The Procurator of Jersey

Start with this: it’s Wednesday, after one of the bloodiest weekends in this bloodiest of years in the city of Trenton, New Jersey. Several days after a 3-day period in which 4 citizens violently lost their lives through the brutal actions of others.

And not one damned thing is being done to prevent the same thing  happening again this weekend.

We had a “National Night Out” last night, which provided a lot of sound bites and photo opportunities from public officials, but little more than that.

We’ve read about the “plan” announced by the Indicted Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office. This is a “plan” in the same way that a panhandler around Trenton’s Train Station has a “plan” to raise revenue: by holding out his hand and begging for it.

The IO is begging for over $46 Million from the State – $10 Million right away – to hire and pay for 75 police officers for the Trenton Police Department. His dollar request is based on the salaries and benefits for senior officers.

But Trenton Times writers Alex Zdan and Jenna Pizzi reported yesterday that there are only 2 such senior officers left on the recall list of officers laid off nearly 3 years ago, and it would take six months of training for a new class of police cadets to deploy to the streets.

And the IO’s “plan” notably lacks any details about how these new officers, and the rest of their colleagues, would be deployed to try to take Trenton off the boil. The strategy seems to be “Hire More Cops, and Crime Will Go Down.”

They call that  “magical thinking.”

So even should the State accede to this “plan” today – this morning! – by suspending its rules, rushing this funding appeal through both houses of the Legislature as the IO begs, to end up on the Governor’s desk by this afternoon, we would not see the results of that plan in the City of Trenton until the middle of 2014.

I’ll say little more about this man and his pathetic letter to Governor Christie (but more about him below), which is nothing more than a “Cover Your Ass” attempt to show his relevance to current issues. As far as I am concerned, this man has contributed to the wave of crime strangling this city, and his continuing presence in office obstructs any productive and meaningful response to fighting it.

We read yesterday the words of the City’s Police Director Ralph Rivera: “I want to start off, No. 1, by assuring you that the Trenton Police Department, New Jersey State Police, Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office … are all working diligently to address this crime wave we’re facing.”

But so far this “diligence” consists of a conversation Mr. Rivera had with the State Police superintendent at the beginning of the week, and a possible meeting with the state’s Acting Attorney General “soon.”

Well, I fell better. Don’t you?

We hear of possible legislation from City Council: an anti-loitering ordinance, and one allowing overnight curfews during time of emergency. Council President George Muschal describes in yesterday’s Trentonian an anti-loitering measure that will utilize stickers publicly posted on city businesses: “If you’re violating the law in front of the business and you’re hanging around out there, you could be placed under arrest… Once the sticker has been posted, the cops can go up there and do what they have to do. If you don’t have a sticker on the business, you’re going to get fined one way or another.”

Stickers. Loitering. Fines. “[T]he cops can go up there and do what they have to do.”

OK. Two questions:  Seriously? And, what cops?

I appreciate Mr. Muschal’s intentions, but we don’t have enough police to provide a credible deterrent to the most serious of murders and mayhem in this town. Our cops are going to have the time and resources to write tickets and levy fines? And those fines are going to deter the kinds of people who killed Abraham Jeditoe, Hassan Allan, Barry Church, and Nyquan Owens this past weekend?

I, sadly, doubt it.

I will say again: as of today nothing is actually being DONE that may credibly help to prevent what took place last weekend from happening again this weekend.

Why is everyone scrambling today, anyway? We’ve seen this happening for months, if not years. This cannot be taking anyone by surprise. We’ve read news articles and press releases. We’ve heard press conferences and presentations at City Council for years. Big announcements for “Comprehensive Crime Initiatives” came down from Mount Olympus.

And to what end? None.

The body count goes higher, and the only folks thriving are the funeral directors. Trenton Makes, all right. Corpses.

Everyone in a position of Authority in this town, from this IO to this Police Director to these members of City Council, have worked almost exclusively in reaction mode since the 2011 layoffs of 105 officers.

That’s a polite way of saying they have their heads up their asses. But that’s nothing new. Tony Mack and Ralph Rivera are men who have failed.

Mr. Rivera has had his chance to address the problem, but he has made no progress, achieved no success.  All kinds of things are happening around him, and it is not at all clear that he has what it takes to influence events rather than be influenced by them.

He has little credibility among citizens of the city. I don’t know for sure in what regard his leadership is held among the members of his department, but media accounts suggest it’s not very high. Similarly, it is not publicly known how he is considered by his opposite numbers in the County and State agencies and departments he collaborates with. And finally, it’s clear that as an appointed member of Trenton’s cabinet he has little to no meaningful direction from a responsible Chief Executive of this city, since no one is serving in that capacity right now. Ralph Rivera is a spent force.

As far as the Indicted Occupant is concerned, there is not one single positive contribution Mr. Mack can make to solving this problem, other than to offer his resignation. But this task, a simple one really, is one he will never willingly perform.

However I will offer to say that this “plan” publicized by the IO does contain one useful point, badly expressed as it is. No, the moon is not full and no, Mercury is not in retrograde. I actually agree – partly – with something Tony Mack has to say.

There is a statewide election going on in New Jersey. The current governor, Chris Christie, is running for re-election at the top of the Republican ticket. It’s been a relatively quiet election so far, and probably won’t kick into high gear until after Labor Day. But even when it does, I will predict that one of the issues over which the election will not be fought is Mr. Christie’s record on the City of Trenton. Which I think is too bad, because the Governor’s record on Trenton is not a good one, and it should be an election issue.

