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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Get your priorities straight

Trenton's city government certainly does not have its priorities straight in cutting costs and reducing expenses in light of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Instead of making common sense changes to governmental activities and policies, the city residents are being made to bear the brunt of the budget axe, through the elimination of city police assets and units like the closing of once highly-touted police precincts during the late night hours and the elimination of the Metro and Vice units.

As Old Mill Hill has pointed out, these police precincts - some of which still languish in various stages of construction - were opened to great fanfare by Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and former Police Director Joseph Santiago, as evidence of keeping promises and focus on public safety issues.

Now, while favored city employees play bumper cars with Crown Victorias and waste gasoline 20 miles outside of the city, city residents in certain wards face the prospect of having their own area precincts closed at some of the most dire hours for public safety emergencies.

Police detachments like the Metro and Vice units are being closed down, with the same cost-cutting needs cited as the reason. These units maintained very public presences, either physically, in the case of downtown Metro officers, or virtually, in the case of the Vice unit's numerous arrests of high-ranking gang members and drug dealers.

Instead of these questionable plans, here are some suggestions:

- Cut numerous positions in the city's top-heavy administration, which is sized more appropriately for a city of 500,000, and not one of 84,000. There are mayor's aides, the chief of staff, multiple department directors, and numerous other positions ripe for elimination.

- Get rid of either the current city attorney, or the special counsel. Having both is totally unnecessary, and the salary would be better used in hiring a larger staff of in-house lawyers that would further cut the costs of contracting legal services out to to exotic law firms from Camden County.

- Institute a strict vehicle policy that keeps city vehicles in town, and more tightly controls the usage of city gasoline, at a time when gas is set to go over $4 a gallon.

- Redistribute the mayor's unnecessary personal protection detail to the police department and cut down on the $8 million police overtime bill.

Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago need to end the rampant waste and questionable financial decisions* frequently made by both men before considering any of these cost-saving measures that threaten public safety, in a city that already has a public safety problem.

*(It must be recognized that Mr. Santiago did make a good decision in shutting down the police department's horse unit, which was a gigantic waste of money and manpower.)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Trenton Water Works mismanagement: Part 2

Trenton water utility employees over the years have made it a habit to perform plumbing work while on the city clock for residents in the water utility’s coverage area, with the de facto approval of city officials, say angry water employees.

The history of these activities goes back a long way, they say.

When Mayor Douglas H. Palmer first got into office, Public Works officials and the mayor himself made a big deal out of rounding up and firing around a dozen water works employees for assisting residents in securing illegal hook-ups to the city water system. The efforts didn’t last too long, as most of the fired employees got their jobs back soon after the brouhaha.

But things have gotten much worse lately, say water utility workers.

One employee – documented in a piece in the Times of Trenton two years ago – actually got caught two or three times doing plumbing work, without a license, and while being paid on the taxpayer dime to be doing official water utility work. Nothing happened, despite warning being given by water managers to the higher-ups in the Department of Public Works, say utility sources.

They said that water employees have actually been caught securing permits for plumbing jobs at City Hall, while on the clock, and even collecting money from plumbing work performed for Trenton water customers. The only response from city leadership was a warning or a suspension or two, despite the gross violation of the public trust these activities represent.

Water-related equipment frequently disappears from city depots, say employees, because those doing illegal side-jobs actually use city equipment, city gas, and city vehicles to carry on their side jobs, while getting paid out of city coffers, which are a large part filled with money from all over the state.

The “look the other way” attitude of the city has even attracted the attention of licensed plumbers operating businesses in the Trenton area, according to utility sources, who said the real plumbers take money in from water utility employees. They in turn use the plumbers’ names and licensed plumber status to secure permits for plumbing work, with the costs getting passed on to the unwitting customer.

Water utility sources said that when the dozen or so employees were first rounded up and punished for performing similar illegal services in the early years of Mayor Palmer’s administration, the mayor allegedly said: “when we see corruption, we act.”

Guess things have changed around here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Irv caught again

Trenton Communication Director Irving Bradley got into a serious car accident in his city-owned Crown Victoria in the early afternoon on Thursday May 22, 15 miles outside of city limits, sources say, at a time when most city employees and other people are at work.

Mr. Bradley was allegedly heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike in the area of exit 8, far outside of his city of employment and legally required place of residence.

Remember, Mr. Bradley was caught months ago in photographs in what certainly looked like the misuse of another city-owned vehicle, taking the Trenton car up to the location of his old residence in Rahway, where his family apparently still lives. Mr. Bradley has taken up a residence in the Broad Street Bank building, likely to try and comply with the city's residency law.

But the legal definition of maintaining a bona fide domicile within the City of Trenton includes not only moving into the city, but also moving any immediate family into the city, to make the Trenton locations truly the new primary place of residence.

Also, city employees assigned city vehicles are allowed to use them to take back to their place of residence, which in Mr. Bradley’s case should be within the City of Trenton.

What exactly was he doing, again, with tens of thousands of dollars worth of city property, 15 miles outside of the city?

These questions need to be asked of administration officials, who previously responded to questions about Mr. Bradley’s residency with fairly evasive answers like “what employees do on the weekend is none of our business.”

Actually it is their business, especially when it involves now-destroyed city property, and a city employee who is living outside of the law, in a manner that has resulted in the terminations of dozens of other city employees.

This looks like more of the “business as usual” attitude of those enjoying the favor of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and former Police Director Joseph Santiago.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Turner: Kilmer grading issues are unacceptable

State Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, last week joined those upset over the fact that a Trenton elementary school has not been giving students letter grades this year because of they have not been taught by properly qualified teachers.

“The situation at Kilmer Elementary is completely unacceptable. The system has failed these students,” said Sen. Turner, in a statement. “These students cannot afford to fall behind, and ultimately they’ve been denied a full year’s worth of education. We need to know who dropped the ball here, and why nobody spoke up for almost an entire year.”

Students in the eighth grade at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School have received instruction in math and language arts from substitute teachers, according to reports, which district officials have attributed to difficulty in filling positions at the school.

Instead of receiving letter grades like in a normal educational system, the students originally received pass or fail grades. Residents and parents became upset over the ambiguity in the grades received by their children, but district official claim they will make efforts to assign letter grades in the near future.

For Superintendent Rodney Lofton and the Board of Education – hand-picked by Mayor Douglas H. Palmer – the grading problems represent just one more conflagration that can only be extinguished by some kind of improvement in Trenton’s failing public schools.

Many of the board members have been around for many consecutive education scandals, and the newcomer, Mr. Lofton, has now been around for several of his own.

But the whole group usually manages to shirk responsibility for many of the problems onto teachers or administrators, rather than themselves - the higher-ups responsible for shaping the district’s overall direction and conduct.

Doesn’t anyone see a problem here?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Council majority means $650,000 in savings

Action by a resurgent group of City Council members has saved the City of Trenton hundreds of thousands of dollars through the voting down of questionable initiatives coming out of the Douglas H. Palmer administration, an astute online poster pointed out Saturday on one the city's online forums.

There was the non-renewal of a $200,000 contract to Barry Colicelli, a city gang czar who failed to document what he was actually doing for the city, and the voting down of a $200,000 contract to get new handguns for police officers, despite an offer from the current supplier to provide new weapons for free.

