Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yes, we can.

Yesterday, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack issued a press release calling for the City Council to approve and support his budget request for various recreation funding in FY2013.

In response, we enumerated various examples of waste and mismanagement that has plagued that department during Mayor Mack's rein.

We at the Front Stoop are sometimes criticized for being negative, for only being against something and never offering "solutions."

Here, then, we offer our suggestions on how we might approach the budget issues for the Department of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture.

First and foremost, you must understand that although this department exists in the city organization chart, it has essentially been operating out of the Department of Public Works, Division of Public Property and the Mayor's Office. 

This is not completely bad. In fact, one very real and valid approach to this situation would be to review all of the functions of the DRNRC and divvy them up amongst other divisions/departments thus doing away with the department and redundant layers of management.

For example, grounds keeping duties as well as maintenance of the buildings would naturally fit under the Division of Public Property. If the city coffers are ever flush enough again to afford a staff landscape architect, he or she could easily work out of that division.

Programming like the pools and the summer feeding program could be handled out of Health and Human Services.

This kind of restructuring should really be considered. For one thing, eliminating the DRNRC would then free up room to move the Water and Sewer Utilities into their own unit. Such a move would have its own benefits that we might take up at a later time.

Our first recommendation would be this type of reorganization at the cabinet level. It has to be done by ordinance which means there needs to be five solid votes on council to override any possible veto by the mayor.

Assuming that a reorganization of the DRNRC is out of the question for the immediate future, here are our thoughts on the budget.

First and foremost, the council must exercise its power of approval over ALL outside contracts, regardless of whether or not they exceed the bid threshold. In this way, they can control just what money is being spent while going through the lengthy budget process. We believe the governing body can, and should, pass a resolution making it very clear that NO contracts for outside goods or services are to be awarded without its prior approval.

To be fair, this also means that council must deal fairly and promptly with proper, timely requests for approval from the administration.

As the budget process trudges forward, the above will ensure that spending is done within the parameters and without jeopardizing the ongoing maintenance of facilities, etc.

Reviewing the past year's operating expenses should provide a fairly good basis for setting limits on what is needed to keep up city parks, buildings, etc. Planned upgrades and emergency repairs can be budgeted for as a percentage of the annual operating budget.

Staffing is a critical area. The park rangers need to be brought back into compliance with the hourly wage (at last check lead ranger Robert "Chico" Mendez was being paid way more than the posted rate) and overtime hours must be monitored and tracked. Additionally, most of these positions are seasonal, not year round, and that needs to be enforced.

One area of staffing that must be budgeted for is the hiring of a director for Ellarslie and the Trent House. Recent plans have called for one person to oversee both facilities. That's fine and it is needed.

Speaking of those two buildings, they along with the Mill Hill Playhouse and Artworks need to be the focus of proper maintenance and upkeep. These four buildings house ongoing, cultural programs run by outside non-profits. The city must honor its MOU's and leases with these groups and provide a safe, welcoming and functional building for their occupancy.

The controversial Learning Centers need to be de-funded and the money requested for their operation and upkeep added to the city's appropriation to the Trenton Free Public Library. That is where the city will get the most bang for its buck, not in some vanity effort to have the mayor's name and image posted in the four corners of the community.

The buildings should be properly shuttered and secured until such a time as the city can find suitable tenants to use them.  The same goes for the city's recreation centers. If they can't readily be leased out to existing entities to run programming out of, they need to be winterized and secured.  The city cannot currently afford to staff and operate these buildings properly.

Another area that unfortunately must be cut back is the funding given to the various sports leagues around town. We suggest that a nominal contribution to each of the leagues be determined and that it be awarded equally to all. No more favoritism should be shown to one league over another for any reason. And this must be communicated to the leagues as soon as possible so they can make plans to find other funding sources.  One spin off of this approach could be greater community involvement in wider support for these activities.

If/when the city's fortunes improve and we have confidence in the administration's ability to follow a budget, things can change. Until then, the Mayor has to face the fact that he can "wish" for a lot of things but the Council has the final say.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Just say, NO!

