Comments (Mostly) Delivered to Trenton City Council - August 2, 2018

NOTE: Below are remarks as written for last night’s Council meeting. I was cut off at the 10 Minute mark, which is noted below. I swear, when I ran through them they timed at 8 minutes. Oh, well.

The proposed Resolution failed in 2-5 vote. Sponsor Robin Vaughn and Santiago Rodriguez voted in favor.

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Madam President and Council Members – On your docket this evening is Resolution #18-519, intended “To Remove the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the City of Trenton.”

The issue of the MOU – the document by which the State of New Jersey has memorialized and authorized Transitional Aid Awards to the City annually since 2010 – and the role of the DCA in oversight of the City’s internal financial affairs, have been in the forefront of Trenton discussions for the last few weeks. In his first days in office, the Mayor announced – wrongly, as it turned out – that the requirement for an MOU to accompany Transitional Aid had been waived for Trenton. Oops! Big Oops, actually, at the time, but one that should have quickly passed, in the aftermath of both a chaotic budget process that those in the Statehouse would rather forget, and a City Hall transition barely two weeks after bitter runoff elections.

However, since that brief incident at the beginning of July, the idea of canceling the MOU has been kept alive, and is present on tonight’s docket in the form of this quite meaningless Resolution. I respectfully request your vote against tonight’s measure.

This Resolution is poorly reasoned, needlessly contentious, and badly written. True, that’s the case with far too much writing in government and business; that can be excused. But its principal fault is that is simply meaningless, and meaningless in many ways.

First, by itself it will not authorize or trigger any action that can be taken by the City of Trenton on its own to change the terms of Transitional Aid, a state program instituted by Governor Christie when he unilaterally severed the previous financial ties between the City and State in the form of Capital City Aid.

This Resolution does not oblige the City in any way to any action, neither does it compel the State to do anything.  From the State’s perspective, Transitional Aid is a voluntary program for participating communities. Representing the interests of all of the state’s citizens and taxpayers, it has required annual MOU’s as the price of getting the grant since the program’s inception. Whether the amount is $27 Million, as it was in 2011, or this year’s $9 Million, if Trenton wants and needs State money under this program to balance its books , it has to play by State rules. A unilateral City Council Resolution doesn’t do a single thing to change that reality.

I want to be clear. Transitional Aid for Trenton is a flawed program. But put that thought aside for now.

Resolution #18-519 is meaningless for another, more important reason. The MOU mechanism has been described in the press by a sitting councilmember as “one of the crippling factors that has prevented the City of Trenton from thriving economically.” The language of the Resolution definitively states as an unquestionable reality that “Trenton will continue to be unable to generate the necessary investment capital, savings and revenue to improve and build out its service delivery platform and if action is delayed, to get the MOU removed, Trenton will likely continue to be severely fiscally distressed and challenged to effectively deliver services to its population of over 84,000 citizens.”

Whew! This is some claim. This is, of course, nonsense, easily dispoven by pointing to Trenton Pre-Transitional Aid. When the City was receiving over $40 Million in Capital City Aid, it was just as broke, just as “distressed and challenged,” just as dysfunctional. Can’t put the blame on DCA for this, although the State of New Jersey bears a lot of responsibility for several decades of history which have led to our current situation. Again, put that aside for now.

The truth is that Trenton has – as of yet – done nothing to show that it has earned the removal of state financial oversight that’s been the unavoidable cost of this particular program of state financial aid.

Confidence is earned.

Trust is earned.

Respect is earned.

Since your July 1 Inauguration, neither Council nor the Administration can yet point to any accomplishment, plan or policy that has begun to regain all the Confidence, Trust and Respect lost by the City of Trenton over the last several years by its continual failures of action and inaction.

There are efforts and plans under way of course, but none that have yet come to any kind of fruition. Working in opposition to whatever positive momentum that you on your new Council and the new Administration are working to get going is, frankly, a lot of baggage from the past that is doing nothing to earn back what’s been lost.

ITEM: The City website still contains the names of many Directors and Employees throughout City Hall who were on watch when $5 Million Dollars was stolen by a City vendor not so long ago. The Previous Administration failed to demonstrate or even explain that any action – in the form of personnel, policy and procedural change – was EVER taken to prevent another similar theft in the future. To begin to earn back Confidence in city government, the public still needs such demonstrations and explanations that we won’t be ripped off again.

This shouldn’t be a high bar to clear, after all, to show that you’re not leaving all the city’s windows and drawers open and ripe for the picking! But it’s a bar that Trenton stubbornly continues to refuse to clear.

ITEM: Although the Administration has devoted considerable energy and resources to cleaning up the mess at the Trenton Water Works, there still remain much of the same Public Works management – including an ineffective Director – and staffing that have overseen so many failures and violations, as well as a patchwork of contractors and consultants working to advance plans and goals of which we and customers throughout the County are still uninformed.