Between those and the voting down of a $250,000 contract for citywide wireless internet that Mayor Palmer originally claimed would be free for the city, the strong group of four councilmen have managed to save $650,000 worth of city dollars, despite the best efforts of administration officials and their allies on council.

Next time you see councilmen Milford Bethea, Jim Coston, Gino Meline, or Manny Segura, give them a pat on the back and a "thank you" for all they have to done to safeguard city dollars from misuse on harebrained programs or policies.

Apparently they see that this city is in a budget crisis, despite the actions of a minority of those on council and the administration, who have taken an attitude of superiority over the interests of the common folk of Trenton.

Luckily for us, a majority of those on council continue to fight for the interests of the people who elected them, unlike their counterparts that seem to have fallen deeper and deeper into the pockets of Mayor Palmer.

Hopefully that reality will translate into an easier time in the 2010 election, in getting public officials who have no business working for the people out of positions of power in the government. Only then will things have the potential to improve dramatically here in Trenton.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A waste of city resources

Trenton police officers guarding the often-empty house of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer frequently decline to leave their post to address other public safety emergencies, say neighbors and law enforcement sources.

One police official said recently that the officer detailed to protect the Hiltonia house of Mayor Palmer refused to leave their post, to assist at a crime scene where a man had been murdered and an increasingly volatile crowd was gathering.

A close neighbor of the mayor’s Buckingham Avenue residence returned home in the nighttime to find a would-be burglar stalking through their yard. But the officer nearby, guarding the mayor’s house, refused to leave their post and instead called for backup from police dispatchers, they said.

This is just one way that the system of having law enforcement officials guard Mayor Palmer’s house puts a serious drain on a police department dealing with an ever-escalating crime problem.

Let’s not forget about the two full-time detectives – taking home around $70,000 a year – who are never on the streets, and instead are chauffeuring around the mayor like some warped, modernized “Driving Ms. Daisy.”

All the while, children in the city are being shot down in heinous acts of violence, while administration officials cry about budget shortages and the inability to properly staff police units.

Recently it was revealed that the reason for the protection detail’s creation was that a deranged man, suffering from severe mental illness, approached the mayor during a funeral years ago and struck him in the face.

It hardly seems reasonable that such an incident justifies the dedication of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and benefits to the mayor’s protection, in case another mentally deranged man gets close enough to throw a punch. This city has bigger things to worry about.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lawyers, guns, and money

Trenton City Council's majority of responsible representatives voted down another hackneyed city appropriation Thursday.

The now-dead appropriation was the controversial $200,000 city contract that would have supplied the Trenton Police Department with 425 new Springfield handguns, at the same time as the current weapon supplier, Glock, has officially offered to replace all of the department's current guns for free.

Once again councilmen Milford Bethea, Jim Coston, Gino Melone, and Manny Segura rebuked the misguided initiatives of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and his minions on City Council. That group now finds itself in the minority, with less than the four votes necessary to have any chance of getting Palmer initiatives passed.

This new day of Trenton legislative politics is certainly timely.

Remember, Trenton is in the midst of a budget crisis that threatens every city department's budget with the potential of cuts and layoffs, for the first time in the 18-year tenure of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer.

But, like clockwork, City Council members Paul Pintella, Annette Lartigue, and Cordelia Staton rose to support the Palmer and former Police Director Joseph Santiago-endorsed plan to spend $200,000 on unnecessary new weapons.

Luckily the other four, stronger council members saw through the dog-and-pony show-presentations, evasive statements, and excessively vague answers to council questions thrown their way by Mr. Santiago and other Palmer officials, and voted in the financial interest of the people who elected them.

Ms. Lartigue - a mayoral candidate - continued her habit of delaying City Council votes through the repetitive questioning of administration officials, and saying odd things about getting a Web site for "official" council information.

It has become a common perception among council observers that these antics happen with what seems to be an eye to delaying administration initiatives from failing, at the hands of the four councilmen.

On Thursday Ms. Lartigue asked numerous questions of Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum and Nothing-Special Counsel Joe Alacqua, but neither apparently neither Palmer shill wanted to lie on the record, so they told the truth.

Yes, they said, an offer for free guns was made, and yes, City Council does have the ability to vote no on the contract and reject the bids, without fear of litigation, as had been constantly hypothesized by Ms. Lartigue.

People really ought to consider this peculiar habit of some on council - in delaying beneficial legislative action from going forward when it's against the will of Mayor Palmer - especially when voting in the May 2010 mayoral election, in which Ms. Lartigue will be a candidate.

Being long on words and short on action is hardly a good quality in a mayor.

But anyway, be sure to let the new council majority what you think of their new-found legislative wisdom. It could change the very face of Trenton.

A welcome sight

Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer took time out of his busy national schedule Wednesday to make an appearance in his hometown and place of office, to take part in a march of solidarity for Qua-Daishia Hopkins, the 10-year-old Trentonian who lost her life to senseless gang-related violence in recent weeks.

This was a step in the right direction for Trenton, and the city’s mayor, as the city continues to deal with gang violence that plagues many of the city’s neighborhoods since taking hold here during Mayor Palmer’s tenure.

These days, the capital city does not see its longtime executive for extended periods of time, as Mayor Palmer travels across the county supporting the faltering campaign of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and attending functions as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Therefore it was a welcome sight to see one person in yesterday’s march who has the power to have a significant calming effect on the social problems that claimed the life of another young lady last night, on West State Street, not far from the statehouse.

Perhaps this signals a new era where Mayor Palmer will spend more time here in Trenton to try and make a bigger difference in the life-changing and life-threatening problems that have now taken the lives of two young Trentonians in a short period of time.

Some other suggestions include getting more police out on the street, killing plans to disband the police department’s Vice unit, and getting those officers wasting away behind desks and working late-night shifts back into positions where their prolific police skills can be put to better use.

Perhaps the permanent detail of officers assigned to Mayor Palmer’s protection unit can be redistributed, to be used instead in the protection of the city’s most vulnerable class of people: its residents.

Maybe the hiring of 50 additional officers that was so trumpeted by City Council members and Mayor Palmer himself can be expedited, and more New Jersey State Police can do their own patrols in the city’s worst neighborhoods.

Most of all, let’s get a mayor who is frequently absent from his own city to spend some more time here, and show everyone that he is truly dedicated to his constituents, and not presidential candidates or groups of mayors from the nation’s larger and more problem-free cities.

Trenton needs this.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Distressed city aid gets more attention

A state aid program for so-called distressed cities that has come under increased scrutiny from New Jersey lawmakers in recent months was the subject of legislation introduced in both houses of the state legislature Monday.

The measure - introduced by Sen. Phil Haines, Assemblywoman Dawn Addiego, and Assemblyman Scott Rudder - would require municipalities receiving aid out of the program to complete detailed reports outlining exactly how the state aid dollars would be spent.

Towns getting the dollars would also have to stop receiving the aid after three consecutive years, unless some sort of fiscal emergency exists.

