Monthly Archives: March 2010

Trenton is burning

Observers have a tendency to point to historic events that represent the nadir of American urban areas.

For Cleveland, it may have been the moment when the Cuyahoga River set on fire in 1969, symbolizing years of pollution, disinvestment, and general irresponsibility.

The famous burning of the Bronx during the World Series in the late 1970s was a similar moment.

Many Trentonians point to the 1968 riots as our city’s darkest moment, as rioters burned the North Ward, looters raided downtown, and the exodus of the city’s middle class moved into full-gear.

Up north, a year earlier, Newark experienced some of the worst riots in the nation’s history and then three years later, saw its mayor, council, and other high officials hauled off to federal prison for selling City Hall to common criminals and mob henchman.

Somehow, I think the past few days may have been among our city’s darkest moments, thanks to the coincidence of events that took place in our own City Hall Tuesday and late last week, further down State Street, in the dark, crime-infested rooms of the Rowan Towers.

There a 7-year-old Trenton girl was pimped by her own teenage sister and gang-raped by a bunch of thugs who, as Mayor Douglas H. Palmer said, now have a special reservation in the depths of hell.

Then, Tuesday night, decades of disinvestment, misguided leadership, official malfeasance, and an existence as a welfare city came to a head as Mayor Palmer attacked the state over cuts to Trenton’s aid that threaten our city’s very livelihood.  These cuts threaten us with the worst taxes in the state, reduced police coverage, fire-fighting capacity, and  incomprehensible slashes to city services.

If they remain in place, Trenton will face nearly insurmountable odds in redeveloping, holding onto its remaining middle class, or attracting others back into the city.

Yet none among those vying for the mayor’s seat in the May election have offered anything concrete about how they plan to move the city out of this mess and out of the decades of decay that have destroyed our neighborhoods, killed our citizens, and brought us to a point where little girls are being sold as sex slaves to others.

Frankly many are disgusted by this lack of concrete planning, and it seems that perhaps none of the candidates who want to lead our city actually deserve to do so.

Our candidates – and better yet, the citizens – need to come up with some answers quickly, or we face further decline and a fate akin to that of Camden, Detroit, East St. Louis, and other towns that have become emblems of America’s urban problem.

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PolitickerNJ.com – Christie on the budget

This is going to be a budget that is going to be unlike any other you’ve probably seen in NJ in at least the last 20 years and maybe longer. The reason for that is because we’ve been building to this budget for 20 years. We’ve been building this budget in a number of different ways and probably ways that you can relate to here in Haddon Heights in terms of what went on in your municipality. Expenses at the local level, the school board or the municipal level, in the county level to some extent have continued over that period of years to rise.

Now there’s two ways of course to deal with that and NJ has, or 3 ways really, and NJ has taken 2 of the ways to deal with it. One you see property taxes continue to rise over the period of time across NJ and some greater amounts than others depending upon the years and to pay for these services. But that increase of property taxes alone was not enough to pay for what we were spending. So what the state’s engaged in over the past 20 years is use of both state direct aid to K-12 school districts and state aid to municipalities and counties to paper over these problems to make the a little more palatable for people.

So now you have a situation where last year’s budget fully a third of the state’s spending was done on just K-12 school aid, that’s literally just collecting income taxes from all of you, and turning around and writing checks back out to school districts just really being a conduit, and a conduit that took that money in, in one proportion and sent it out in a completely different proportion. Now part of that is because of court rulings regarding Abbott school districts and the disproportion of funding that they’ve required from the state but the fact of the matter is that’s what we’ve done. And we’ve done it to paper over the problem of increasing cost in our school systems and increasing costs in our municipalities. That’s been through things like COMPTRA aid and other direct municipal aid that we’ve continued to shove out to municipalities. In doing it this way, we’ve had to continue year after year to increase income taxes, sales taxes and corporate business taxes what in the budgeting world we are now calling the big three in Trenton, income tax, sales tax and corporate business tax which are the three main drivers of income to the state.

