Premature Victory Lap? Or, Not Ready For Primetime?

If I were a one-term Trenton City Council member seeking, as At-Large Member Duncan Harrison is, a promotion to the Mayor’s Office after a Council term that was – you pick the best word: Lackluster? Disappointing? Disastrous? – I might grasp at anything that could conceivably be called an “accomplishment” to point to with pride. In a large field of mayoral candidates, you have to find a gimmick, I suppose. It’s just too bad that Councilman Harrison chose to hype up a really minimal action taken by Council week as something that – honest to God, he said this! – “an important change that will move Trenton into the 21st Century and help us build a bright, new future for our city.”

Really, he did. Aided and abetted by the Trentonian, whose utter lack of fact-checking allowed Mr. Harrison to take a very, very premature Victory Lap over the weekend. Instead of taking proportionate credit for a Council initiative, I fear Mr. Harrison is continuing to prove that, although he may have some potential as an effective Council member in the future, he is simply not ready for Primetime as a potential Mayor of Trenton.

On Friday, the Trentonian published a short piece in its “Trenton Election Rumblings” series of reports leading to the May 8 City Elections. This piece was attributed as a “Trentonian Staff Report,” so we don’t know who to blame for it.  The headline is “Harrison praises move that allows residents to pay with credit card for city services.” This piece quotes Councilman Harrison as saying,about an action taken by Council the previous evening,

“I am proud to see my advocacy to accept credit and debit card payments on our city website be enacted. This will result in real change that will help Trenton residents and businesses save time and money.” [Emphasis mine – KM]

I attended that Council meeting. I spoke at that Council meeting. I don’t recall anything like that kind of action taken. What could Mr. Harrison possibly be referring to?

Turns out he was referring to Resolution #18-110, which you can find here. This Resolution was passed as part of Council’s Consent Agenda that night, which approved many actions in one vote. There was no separate discussion prior to the vote that would have drawn attention to it for any reason. It was actually a fairly innocuous action, hardly one heralding “a bright, new future for our city.”

This Resolution’s title says what it does, and ALL that it does. “Resolution Authorizing the Use of Competitive Contracting in Lieu of Public Bidding for Credit Card Services for the City of Trenton.” That’s it. This action authorized one method over another for bidding and contracting for instituting  debit and credit card processing for customer and taxpayer payment for city service. Again, that’s ALL it does.

Let me give you an analogy. It’s like if you were to say today, “I decided I will buy my next house instead of renting. My House-Warming Party will be Saturday. See you there!”

There are just a few important steps that have to be taken between the start of the process and putting your beers on ice! And they can’t be skipped.

Same here. The action taken by Council on Friday simply allow Trenton’s Purchasing Agent to begin the process of putting Requests for Proposals out to credit card companies and/or banks, and wait for proposals to come in. From those proposals, Competitive Contracting allows a quicker and more streamlined process for evaluating proposals and negotiating a contract.

That’s where we are now. As you will see from the backup attached to the Resolution (Page 3), on February 2 of this year Isabel Garcia, the City’s Purchasing Agent sent a request to the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) requesting the authority to use Competitive Contracting. Two weeks later, on Feb 16 (Page 2) DCA Legislative Analyst Paul Urbish agreed to the City’s request. The Council Resolution adopted Thursday night, again, allows the City’s Purchasing Agent to start the process.

At this point, there are no proposals back from potential vendors, and certainly no “enacted” deal in place to start accepting Credit and Debit cards for City Services.

That’s not what the Councilman would have you believe. He told the Trentonian that last week’s action “will help Trenton residents and businesses save time and money.” [Emphasis mine – KM] In an indirect quote, the paper additionally claims,

“Accepting credit and debit card payments will cost the city nothing and will make it more convenient for Trentonians to pay bills and fees. It will also expand the city’s budget by making it easier for those who live outside Trenton to pay their bills and fees on time.” [Emphasis mine – KM]

The Councilman can’t truthfully make claims like that, although he has. Remember, WE HAVE NO PROPOSALS yet, let alone actual AGREEMENTS.

Yes, the sample [the City’s emphasis, not mine – KM] scope of services to be sent to potential bidders says (Paragraph 14, Page 6), “The City of Trenton will not be obligated to pay for any fees specified in the proposal.” [Again, the City’s emphasis, not mine – KM]

That’s what the City would like to see in the proposals it hopes to receive. But, you know, we haven’t gotten any proposals back yet. We don’t know if any potential vendors will actually include in their proposals that it will cost the City nothing to do business with them.

But that’s not what Councilman Harrison promises. To him, it’s a done deal.

Also, without a deal in place, how does the Councilman intend to resolve the problem as to who WILL actually pay for credit card processing. He claims both that the City will pay nothing to accept debit and credit cards, AND that this action “will help Trenton residents and businesses save time and money.” [Emphasis mine – KM]

When banks and credit card companies process payments, someone always pays for the service, whether it’s a merchant (in this case, to be the City) or a Customer. Here’s a sample chart, selected at random, showing the range of charges per transaction listed as a percentage of the transaction. Sometimes credit card companies charge a “flat convenience fee” of $3.95 or $4.95 per transaction.

card fees

The point is, this process has its costs. If Mr. Harrison tells us the City of Trenton won’t pay any fees, that means the customer will. And how does the Councilman square that against his statement that using credit cards will save time “and money?” If you want to pay your $100 water bill with a Credit card, and the “convenience fee” is $4.95. Congratulations! you will pay a premium of 5% on top of your bill for the privilege. You might be saving time, but you sure as hell will not be saving money!

Is this a good deal? I don’t know! I do know that, from the Trentonian article Friday, Councilman Harrison said this program had been “Enacted.” That is, a real plan, adopted and ready to implement. We are far, far away from that point. Any real deal or system ready to implement is at least months away. That, however, would likely be after the May 8 election. So, to get the biggest bang out of this very dubious “plan,” he had to play this up now.

On Saturday, I wrote to Mr. Harrison with a list of questions about this proposal. As of Noon Monday, he has not yet responded. In the absence of any clarification or new information from him that would put more meat on the bones of this very thin announcement, I have to believe that my interpretation of this proposal – that it’s nothing more than hype, and months away at least from a real plan – is correct.

I thought Duncan Harrison was better than this. I didn’t expect that he’d try something like this, schmoozing a newspaper to highlight his personal role in “enacting” a deal that is only just smoke and vapor at this point. But this is Trenton’s silly season. You can’t blame a candidate from trying to put one over on the electorate, but you also can’t blame the electorate for calling out bullshit when it sees it.

The Trentonian also needs to be called out on this. Whichever anonymous writer put this “Staff Report” up did so with zero fact-checking. He or she bought all of what Councilman Harrison was selling. Hook, line, and sinker.

We have less than two months until the May 8 election. I hope the candidates can play it straighter, and that the local press watches them with at least a little deserved skepticism.

In the meantime, this one mayoral candidate, Councilman Duncan Harrison, looks much less mayoral and professional after this. His apparent record and qualifications going into this race looked to be among the thinner end of the field. He does his reputation, and his electoral chances, no good at all in the aftermath of this.

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