"The state needs to do a better job of tracking how this money is being spent so that we can ensure tax dollars are not being wasted," said Sen. Haines, R-Burlington, in a statement. "This bill ensures that this program is a short-term fix for towns that truly need the aid - not an annual hand-out to just a few politically connected municipalities."

In the 2006-2007 budget over $190 million was doled out to a list that included many of the state's largest cities, including Camden, Paterson, Union City, Harrison, Trenton, Ewing, and Asbury Park. Gov. Jon Corzine proposes to spend $145.3 million on the distressed city aid in this year's budget, according to administration documents.

The biggest gripe about the program has been a lack of financial accountability in the program, according to some lawmakers, who say the moneys should come with strict oversight and restricted uses.

The City of Trenton received some of the aid recently, although Mayor Douglas H. Palmer refused to recognize Trenton as a city in fiscal distress, as one might consider when reflecting on the city's current financial situation.

One-time gimmicks like the sale of Trenton Water Works infrastructure and the sale of the city's interest in a power generation operation have temporarily shored up the city's finances, but more fiscal problems in the coming years loom because of a lack of comprehensive financial reform.

Like many say, Trenton's finances could come crashing down any day now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Trenton Water Works mismanagement: Part 1

The Ruins of Trenton has already shown how suburban residents are truly dreaming, in being content to live outside of Trenton and be convinced they are not affected by the shenanigans that go on here.

But this, the first in a three-part series, elaborates on just one way that shows how these people are being duped into thinking that Trenton's misguided administration holds no consequences for them, financial or otherwise.

Trenton's water utility serves not only the 84,000 or so residents living here in T-Town, but also tens of thousands living outside of our borders, who get Trenton water pumped to them through an extensive system of piping, pumping stations, and other water infrastructure.

What those tens of thousands living in the various Mercer County townships don't realize though is that through their water bill payments they are actually subsidizing multiple other Trenton city departments that have little or nothing to do with the purification and provision of drinking water.

Despite the existence of state statutes regulating the use of money generated from water utilities that pump retail water to other municipalities, this city's government uses the Trenton Water Works as some sort of gold-generating cow to shore up sagging finances, say former and current Water Works employees.

For sure, revenue generated from a municipally-owned utility can be reinjected back into the host municipality's general budget funds, but only up to a number equal to 5 percent of that fiscal year's total expenditures. For the average Trenton fiscal year, that means that the maximum allowable amount of cash that can be taken from the water utility and plugged back into the city budget is somewhere around $1.5 million, out of a usual $30 million worth spent on water utility costs.

But in 2007 the City of Trenton took around $6 million out of the water utility, for a variety of costs, services, and employment positions that have nothing to do with the water utility. And not only are people in Trenton paying this secret tax on top of their regular property bills, but so are those living in the surrounding municipalities receiving water from Trenton's Water Works.

The proof is for anyone with a disciplined eye to see. Budget documents from the city's water utility show disbursements made out to city departments for services that were never actually provided to the water utility.

The administrative office of the Department of Public Works actually secures somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of its funding from the water utility revenue, say utility employees, despite the fact that Public Works does not in any way, shape, or form do 80 percent of its work for the water utility.

The Fire Department budget actually got $250,000 worth of funds from the water utility in a recent budget, for services that water employees say were never rendered. So did the Department of Public Works, which got $250,0000, and the streets division of the same department, according to the same water workers.

Apparently there are even city employees on the water utility payroll who don't even work there, in some kind of employment scheme that allows the City of Trenton to make people being billed for water pay for employment positions that have nothing to do with the provision of the substance, sources say.

They said that one year city spokesman Kent Ashworth actually got paid out of the water budget, and out of the pocket of city and township water customers.

What is really bad for the city is that looming hearings to be held by the state Board of Public Utilities on the pending $100 million sale of Trenton water infrastructure outside of the city borders could be a perfect scene for township residents and officials to bring all of these concerns up, after they fell on deaf ears a few years ago.

Conincidentally, water workers say this is a bad deal for the city, in that it will cost Trenton millions in revenues over many years all traded for a one-shot influx of $100 million into a city government that couldn't even manage a bodega.

Should a state entity decide to step in, they could potentially make the City of Trenton pay back all of that stolen water funding, resulting in an even worse financial situation for city taxpayers already facing one year of massive property tax increases.

What a mess this is.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Smear campaign continues

Trentonian columnist L.A. Parker used several column-inches in his newspaper Monday to lend a hand in Mayor Douglas H. Palmer's all-out assault on the Mack family here in Trenton.

Citing anonymous sources, Mr. Parker wrote that Raphiel Mack - brother of mayoral candidate, Mercer County freeholder, and ex-Palmer friend Tony Mack - has an arrest record including several assaults, although the article seems to say that none of the arrests resulted in convictions.

The piece comes after Raphiel was suspended from the Trenton school district after an incident in which he allegedly broke the arm of a young student during instruction, although Raphiel has yet to go to trial.

While there may have been some validity to writing a piece about the arrest history of a district employee now facing charges stemming from the alleged injury of a young Trenton student, Mr. Parker also used the column to gratuitously link Raphiel to his brother Tony, who fell out of favor with Mayor Palmer and has been suffering the consequences ever since.

The repetition of linking Raphiel to his brother Tony certainly looks like some attempt to further compromise the Mack family name in Trenton, and judging from Mr. Parker's close relationship with Mayor Palmer, it could be that there is some sort of Palmer-endorsed public relations campaign being waged following Raphiel's recent arrest.

Mayor Palmer has a long history with Tony Mack, who at one time was the heir-apparent to Trenton's longtime mayor. That changed when Mayor Palmer decided to run for the mayor's seat in 2006, after telling Tony he was free to run and take over the reins of power at 319 E. State Street, according to court documents.

People familiar with the situation said that Tony refused to exit the mayoral campaign, which launched a feud between the two men that continues to this day. That feud resulted in the costly liquidation of Trenton's recycling program, which Tony directed.

This allegedly "green" city government announced that the program was to be disbanded, and that the administration had coincidentally found positions elsewhere in the city government for every recycling employee, that is, except for Tony.

The city still feels the consequences of what certainly appeared to be a politically-motivated decision to this day.

Trenton loses hundreds of thousands of potential dollars in lost recycling revenue and pays roughly $500,000 a year for outside recycling services. The so-called environmentally-friendly Palmer administration does not even recycle at city facilities, according to city employees, in what looks like a cost-cutting measure designed to reduce the expenses incurred from having outsourced city recycling operations, because of what one judge saw as a political vendetta.

In fact, there are reports that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of revenue-generating recycling equipment purchased for Tony Mack's use a few years ago sit unused in a warehouse somewhere, after the city never took delivery of the goods after disbanding the recycling program.

You gotta hand it to Mayor Palmer.

He certainly knows how to play all-out hardball, with little regard for the good of his name or the good of his city.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Capital games

Misinformation continues to thrive here in Trenton, New Jersey.

Probably the largest infestation of the illness exists down the street from where these words are being typed, at the New Jersey Statehouse.

But, instead of turning left down State Street, one looking for massive amounts misinformation could also turn right, and head down to City Hall at 319 E. State Street, or even better, down towards Perry Street, to the Trentonian.

