Monthly Archives: October 2008

Trenton Fire Department plans press conference

Trenton’s firemen will be on hand at Trenton Fire Headquarters on Perry Street at 1 p.m. Monday to address manpower cuts proposed by the city government, which will result in a serious safety problem that endangers all lives and property within the great City of Trenton, according to fire officials.

Earlier this month, outgoing Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum announced a dramatic regimen of fire department cuts including the layoff of 13 fire captains, the elimination of 16 firefighter vacancies, and the occasional closing of some of the city’s remaining fire companies.

Firefighters, in a statement, cited an infamous incident on Prospect Street in December of 2006 where three Trenton firefighters nearly lost their lives as evidence of the danger of additional cuts.

“Any reduction of captains or firefighters at this fire would have caused these firefighters to lose their lives,” said one official, in the statement.

This year’s proposal follows a round of cuts in 2002, after which the Trenton Fire Department maintained a consistent record of adhering to its budget while making do with dangerously reduced staffing levels, according to the statement.

Its final line reads, “Enough is enough. We ask council and the residents to protect their fire department.”

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Musical chairs, anyone?

New Jersey public officials always seem to be engaging in a wild game of musical chairs, whether it’s regarding actual positions of employment or moral or political positions on how the government should be run.

Tuesday’s announcement that Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum was leaving Trenton to take up a similar position up in Perth Amboy, with Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez taking her position, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Only months ago, many in the city breathed a sigh of relief after hearing reports that stated Mr. Gonzalez – the same guy who threatened city residents who questioned his work with lawsuits – was the one preparing to leave the city to take up a new position, also in Perth Amboy.

His longtime friend but eventual enemy, Mayor Joseph Vas, was defeated in the recent mayoral election, bringing a new administration into power and perhaps opening up a way for Mr. Gonzalez’s return.

Such a move seems to make a little more sense than the Feigenbaum announcement, considering Mr. Gonzalez’s long-time connections up there, after having grown up there, with Mr. Vas, who made Mr. Gonzalez law director after Mr. Vas was elected sometime in the early 1990s.

But, as many do in New Jersey, the relationship soured, after Mr. Vas fired Mr. Gonzalez’s wife and city aide Kim McReynolds in late 1995 for failing to substantiate the reason she had to take off an extended period of time from work, after she had a cancerous lump removed from her tongue.

Then, in 1997, Mr. Gonzalez got the axe, after Perth Amboy City Council voted to change his job to a part-time position. Some council members like Joseph Misiewicz told The Star-Ledger that the move was a personal attack designed to “get rid of Dennis.” With the salary cut in half, Mr. Gonzalez left the position, about a month later.

Things got worse in October, when Mr. Vas filed a complaint with the state Supreme Court Ethics Committee, charging Mr. Gonzalez had violated attorney-client privilege by talking about opinions he had given to the city at public meetings, and later commenting on his wife’s termination to a reporter. Although the committee found no evidence of wrongdoing, relations got even worse.

“I think the fact that he didn’t inform me is cowardly and dishonest,” said Mr. Gonzalez, to The Star-Ledger. “If he had any sense of decency, he would forwarded a copy of the complaint to me.”

Then, in 1998, Mr. Gonzalez went head-to-head with Mr. Vas’ own slate of City Council candidates in the election, running on a slate of anti-Vas candidates. Although he lost badly, his public comments from the time represent another type of musical chairs, in that they contradict the manner in which he and other administration officials in Trenton frequently treat City Council members.

“It’s wrong what’s going on in Perth Amboy,” said Mr. Gonzalez in a Star-Ledger piece about the election, saying Mr. Vas controlled City Council.

Mr. Gonzalez also said he wanted to use his legal prowess and sit on a strengthened City Council to maintain a balance of power in city government, according to The Star-Ledger.

But judging by how Mr. Gonzalez and Ms. Feigenbaum acted down here in Trenton, it looks likes the new acting business administrator had a change of heart in many ways, but especially regarding the importance of having a balance of power and a strong governing body.