We’ve just gone through the roof on those taxes. Think about this, when Governor Byrne instituted the income tax in 1977, the top income tax rate was 2.5%. When Governor Corzine was leaving office it was nearly 11%. We now have a sales tax that is 7%, among the highest in the country, we have a corporate business tax that’s in the top 10 in the country and when you combine that with our property taxes and our other taxes we are now the champion, and this is one you don’t want to win the championship but we have, of the most over taxed people in America. This is all been in large measure to feed the growth of government both in Trenton but even more so the growth of government on the local school board municipal level since most of our money goes out the door in that way. So now we are confronted with a situation where we have an economic recession, where NJ has been disproportionately affected by that recession because of our enormously high taxes. So people are not only going out of business because of the recession, those who are staying in business many of them are leaving the state, to go to places like right across the river here in Pennsylvania, where the top income tax rate is 3%, rather than, nearly 11% under Gov. Corzine and now because the lapsing of one tax about 9% as our top rate.

So now we pay triple the rate on income taxes that the state of Pennsylvania does and so why would people stay, especially people in this region of the state? If they can go over, I will tell you now being in Trenton for the last couple of months, you do not want to get anywhere near those bridges, going over the Delaware river at 4:30-5:00 because people are steaming, from working in NJ over to Pennsylvania to pay that lower tax rate to pay that lower property taxes.

So we are now confronted with a situation where because of our high taxes over the last 4 years 70 billion dollars in wealth has left the state of NJ, 70 billion dollars in wealth have left NJ in the last 4 years. Small businesses and large, wealthy individuals and middle class individuals have left this state because they simply can’t afford to do business here anymore. So this has been a double whammy for us, not only are we suffering the economic recession that everyone else in the country is suffering, but we have imposed upon ourselves because of our out of control tax rates, we have imposed upon ourselves an additional problem which is we aren’t even attractive to those who are doing successful business right now. And really the people who remain who are sitting here right now, the people you represent who are sitting in this room and the people across NJ are the people who really are just here because they love our state. Because from a business perspective they could go elsewhere and do significantly better, just from an expense perspective. So this is the situation I’m confronted with when we come into office and we are coming into office and being told that Governor Corzine is leaving us with a $500 million surplus, that’s really good news, except when you get there on the 19th and you open the books and you get this surprise, it’s really a $2.2 billion budget gap. And so we took initial very aggressive first steps to say we are going to freeze $2.2 billion worth of spending immediately. We needed to do that because as you know every day that goes by more money goes out the door, more payroll and of the $14 billion dollars that was left for us to spend in the rest of this fiscal year, $8 billion of it we couldn’t touch, it’s either debt repayment or pay according to contract with union members or other contractual obligations we have with the federal government because we took a lot of stimulus aid and as a result we made an agreement to keep things funded at a certain level, so we don’t have the option to cut it at that point. So that left about $6 billion left to fund about $2.2 billion in savings.

It’s very kin to the situation and some ways even worse than the situation you found of $500,000 on 7 million. So we had to act quickly and we did, and we froze $2.2 billion and we are moving now towards a budget for the end of this year which ends on June 30th that will be in balance and will hopefully carry a surplus of $500 million into the next year, fiscal 11, for us to be able to help with the problems we have next year. Now even with, assuming a $500 million surplus being carried over into next year both the Governor’s Office, the Treasurer, and the Office of Legislative Services which is the non-partisan group that serves the Legislature and does budget analysis, among other things, agree that the budget deficit projected for fiscal 11 is $11.2 billion.

Now to put that in context the entire state budget last year was just a shade under $29 billion. So we’re talking about a budget that is a third in deficit, as we project forward. How’s this happen? Well, a continuing decline in revenues, and a continuing assumption of increase in spending. And so for instance, there’s certain spending that we have difficulty controlling. Medicaid for instance. Medicaid is projected next year to go 19% higher. Now why? Well, some of it is about us not controlling expenses as well as we should. And we’re going to do much better on that, but even if we do that, we have more people laid off, more people becoming unemployed and using their health insurance.