Drivel written there and published this weekend missed the point on the City of Trenton's gun quandary, just as West Ward Councilwoman Annette Lartigue missed the point when asking questions of former Police Director Joseph Santiago during City Council's Tuesday session.

She asked him if he had any special, hidden interests in ensuring the passage of a resolution handing a $200,000 city contract to Lawmen Supply Co. of Egg Harbor City for the provision of 425 new Springfield handguns to the Trenton Police Department, citing anonymous Internet writing as the source of the questions. Remember, the Springfield plan came at a time when current handgun provider Glock has offered to replace all the city's current weapons at no cost, instead of the switch to Springfield.

The line of questioning between Ms. Lartigue and Mr. Santiago - who had a private conversation for a couple of minutes before the incident began - caused the former director to utter his now infamous line about suing City Council members, or asking them to "take it outside."

It was a pretty interesting moment for sure, but now it just looks like some sort of distraction between a bombastic city official whose job is on the chopping block and an overly vocal mayoral candidate who is sometimes short on actual legislative action.

Ms. Lartigue's line of questioning - like this weekend's Trentonian article - seems to have only served to misinform or distract from the issue at hand in this gun question.

What is actually at question is whether or not the City of Trenton should pursue the new weapons at the cost of $200,000 when the current supplier, Glock, has offered to replace all of the current weapons with new ones for free, and not if Mr. Santiago has some sort of hidden agendas in the matter.

Trenton is currently facing a major budget crisis, so the question is about if this is really an appropriate time to spend what seems like thousands of unnecessary dollars on new weapons that are not even regarded as markedly better over the current guns.

The Trentonian said the swap would cost $25,000, but that's false as well, just like the column's assertion that the $200,000 expenditure has already been approved.

That $25,000 only comes in with a trade-in for .45 caliber Glocks, which is not even really on the table at this point. And the fact that the expenditure was downplayed by Mr. Santiago and the Trentonian as being a capital expenditure - thus taking years to pay off - shows that some people here have no respect for city taxpayers, who have to pay off the sum of money regardless, whether in one year or 20.

Does Trenton really need these new weapons, at the cost of $200,000, when the current provider of perfectly good weapons is offering to replace all of the department's weapons for free?

Let your city representatives know what you think before Tuesday's meeting.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Other development delays caused by Palmer

Some delays experienced by developers in Trenton occurred when city Mayor Douglas H. Palmer tried to get his wife a piece of the development action, according to sources in development companies in the city.

Lucky enough for those companies, the delays that come after refusing to get involved with developer Cristiana Foglio-Palmer eventually ended. The specific development was able to move forward, albeit with much delay and lost revenue.

It's too bad that a mayor who frequently vocalizes about the imagined progress made in his hometown would be willing to mortgage the success of projects with the potential to contribute to that progress, only to play hardball with developers who decline to get involved with his wife.

Mayor Palmer also requests for significant campaign donations from developers, with negative responses usually resulting in a similar application of brakes to the specific piece of development, according to the same development people.

That system of paying tribute has also resulted in significant delays for those developers, but delays aren't mecessarily the only result, depending on the developer.

For people like Bob Torricelli, those campaign contributions seem to indicate a higher likelihood of getting lucrative city appropriations down the road, despite any inconsistent record with development in Trenton.

Several Torricelli-related developments in the city that have received significant financial assistance from the city continue to languish in various stages of construction or planning.

Just think of it as the topsy-turvy environment of economic development in New Jersey's capital city.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Enact a vehicle ordinance now

Trenton City Council needs to move now to end the practice of allowing municipal employees, city contractors, and police to use city vehicles for all types of non-city business.

Councilman Jim Coston actually proposed such a measure sometime last year, but Special Counsel Joe Alacqua apparently received orders from higher-ups Palmer administration officials to nix the proposal, however possible.

Mr. Alacqua did this by providing questionable legal advice, in telling City Council the absurd statement that such matters as controlling municipal vehicles - and the gasoline going into them - was a purely administrative function, to be regulated by Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and his administration officials.

Now that Hamilton Township has joined the ranks of so many other New Jersey towns and passed an ordinance controlling the use of municipal vehicles, such a position as that taken by Mr. Alacqua is obviously false.

City Council could save the City of Trenton millions of dollars in gasoline and wear and tear on city vehicles by mandating that those vehicles be used solely for city business within city limits at all times, period.

Police living outside of the city can commute back and forth in their own cars and pick up their police vehicles at designated places throughout the city, like near the department's several precincts. Arguments from the administration that doing so would cost more because of the security necessary for such lots is absurd, when the majority of municipal vehicles already sit in lots when not in use.

Vehicles provided to city employees - who are still legally required to live in Trenton - should be even more tightly controlled, by only being cleared for use during official city business, and only within city limits except under special circumstances.

With $4 a gallon gas soon to be a reality and the city descending deeper and deeper into a budget crisis, now is the time to regulate this perpetual drain on city resources, and that means Mayor Palmer's car use too.

Any potential ordinance should also go as far as ending the practice of having detectives earning $70,000 a year carting the mayor around town in a city car as if he were a czar, sultan, or even a governor.

The mayor gets to use that vehicle when many city police and other employees are forced to use a fleet of aging, worn out vehicles that only gets worse with each passing day.

Let's get serious Trentonians.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The urban welfare system

An occupying force of federal, state, county, and local police has descended upon some of Trenton’s worst areas like some sort of crime-suffocating blanket, following the fire-bombing murder of one of the city’s youngest and most innocent citizens.

While the outcry and ensuing response are much appreciated here in Trenton, the reality is that this particular situation punctuates the need for Trenton’s own government, own police force, and own people to seriously get cracking and start changing the conditions of places like Walnut Avenue.

And that’s because the people whose law enforcement agencies have now descended into the urban ghettos of Trenton are quite happy with allowing the social and economic issues that cause incidents like the death of Qua’Daishia Hopkins to continue, unabated.

The conditions of neighborhoods like Walnut Avenue and other areas of Trenton are a total disgrace to this city, and the rest of the state. They are even a disgrace to humanity, but it is simply a fact of life that many people subscribing to the NIMBYism that is endemic to this society could simply care less about what goes on in Trenton’s blighted neighborhoods and broken social circles.

What is truly sick about all of this is that people living outside of New Jersey’s cities are actually content to pay hundreds of millions of dollars directly out of their pockets to keep these problems out of their sight, out of their mind.

They don’t see it, so it becomes acceptable for these adverse conditions to exist in that continual state of festering that nearly always results when problems are merely allowed to exist instead of taking the comprehensive action to eliminate them once and for all.

Every year somewhere around $450 million of outside dollars are hand-delivered to the officials of Trenton, to make up the gigantic gap between the level of services Trenton’s ratables can support through taxes versus the amount of services needed to tend to Trenton’s array of problems.

Surely that $450 million a year would be better dedicated to a decade’s worth of economic redevelopment, so that maybe one day Trenton can get off of the welfare line and onto the road of self-sufficiency.

But judging from the continued existence of this system of economic hand-outs, it seems that the state outside of Trenton is quite content to pay a massive annual fee to keep the problems of Trenton safely within the borders of Trenton, even if the cost in human lives snuffed out by poverty-bred death continues to exist at an unacceptable level.

