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Getting a Little Ahead of Ourselves, Are We?

With the Labor Day holiday behind us, the lower level of activity during the summer usually seen in Trenton City Hall over the summer seems to be over. City Council meets tomorrow to consider several routine measures of municipal administration as well as several new initiatives from Council members and the Administration.

Some are more worthy than others. A couple of them, frankly, have come out of the blue without any previous discussions, announcements or campaign promises. In the absence of any prior attempt to communicate these initiatives to the public, I would suggest that Council table action this week and give people opportunity to digest what’s on offer here. I know the new Administration and Council are chomping at the bit to get things going, but some of this week’s Docket items reveal Executive and Legislative branches that look like they are in danger of getting a little too far ahead of themselves. I’m looking at only three items out of a 14-page docket, not a huge number. But these three items deserve more explanation from the City than we’ve been given to date.

These three measures would, if adopted: 1) designate the entire city of Trenton as a Historically Protected District; 2) commit the City of Trenton to a lawsuit against several manufacturers of opioid medications; and 3) give major salary bumps to the Mayor, his senior Department Heads and other Administration officials, the City’s judges, and City Council members.

Yeah, right?

Now I can’t today go into detail with a lot of these. But I do want to leave you with some thoughts on each of these, and hope that you may offer your own opinions to your Council members before tomorrow’s 5:30 Session.

The first measure is Resolution #18-532, sponsored by Members Santiago Rodriguez and Marge Caldwell-Wilson. It’s titled “Resolution Recommending Consideration, Authorization and Zoning Board Application to Invoke Historic District Designation Status for the City of Trenton.” Its stated objective is to turn the entire city into a Historic District, to reap the same kind of economic benefits for this city that flow into communities such as Hampton Roads and Williamsburg, Virginia. Seriously.

The Ordinance recognizes that there are currently a handful of designated properties and neighborhoods in the City that are already entered on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, such as “Berkeley Square, Ewing/Carrol, Mill Hill.” The full list of Trenton and other Mercer properties can be found here. The purpose of this kind of designation, according to the website of the NJ Historic Preservation Office, is to help fulfill national priorities as established by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act which “established a National Register of Historic Places to include districts, sites, structures, buildings and objects of local, state, and national significance.” Now, the main intent of the national Act is to preserve. That is, to keep what is in place. Rebuild, rehabilitate and restore as necessary, yes. But keep things as they are. Historically designated properties have substantial rules restrictions governing how and under what conditions properties are maintained and restored. But the underlying assumption is that the properties as they stand are of such historical and cultural significance to their local state and nation that they are to be preserved in perpetuity. That often puts major obligations on property owners, whether government, private non-profit, or individual homeowner on how they maintain their properties, especially exteriors.

Have you ever talked to a homeowner who lives in a historic district about window replacement? No? Well, freshen up your drink, grab a bite, and get prepared for an earful.

Councilmembers Rodriguez and Caldwell-Wilson would have us believe that the entire City of Trenton – as it stands today – is of national significance and worthy of historic preservation. Their Resolution mentions, quite properly, that this City possesses several valuable Historic Assets, naming among them “Battle Monument, Trent House, Ellarslie Museum,” and others.

But, tellingly, the Resolution’s language states that the City’s Historic Assets are “burgeoning.” Really? That word means “growing or developing quickly.” Is that so? Is the City “growing or developing” its historic assets? Is every building and structure in the City worthy of preservation, as this Resolution implies? Are you sure?

How about the garages on Sanford Avenue about which Councilwoman Caldwell-Wilson in today’s Trentonian is quoted as saying “No doubt those garages have to be knocked down because they are part of the illegal drug dealing that gets done up there.” 

Hey, if the entire City is to be treated as a Historic District, those garages will have historic value. The other derelict houses on Sanford Street, too. The legal priority and assumption will be preservation and restoration, not demolition and re-development.

If the entire City had been designated a historic district five years ago, it’s  likely that the old Glen Cairn Arms could never have been demolished to make room for a new Nursing School. It likely would have to have been restored within its empty shell. Old mansions on Greenwood Avenue near the train station currently slated for replacement (one of these days?) by high-rise commercial structures would be protected.

This Resolution, although it purports to be non-binding, would deliberately set Trenton on a self-limiting path that would likely foreclose any major redevelopment efforts – or make them exceedingly different – for decades to come. It’s lightyears away from previous plans and initiatives such as Trenton 250.

Trenton has several valuable historic assets. Many of them are already listed on the State and National Register. No doubt others deserve to be so recognized, and no doubt will be. But, honestly, the entire City should not be historically protected. We’re not Colonial Williamsburg.

