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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