In these conditions Trenton’s municipal government – the Palmer administration – exists as a kind of Vichy government endorsed by the outside world to rule over the chaos that lives in Trenton’s seven square miles.

Just as it is endorsed by the outside world that has continued to support the current social and economic climate in the state capital, the municipal government has become a product of that climate and likely relies on its continued existence to maintain its stranglehold on municipal power.

It follows then that this current government needs to go before the current conditions can be changed significantly. Trenton’s government – coming from a broken system – has come to rely on that same system for its lifeblood, and only when those in their current position of power are out can Trenton move on, as a city, without reference to what those obviously misguided outsiders would prefer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Santiago talks guns, council member talks blogs

Former Police Director Joseph Santiago made a repeat appearance before City Council Tuesday night to rehash the city's current gun quandary, in which a Santiago-led faction of police are seeking $200,000 worth of city dollars for the purchase of new handguns, despite an offer from the current gun supplier to replace all of the department's weapons for free.

Mr. Santiago shed more light on that offer Tuesday, saying a police captain unaffiliated with the weapons team clamoring for the new Springfield handguns contacted Glock and received a verbal offer from the firm. That was later backed up with a written offer, outlining an official proposal to replace all of the current weapons at no cost to the city, he said.

Councilwoman Annette Lartigue said she was concerned that with the bid having gone out and Lawmen Supply Company of Egg Harbor City having responded, the city would be open to some sort of litigation stemming from any City Council decision to reject that bid and opt instead for the no-cost Glock offer.

"We're going to pay for the guns anyway," said Ms. Lartigue. "We're gonna get sued."

City Attorney Denise Lyles did not provide any information on Ms. Lartigue's concerns, but legal sources contacted Tuesday night said that City Council members face no adverse consequences in rejecting the one measure and seeking the Glock offer instead.

Ms. Lartigue called for the second Santiago presentation last Thursday, when council was actually set to vote on the $200,000 resolution to get the Springfields. The council will now likely vote on the measure next week, according to council members.

It was said that calling for the second presentation was actually a stalling action after the resolution appeared headed for failure, with a majority of the council ready to vote no.

At one point Tuesday's meeting saw a tense exchange that had audience members casting sideways glances. It happened after Ms. Lartigue began questioning the former police director about whether or not he had some sort of interest or hidden agenda to get the money for the new guns.

She cited Web postings as the source of the allegations, but Mr. Santiago took offense to the line of questions, as evidence of similar suspicions on the part of council members. Mr. Santiago answered no to all of the questions, and then detailed his planned response to any allegations of hidden interests in the new weapons from the city's elected representatives.

"I'll sue you, or we can take it outside," Mr. Santiago said.

He also said he "didn't know when this council went off the rails", and alleged that council members listened to what people were writing on anonymous blogs rather than what administration officials were telling them.

Apparently Trenton's growing Web community has been getting to some council members and administration officials, judging from Mr. Santiago's comments and that Tuesday's meeting had Ms. Lartigue calling for council to create its own Web site.

Ms. Lartigue said she was concerned about some of the information that was getting out to the public about council activities.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lofton to appear before council

Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools Rodney Lofton is scheduled to come before City Council tonight for a little bit of legislative inquiry regarding the district's budget and numerous incidents that have continued to mar the reputation of the city's schools.

Possible discussion topics could include rumors about another grade-fixing scandal brewing in some school, the recent alleged assault of a student and the ensuing cover up of the incident by school officials, or maybe the continued suspension of a principal at one of the city's Daylight/Twilight institutions.

While this type of legislative inquiry is welcomed as a sign of City Council doing its job as the legislative branch of city government, isn't it time to begin questioning the Board of Education in all these matters?

The board - appointed by Mayor Douglas H. Palmer - has failed to gather any responsibility in many of the aforementioned scandals, instead heaping blame on school administrators, teachers, and even previous superintendents.

This board represents the deliberative and legislative branch of the city's public schools, and its members need to work better at making sure the rules are being followed, instead of allowing incident after incident not only damage the reputation of the district, but severely harm the prospects of Trenton's youth in attendance at these schools.

When the original grade-tampering scandal at the Sherman Avenue annex blew up, principals and the former superintendent were quickly dragged out and blamed for all that went on, but it is also the responsibility of the board to ensure that all that goes on at these school annexes, additions, and addendums actually follows the rules.

As the problems at these schools continue, administrators and superintendents come and go, but the only constant is the majority of the members of the Board of Education.

Next time something serious happens, Trentonians ought to question the people on those board, who do not seem to be the most accountable group of public officials, even among the officials of Trenton.

Despite their being appointed by Mayor Palmer, they should remain accountable to the residents of this city and the children whose futures they have such a profound effect upon. Many of Trenton's kids already face an uphill battle in getting a good education and succeeding in life, and it's unfair to allow the stupidity or bad intentions of district officials to make that battle worse.

Monday, May 12, 2008

James avoids second corruption trial, faces 10 to 15 years in prison

U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Chris Christie announced Monday that he will not pursue charges in court against former Newark Mayor Sharpe James stemming from Mr. James’ alleged use of city money for frivolous expenses.

Mr. Christie said a guilty verdict in that case – following Mr. James' conviction earlier this year for helping a mistress secure cheap Newark land for later profitable sales - would not result in further jail time for Mr. James, while costing taxpayers thousands of additional dollars to prosecute.

“We believe that justice was served on the day the jury convicted the former mayor on all of the corruption charges against him and, as a consequence, by the significant prison term that he likely faces,” said Mr. Christie in a statement, according to

The second court case would have revolved around Mr. James’ use of nearly $60,000 in city funds on lavish expenditures, including restaurant bills, pornographic movies, and outrageous vacations with numerous friends of the opposite sex.

But a conviction in connection with those allegations would not really add onto the conviction in the earlier trial, which means that Mr. James, 72, faces more than a decade in prison.

Mr. James was a good friend and supporter of former Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago, who is awaiting an Appellate Division hearing in June that could mean the end of his tenure as head police administrator in Trenton.

Other James cronies in Trenton include current Communications Director Irving Bradley, and former gang czar Barry Colicelli, who was ousted by Trenton City Council earlier this year after his invoices failed to provide a record of what exactly Mr. Colicelli was doing for the city, in return for a lucrative city contract.

Perhaps Trenton’s residents would be well served if Mr. Christie came to the state capital and verified that records of Trenton's city government, which surely receives hundreds of thousands in federal dollars for crime-related and other efforts, are all in order.

Considering the amount of Sharpe James garbage floating around down here, it may be worth a look.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Juan for sale, only $60,000

Palmer machine supporter Juan Martinez once again stuck his foot in his mouth with comments made to the Times of Trenton Sunday, in an article about the failure of Mercer County Waterfront Park to bring economic development to contiguous areas of South Trenton.

"Until the next election, nothing's going to happen in the South Ward," Mr. Martinez said to the Times. "We can't get a project going on down here. The city comes up with some beautiful plans, and we don't know what happens."

Mr. Martinez seems to be suggesting that the prospects of South Trenton's economic redevelopment might improve with some kind of change in the city government in the 2010 election, likely a change that would involve the end of current South Ward Councilman Jim Coston's exit from his seat on council.

