if I may speak directly to you, Councilmembers, not many of you, I would guess. Mr. Chester, your property increased in value by 55%. Mr. Harrison, yours by 43%. Mr. Bethea, yours by a relatively moderate 15%. Ms. Reynolds Jackson, you don’t live in the West Ward, but your East Ward property increased in value by nearly 67%!

Although certainly not a member of your body, I will hope that Mayor Jackson can empathize with these kinds of increases, even though his own property increased in valuation by a very minimal 2.4%, less than the rest of city as a whole, on average

Can any of you afford higher  tax bills anywhere near those kinds of rates? Remember, the City as a whole looks set to increase in value very little if at all. A rising tide of City wide property value increases will not allow you, or me, to absorb the pain of higher assessments by the benefit of a lower tax rate.

If the current results of the revaluation stand, the significant increases that seem to be concentrated in specific neighborhoods – Hiltonia on average increased by 32%, Cadwalader Heights by 39%, those neighborhoods and many of their homeowners will hurt.

It will be hard to absorb heavy tax increases. Foreclosure will likely rise, and resale values will collapse. Who will want to buy my house -  or yours, Mr. Chester, or yours, Mr. Harrison, or yours, Ms Reynolds-Jackson – and pay even more of Trenton’s notoriously high property taxes, from which we see so little value?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I only heard back from one Councilmember. And it wasn’t one of the ones I named above. It certainly wasn’t Zachary Chester, who pleaded in Council in January of this year, “[I]f you call me for potholes, call me for policy.” One can call him, or write him, often. But in my experience, he won’t respond.

I heard from only one Councilmember, once on this matter. Nothing ever since, from the other six Members.

Actually, I think I just received another answer from another Council person. She didn’t reply to me directly, but she took an action that speaks more loudly than words.

According to reporting by Trentonian reporter David Foster, on February 8 of this year, two days before she was appointed to fill a vacant State Assembly seat, former Trenton Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson quietly filed a tax appeal for her East Ward property. One year after being alerted that many, many homeowners and business owners – including her – were going to be paying brutally higher taxes; and after a full year of saying nothing and doing nothing about the situation, the newly-appointed Assembly member decided she was paying too much in taxes and filed an appeal. But not until she was safely off of Trenton’s City Council.

How do you like that, Trenton homeowners? Trenton business owners? She finally agrees that at least some of the increases – OK, perhaps just her own increase – was unfair. And so she appeals.

Adding this to the controversy over her new County job, referenced by Mr. Foster in his piece, the new Assembly member may have some questions to answer as she seeks election in her own right, first in a June primary, and later in the November general election. Many Trenton taxpayers who vote this year just might see her tax appeal as a cynical move to put Trenton behind her.  Voters in November might also recall the ease in which Mercer County conveniently hired her, and punish not only the Assemblymember, but those in the County who facilitated this.

What about the rest of us?

Well, if the first thing that the former Councilwoman did in anticipation of leaving her City office was to appeal her Trenton tax assessment as unfair, then the rest of us would just be chumps not to do the same.

Don’t be chumps.

File a tax repeal. Everyone. File a tax appeal.

Trenton's Only Real Entertainment District is 319 East State Street

In what is likely to be the Last Hurrah for Trenton’s Housing and Economic Development Department under the Eric Jackson Administration, City Council will tonight consider an Ordinance to create two new Entertainment Districts on the City.

Too bad the Administration is going about this in a totally ass backwards way. Oh, and illegal, too.

Housing and Economic Development Diana Rogers is extensively quoted in a David Foster article in the Trentonian, selling her vision for these two new districts:

“We are doing the entertainment districts primarily to begin to encourage economic development through entertainment in certain areas of the city,” Diana Rogers, the city’s housing and economic [sic], said Wednesday in a phone interview. “It’ll be an evolving process over a period of time but the idea is to begin to encourage the development of sort of destination areas in the city for both our visitors as well as residents to participate in entertainment venues.”

Mr. Foster goes on to report, “The city’s economic director said she has not received a response yet from any business about the plan.”

Hmm, I wonder why? What do businesses and developers know about this plan that Ms. Rogers and the Administration do not?

This won’t take long.

Here is a link to the Proposed Ordinance that Council will discuss this evening. It’s a very short text, let me show you the whole thing. It will be important to have read this while you read the next section.

