Questions for the candidates

As everyone in Trenton knows the field of candidates for the mayor’s position and City Council grows daily, fueled by the looming exit of 20-year city leader Mayor Douglas H. Palmer.

Unfortunately – yet expectedly – little substantive information has come out of the various campaigns regarding important issues, such as strategies for reviving Trenton’s economic engine, attracting middle class-families back into our neighborhoods, addressing crime and quality-of-life issues.

We know little about the feelings of our leaders on such controversies as the Trenton Water Works sale, the unequal enforcement of residency requirements for employees, or the general mismanagement of city coffers by the current administration.

These issues need to be addressed by this crowd of candidates publicly if Trenton has any hope of drafting a new class of leaders in 2010 to finally end the decades-old slide of New Jersey’s proud capital city.

Civic groups from across the city – despite their difference – ought to organize an ultimate forum or series of forums where these and other questions of importance can be answered, as May is rapidly approaching and we have little idea as to how these potential leaders intend to make our city a better place to live.

Perhaps they are afraid of these issues, or wish to avoid them, as City Council apparently did during its most recent session.

They were supposed to deliberate on a citizen-initiated ordinance seeking to regulate and eliminate the distribution of expensive vehicles to department directors and other employees who can easily conduct their business out of their own personal vehicles for fair reimbursement.

Instead of deliberating and passing this common-sense initiative – which I helped organize – there was reportedly a jumbled discussion and tabling of the measure, despite statutory requirements to act on the ordinance in a timely fashion.

Such treatment of a positive city ordinance indicates the importance of forcing city candidates to clearly state their positions on issues of importance, since May 2010 promises to be an important point of time for the history of this city.

Either we continue our extended decline, and begin the climb out of the hole.

The only way to do the latter is to know what our candidates intend to do if elected to office prior to pulling the lever.


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One response to “Questions for the candidates

  1. This is a (very slightly) edited version of a letter I wrote to Greg on January 19:

    Hi Greg – I saw your post of January 11, on the TWW Sale and other items. That was a couple of days before I announced my decision to run for the West Ward spot, so I didn’t respond last week. I’d like to do so now, if it’s not too late to stand out from the crowd of other responses I’m sure you’ve received on the topic from other candidates for Mayor and Council.

    I will admit that for the several years the TWW/NJAW deal was percolating, I didn’t pay much attention. It was pretty much under the radar until late 2008, early 2009 when it started hitting the front pages. I didn’t much then – and still don’t – like the idea that a city, any city not just Trenton, should sell long-held capital assets to cover operating budget shortfalls. It’s bad practice for several reasons: Such sales are usually under conditions of distress, and the selling price often ends up lower than the city might otherwise expect in normal times. Selling to a commercial entity which needs to pay off the sale and earn a profit ends up meaning higher rates for customers and/or lower product quality as the company cuts costs and services.

    And in an era when “Shared Services” is such an often-repeated mantra in the search to reduce taxpayers’ burdens, to dismantle a Utility that is perhaps the ultimate Shared Service in Mercer County doesn’t make sense.

    Those were all reasons to oppose the sale in the abstract. In Trenton’s particular case, there were a lot more. Namely, the numbers didn’t add up. The numbers on the 5-year Analysis released to support the case (prepared, I believe, by the citizens’ group supporting the sale, but using data supplied by the city) for the sale didn’t work, and frankly didn’t make sense. When reworking the numbers so that the same breakdowns were used for both the Pro-Sale and Contra-Sale models so they were consistent with each other, it was clear that the benefits from the sale would not extend beyond three or four years. Going forward from that time, the likelihood was there for TWW deficits as far as the eye could see. What this sale represented was a negative fiscal turnaround on a truly Bushian scale, turning a system dependably contributing several millions of dollars year in and year out to the City’s coffers, into one that would require millions of dollars annual subsidies from a city already in tight circumstances.

    And yet. And yet. I took seriously the threat of the “Monster Tax Increases” that the Mayor told us were inevitable if the TWW sale were canceled or put on hold. The prospect of massive increases in taxes in the middle of the worst recession in 80 years wasn’t something that I took lightly. To me, this was a Hobson’s choice where both alternatives were horrible: Short-term pain versus Long-term pain. I did sign the petition to block the sale, and wrote a letter to the Times but did not take more of a public position. At the time, I was still trying to get traction for the Library effort I was involved with, and didn’t want to dilute whatever voice I had on the issue with another tangent.