The fact of the matter is that any blame for the lack of economic development in the city falls squarely on Mayor Palmer and his economic development team, who consistently fail to pursue appropriate projects and instead pursue pie-in-the-sky schemes that nearly never work out.

Mr. Coston likely sees that trend for what it is.

That's probably why he challenged the recent Champale site development after the city and project developer bludgeoned city residents with botched eminent domain efforts and other actions, all of which failed to bring development to the South Ward, and instead only brought feelings of bad will and controversy.

Mr. Martinez's comments are simply out of touch with reality, and it bears consideration that this man used to be a big Palmer detractor, who actually made a habit out of calling the mayor out and clashing with the city's longtime executive.

That all changed when Mr. Martinez was given some sort of do-nothing community liaison job with Trenton's public school district, with a $60,000 salary, sometime in the last year or so.

Ever since then Mr. Martinez has been singing the praises of Mayor Palmer. He takes the Palmer line on anything, from economic development to lending support to efforts in keeping Police Director Joseph Santiago on the job, despite the director's breaking of the city's residency ordinance in living outside of Trenton.

Of course the Palmer line includes hating on Mr. Coston, who has helped bring a lot more accountability to Trenton's city government in being part of the recent mini-renaissance that has been going on in City Council chambers. There city representatives have begun to awaken to the constant trickery and evil being perpetrated by Mayor Palmer and company.

That accomplishment seems to have earned the young councilman the hatred of Mayor Palmer and others in the administration, in a group that now includes Mr. Martinez.

So when people read Mr. Martinez's lame attempts at linking Mr. Coston to a lack of economic development in the city, please remember, this man sold his soul for a mere $60,000.

His comments probably shouldn't carry much weight with anyone, and and especially not with those living in Trenton.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Proceed with caution on train station development

Trenton City Council this week moved forward with amendments to a redevelopment plan for the Trenton Train Station area that could result in the destruction of two majestic homes on Greenwood Avenue.

While enjoying general support among City Council members, there was considerable deliberation during Thursday's meeting prior to the 6 to 1 vote to approve the amendments. Most of the council members stated that while they supported preservation, they also supported economic development, which required the amendments and the ultimate destruction of the homes.

Normally these positions would hold water, but they are a little more tenuous when they are made in the City of Trenton, where the Douglas H. Palmer administration has fumbled, bungled, and generally screwed up numerous economic development projects, as the mysterious, wise, and elderly Old Mill Hill has pointed out.

Trenton is full of projects that have failed to gain traction: the Champale development, Manex, Performa, Full Spectrum. All amount to quite a bad history for the current administration and reflect badly on its ability to properly execute large-scale development in the city.

This list of infamous development names probably popped into the heads of many in the audience at City Council Thursday, when one city development official made comments about the project not going forward without assured success.

"Trenton doesn't build 25-story buildings to let them stand empty," said Sasa Olessi Montaño, acting director of housing and economic development.

Despite those comments, the reality is that many of these failed or stalled projects have moved forward, yet resulted in unnecessary controversy, especially involving botched eminent domain cases and general angst among development stakeholders.

That record of failure - while not necessarily the fault of Ms. Montaño - leads to a strong belief that there is quite a good chance that these two majestic Victorian structures could be demolished for no good reason.

The train station project could move forward smoothly, and then suddenly hit any number of unforeseen problems, which could end up stalling the project or killing it completely, at a point long after the destruction of these homes.

As TrentonKat has pointed out, the area of these homes is full of blighted streets, gutted houses, and other locations screaming for large-scale development, all in close proximity to the Trenton Transit Center.

The city could have easily pushed the developer to consider building in one of these areas, instead of tearing down two beautiful and historic homes.

Hopefully this project goes forward, because it could bring much good to the City of Trenton. But let's also hope that those two homes don't come down only to see nothing built in their place.

If that happens, it certainly wouldn't be the first time there was egg on the face of Trenton's economic development team and the City Council that approved their actions.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Local taxes could benefit New Jersey, Trenton

State lawmakers concerned over the state's chaotic financial environment tossed around an interesting idea in March, in following the lead of many other states in allowing municipalities to begin levying local taxes.

The idea seemed to have originated in the Assembly Budget Committee, where Chair Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, first broached the subject, although it seems to have fallen to the wayside as the budget debate has moved on.

Local governments in New Jersey get the vast majority of their revenue from property taxes, and Mr. Greenwald thinks the way other states have used these local taxes to offset the property tax burden on many taxpayers could be utilized effectively in New Jersey.

"It is not (an increase) if it is offset by stabilizing property taxes," said Mr. Greenwald, in March, to the Associated Press.

Places like Trenton could certainly benefit from instituting a local tax, because of the presence of a large population of state workers that come in and out of the city each weekday.

This population does contribute to Trenton's economy, but certainly not in the way that many envisioned when the state greatly expanded its operations here in the middle of the last century.

What's worse is that those massive state structures littered around downtown and the rest of the city don't contribute property taxes, instead paying their way through an oft-criticized payment-in-lieu-of-taxes. Even recently, City Council members were calling for a renegotiation of that deal, but pigs will probably fly over the statehouse before that happens.

To offset that perceived shortfall, Trenton and other cities with large populations of commuter workers could throw their weight behind getting legislation passed that would allow the local taxes that Mr. Greenwald spoke of.

A city income tax coupled with a rebate program for city residents could neatly contribute to city coffers without hurting the people who actually live here, who could get most or all of their city tax back in the form of a rebate, or an exemption.

Support of local taxes could also open the way for Trenton - a so-called "green" city - to begin taxing people who own gas-guzzling SUVs, or engage in other environmentally damaging activities.

With all of the alleged political clout of Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, it would interesting to see what would come of a push towards empowering Trenton and other towns to impose local taxes on certain people or activities, which could in turn help address this year's loss of state aid dollars and New Jersey's larger problem of crushing property taxes.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

City Council or City Circus?

In proceedings reminiscent of the botched Barry Colicelli gang czar vote, once again those members of council who would do Mayor Douglas H. Palmer's bidding held up a vote Thursday when it appeared they didn't have the votes necessary for the motion to carry.

On the table was an idiotic appropriation to spend $200,000 of cash-strapped Trenton's dollars on new Springfield handguns for the Trenton Police Department, when the current provider, the Glock company, has offered to replace all the current weapons for free.

With the motion on the table, West Ward Councilwoman Annette Lartigue began a vote-interrupting interview of Chief of Staff Renee Haynes, who once again fudged reality by offering the city's legislative body biased information, in a feeble attempt to manipulate the vote.

When asked if there was an offer to replace all of the Glocks for free, Ms. Haynes replied that there was no official offer that she knew of, and the only offer on the table was to replace the current weapons with Springfields, with their $200,000 price tag.

South Ward Councilman Jim Coston quickly pointed out that former Police Director Joseph Santiago, while making a presentation on the Springfields last week, admitted that after the Springfield process had begun Glock had in fact come in with the offer to replace all the department's guns for free.

What transpired next was truly typical of City Council proceedings under President Paul Pintella. First both Ms. Lartigue and Mr. Pintella asked Special Counsel Joe Alacqua what they could do with the resolution, with Mr. Alacqua responding with the obvious administration line.