18-11 pg118-11 pg2

In New Jersey, municipalities such as Trenton have the ability to designate areas within their towns by virtue of a law passed in 2007. It’s called “The Sports and Entertainment District Urban Revitalization Act,” (N.J.S.A. 34:1 B-190 and following) and you may read it here.

Because “Sports” and “Entertainment” can be such vague terms, and because the economic, social, and political conditions so important to consider, the NJ Legislature 11 years ago created a very careful process for towns to follow to help ensure that municipalities get it right when they make plans for such districts.

Trenton’s plan, as being presented to Council tonight, fails to follow that process. The Ordinance you see above fails to comply with the 2007 law.

Here’s the money quote for understanding why Ms. Rogers’ plan is so defective. It can be found in Section 193 of the state law. I’ve emphasized key phrases.

34:1B-193  Establishment of a sports and entertainment district.

4.   The governing body of any eligible municipality may, by ordinance, establish a sports and entertainment district in order to encourage and promote the development of a project within the district.  A sports and entertainment district shall consist of an area of the municipality designated in a project plan prepared by the developer.  The project plan shall be approved by municipal ordinance, duly adopted by the governing body.

The ordinance shall include or incorporate:

a.   a description of the proposed project, the anticipated period of construction, and a description and map of the proposed sports and entertainment district;

b.   an estimate of the amount of  tax revenues that are anticipated to be generated annually within the sports and entertainment district for that period of time covered by the project plan and an estimate of those revenues to be allocated to the project;

c.   an assessment of the economic benefits of the project, including a projection of the value of private investment that is anticipated to  be generated, directly or indirectly, in the sports and entertainment district as a result of the undertaking of the project or other proposed development within the sports and entertainment district;

d.   documentation as to the necessary approvals relating to the project;

e.   demonstration that at least $20 million in private investment has been committed to the project; and

f.   documentation that the district has been identified in the appropriate plan.

L.2007, c.30,s.4.

To summarize, in order to create a legal sports and entertainment district in a New Jersey Municipality, a town, among other things, must first have a viable project committed to by one or more developers, proof of adequate funding, the necessary approvals needed to begin the project, and analyses of the benefits such a district would provide including estimated tax revenue.

Trenton’s proposed Ordinance has none of these things. Oh, it does have two maps. Here’s one. Here’s the other.

The approach that Director Rogers and the Jackson Administration are taking to this idea is the “Field of Dreams” approach: Create the district, then developers, businesses and customers will flock to it.

That’s not how it works in New Jersey. This is a laughably poorly thought-out idea. You will see the City’s Law Director Walter Denson’s signature on the Ordinance above, attesting this as “Approved as to Form and Legality.”

It’s not even close to being legal.

You want to see a legal Ordinance for creating such a district? Read Millville’s. Here’s a taste.

millville1Millville’s law has everything that Trenton’s does not. Such as:

  • a Real Developer!
  • a Real Plan!
  • Real Funding!
  • A Real Estimate of tax income!

Trenton’s proposal is slipshod, amateurish, and illegal under NJ law.

David Foster’s article on this plan concludes, “The director [Rogers] said the city has done research on other entertainment districts in the U.S. to “see how successful they’ve been.” Rogers said the city looked at places like Miami and Austin.”

Rather than look at Miami and Austin, I think they should looked more closely at Millville, New Jersey.

At the very least, this boondoggle (I was going to write “debacle,” but that term is taken) proves that we already have one entertainment district working full time in Trenton, and that is City Hall, 319 East State Street. With the Ringling Brothers Circus now gone, we have plenty of clowns to keep us amused.

Debacle? Plenty to Share

In further development of a story that the outgoing mayor of Trenton has called a “debacle,” Isaac Avilucea at The Trentonian wrote a followup story that was posted online last night. In this piece, Mr. Avilucea linked to a July 24, 2017 letter sent to municipalities statewide by  Richard Hammer, then Commissioner of the NJ Department of Transportation. This letter solicited communities statewide to submit applications for local infrastructure projects to be funded through the State’s Transportation Trust Fund.

Trenton never submitted an application, and lost out on a participating in a program that is sending $3.7 Million Dollars to every other community in Mercer County.