The next item is Resolution #18-539. This measure is titled, “Resolution Authorizing The City of Trenton and Scott & Scott Attorneys at Law, LLP to Enter Into a Service Agreement Where Scott & Scott Will Represent the City Against Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of Opioid Products.”

Hello? Where did this come from? There’s no doubt that this City has long been ravaged by opioids, of the legal as well as illegal variety. The city’s crime rate and misery rate is fueled by drugs that are both illegally trafficked and legally prescribed.

But I’d like to know more about the objectives of this proposed representation agreement and potential litigation, and have questions about the Resolution as written.

What exactly are the City’s claims against the named companies? Why does this firm recommend filing in NJ State Court and not joining a Federal class action suit underway? Is this proposed action to be taken by Trenton alone, or are there other NJ towns involved? The letter attached to the Resolution states “Scott+Scott may represent other cities, counties, or states in this litigation against the opioid manufacturers and distributors.” OK, who might those be, and do we really want to join them. Why does the firm recommend not suing three distributors “who are frequently included as defendants?” Why this law firm? What is the potential downside of being part of this case? If plaintiffs including Trenton lose, what is the liability for costs and countersuits?

Overall this Resolution, being presented to Council without any prior open and public discussion about the issue, strikes me as a blank check to an unknown law firm, with unknown objectives, unknown liabilities, and unknown benefits.

Council needs to put the breaks on this one until the whole matter can be fully discussed!

Finally, Ordinance 18-47 (Sorry, that’s the best I could get for the time being) is set for First Reading tomorrow, scheduled for Second Reading on September 20.

This Ordinance would set salary ranges for several city officials significantly higher than they are now. For instance, the Mayor’s current range set in 2016, is $121,765-$158,209. If this proposed Ordinance is adopted, the salary range by 2021 would rise to $178,304-$207,001, an increase of 30%, or 10% a year.

I have not made similar calculations for the other classifications in the proposal, because I find it outrageous the Administration is introducing this measure now, again without any prior public announcement or discussion.

I’m sure the Administration will claim they won’t be able to hire quality managerial talent to head departments without competitive compensation. And I can sympathize with that, regarding fulltime Department heads.

But it is the responsibility of the Administration to make the case in advance of a proposal, not to put the matter up for adoption by Council in an up-or-down vote.

Let the Administration explain to the public and to Council how compensation for new hires needs to be improved. Show us how Trenton’s offers differ from other, similar communities. We can be convinced. Ditto with the city’s judges. These are not fulltime jobs, for the most part. We wouldn’t want judges to lose money by working for the city, but let’s hear the case for those on the city’s bench.

Let these arguments also be made in context with the City’s budget. How competitive can we afford to be? That’s the relevant question not being answered in this draft Ordinance.

As far as the Mayor, Council members and Judges are concerned: I think it’s too soon to consider range increases, that were readjusted as recently as 2016. Again, let’s look at the budget and consider what’s affordable. Since there was no shortage of candidates for Mayor and Council this year, we can assume they were not drawn to the jobs by the salaries, nor were they scared away.

They can wait awhile while we work this through the right way

And by “the right way,” I would suggest that, rather than simply setting salary ranges that automatically kick in as a function of the passage of time, let’s find a way of tying compensation packages for Senior Management – from the Mayor to Department Heads – to performance. Let specific goals and targets be set for people, and let them be rewarded for meeting them.

For instance, the Mayor made a campaign promise to renovate 1000 dilapidated houses citywide in 1000 days. Sounds like a plan. If that goal is codified in compensation agreements for the Mayor and other involved heads in Housing and Inspections, and that goal is met, Congratulations! They get a bonus.

If crime rates hit certain targets (sorry),  Congratulations! to the Police Director. If Fire Department response times improve along with department safety and injury rates, Congratulations! to the Fire Director.

You get the idea. As of July 1, we installed a new Council and new Mayor. We did not suddenly acquire a new and improved financial situation. So, sure, let’s talk about better City salaries. But let’s tie them to a better City.

Taken together, these three initiatives on City Council’s docket this week – and I acknowledge there may be other problems in the pack, these are the ones I thought worth attention – are flawed. Seriously flawed, and worth voting down in their present form and with what we the public currently know about them.

To the Mayor and Council: the summer is over and I know you all want to get to work. But these three items need work, and are not ready for Primetime. You all got ahead of yourselves here. Go back and fix them, if you think they are worth pursuing.

But before you again consider them – or similar major initiatives – for passage, please do a better job of informing and persuading us of their value. Because you haven’t, with these three proposals.

 

 

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