He told the council members that it would be "strange" if they rejected the Springfield offer in anticipation of accepting the "unofficial" and free Glock offer.

Then things really unraveled, with Ms. Lartigue, Mr. Pintella, and Mr. Alacqua conducting a 10-minute private sidebar about how to proceed with the motion, apparently fretting over the lack of support for purchasing the Springfields.

Ultimately they decided to withdraw the motion, and called on the former police director to return to council next Tuesday for a rehash of his presentation, and a hopefully more favorable vote for the Palmer and Santiago faction.

These people continue to make a mockery of the city's legislative body, and it is high time for change here in Trenton, in many levels of city government.

A sound car policy

The City of Trenton is currently pursuing the purchase of 10 marked Ford Explorer four-wheel drive SUVs for the city's police department, according to the City Council docket that was handed out at Tuesday's meeting.

A resolution on the docket called for the rejection of all bids to supply those vehicles, but given the fact that former Police Director Joseph Santiago has a penchant for all things both flashy and costly, it is likely the city will quickly rebid the vehicles and attempt another purchase.

West Ward Councilwoman Annette Lartigue quickly called on officials from the Douglas H. Palmer administration to ensure that when purchased, the 10 Ford Explorers would not be allowed to leave Trenton city limits.

Ms. Lartigue has the right idea, although what would be better than calling on administration officials to regulate marked vehicles - which rarely leave city limits - would be a comprehensive policy restricting the use of all city vehicles from outside use.

Besides the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrids used by some city officials, most use gas-guzzling Ford Crown Victorias, unmarked Ford Expeditions, and Jeep Cherokees, all of which get significantly under 20 miles per gallon around town.

Added together, the use of all of those vehicles means two things: hefty gasoline bills and a relatively short lifetime for city-owned automobiles.

Also, the all-road vehicles allow the city to make purchases outside of the regular budget. Four wheel drive vehicles can be purchased through capital budgets, meaning their cost will be spread out to the taxpayer over many years, likely after the vehicle is no longer in service.

The city's current fiscal woes mean that City Council members could take the very easy step and do what Hamilton Township did, which is enact a comprehensive and strict vehicle usage policy.

The policy of unnecessary access to city vehicles should end, and a mileage reimbursement system should be put into place. For those who absolutely need a vehicle, more gas-efficient cars should be purchased, and left in secure city lots when not being used for city business.

High ranking police, fire, and education professionals should also be forced to leave their city vehicles in holding lots, and made to make their commute home to far-flung towns across the state in their own car, and on their own tab.

This fiscally and environmentally damaging system needs to come to an end, ASAP.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Ammunition for which handgun?

City Council members were not the target of a $200,000 ambush at their conference meeting at City Hall Tuesday.

It seems that Douglas H. Palmer administration officials decided not to bring up a pricey resolution that would provide the Trenton Police Department with all-new Springfield handguns, despite an offer from the current weapons supplier to replace all the current Glock weapons for free.

What was on the docket was a resolution that would purchase 170,000 rounds of ammunition, with the language of the $24,350 measure failing to explain exactly which weapon or weapons the rounds would be used for.

When Councilman Jim Coston asked Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum for a clarification on exactly which kind of weapon these new rounds were being purchased for, he certainly received an odd answer.

"That I can't say," said Ms. Feigenbaum, in a suspicious tone, before recovering slightly. "I would assume it's for the guns we currently have."

Ms. Feigenbaum said she would get back to council members on the nature of the ammunition in time for the planned vote on the resolution Thursday.

Whether she eventually divulges the information or not, it certainly raised some eyebrows in City Council chambers when Ms. Feigenbaum said she did not know what weapon the ammunition purchase was for.

Ms. Feigenbaum is the Business Administrator, meaning she is usually the person questioned by council members on nearly any resolution or docket item. So what gives?

Maybe the administration and the police leadership decided to go ahead and try and get City Council's approval to order ammunition for the Springfield weapons, even though a majority of City Council do not want to spend the extra cash for those guns, because of the free Glock offer and the city's current fiscal woes.

If that is not the case, and this order of ammunition turns out to be for the department's current Glocks, then that's a great sign.

That means that, just maybe, some of the administration officials and Police Director Joseph Santiago's cronies have recognized the dream of buying the totally unnecessary and costly Springfield handguns has failed for good, because of the will of City Council.

If it turns out the ammunition resolution is indeed for the desired Springfield weapons, then the administration needs to be taken to task for what would amount to be just one more of their arrogant actions, in treating a council vote on one of their initiatives as a totally "done-deal."

They are now dealing with a different kind of City Council.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Some fiscal ideas for Trenton

Facing severe budget problems that could means consecutive double-digit tax increases for Trenton property owners, officials on City Council and in the Douglas H. Palmer administration ought to start thinking out of the box to develop ways to eliminate, or at least reduce the expected tax increase.

An obvious place to start – this very week – is to vote down any cockamamie schemes to purchase $200,000 worth of new weapons for the Trenton Police Department, when the current gun supplier has offered to replace all of the department’s weapons, free of charge.

People in the City Clerk’s office today said the resolution still remained off tonight’s agenda, but they also warned that administration officials do have a way of blindsiding the rest of the city government with last-minute additions to the council agenda. Given the fact that Councilman Milford Bethea is expected to be absent from council tonight, it is likely that the gun resolution could make an appearance.

Regarding more long-term budget issues, it should be recognized that fully 70 percent of all the monies in all the budgets in New Jersey are required because of personnel costs.

Given that, it is time to determine which governmental positions are not absolutely needed, and begin layoff proceedings, early retirement, or whatever else can be done to cut significant dollars off the budget of Trenton’s bloated municipal edifice.

If forced to do so, Mayor Palmer will likely want to cut lower-ranking positions, given his tendency to recklessly pursue those kinds of employees for residency violations while generally looking the other way when it comes to higher-ranking support employees who break residency rules.

But City Council could use its budget power to make sure the axe falls where it will make the most difference, and that's on a handful of high-ranking and unnecessary administrative support positions.

They are a good target, considering that they only exist because of frequent absences of Trenton’s mayor, usually off stumping for Hillary Clinton or doing things with U.S. Conference of Mayors. The removal of just one of these high-paid officials could allow the same savings as cutting five lower ranking, and more useful workers.

Not only would Trenton be better served by having Mayor Palmer here, in Trenton, tackling Trenton’s problems, but its residents would also benefit by not being forced to foot the bill for all of Mayor Palmer’s aides, drivers, and high-ranking officials whose positions exist solely because of the mayor’s frequent absences from his hometown.

There are a multitude of ways this city would be better off, by simply having its five-term executive actually spend some time here. Maybe its time to start forcing him to do so, with some well-executed cuts and slashes.

TRAC calls for greater fiscal sobriety

Members of the Trenton Residents Action Coalition would like to lend their voices to those of many other city residents in saying that the proposal to spend $200,000 of the city's funds on new handguns for the police department is unnecessary, given the current weapon supplier's offer to replace all of the department's weapons for free, and becomes ludicrous, given the city's projected $7 million deficit.

