Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Douglas H. Palmer solid waste treatment plant

Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer has told some that he has no plans to run for mayor for a sixth term in 2010, although he has made no formal announcement to that effect.

If he follows through with such a decision, it will be interesting to see what exactly his legacy will be in Trenton in the years following his departure from the office he has occupied since 1990.

A Times of Trenton story from over the weekend pointed to part of his likely legacy – overseeing the capital of New Jersey’s continued economic decline, depopulation, and loss of viable neighborhoods, manifested in a surging jobless rate.

The Times’ Meir Rinde reported that Mayor Palmer’s Trenton has beat out Camden, Newark, Paterson, and all of New Jersey’s other downtrodden cities for the out-of-work cup, in achieving an amazing 17 percent unemployment rate.

An incredulous Mayor Palmer remarked that he could not see how such a rate was possible, but such comments show just how out-of-touch, in denial, or dishonest the mayor is when talking about his city.

It is obvious – despite the mayor’s comments – that many Trenton neighborhoods have few jobs or businesses and most residents lack the skills necessary to work at the state, county, or other governmental centers that occupy space throughout town.

Instead of pursuing responsible redevelopment and mixed-income neighborhoods, the mayor took in loads of cash from other New Jersey towns through Regional Contribution Agreements in return for stuffing loads of affordable housing into city neighborhoods, turning them into massive pockets of poverty.

For such decision-making, which directly leads to ominous statistics like 17 percent unemployment rates, the most deserving treatment for Mayor Palmer’s legacy would be forgetting about the longtime executive for good.

 If that can’t be done, another suggestion could be naming the city’s solid waste treatment plant after the mayor.

Solid (and governmental) waste is one of the last things Trenton still produces during the waning days of the Palmer administration, so such an action would be a fitting memorial to the outgoing mayor and his 20-year legacy.

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What’s the story, Palmer and co-conspirators?

A bizarre ordinance that does not legally authorize top Trenton officials to take extra pay was the subject of much discussion Thursday night, after the city continued its reliance on the measure as the basis for tens of thousands of dollars in extra compensation.

Communications officer Kent Ashworth handed former mayoral candidate Frank Weeden a copy of the ordinance during Thursday’s City Council meeting.

That happened after Mr. Weeden demanded answers as to how Mayor Palmer and his co-conspirators circumvented the Fiscal Control Law and the Faulkner Act in taking raises through what appears to be an illegitimate process.

The majority of City Council members, who are empowered to decide whether to approve such raises, do not recall discussions about how a tiny section of language in the ordinance somehow delivered the pay raises to officials as it simultaneously memorialized a new contract for a city union.

Further, state law experts say the city’s decision to move forward with both the raises and the union contract through such a process may make the entire contract null and void.

It may require a lawsuit to force such a ruling, as city officials refuse to acknowledge what appears to be a deliberate and arrogrant attempt to hide the pay raises from City Council members and the public at large.

As is customary, City Council has done nothing about pay raise-gate.

As is also customary, the city business administrator and former associate of disgraced and indicted Perth Amboy Mayor Joe Vas, Dennis Gonzalez, was heard snickering and insulting city residents as they complained about the pay raises at Thursday’s council meeting.

Some things never change.

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Locked in a bar

I had one of my more interesting Trenton experiences Saturday night, or more accurately, early Sunday morning, which has strongly reinforced my resolve to better this town.

After delivering my mother from the Trenton Transit Center to our family home in West Windsor Township, I made the trip back to my favorite city at around 12:30 a.m. Sunday.  Not tired in the least, I decided to walk over to a well-known public house on the corner of Market and Broad streets to imbibe for an hour or so prior to last call.

I found the place relatively empty, with a few souls chatting in the downstairs bar and pretty much the same situation upstairs.

Things got more interesting, to say the least, at the time of last call.

Several patrons came downstairs and informed us that police officers were blocking off not only the front door of the establishment, but the entire section of South Broad Street between Market Street and the intersection with Centre Street.

A man was apparently shot multiple times and critically injured at a next-door eatery, following some sort of altercation at a club in the Trenton Makes complex down South Broad Street in the area of the former Sovereign Bank Arena.

Others who left the same nightclub were also shot and wounded, according to local reports.

This kind of stuff drives me crazy, in that it reinforces all of the stereotypes and prejudices about Trenton that thrive in the minds of suburbanites and others who have forsaken the city and fled to live in little houses made of ticky-tacky in the surrounding areas.

One isolated incident like this – the first in the Broad/Market area for more than 16 months – is all it takes to tear down a little good will or the warming of mindset among those who fear life in our little city.

Trentonians must work all the more diligently to improve their surroundings and destroy such imagery, and it starts in the city government.  City Hall represents our strongest tool in combating the economic and social forces that drive a man to decide that shooting an enemy inside an eatery at 2 a.m. is the best possible option.

We need to shape our government and its activities so that makig such a decision is no longer an option at all.

