Monthly Archives: August 2008

Trenton should demand answers

Trenton City Council and city residents deserve to know what preparations the current administration is making for the looming departure of former Police Director Joseph Santiago from the helm of the city’s police department.

A court-ordered removal process initiated in July gave Mr. Santiago 75 days to complete what many hoped would be an orderly and seamless transition out of Trenton, after the director was judged to have openly broken the city’s residency ordinance, which carries a penalty of immediate removal from office.

Despite the court’s decision to provide a significant amount of time for work on the power transition to Mr. Santiago and the Palmer administration officials on the losing side of the court battle, neither City Council nor city residents have any idea about the identity of the person who will be taking over the city’s 300-person police department.

In a city suffering from a public safety image problem, leadership is key. Yet administration officials remain mum about whatever plans are being hatched about the post-Santiago era of Trenton policing, even though it appears that the same officials, or maybe even Mayor Palmer himself, have been floating trial balloons in the public arena to gauge reaction.

They came in the form of unsubstantiated news reports complete with anonymous sources saying that Mr. Santiago is moving into Trenton, in what appeared to be a tool utilized to “feel out” the reaction of opponents should Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago announce that the ousted director had moved into the city.

Thankfully such an occurrence is highly unlikely, given that Mr. Santiago would have to move his entire family down from sunny Stirling, N.J. into some abode within Trenton city limits. That certainly appears to have a very low probability of occurring.

But whatever ends up happening, City Council members and the general public need to demand answers at the upcoming Sept. 4 council meeting. An appropriate reaction to continued stonewalling would come in the form of another council work stoppage, or even better, the initiation of removal hearings for a high-ranking administration official.

The administration needs to come to understand that, like the people they represent, City Council means business.

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Interesting but potentially damaging VP choice for McCain

Sorry all you GOPers, but the pick of Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate by John McCain seems to at least slightly deflate all of that Republican rhetoric that says Barack Obama is too inexperienced to take over the presidency.

Gov. Palin is a first-term governor whose only previous political experience was as city council member and mayor of the expansive metropolis of Wasilla, Alaska, which has a population 5,470, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

So a relative newcomer with less experience than Sen. Obama will be thrust into a position where a McCain-Palin victory would mean the United States of America is only a stroke, heart attack, or aneurysm away from having President Palin enshrined in the history books as the 45th president of the U.S.

In supporting McCain-Palin Republicans really would be putting a person with so little experience in the office right below Sen. McCain, who, if elected, would be one of the oldest people to be elected President in the history of the country, with a myriad of health problems to boot.

Maybe the whole “a lot of experience is needed” argument doesn’t really carry too much water with the Republican party faithful.

With today’s announcement Republican officials from New Jersey are exclaiming that Gov. Palin is sure to appeal to all those millions of women who came out in support of Hillary Clinton, but even that argument has its holes.

Gov. Palin is staunchly pro-life, and all of those former Clinton supporters could have a minor problem with voting for a woman running on a ticket with a man who promises to tilt the Supreme Court even further to the right, in an action that could carry the threat of an effort to overturn Roe V. Wade.

Reading even deeper into the implications of the Palin pick as McCain’s running mate, is considering what it could tell the voters of this great country about the man running against Barack Obama.

This pick almost has an air of desperation, made by a man well known for having a problem with impetuousness and anger. Or even worse, perhaps this out-of-left-field pick of an inexperienced governor of Alaska is indicative of the kind of choices that Sen. McCain could make in national security decisions or economic decisions.

Whatever it means, it doesn’t look like the pick of Gov. Palin tips the presidential election scales in any significant way. In fact, her inexperience and political views may just end up hurting McCain.

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Get involved, if you’re so worried

Having so many residents from Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, and Lawrence up in arms over the proposed $100 million sale of Trenton Water Works infrastructure outside of city limits provides a unique opportunity for city residents wishing for the city to progress to enlist outside assistance.

This issue is a perfect one to get residents living within the city and residents from outside the city to bond over a common issue, namely the actions of Trenton’s unaccountable city government.

An unaccountable and ineffective city government in Trenton has been allowed to exist long after normal political forces should have overtaken it, probably because of the chaotic social and economic nature of much of the city and the grip the current political machine has had on Trenton.

Complacent in that arrangement has been the voting public and political organizational people living outside the city. Many people seem to be content on letting Trenton’s condition worsen, in a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.

They have been accepting of an arrangement where Mayor Douglas Palmer and his people have been left free to run an increasingly crime-ridden and downtrodden Trenton.

Now those chickens are coming home to roost. Mayor Palmer’s push to sell the outlying water infrastructure to a for-profit company with a history of excessive rate hikes is a perfect example how people who think that what goes on in Trenton stays in Trenton are simply deluding themselves.