You have more people that are going to come out to Medicaid, and the expansion of the number of people on Medicaid is going to push growth. And so, while there’s some things we can do around the margins there, there really is not a whole lot you can do because you’re going to be providing people with at least some measure of health care, through the Medicaid program, and state pays for 50% of that and the federal government pays for 50% of that.

What else is going on? Well, you know, we have a situation, where last year, aid to education, that’s K through 12 education, a billion dollars of that aid that went out last year, somewhere close to 9 billion dollars, was one time federal stimulus money. Not coming back. I was with the president three weeks ago, one of the things he definitively said is, “that kind of aid is not coming back.” So, you immediately start with a 1 billion dollar hole in your K through 12 education budget, in a time with a state of declining revenues. In addition, we spend about another 700 million of one time money. You may have read about some of it, New Jersey Transit last year got about 160 million dollars in one time stimulus funds. Well what did that do? That helped Governor Corzine push off the inevitable, which was a fair increase. So in election year, he used 160 million dollars of that money in one shot to push off a fair increase. So what do I confront this year? 300 million dollar deficit in New Jersey Transit. 300 million dollar deficit in New Jersey Transit. So, you know, I heard a member of the assembly, a week or two ago, say, “this is outrageous that we’re increasing fares in New Jersey Transit. I don’t think there should be fair increases, I don’t think there should be service cut backs, and I want the state to keep the subsidy at the same level it was before.” I said to myself, man I should have made this guy the treasurer, ‘cus that’s a miracle if we could actually make that happen. I mean, there’s lots of things I’d like to do too, expect I don’t know where I’m finding the money to do it. And so, there hasn’t been a fair increase in NJ Transit in three years, since January 2007, and there needs to be a fair increase.

Not ‘cus I want to have a fare increase in the NJ Transit, and not because I think hard working people that are trying to get to work and are taking our buses and trains should have to pay more, but because we got a 300 million dollar deficit to fill. And my view is the state will continue to subsidize a very large amount of NJ Transit’s budget, well over 45% of NJ Transit’s budget will come from direct state subsidy. So do we need, as we continue that subsidy, to also ask the users of New Jersey Transit to pay more? You know, we’re hit with a whammy at New Jersey Transit; 4% decline in ridership, because of more people being unemployed, increase in the contracts to workers there, which we’ll get back to, and at the same time you’re having an increase in fuel costs and other things that drive the costs of New Jersey Transit to a 300 million dollar deficit.

What else do we confront? We got 1.7 billion dollars there in one time stimulus funding that is not coming back So you start to add up the numbers to 11.2 billion, and you know that every program in state government is going to have to be up for consideration, and in fact, probably for cuts. That’s going to affect everybody, this is going to have to be a shared sacrifice by everyone. Because in the end, in my view, raising taxes is not an alternative any longer.

We just talked about how uncompetitive we are in NJ because of our high tax rates, and you have some that will say to you, “just raise taxes again like governor Corzine did, take that rate back up to 11%, ‘cus its easy to say, “Well it’s just rich people. People that make over $400,000 a year.” Expect the problem is in New Jersey, that, that individual tax return is also used by most of your small businesses. So for those of you who own small businesses in the room, or know people who do, if you have an income in your small business, not a profit, an income, of 400,000 or more, and you file it through the personal income tax return, that raises small business taxes.

Why would we ever want to raise taxes on small business, at a time when we want small business to be spending their money to create jobs to put people back to work? In addition, business is going to get a big tax increase come July 1st because, here’s another problem that we have to deal with this year, the unemployment insurance trust fund is broke. It’s 1.6 billion dollars in debt to the federal government. Why? Because over the course of the last dozen years, Republicans and Democrats, both as Governor and in the legislature, have stolen over 4 billion dollars from the unemployment insurance trust fund.