To help earn back Trust in Trenton’s Water Works, we need to see a positive Plan, as well as frequent and quantifiable, measureable progress in pursuit of compliance with such a plan.

The Administrative Consent Orders signed by the current and previous Administrations and the state Environmental Protection Department have also been the subject of strong criticism this past month, mostly unjustified. As of now, the ACO’s – and the monthly reports they require – are the only current means by which such compliance is being measured and explained, and the only current way by which Accountability up and down the chain of command can be in any way enforced. Until you, or the Administration, or the State, can come up with something better, the ACO’s are the best we’ve got. And the best not just for Trenton, but for all of the TWW customers in Mercer County on whose behalf Trenton is also supposed to act.

ITEM: The City’s record as a responsible and compliant recipient of Federal funding was damaged a few years ago when the US Housing and Urban Development Department canceled millions of dollars in Community Development Block Grants due to the City’s failures in program administration and management. Since 2015 the US Government has designated the City of Trenton as a “high-risk grantee of federal funds.” Has the City rectified that situation? I don’t know. Do you?

ITEM: For the better part of a dozen years, multiple Administrations and multiple Councils have been unable to adopt annual Fiscal Year budgets and financial plans until 9 or 10 months of the budget year have passed, with 9 to 10 months of city monies already come in, and gone out. That’s no way to run a city.

You will earn back Respect for City Council and the Administration by passing four annual, balanced city Budgets on a timely and responsible basis.

“But, but, but…” past Councils and Administrations have cried, “we don’t know what actual Transitional Aid Awards are until late in the Fiscal Year, and can’t complete a Budget until then!”

That’s never been a very satisfactory answer to me. Even if Transitional Aid actual amounts aren’t finalized until several months into a fiscal year, for goodness’ sake there’s absolutely no reason provisional temporary numbers – that we surely already have and DCA already has – can’t be used by the City and accepted by the State to prepare and formally adopt its budgets. If final Aid amounts change, amend the budget! In concept, it’s not that hard a deal!

Which brings me back to the Transitional Aid program. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s clunky. Yes, it infringes on the city’s autonomy.

[This is where Clerk Harris called me for time. The rest of these remarks were unspoken last night. Bummer.]

Yes, it lumps Trenton in with other Jersey communities and ignores the unique position of this town’s role as host of So Much State Government, a role recognized by the State prior to Chris Christie’s tenure as Governor. Yes to all that.

So, Councilmembers, come up with something better! There is a case to be made for Trenton’s unique position as the host of state government. There are arguments to support a source of regular, dependable and appropriate annual financial support in lieu of property taxes. But, let’s be clear, Transitional Aid is not that program. It never has been and never will be. It may in fact be phased out in the near future, as the very word “Transitional” has threatened since the program’s inception. But that’s not happening yet.

There is too much history and too much precedent with this program statewide to expect the state to waive the MOU requirement. It’s not going to happen. On top of that I simply do not believe that, as of tonight, the City of Trenton has earned that kind of consideration. To argue otherwise, and to adopt a resolution such as the one before you, is frankly not justified at the present time.

Don’t spend your precious months writing, debating and passing meaningless “Make it So” Resolutions such as #18-519. Don’t legislate in the press before you’ve done any meaningful legislating in this room.

Earn back Confidence, Trust, and Respect for this City by demonstrating Basic Competence, by this City.

In general, please, Do more. Talk less.

Prove that you are willing to and capable of doing the heavy lifting required to better the fortunes of the City of Trenton.

Please start by defeating Resolution #18-519.

Thank you.

3 comments to Comments (Mostly) Delivered to Trenton City Council – August 2, 2018

  • Laurice Reynolds

    Removing the MOU at this time is premature; however, it should be a goal of this present administration. We need some BIG investors for the city to be able to negotiate. Thanks for your thought out observations!

  • Excellent! Absolutely excellent! Although you didn’t mention it, others have, that the West Ward Council member has been grandstanding.

  • Kevin

    Thanks, Laurice – After nine years, and with declining grant awards, Transitional Aid is not the future. I do think that it would be worth while to pursue with the State a Capital City-centric program, with more appropriate and regular funding levels.

    But if Trenton wants to reduce the strings attached to State funding, it will have to convince the State, which likely means the Legislature as well as the Governor and DCA, that it’s regained competence. We’re still a ways away from that.

    Which segues into your thought, Ann. The new Councilwoman tends to react to opposition – from her own Council colleagues as well as mere voters – with personal attack rather than counter arguments.

    That’s one of the ways for a city in Trenton’s position to NOT demonstrate professional competence!

    If Trenton wants to be treated seriously as a responsible recipient of public grants and private investment, it will have to demonstrate that its leadership is mature and motivated by more than spite.