While community groups work to fight what looks like a severely costly arrangement, they should give serious thought to using their own political power and their checkbooks to ensure that the Palmer administration officials behind this deal are relieved of their ability to wreak havoc on other people’s lives.

Ensuring the next political administration is of a different and more accountable variety would result in a stronger Trenton, and a stronger Trenton means a much stronger, safer, and better Mercer County.

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Chaos reigns at the Trenton Water Works

A Trenton Water Works employee installing an illegal water connection on the 900 block of Riverside Avenue on Aug. 14 had to be stopped from performing the work by Trenton police officers after telling a city plumbing code officials to “go fuck yourself,” according to water utility employees.

The plumbing code official apparently called in to City Hall and discovered the water works employee had not secured any of the proper permits or materials for the job. That created the potential for a public safety disaster, with unlicensed and uneducated people hacking into the water utility infrastructure without knowledge of the proper way to do so, said one water employee.

More frightening is that water employees have reported that incidents such as that of Aug. 14 have become commonplace under the Palmer administration, with water employees regularly soliciting plumbing work while working on city time.

The administration has told employees that those with proper licenses and permits are free to do such work, but only when it is not on city time. Yet a lax enforcement and punishment system has resulted in unlicensed people tapping a massive public water system all the time in the state capital.

“Imagine if a PSEG employee went out after hours fixing gas lines,” said one employee.

Utility employees said that since the rise of these activities city materials and equipment have routinely gone missing from the water utility’s storage depots, yet the administration is apparently looking the other way and whistle blowers and concerned employees are bullied and attacked into submission.

All is not well at the Trenton Water Works, where the problem of unlicensed and unsupervised plumbing work raises the prospect of sinkholes, infrastructure failures, or the possibility of widespread contamination of water used by over 60,000 customers in numerous municipalities.

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Water deal remains a foul one

A deal pending with regulatory officials calls for $100 million to go to Trenton, in return for miles of pipelines and infrastructure and a majority of the Trenton water utility’s captive consumers, all to be handed over to a for-profit company.

Trenton Councilman Jim Coston compared selling infrastructure in Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, and Lawrence while continuing to sell water to customers there – as per the deal – as a relationship akin to selling an old, maintenance-costly truck used for delivering widgets, while continuing to hold a contract for widget production with the outlying customers.

If one listened to what has been said about the deal in Trenton, perhaps this is the impression that develops. But in reality this plan promises to damage both Trenton’s future revenue-generating capability and its relationship with neighboring municipalities.

The infrastructure currently for sale is anything but old. In Hopewell, most infrastructure was constructed after 1987, according to public advocate witness John M. Mastracchio, whose testimony is available on the Hopewell website. Nearly 90 percent of it was constructed by developers and handed over to Trenton, he said, like some sort of birthday present.

The real aging infrastructure is that of Trenton. The townships, having developed later, have newer infrastructure that is less costly to maintain, according to utility employees.

“What we’re selling isn’t aging,” said a ranking utility employee during some fact checking performed on Sunday. “I have only done 10 repairs in Hopewell in 10 years.”

Estimates considered by the Board of Public Utilities say that with all developer-supplied infrastructure, Trenton-bought and constructed infrastructure amounts to less than half the value of the deal – somewhere below $50 million. Testimony given to the BPU from Mr. Mastracchio, reveals that developer-built pipes should belong to the ratepayers and not to Trenton.

At the core of the issue is the arrangement that calls for Trenton to continue to sell water to New Jersey American’s new township customers for 20 years, with a charge of $11.8 million a year among other perks going to Trenton. But when one considers that most of the utility’s ratepayers live outside of Trenton, it becomes clear that the $11.8 million is a downgrade, as far as the water utility remaining a significant revenue-generating asset is concerned.

The utility has been making somewhere around $30 million per annum of late, and most – upwards of $16 to $18 million – is coming from the rates paid by township customers making up more than 60 percent of the utility’s customers. So the deal means excess cash for the short term, but in the long term there will be less revenue coming into the utility’s coffers.

With the sale, the utility will be left with Trenton’s ratepayers. The numbers of ratepayers versus size of infrastructure seems favorable – over 20,000 paying accounts in a very small area – but this is misleading. The ranks of Trenton’s ratepayers are filled with delinquent or non-existent accounts in a municipality experiencing shrinking population. That base was augmented with the 45,000 or so township ratepayers, yet that would end with the deal.

Utility employees say it’s undetermined if Trenton will see more dollars coming from New Jersey American Water once the 20-year deal is completed. The company has outside connections with the township infrastructure that would allow it to pump water in from non-Trenton sources.

The official city line fails to note that private developments perform many repairs to water piping. The city only repairs piping between the main line and the curb and large areas of infrastructure in built-out areas of the townships cost the city little to maintain.