Now, Governor Kean set this up, it was a great concept when he did back in the 80s, he said, “we’ll charge a certain amount of the unemployment trust fund, employers and employees pay in together, and during good times we’ll build up a huge surplus in that trust fund, which is not to be touched, and then, when we get bad times, we will have that money to draw on to pay to our citizens who have paid into the fund. Well, what happened? What happened was the folks in Trenton, addicted to spending, papered over the problems we talked about before, took the money. Said, “we’ll deal with it another day.”

Well guess what, today is the day we have to deal with it. Because we’ve borrowed 1.6 billion dollars from the federal government, and that’s ongoing, just to pay for the unemployment benefits that our fellow citizens are collecting right now. And I think we all would agree they deserve to collect them. They paid into the system. They paid taxes along with the employers. But, if we don’t do something to fix the system now, those employers both small/large business, some of them will pay a tax increase on July 1st as high as 225%, because it’s all by formula. If you’re this much in deficit, you have to raise taxes this much. Governor Kean did that because he knew that politicians wouldn’t have the will to raise the taxes as much as they would need to make the funds solvent, and he wanted to funds solvent, so he put in an automatic system in.

Now we have to face that, and that’s why I’ve suggested some ways to fix the program that’s shared sacrifice. For any new employees who have become unemployed not people who are on unemployment now, after the start of this law, they will get $50 less a week in unemployment benefits; so that the $600 a week maximum will be $550. At the same time, they will have a one week waiting period before they can collect benefits. Not one week less of benefits, they would still be entitled to 26 weeks, just wait a week. That, combined with also raising taxes, 17% of employers, on average, would bring the fund to solvency quickly over the course of the next couple of years.

Now just so you understand how rich New Jersey’s benefits are, at $600 a week, we give the second richest benefits in America. At $550 a week, we give the third richest benefits in America. So, I heard all this stuff when I announced this plan about how draconian it was and how awful, and in fact you had one leader in the legislature call me immoral for proposing this, immoral. For going from the second highest benefits in America to the third highest benefits in America. And posing a 17% tax increase on employers that would be ongoing for the next four years. I am just trying the fix the problems. Now I’d love to be Santa Claus and be able to say don’t worry about it we’ll find some other way to fix the unemployment trust fund, but I can’t be. And the federal government is going to stop lending us money at some point. And our folks in this state, who pay into that system, deserve to get their benefits so they can help to pay their mortgage, pay their property taxes and stay in their homes. So until they find a new job, they can at least stay where they live, and not have to be foreclosed on because they can’t pay their taxes or they can’t pay their mortgage.

So, you roll forward to a week from today, and there are going to be every type of bad choice, difficult choice that we are going to have to make – I am going to have to present. And what I’ve said to folks is I think people in New Jersey are ready to hear the truth. They’ve had 15-20 years of Republicans and Democrats standing in front of them and singing a happy tune and saying don’t worry we’ll get over it and playing a shell game with your money, taking more of it all along, and saying we’ll get by. Here’s the hope if we’re willing to make the tough choices now, the tough choices like you made in Haddon Heights, and I hope we’re going to have a similar result in New Jersey, and I think we will.

In the rest of the United States, the other 49 states, 37 of them are having Governor’s elections this year. Now, having just gone through that I can tell you no one makes any difficult choices during a gubernatorial election. We’re dealing with this budget because there were no hard choices made during the Gubernatorial year because the incumbents trying to get re-elected. And so you don’t make hard choices then. And there were none made, last year. That’s happening in 37 other states now. Cause, unlike we might want to believe, we’re not that much different then everybody else. And all of them, whether it is an incumbent running, whether it is an open seat and each party is trying to jockey to get I, nobody’s going to talk about the hard choices this year. If we do what we need to this year, we will be one year ahead of all those 37 states. So that when the economy starts to recover, if we have our fiscal house in order, we’re going to be able to be aggressive about offering the type of economic incentives that need to be offered to get jobs from other states.

They’re not going to be in a position to do it.

