City sells the wheels of government

Recently a friend of mine handed me a page from one of those novelty tear-out calendars, purely out of his awareness of my affection for the City of Trenton. The sheet included an entry on the word “wheelless”, defined as “to have no wheels,” along with a sentence using the word: “After a night in Trenton, his car was left wheelless.”

Whether it was a joke at the expense of Trenton’s notorious poor road maintenance or, more likely, its high crime rate, such a line should be expected from a person familiar solely with the myths about Trenton. 

Actual inhabitants like me know better.

Personally, I have no fear about my car becoming wheelless in Trenton, but I do fear that the actual city is becoming wheelless due to poor City Hall decision making. The biggest instance of this, our uniquely shortsighted leadership, continues to be the planned $80-million sale of Trenton Water Works infrastructure to a private company.

Our city, which should ideally be thought of as a car traveling towards greater economic and social prosperity, stands to lose one of its greatest wheels if this shortsighted sale goes through.

It is a fact that, with its suburban pipes and customers intact, the water works generates money like no other asset we have, and will do so for the rest of time, as long we retain control over the 60 percent of the system the city fathers want to sell off.

With this sale our mayor and most City Council members propose not only to damage the city’s finances in the immediate future through a need for more taxes, but to forever mortgage our ability to pursue economic development funded with the revenue the utility generates.

Think of it: given a local tax levy of roughly $50 million, the potential revenue loss of between $3 and $6 million this sale means is akin to razing 10 percent of our city’s taxable property. Such a statistic makes the redevelopment of city blocks and neighborhoods seem trivial, and makes the officials pushing the sale look silly, and perhaps even sillier, considering they admit, on the record, that no cost analysis was ever done for the post-sale utility.

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and City Council members have banged their collective fist about potential tax increases should the sale not go through, but they have failed to provide any information about how they plan to deal with the budget shortfalls that will return once again when the sale money is exhausted in a year or two.

Presumably, with the return of multimillion dollar budget shortfalls, the same or greater tax increases they already threatened us with earlier this year will be necessary, without the presence of our great revenue-generating utility. At that point — following the sale of city parking decks in the 1990s and the sale of the city’s revenue-generating TriGen interest — Trenton will be truly asset-less, and in a sense, wheelless.

The ignorance of our officials will not only leave our city broken down, stuck on the side of the road to prosperity, but it will also exacerbate the finances of our suburban neighbors who currently rely on cheap, clean Trenton tap water. They stand to lose much in that their water service will be provided by a for-profit foreign company with shareholders and high-paid executives who already seek the ability to levy annual rate hikes.

This sale, which continues to threaten to strip the city of important revenue, remains held up in court. Lawyers for the city and New Jersey American Water Co., that great “Wal-Mart of water” continue to argue that city residents do not have a right to vote on the sale of the system, as a committee of citizens who petitioned the city contend.

If and when it comes down to a vote, city voters need to look a little further down the road at what we want our city to be in five, 10, or maybe 15 years. If we want to improve on what we have today, we need to keep the Trenton Water Works as it is, as one of the greatest revenue-producing “wheels” the great capital of New Jersey has.

This article appeared in the July edition of The Trenton Downtowner.

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