    So, here we are just about a year later. Because of the lawsuit and the appeals, the NJAW sale is on hold. The deal was not concluded, and the payments were not received and applied to the Fiscal Year 2009 budget.

    Remember how hard that Monster Tax Increase hit, and all the damage it did? Funny, neither do I! What we were told by the Administration, repeatedly, was that Armageddon would hit Trenton if the sale didn’t go through. The sale didn’t happen, and neither did the Deluge (pardon the Water pun).

    What happened? I’ve been wondering for months how the City was covering its bills (although often taking a very, very long time to pay – not the best of practices, but one that many private companies use as well, so I can’t fault the city too terribly much for that), servicing its debt, keeping afloat, without the massive cash infusion the TWW sale would have provided? We hadn’t defaulted on any debt, as far as I knew. That would have been big news. So, again, we’d been told the sky would fall; what happened?

    We found out a few weeks ago, in the Mayor’s 12-31-09 Annual Report for the City. On Page 7 of the report, we read in the section describing the work of the city’s Department of Administration during the year, the following three-line note:

    “Addressing the gap in unrealized water sale proceeds; the Department worked
    after the close of the 2009 fiscal year to balance the budget, reducing
    expenditures by $8.7 million to meet actual revenue.”

    Well, That was Easy!!! Had we known months before that Administration could perform that kind of civic miracle, we all would have been a lot better off.

    Seriously, though, I have to ask “What’s with this?” How was this done? After a budget year closes, you don’t have a lot of room to cut expenses. You can do it a few ways: items that are set to be recognized as Current Expenses (i.e. against your current operating budget) are capitalized and then amortized, a percentage at a time, over a period of several years, perhaps 10 or 15). Or you can defer those expenses to hit the budget in the next fiscal year, if you have appropriate reasons and accounting justifications to do so. You can’t just make $8.7 Million go away, especially after the close of the year. It’s like saying after you receive your Christmas credit card statement “The year is over, but I am reducing $3000 in my credit card expenses to balance my budget.”

    You can only do that by carrying over those credit card bills to pay in the new year. — They don’t go away.– The City owes us more of an explanation on how they accomplished this improbable miracle.

    Another likely possibility is that the city realized $8.7 Million in revenues to help close the budget gap. But here, too, if that scale of revenues were available after the fiscal year closed, the City owes us a fuller explanation on where those came from.

    Either way, after all the drama of the City’s response to the Petition and lawsuit, we need a fuller explanation on how the 2009 budget was balanced. Otherwise, we are left with the unpleasant conclusion that much of the drama of last year was unnecessary at best, and perhaps manipulated at worst.

    There is another aspect to the TWW deal that, up until now, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. In December 2006, the City published a report it had commissioned from the engineering firm MWH, to address the issues and costs associated with Separating and Severing the Suburban assets owned by TWW from the assets within the city limits of Trenton. The contract between NJAW and Trenton requires that the City pays for costs associated with in-city Separation, with TWW responsible for the suburban work. The aggregate cost range – not broken down between what would be TWW’s share and NJAW’s share — estimated by MWH for this work was between $13,669,000 and $21,596,000. In the absence of a more accurate assignment of those costs, it’s fair to split them 50-50. So, that means that Trenton’s share of those costs would be in the range of $6,834,500 and $10,798.000. And that was a self-admitted rough estimate made over three years ago.

    Where does this money come from? The City may respond that the bulk of these costs are necessary to the newly-truncated Trenton Water Works, and would have been incurred regardless of the sale. However, the MWH report seems pretty clear that their estimate is of costs strictly required for the sole purpose of creating two separate functioning water systems from what is now one.

    So to be fair, whatever the costs to the City of System Separation, that figure should be applied against the sale price. What was sold as a deal for $80 million now looks like a net deal of $70 Million or thereabouts. The bottom line is that a sketchy deal, from the perspective of Trenton taxpayers and suburban rate-payers, looks even worse now than it did a year ago.

    That no other candidate, for Council certainly, has previously spoken about or even noticed these aspects of the TWW sales deal tells me that there is a place on Council for me, for someone with my professional experience in writing, reading and managing budgets and financial operations. Along with my years of experience and knowledge of Trenton civic issues and independence from the usual inside circles, I think I offer a lot of positive qualities to voters living in the West Ward for the May election.

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