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PolitickerNJ.com coverage of mayoral issues

Harmon’s onstage spat with Pintella goes to candidates’ business/government divide

By Max Pizarro

TRENTON – In a hard-edged attack, Council President Paul Pintella goes after buisnessman John Harmon at the Mill Hill Playhouse mayor’s forum and Harmon, grinning, raises his arms defensively and then lets his fists go in a speed bag motion.

“That was part of your job, to prepare people and be a part of the public process, when you ran MTAACC (the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce),” Pintella tells Harmon, a response to Harmon’s sales pitch to the crowd here that as mayor he will do a batter job to forge public-private partnerships.

Pintella drops into a stance as he continues the tongue lashing.

“As CEO of MTAACC, Mr. Harmon’s responsibility was to advocate for minority-owned businesses, specifically for small buisness, he had always made this a cornerstone of MTAACC, and he never brought anything to the table outside of coming to a couple of luncheons,” Pintella later explains.

A lot of people sit onstage in the mayoral forum, and when Harmon again holds the floor, Pintella is heading for the exit.

“You’d better leave,” Harmon calls after him with a grin. “He doesn’t want this right hand.”

“Nature has a place in this thing,” Pintella says later.

But for Harmon, the council president cleared out in the face of his counter attack.

“That was the first time in my life that I’ve been part of a debate that someone takes a bathroom break,” he says afterwards. “I thought that was something that was not appropriate.”

“I have no problem debating John Harmon, believe me,” says Pintella.

The flash jousting match between him and Harmon goes to a deeper point of conflict.

Pintella says Harmon fronts himself as a business guy, but doesn’t understand government. Harmon sees Pintella as an unmitigated creature of the public sector.

“John Harmon needs to learn how government works in terms of getting nitty and gritty,” says Pintella. “He doesn’t know.”

“Many of my opponents tell you what they want to do,” Harmon declares with a broad sweep of the arm across the packed stage. “I’ve done it!”

Post debate, the candidate breaks it down.

“I think the defining factor is if you put me up against the other folks in the race and there’s no contest in terms of depth of my background,” he says. “With the exception of Frank Weeden, these are either all former elected officials or city council members and government employees. They’ve never met payroll on their own looking. Looking at their backgrounds, there are no accomplishments.”

He forgets to mention Mercer County Freeholder Keith Hamilton. An elected official, Hamilton also serves as vice president of Community Relations at SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc., and presents a resume firmed up with business creds. In a big jumble of candidates right now, including two men with similar names and profiles – Harmon and Hamilton – Harmon’s forgetfulness is perhaps convenient to his goal of getting around the rest of the pack.

“I can write a buisness plan,” says Harmon, who ran in the 2006 mayor’s election and place third behind winner Mayor Doug Palmer and second place finished and former Freeholder Tony Mack.

“I understand a budget. And I understand that being mayor is not sitting in hide back leather chairs and voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s not it.”

Harmon’s father owned a trucking company, which the son later inherited and ran. He ran MTAACC – which Pintella says he din’t run well, at least from the standpoint of forging lasting public-private partnerships.

Now he operates the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

If elected to succeed Palmer, he wants the superintendent of schools to be directly accountable to the mayor, and he wants to shake up the school board so that the people elect three of its members.

Hammering the public-private partnership model, Harmon says he and Weeden, who runs a candle factory, are the only candiates who haven’t either snuggled up to government for a living or thrived for the most part under the 20-year Palmer umbrella. Mack tries to make the case that he broke from the mayor eight years ago, but Harmon, like Weeden and Hamilton, feels he can convincingly make the case that he would bring business acumen to the city.

“Frank Weeden and I are the true outsiders in this race,” he says. “The others are still connected politically. These guys are long-time politicians can’t disassociate themselves.

“I have a lot of respect for Frank’s business mind,” adds Harmon, who nods during the debate when Weeden drills the mayor administration for signing off on raises for cabinet members – such as mayoral candidate and Department of Public Works Director Eric Jackson – while laying off rank and file workers.