That’s probably good for his conscience about his hometown, because people there are probably in for a rough time, with Ms. Feigenbaum’s entrance into the Perth Amboy scene along with reports that the Vas administration’s activities are being probed by the FBI.

Welcome to New Jersey….

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Another distressed cities bill advances

The state Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee Legislation this week unanimously passed legislation that’s aimed at reforming the state’s Distressed Cities financial aid program by imposing additional oversight on potential recipients like the City of Trenton.

The Distressed Cities program, which doled out approximately $140 million in extra state aid last year, has received increased scrutiny recently due to the state’s fiscal woes and a perception that the program lacks the accountability necessary with the appropriation of such large amounts of taxpayer dollars.

Sen. Phil Haines, R-Burlington, apparently sponsored legislation designed to reverse that perception, basically by requiring more from municipalities seeking extra state aid dollars through the program and empowering the state with additional oversight power.

“For far too long, this program has been used for partisan political purposes,” said Sen. Haines, in a statement. “This common-sense reform measure that passed the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee will inject fairness and transparency into a state aid program that distributes over $140 million of the taxpayers’ money every year.”

The bill amends existing Distressed Cities law to require municipal officials receiving significant aid to create a financial plan aimed at addressing the underlying causes of their municipality’s fiscal woes, to be laid out in a memorandum of understanding with the state.

Municipalities failing to live up to the expectations laid out in the memorandum face a suspension of aid. Also, the bill provides a limit of three consecutive years of extra aid, barring special circumstances, and empowers the state to convene municipal finance boards to oversee the decision-making of towns constantly experiencing fiscal problems.

Trenton certainly appears to fit the category of a distressed city. Last year the city’s finances were saved by a late-minute infusion of $25 million from the state’s so-called “Capital City appropriation”, which came with stipulations including prohibitions on wage increases that were apparently ignored.

Fast forward to today.

The city now faces a larger $27 million gap, at a time when the state’s finances are in even worse shape than they were last year.

Another multimillion dollar infusion of state dollars, perhaps under state oversight within the state’s Distressed Cities program, seems to be Trenton’s only hope.

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More NJ gasoline abuses

Another Republican in New Jersey is screaming bloody murder about alleged taxpayer-funded transportation abuses, down in Atlantic County.

Frank Balles, the GOP candidate for Atlantic County sheriff, attacked current county Sheriff Jim McGettigan today after the sheriff personally ran up thousands of dollars in bills on a county credit card purchasing gas at private gas stations in recent years.

The sheriff bought 1,400 gallons of gas at a station miles from his home between October of 2004 and August of 2006, according to reports published in The Press of Atlantic City.

Mr. McGettigan and other sheriff’s employees received the credit cards after the sheriff made the claim that his officers needed county-issued gasoline cards to assist with transportation associated with their official duties, but Mr. McGettigan was the one who really took advantage of the cards.

County records demonstrated that his officers used the cards 24 times for a total of $642 over the two-year period, compared with Mr. McGettigan’s use – 72 times for over $2,500.

“It is contemptible that McGettigan trued to use concern for the safety of his officers as a method to obtain personal benefit,” said Mr. Balles, in a statement.

Following the purchases, Atlantic County took action by prohibiting further use of the credit cards by Mr. McGettigan, who violated county policy by purchasing the gasoline at more expensive, privately-owned gas stations instead of county-owned stations, according to The Press of Atlantic City.

County-owned stations in Atlantic City, Hammonton, Mays Landing, and Northfield provide gasoline at cheaper prices, due to the county’s tax-exemptions, according to reports.

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Scrap metal bill advances

There is help on the way for the City of Trenton and the numerous persons, businesses, and other entities that have become crime victims during the dramatic surge in metal thievery.

Criminals in many areas of the state have begun plotting out methods for absconding with anything containing certain metals, like copper and aluminum, which have experienced significant price increases in recent years.