Controlling infrastructure means the city receives revenue that will disappear with the deal. The city charges the townships for the construction and maintenance of hydrants, and receives money from so-called ready-to-serve charges for new customers.

Both the hydrant and ready-to-serve dollars will go with a sale, and future development in the townships will go to New Jersey American Water. What’s also bogus is the 40 percent rate hike threatened by administration officials, should the deal fail.

That position comes despite testimony from water expert Howard Woods. He said a hike of the magnitude set to be handed to Trenton and township ratepayers in September is based on fantasy. It is caused by a doubling of budget transfers from the utility to the city’s general fund, which Mr. Woods questioned as unlawful. State law says that at most an amount equal to 5 percent of a utility’s annual revenue may be transferred into a general fund if the utility provides water to customers outside the host city.

Trenton appears to have transferred $9.2 million over the course of two years, as reported in the Times. The administration hides behind the defense that it happened after a rate equalization that supposedly freed Trenton from Board of Public Utilities oversight. But what has not been discussed is that it appears part of the transfer came out of the 2006 water budget, prior to equalization.

This deal threatens to damage Trenton’s finances and destroy relationships with bordering towns, for quick money that could disappear in a year or two. Hopefully the BPU or someone else puts a stop to it, for the sake of Trenton residents and our neighbors in Mercer County.

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Obama will get Trenton’s vote

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama and VP pick Joe Biden can rest assured that they they will get the majority of the vote in Trenton in November.

That’s what Mayor Douglas H. Palmer will be telling attendees of the Democratic convention in Denver, but in reality that’s no thanks to Doug.

Mayor Palmer went with many other Democratic faithful in Mercer County last February when he threw his support behind Sen. Hillary Clinton, while many of his former mayoral opponents like Mercer County Freeholder Tony Mack and local businessman John Harmon went door-to-door urging voters to pull the lever for Sen. Obama.

But the results in Trenton speak for themselves: 7,221 votes for Sen. Obama to Sen. Clinton’s 2,994, despite support from Mayor Palmer and Mercer County’s Watson Machine for Sen. Clinton.

Now we see that Palmer propaganda penned by publicist Kent Ashworth continually makes innuendo that Trenton’s longtime mayor is deserving of some sort of high-ranking urban policy decision within the Obama administration, should the senator from the South Side of Chicago end up taking the presidency.

We say no to that, despite the fact that someone taking our ineffective executive off our hands does sound like a cause for celebration. If Mayor Palmer’s tenure in Trenton is any indication of how he would direct urban policy, Sen. Obama would be better off picking someone else.

There’s no need to repeat a series of nonexistent programs, failed development, and urban problems that continue to spiral out of control on the national stage, where more is at stake.

For all parties involved, it would be better if the mayor simply exited from the public policy business.

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Ferriero shows why NJ needs ethics reform

News that things are heating up with the federal investigation of Bergen County Democratic boss Joseph A. Ferriero comes as no surprise, given the litany of corruption stories associated with Mr. Ferriero over the years.

Federal investigators raided Mr. Ferriero’s law office at the firm of Scarinci Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, removing numerous boxes of documents that are likely to become fodder for whatever type of investigation is brewing.

This is the same guy who used local police as chauffeurs to Yankess games and to casinos in Atlantic City at a cost of around $1,000 to county taxpayers, according to The Bergen Record, among other more run-of-the-mill corrupt activities.

Now, Mr. Ferriero represents a special version of New Jersey’s typical warped public official, simply because he has enjoyed considerable success in developing Bergen County’s Democratic forces into a powerful political machine that can raise millions of dollars while holding sway over dozens of governmental jobs and dozens of public contracts.

Most other party or governmental officials do not enjoy the same degree of success as Mr. Ferriero. But examples of the activities that Mr. Ferriero engages in so efficiently – pay-to-play, wheeling, and maintaining a strict system of political control – are much more commonplace in New Jersey than political bosses of the magnitude of Mr. Ferriero.

In Bergen County, Mr. Ferriero steered hundreds of public contracts and governmental jobs into the hands of party loyalists and financial supporters, rather than whichever was the best firm to do the necessary job, at the lowest price for the good of the public.

In turn, Bergen residents already paying massive property taxes end up paying more taxes for the same services, in what represents some unwritten corruption surcharge or crooked public official tax.

It’s amazing that more people here in New Jersey don’t come to the conclusion that something needs to do something about this.

Steering contracts and jobs to the party faithful and political contributors is the system that allows entrenched party groups to gain an iron grip on government. When it happens, everyone loses, except for the favored politicos.

State legislators like Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden, say this is the year when real ethics reform will come to New Jersey.

Let’s hope he’s for real, but judging how the Democratic majority in Trenton has treated past ethics reform proposals that specifically deal with pay-to-play and associated activities, it might not be a good idea for someone to hold their breath.

The ethics reform train might never leave the station.

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