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Uncharacteristically quiet

The City of Trenton has removed many of its Trenton Water Works deal propaganda pieces from the city Web site in recent days, perhaps indicating a reduction in the tension that permeated the city only a few weeks ago.

The controversy, however, is still simmering beneath the surface and could boil over at any moment. Residents whose protest petition was invalidated in Mercer County Superior Court still have some 30-odd days to appeal the decision, and it appears doing so may have a very high likelihood of success.

A widespread lack of confidence in the court decision is evident, on the part of city officials and New Jersey American Water Co, the company set to purchase the city’s revenue producing suburban water.

The sale seems to have stalled as the petitioners slowly deliberate on their next move.

Calm and slow consideration of an appeal is surely warranted, given how every piece of budget information and every budget deadline the city government threatened taxpayers with during the water battle prior to the court decision seems to have been thrown out the window.

Adding to this environment of untruthfulness and obfuscation is news that the city’s mayor, clerk, business administrator, and department directors all received massive pay increases that appear to have no basis in any city ordinance or law, at a time when the city is laying off workers and selling assets to plug budget shortfalls.

Tread carefully, Trentonians, things could explode at any time.

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$3 million, gone forever

It’s no secret that Trenton has a ratable problem.

Over 50 percent of properties in the city are tax-exempt, mainly from the conglomeration of government buildings that come with Trenton’s existence as both the state and Mercer County capital.

The city has tried to tie in efforts to reduce that percentage to the Trenton Water Works deal, as evidence that the city is working on other ways of generating additional tax revenues so Trenton doesn’t continually find itself facing $20 million to $30 million budget shortfalls that require the sell-off of cash generators like the water utility.

But this water deal and the city’s efforts in growing the tax base and developing additional city ratables reveal a highly contradictory set of initiatives.

Selling off the suburban water utility system and its $25 million in annual revenue will surely result in the loss of the $3 million or so that the Trenton Water Works provides for the city’s general fund each year.

That much is shown clearly on city utility projections, which use a variety of mathematical tricks and bizarre accounting practices to hide the fact that we are trading a revenue-generating utility for one that will struggle just to break even in the years following the sale.

Losing $3 million a year from our general fund will be a catastrophic event for a city that struggles to raise local tax money.  It amounts to razing a large neighborhood – say Hillcrest – while continuing to supply the costly services needed to support the area.

If the last few decades are any indication, it will take many a year before Trentonians can ever dream of recouping that $3 million through the growth of ratables.

At that point, city residents might also be paying more for their water.

The utility might very well end up becoming the property of New Jersey American Water Co., if city utility projections hold true and the utility can’t break even.  We’ll be out $3 million in local revenues, and a whole lot more for expensive, privately owned water.

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A reverse course

City officials have reversed course on a very important issue in the Trenton Water Works controversy.

They now argue that state law, which permits utilities that serve outside municipalities to transfer up to 5 percent of their total operating budget into the municipal budget, limits the ability of the Trenton Water Works to remain the cash cow for the city that it has been in recent years.

Such statements directly contradict the city and the state’s most recent position on the issue.

Officials from both entities have previously stated that Trenton may transfer as much of the water utility’s multimillion-dollar surplus into the city’s general fund as city officials wish, as illustrated by the below 2007 Times of Trenton article:

(an excerpt)

Suburban towns sue Trenton over water rate increase

by Ryan Tracy/The Times

Tuesday October 21, 2008, 5:10 PM

In the past, city officials have argued that because Trenton is not subject to state approval of water rates, the city may take an unlimited amount of money from the Trenton Water budget.

In 2006, the city adopted an equalized rate for all the customers in the system, exempting Trenton Water from a rate approval process overseen by the state Board of Public Utilities.

In 2007, Trenton transferred $6.2 million collected from Trenton Water customers to the city budget. That transfer came in addition to $3.6 million transferred from 2004 to 2006, according to the civil complaint.

A spokesperson from the state Department of Community Affairs has backed Trenton’s logic and said the transfers are legal, but the suburbs remain unconvinced.

City officials have also said the revenue infusions are a deserved benefit, given that Trenton maintains and administers the entire water system.

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Interesting…

The highest ranking Trenton city officials received tens of thousands of dollars in pay raises the same year the city decided to sell of its water utility to plug a $20 million budget shortfall, The Times of Trenton reported Thursday.

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, Chief of Staff Renee Haynes, Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez, and other top officials received 10-percent pay raises in a combination of longevity, cost of living, and other increases, according to city officials.

While City Council members have an opportunity to strip the increases from the budget some time in the coming weeks, the real question surrounds how these pay increases got approved in the first place.

Unclassified political appointees that fill these positions usually receive pay set in a salary ordinance, subject to approval by City Council members and protest by city residents. Trenton’s bizarre salary system calls for ranges for each of these positions.

Did City Council members approve such increases within the salary ordinance, and do such increases stay within the ranges set in that ordinance?

That is a very serious question for both City Council members and city residents to ponder, as they are beset by tax increase threats and what looks to be a long line of years of massive budget shortfalls.

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