Assistance for those beleaguered by this crime wave comes in the form of legislation proposed by a trio of Republican legislators from South Jersey who have apparently taken notice of the trend and plan to legislate the problem away – Sen. Christopher Connors, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf and Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, all R-9.

Under their proposal scrap metal business owners would be required to engage in better record-keeping practices, since they are the usual recipient of the stolen metals.

“Unfortunately, honest operators of scrap metal yards unknowingly become entangled in these crimes by virtue of being the only venue where thieves can turn a profit from their stolen property,” said Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Little Egg Harbor, in a statement.

The law requires such businesses to request identification from anyone making scrap metal sales. On that basis they would be required to maintain records for up to five years consisting of the name and address of metal sellers, which could be used by law enforcement officials to prosecute metal thieves.

Other portions of the law require businesses to disclose sale information to law enforcement officers and to promptly report suspicious sales. Scrap metal businesses found in violation of the disclosure and reporting stipulations would be subject to various penalties, according to the legislation.

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City finances threaten revitalization, point to state takeover

Economic revitalization should be priority number one for any city government in Trenton, but current city fiscal policies have resulted in a multi-million dollar budget shortfall that threatens the city with a massive tax rate increase that will create tax conditions that are adverse to redevelopment.

It also looks like such a tax increase won’t even cover the budget gap, likely forcing the city into asking for a state-funded bailout sure to come with the institution of state oversight on the city’s finances.

Right now the City of Trenton proposes a budget that assumes that the state Board of Public Utilities will approve a plan to sell outlying Trenton Water Works infrastructure to a private company for $100 million.

Despite that infusion of $100 million, the proposed budget carries a 13-cent tax rate increase, bringing the City of Trenton’s property tax rate to $2.58 per $100 of assessed value. That rate hike, plus other measures including layoffs, will go towards closing a $7 to $8 million budget gap.

Already, lower property values in much of the city and a lack of up-to-date property assessments result in a city tax rate that is one of the highest in the county. A lack of growth in ratables and ineffective cost-saving measures in the government means constant, large-scale tax increases.

But now, regardless of those conditions, both city and state officials are saying the proposed water works sale may not receive approval, which would balloon the city’s budget shortfall up to an astounding magnitude of $27 million.

No one is quite sure where such a shortfall will be made up, but adding significantly to the city’s tax rate will result in a situation where anyone considering the purchase of property in the city is going to think twice, as soon as they see Trenton’s large and growing municipal tax rate.

Perhaps the only good thing that could come out of such a large budget shortfall is that the city could be forced into begging for a state-funded bailout.

Given the financial footing of state officials, who recently identified falling state tax revenues and their own budget shortfall, such a bailout will likely come with a stipulation of state control over the city’s finances.

Given what the Palmer administration has been doing with the city’s money lately, this could certainly be a good thing.

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Investigators probe Perth Amboy’s former administration

Federal and state investigators are probing the activities of former administration officials who worked under former Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas, who was soundly defeated in the mayoral election earlier this year by new Mayor Wilda Diaz, The Asbury Park Press is reporting.

Mr. Vas, who also serves as a state assemblyman for the 19th legislative district, ran Perth Amboy for 18 years after being elected in 1990 as the city’s first Hispanic-American mayor.

Although what exactly is being probed remains unclear, Mayor Diaz has confirmed that her administration is indeed cooperating with the investigation, after rumors began swirling this week, alleging widespread visits from FBI agents and the issuing of subpoenas to both former and current city workers.

Some were even visited by investigators at their homes, according to published reports.

Reports published earlier this year, prior to Mr. Vas’ exit from the mayor’s office, stated that city workers were ordered to shred thousands of city documents and papers, following the former mayor’s defeat in the 2008 mayoral election, according to The Asbury Park Press.

But Mr. Vas denied that the papers were being shredded for any nefarious reason, and said that records and documents with electronic back-ups were not prohibited from being shredded.

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