“I would haver to agree with Frank,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that each cabinet member represents two or three employees. How can you give yourself a raise in tough economic times?”

“The administration laid those people off,” says Pintella. “The mayor submitted a work force reduction program. The next year, they negotiated salaries with the public employees unions. They did that first. Then they considered a set of specific employees not covered by the unions.”

Those were the cabinet members.

Launching his campaign at the beginning of the year – a late entry in this crowded field of at least ten candidates – Harmon insists he’s smarter than four years ago, when Mack outflanked him and Palmer won.

“I think people coalesced around Tony Mack because of sports and glad-handing, but it’s not about that – it’s about who has the wherewithal to take our city to the next level,” Harmon says. “If I was in a plane and my buddy was in the seat next to me telling me he could fly, I wouldn’t allow him to take me up in the plane just because he’s my buddy. I’d get out of the plane. Fast. Now, the city’s at stake here, therefore we cannot trust these entrenched politicans.”

Mack’s one of them.

But Pintella as the diehard council president and city council member for the past 16 years perhaps best embodies all of them to Harmon, hence the prickly moments onstage.

“I am one of the leading candidates in this race right now – I say that humbly,” says Harmon. “I’m committed to earning the votes of everyone in this city. I am running with term limits. I believe this is about service to the community. Eight years is enough.”

Pintella shakes his head.

“He’s not my candidate,” says the council president.

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Full letter to Trenton’s newspapers regarding tax blame

The blame game that continued at Tuesday’s City Council meeting is another reminder of how poor our city’s leadership has been in being strategic about Trenton’s budget deficit.

All are to blame, from a council that abdicated its responsibility to be stewards of the city’s coffers, to an administration that proposed nothing but short-term budget gimmickry, all the way to the voters, who have failed to make budget planning a priority, whether during public discourse or at the ballot box.

Mayor Palmer continues to scapegoat the state – for occupying city real estate – and citizens who battle the plan to sell the Trenton Water Works, one our last remaining revenue-generating assets.

Sitting in council allowed me to observe the misrepresentations the city is relying on to cast blame in all directions but itself.  Mayor Palmer blurred reality by claiming that he met with citizens on many occasions, when as petitioner Algernon Ward pointed out, there was a single meeting that yielded nothing except unfulfilled promises of a five-year strategic plan.

Councilwoman Lartigue requested this plan on Tuesday, but it seems late.

We are already three-quarters of the way through this budget, despite promises to get an early start on this year’s process.

Now Trenton faces a devastating 80-cent tax increase that could have been avoided with careful budgeting and a rejection of decisions like the one that handed city officials 10-percent salary increases.

Trentonians are left with little faith in their government.

This can only be resolved by sending a strong message in this year’s election, when the  electorate should vote out anyone who wants to continue the ways of one-shot gimmicks and short-sighted budget planning.

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City Clerk moves cast shadow on May election

Everyone knows that Trenton’s city government is riddled with incompetence, but our officials just took it up another notch with Friday’s mishandling of the City Clerk’s position.

For those that don’t know – and that’s probably most of you since this event was barely and probably inadequately noticed to the public – Acting City Clerk Juanita Joyner was ousted Friday in favor of a Bordentown resident who will take over the position on a contractual basis.

Problem is, the City Clerk’s position is a constitutional office that is subject to all of the requirements of employment within the City of Trenton, including the city’s controversial residency ordinance.  Incoming clerk Leona Baylor, self-admittedly a resident of Bordentown, is therefore barred from holding the office and could easily be removed with the simplest of legal actions.

The most confounding feature of this latest monument to ineptitude is the timing of the move, which falls less than three months prior to one of the most important city elections in Trenton’s history.

Having an incumbent who could be removed at any moment, casting the election certification process into chaos, threatens the entire electoral process.

Those responsible for this growing disaster – including the city Law Department and City Council members, especially those running for the mayor’s office – need to be held responsible.

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