It is time for belt-tightening, and not the time for approving unneeded city expenditures. The $7 million deficit projection comes with the assumption that the city will raise the tax rate by double digits again, following this year's increase. City council should operate under the assumption that there should be no tax increase at all, and act accordingly.

One suggested area for budget cuts is the city's bloated administration, where Mayor Douglas H. Palmer uses a multitude of drivers, aides and even a chief of staff who serves as a proxy mayor during the real executive's frequent absences from Trenton. This is not the city of New York, Boston or Moscow. The mayor does not need these ridiculous perks, which come at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and benefits.

City council should also institute a stronger vehicle policy that ends the use of city vehicles by city contractors and residency-exempt employees who commute to places outside of Trenton.

The legislative branch of the city government needs to step up and make the difficult, but necessary cuts to shore up this great city's finances.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Corzine signs paid family leave

Gov. Jon S. Corzine Saturday officially signed into law legislation that will provide workers with up to six weeks of paid benefits when taking leave from employment for family needs, in what the bill’s many Democratic sponsors are calling a major victory for New Jersey’s working families.

“The signing of this bill ushers in a new day for New Jersey’s workforce, in that it gives hard-working parents and caregivers the time they need to take care of the family members who rely on them the most,” said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem, in a statement last week.

With the passage of the bill, workers will begin contributing .14 percent of earned wages to the State Disability Fund starting January 1, 2009. Those funds will be in turn placed into a special goverment account reserved solely for use in paid family leave cases.

The contribution would amount to around 25 cents per week for employees making minimum wage.

That money can be disbursed to employees taking up to six weeks of leave in any 12-month period to take care of sick family members, or a newborn or newly adopted child. Employees are eligible to receive up to two-thirds of their weekly salary, up to $524, starting on July 1 next year.

New Jersey is only the third state to approve such legislation, with California already having the system in place and Washington set to begin implementing a similar program next year.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Home rule blamed for state fiscal woes

Home rule has been vilified by many in New Jersey political circles as one reason why taxes and the cost of government in the Garden State have continued to spiral out of control.

The blame-game has gotten to the point that powerful politicians like Gov. Jon S. Corzine and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, are actually taking action to try and coax municipalities and other governmental entities into consolidation.

Gov. Corzine has used this year's budget proposal as a bludgeoning tool, cutting aid for municipalities and asking small towns that rely on State Police coverage to begin paying heavily out of pocket for those services.

Last week Mr. Roberts called on state legislators to remove portions of law regarding the state's Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission, which would end the practice of allowing legislators to vote and reject consolidation proposals made by the commission.

"Our addiction to home rule has forced us into a system of government that, quite simply, is no longer affordable," said Mr. Roberts, in a statement. "If we are to have any hope of truly making the state affordable, we must give our newly-created consolidation commission the tools it needs to overcome New Jersey's age-old aversion to regionalization and shared services."

Under Mr. Roberts' proposals, the legislature would simply no longer have an ability to vote down consolidation proposals coming from the commission. Local voters would continue to have the ability to vote on proposed consolidations, but towns doing so could face reduced state aid as a result of rejecting consolidation and the cost-saving it could represent.

New Jersey currently has 566 municipalities in 21 counties, with 617 school districts and 500 local taxing authorities, according to a report from Mr. Roberts' office, which said New Jersey has more municipalities and government entities per square mile than any other state in the union.

While politicians here in Trenton argue over empowering the consolidation commission, it must be remembered that the most costly problem in New Jersey is political corruption and "pay-to-play", which both drain billions of dollars out of government coffers and into the hands of firms and contractors who have no business doing work for the people.

Frequently they have contributed moneys into the campaign funds of officials who then hand out lucrative contracts at eye-popping prices.

Often the worst offenders are not the state's smaller municipalities currently targeted for consolidation, but the larger towns and cities where little oversight paired with little accountability results in a lot of waste.

Consolidation may be a good tool to help reduce the cost of government here in New Jersey, but the most important method of ending perennial fiscal problems would be an overhaul of legislation dealing with "pay-to-play" and improved governmental oversight on public money and contracts.

A complete sea change in the business as usual attitude of government officials wouldn't hurt either.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Palmer loses another battle

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer has backed down from earlier threats to fire employees exempted from residency by the state, with attorneys for the mayor informing Judge Linda R. Feinberg on Thursday that they were no longer pursuing the termination of employees for non-residency.

It seems Mayor Palmer and his counsel decided that such a move would inevitably fail in the face of a host of legal arguments aligned against it. It was widely regarded as a ploy to get City Council to revise the city's residency ordinance to save the skin of embattled Police Director Joseph Santiago.

However, the city did indicate that efforts to terminate the employees could be renewed following a favorable decision in the ongoing Santiago residency battle, which is scheduled to resume on June 3 in Appellate Division chambers in Trenton.

Palmer administration officials would like to see the residency ordinance thrown out, because it currently requires the termination of Mr. Santiago from the police director's position due to his non-residency.

Court officials told an attorney for six of the threatened employees that the city had sent a letter to their union representatives officially signaling the end of any intent to fire the city employees, for now.

The city's misguided argument, now rejected, was that the employees faced termination because of a court decision earlier this year that threw out sections of Trenton's residency ordinance that regarded waivers. But the employees were exempted under state statute that still exists to this day, and not under the city's now-defunct waiver provision.

Curiously enough, City Attorney Denise Lyles and Special Counsel Joseph Alacqua both failed to inform the counsel for the employees of the change in the city's intentions.

Perhaps their forgetfulness was meant to make it look like the city voluntarily withdrew the termination threat, as opposed to backing down in the face of a lawsuit filed Tuesday seeking court action to halt any termination proceedings from going forward.

Whatever the case, the decision yesterday is a win for the employees.

It is also a win for all those supporting the continued existence of a strong residency ordinance in Trenton, and represents yet another rejection of an attempt by Mayor Palmer and company to take a hatchet to the law, with an eye to saving Mr. Santiago.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sen. Buono: restore state aid

The powerful chair of the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee is making it a priority to try and restore a significant amount of the state aid cut out of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's proposed budget, with a focus on cuts that would hit the state's smaller towns the hardest.

"Small municipalities should not be forced to pay a disproportionate share of higher taxes just because they are small," said Sen. Buono, D-Middlesex, in a statement last week. "It's untenable to impose devastating cuts in state aid to small communities, many of which are run quite efficiently."

Alternatives to a proposed $62 million aid cut in the governor's budget are actively being pursued by the senator's office, which if implemented, would mean around $37 million in aid could be restored to smaller municipalities.

The remaining $25 million would presumably be doled to the state's other, larger towns and cities.

While legislators focus on restoring aid to small towns that generally run highly efficient governments, there have been increasing calls - especially among Republican representatives - to provide more oversight into programs that hand out massive appropriations to the state's poorer urban areas.

Those municipalities tend to run at a much lower level of efficiency, with millions of dollars disappearing into programs and contractors that, in the end, provide little return on the large-scale investment of precious state tax dollars.

The handing out of those monies needs to come with some sort of oversight body imbued with real powers of investigation and, if necessary, prosecution of city governments that misuse resources through waste, questionable busines practices, or any of the other afflictions common in places like Trenton.