Prior to the Christie Administration, the State of New Jersey under several previous Governors made significant payments to the City of Trenton under various programs. Chief among these was the Capital City Aid program which, in its last year – Fiscal Year 2009/10 – generated nearly $35 Million for Trenton.

Four fiscal years on, we are receiving grants under the state’s Transitional Aid Program, and this year’s grant will be between $16-$22 Million (the big swing in that number  will be determined on how the State treats $6.7 Million granted this year in lieu of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) made this year on a building previously owned by the State Economic Development Authority. This was probably the last year for that money).

Whichever amount is granted, it is inescapable that the drop in state funding from 2010 to this year has been immense, roughly around $50 Million in total over the four years.

Today I won’t defend the amount the City used to get, nor the efficiency (or lack of it) with which Trenton spent that extra State money. The only point I want to make today is that $50 Million was a shitload of money for the City of Trenton to lose, and it had no chance in hell to make that up, no matter who was in charge in this town.

The original story for Transitional Aid was that it was supposed to be a program to wean several towns and  cities in this state – not solely Trenton – away from the need they all had for continuing financial aid from New Jersey to plug their municipal budgets. After a period of a few years, according to the program, the Aid was designed to transition to zero.

This hasn’t worked. With little fanfare from the State, and along with very little media or public attention, NJ began over a year ago a program to fold much or all of this Transitional Aid into other payments towns receive from the State, mainly the Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Aid (CMPTRA) program.

Along with a similar program (don’t worry, this eye-glazing technical stuff won’t go on much longer) called the Energy Tax Receipts Property Tax Relief program (Energy Tax), this stream of funding was originally income that was previously collected by towns as their own revenues. The State took over collecting these revenues in the name of efficiency, but was supposed to simply pass all this money back to municipalities.

It hasn’t worked out that way. The NJ League of Municipalities on behalf of its member towns two years ago pointed out that the State has been keeping a lot of the CMPTRA/Energy Tax receipts for itself, using those proceeds to help balance the State’s own budget. For the 10 years prior to 2011, the League estimated that the State kept over $3.4 Billion that should have gone to towns including Trenton. It’s a practice that predates the Christie Administration, but a practice that the current governor has continued and expanded: in 2011 alone the League estimated the State’s holdback at nearly $900 Million.

I wrote about this over a year ago, when the State told Trenton that it would not convert  any of the City’s Transitional Aid – yet – to permanent CMPTRA funding, because of the rampant management shenanigans in the Mack Administration. This action from the State essentially said, “We’ve already punched a big hole in your budget. And we are going to keep cutting it back, and short change you on even more money that the State should pay you anyway. It’s the new normal.”

As a result of this kind of action, the State and the Governor developed a reputation as fiscally conservative.

So, when the IO called for additional CMPTRA aid from the State, I think he had a small nugget of justification in his request. Unfortunately, this small nugget was buried in a mountain of bad writing, incomplete argument, and no planning.

Through the three years of his term, Governor Christie has compiled a record of accomplishment in office that has largely depended on shifting much of the financial burden of government from the State and its income tax, on to the backs of county and municipal governments and their property taxes. Where property taxes and values are robust, that has more or less worked. In towns such as Trenton, along with similar places like Camden, Patterson and Union City, where property values have tanked, this hurts.

In Trenton’s case, property values have tanked in the 47% of city property that is even taxable at all; the remaining 53% is owned by non-profit or government entities, such as the State of New Jersey. Trenton has been hit by a double whammy, I would say uniquely.

As the capital of the state, and host to much of its property, Trenton is systematically crippled in its ability to earn revenues from its main taxation mechanism. This is nothing new, of course.

But prior to the Christie Administration, the State at least acknowledged the bind the City was in, and instituted the Capital City Aid program, now gone.

This burden-shifting to towns is pretty much a done deal. The current system has been endorsed by the Democratic-run Legislature, which has to share a big portion of responsibility for the results of this process. The State’s Department of Community Affairs on paper has a huge role to play in towns receiving Transitional Aid, but has never been given the staffing nor resources it would have needed to play that role in a thorough way.

The result is the current mess we have. The Administration of the Indicted Occupant has not helped the case for the residents of this City by their stupidity, graft and incompetence in every single thing they’ve done. By their ineptitude, they have aided Chris Christie’s re-election chances enormously: they have taken all of the public’s and the media’s attention away from the significant role the State played in the fiscal gutting of the Capital City.

The Governor, like a latter-day Pontius Pilate, can wash his hands of Tony Mack and the City of Trenton in public, and absolve himself of further responsibility for his Capital, without being called on it. In the wake of last weekend’s violence, the Governor has been silent. He hasn’t offered any comment or aid, nor has anyone in the media solicited him for any. The occasional temporary assignment of State Police has been an amazingly effective ploy for him, allowing a veneer of “action” to be thrown over an amazingly limited gesture.

In this, he is abetted by Democrats like Senator Stephen Sweeney, who use the continued tenure in office of the IO to justify the inaction by the State in further intervention in Trenton’s affairs, while at the same time doing nothing that would facilitate removing or neutralizing our toxic chief exec.

This piece has gone on far, far longer than I intended. I probably lost you a long, long time ago, back at Anti-Loitering Stickers!

But, I ask your forbearance but a little while longer. Allow me to finish where I began.

It’s Wednesday. Not one new action has been taken that may offer a chance that this  weekend will be any different than our last bloody weekend on the streets of the City of Trenton.

Whose names will we read in the papers next week?

For this, I accuse the officials most immediately culpable: the Police Director and the Indicted Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office.

I also will not forget the role played by Chris Christie, the Procurator of Jersey.

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