As we all know, Mayor Jackson and his spokesperson Michael Huckabee Walker have attempted to pin the blame for missing this funding deadline on a single, still-unidentified City Employee who was supposed to have received the July 24 letter, and done nothing about it.

Mayor Jackson told a News12 New Jersey reporter that his Public Works Director Merkle Cherry “told me the employee would face immediate disciplinary consequences for that oversight and what I call a ‘debacle.’”

Huckabee Walker, when asked additional questions by Avilucea about the matter, “called the funding gaffe a ‘black and white’ issue, insisting officials are working to ‘clean up this employee’s mess. I don’t understand why you’re trying to make this situation more complicated than it is.’”

Well, Mr. Walker, the situation IS more complicated than it is.

Take a look at a section of City Council’s Docket for its September 7, 2017 meeting. Take a look at Item # 1o, in the “Communications and Petitions” section, Page 3 (and thanks to Jim Carlucci who suggested looking at Council Dockets from the summer):

Council 9-7-17

Well! How about that!

The July letter, sent by the Transportation Department to the Mayor and the city’s “Municipal Engineer” (not a title we actually have in Trenton, which may explain, perhaps, how it got mislaid), was also copied to the Municipal Clerk.

The Clerk, in turn, included it on the formal Docket of a City Council meeting in September, for all the Council members to see and discuss and deliberate. Did any of the Members, who by the way include two mayoral candidates and a new State Assembly member, make any note or mention about this Letter and the funding it discussed?

Did anyone in the City who was on the Distribution List (excerpted below) for the Council docket see and make note of this State Letter?

Docket distro list

I don’t know. I missed it, I can say that for sure. Apart from this email Distribution list, there are many other City officials – including the Mayor, Business Administrator, Chief of Staff, and all Department Heads – who regularly see these dockets. Several of the people who received this docket, by whatever means, may have even attended the Council meetings where this letter may have been discussed.

The outgoing Mayor actually had two chances to see this letter: because it was sent to him, and because he sees the Council Docket.

Did any of these people notice this letter? Did any of them discuss it with any colleagues? Did anyone recognize this letter as talking about a funding program that more or less happens every year, and that responding to this with a proposal is something that is regularly done?

Did ANYONE take ownership of this, after seeing this on the Council’s Docket?

I don’t know.

And I don’t know who in the City would know the answers to these questions.

But, just to throw a suggestion out there, wouldn’t you think that someone would want to find out the answers to these questions before scapegoating one lone employee and having him “face immediate disciplinary consequences?”

Perhaps this employee does have some responsibility for this failure, this “debacle.” Perhaps, and he or she should be held accountable for his or her role. Fair enough.

However, based on ALL the many different people who had a chance to see this letter from the State, and among ALL those with responsibility for the City’s project grants and financing, I will bet you that there are more than this one single scapegoated employee who need to be held accountable. Blame for this “debacle?” Plenty to go around!

Starting at the very top and working down from there.

Scapegoating Has Begun

accountability

Look. One thing to remember is that, when it comes to actions taken during his Administration of the City of Trenton, Eric Jackson lies.

The outgoing mayor has never truthfully leveled with the public about the many fuck-ups he has presided over, during the last four years. Why should he start telling the truth now?

In the aftermath of the latest “debacle” (good word, Jackson’s using it, it fits) over the City’s failure to secure funding from the NJ Transportation Trust Fund for local infrastructure maintenance because it had never submitted an application, the one-term mayor is apportioning blame for the snafu where he thinks it belongs: on a so-far unnamed lower-echelon City Employee. He didn’t speak to the local press about the matter, he made his accusation where it is sure to be seen statewide: on television to a News12 NJ reporter.

The one-and-done mayor made it clear that neither he nor his Public Director Merkle Cherry were to blame for this embarrassment. How was he so so sure? Because Mr. Cherry had told him so! Jackson told the News12 crew, “My public works director shared with me that it was a staffing oversight. I didn’t take that lightly nor did he … The director told me the employee would face immediate disciplinary consequences for that oversight and what I call a ‘debacle.’”

The average News12 viewer can be excused if they take the mayor’s words at face value, and believe his explanation that it was the fault of a lower-level employee. After all, what do they know about Trenton?

We know better. This incident reminds us pretty strongly of how the outgoing Mayor reacted to what was surely the biggest (we hope there will be none bigger!!) such scandal in his single Administration, the Great Payroll Heist.

Remember how he explained this to the Trenton Times? His story is worth quoting at some length.

Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, speaking for the first time about the city’s payroll issues, said officials took immediate action after learning there was a problem.

The city’s payroll company, Innovative Payroll Service, withheld payroll taxes from employees’ paychecks, but never turned them over to the government.

The mayor would not specify the amount of money or whether both state and federal payroll taxes were involved — “We believe it’s just the one agency” — but said he first learned of the unpaid taxes several weeks ago.

“Staff internally reconciling, looking at recordkeeping documents said something looked awry and began to look further and said to their director, ‘Something doesn’t look right here. We’re finding some inconsistencies’ and they kept elevating,” Jackson said Thursday following an event at the Statehouse.

When it was brought to his attention, his administration double-checked to make sure there weren’t any omissions or mistakes made by employees before meeting with representatives from IPS. The city then alerted the authorities.

“We took immediate action to make sure that we knew what we knew and what we thought what was going wrong, so at that point, we went to law enforcement and we put it in their hands,” Jackson said.

We found out very soon after this article that just about everything the Mayor said was bullshit.

The City didn’t “take immediate action.” They ignored months and months of warning notices from the Internal Revenue Service and New Jersey’s Taxation Division. Oh, yeah, that was two agencies, in spite of what Jackson said. And it wasn’t “some inconsistencies,” it was FIVE MILLION DOLLARS of stolen tax deposit money. Most of what we heard from Jackson and other City officials about that scandal was wrong.

There’s another reason I bring this particular matter up in connection with the Trust Fund foul-up. Stay with me a little longer.

A year after The Great Payroll Heist, after staying radio silent about anything to do with this failure of city procedures and policies, I asked Eric Jackson in person what he and his Administration had done to make sure no screw-up like that ever happened again. His answer was mostly focused on improvements in financial controls and changing the procedures of making tax deposits. But he made it clear that throughout his Administration he and his Administration were improving communication and accountability so that workers, managers, department heads and he were communicating better and with more responsibility and accountability.

We see now how well that’s worked out!

In the aftermath of this latest (the last? Can we be brave/foolish enough to hope that is the last time??) foul-up, reading the defense that the soon-to-depart Mayor made to a reporter, we are left with considering a couple of competing scenarios.

One: Even with the improved communications standards introduced after The Great Payroll Heist, a lowly city employee failed to inform his supervisor of deadlines for entry of an application for a state grant we’ve applied for and received annually for many years.

Two: Despite telling me and my neighbors that he’d done so, Mayor Jackson never improved communications and accountability within City Hall, leaving everyone to blithely do their own thing until the next screw-up happened.

Three: The Mayor and/or the Public Works Director had been made aware of the deadline for the grant application – as suggested in yesterday’s Trentonian news piece by Isaac Avilucea linked above – but dropped the ball and are now shifting the blame downward.

If this last scenario is correct, then the letter to the Mayor sent by the State Department of Transportation last summer, as alleged by the unnamed City employee – and mayor-nominated scapegoat – Mr. Avilucea spoke to for his piece, should show up soon. If it, or anything like it exists, someone will surely have it and produce it publicly.

Regardless of which of the above scenarios (or none of them. This may be the result of something entirely different) may explain what really happened with the Trust Fund grant failure, Mr. Jackson’s enthusiasm in his very first, and so far only public comments, for blaming a low-ranking city employee strikes me as awfully petty. Great way to have the backs of your city employees, Mayor! I’m sure they’ll return the favor, if they ever have the chance.

In the meantime, I take Eric Jackson’s statement of outrage with a huge grain of salt. His soon-to-be completed single term in office has been notable for its repeated failures of leadership and communication from the top down. Whether it was The Great Payroll Heist, or the loss of federal HUD funding, or the critical staffing problems at the Trenton Water Works, Eric Jackson has never given us the true and complete story. What he has told us is usually after the fact (and only after revelations appear in print), incomplete, partially or outright wrong, and usually self-serving.

Eric Jackson’s reputation – earned, not given – over his entire term is is that he lies. We have no reason to believe he is telling the truth about this latest failure.