The administration of Mayor Tony Mack will introduce its FY2013 budget to city council on Tuesday, September 25. It appears that the Mayor has instructed his finance staff and the Business Administrator to budget once again for a fully funded, fully staffed Department of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture.

How do we know?

We know because this press release was posted on the city website on Monday, September 24. It is directed at both the city council and the general public. It declares the Mayor's intention to run a first rate, top-drawer recreation program that will provide something for everyone. It challenges the will of the city's governing body to be fiscally prudent by asking them to fully fund the Mayor's pipe dream. Mostly, it is aimed at rehabilitating the Mayor's tarnished and dented image as he tries to extricate himself from the pending federal corruption charges.

Mayor Mack should be ashamed of himself for this outrageous posturing and posing.

If Mr. Hutchinson didn't advise against this, then he should be ashamed of himself, too. He was brought in to serve the public as the city's BA. If he can't or won't put this city on a course of responsible budgeting, he is not the right man for the job.

Therefore, that leaves it up to the city council to put some severe controls on the Mayor's proposed spending.

As soon as is legally possible the city council needs to cut the proposed RNRC budget to the bare essentials.


Because Mayor Mack has proven that he is incapable of following a budget, purchasing procedures or any rules at all.

For example:

The city entered into its usual contract with Buoy 98 Marine to maintain, install and monitor the floating docks that flank the city boat ramp on Lamberton Road. The city paid $7,000 for this service. However, the docks were never installed. We went the entire boating season without docks installed, but paid for their installation, monitoring and repair AND charged boaters the full fee to use the ramp anyway. Why were the docks not installed? I don't know. You might want to ask Mayor Mack that. Or one of his key staff members, like Trenton Water Works Stock Clerk Paul Harris.

My guess is that none of Mack's crack staff ever thought to contact the Buoy 98 Marine and direct them to install.

While you are asking questions, you might want to inquire about the $17,400 paid to a sound and light contractor to provide his services for a music festival that never occurred this summer. To be fair, TWW Stock Clerk Paul Harris did send an email to the vendor asking for a refund of the money because the festival was cancelled. However, the email had an error in the address so we don't know if it was ever corrected and resent. Nor do we know if the vendor, assuming he was contacted, returned the money or not.

When it comes to sports leagues, the city has a long-standing practice of contributing money to them. This continued under Mack with a few twists. Whereas all city baseball leagues appear to have received money from the city, one...the Trenton Babe Ruth League...got more than the rest. Documents show that all the leagues received $3500 except the TBRL. That league, the one the Mayor's son plays in and the Mayor and his Brother coach in, received at least $5,000.

We have mentioned before the $15,793.97 spent on a sound system.

And it's recently become known that the city is paying a contract employee for hours she claimed to have worked even though she appears to have had no contract approved by the city council and there was no money in the account to pay her with. In fact, according to documents received via OPRA request, the council is going to be asked this month to approve a transfer of funds to cover the expenditure made in July; an approval requested after the fact.

The Mayor is asking for funding for the Thanksgiving Parade...an expensive extravagance the city should have given up years ago. We made that case during the Palmer era.

The Mayor also wants full funding for another Heritage Days Festival. In the minutes from a June 2012 meeting with council, Mayor Mack states that the Heritage Day budget was $30,000. Records show the city spent $46,416.49 with vendors to put on the event. There was police, park rangers, EMT's, etc to be paid as well.

Again, we have previously called for the doing away with this city financed event.

In the Press Release the Mayor asks the Council to grant his funding request for the Mayor's Learning Centers.  In the year just passed, the Mayor spent $9,874 on 55" Flat Screen TV's, sound bars and mounts for the Learning Centers. The money came from CDBG funds that had been set aside for "improvements to public facilities."

Why doesn't the Mayor earmark the money spent on the folly of the Learning Centers for the Trenton Free Public Library instead?

There were several account overdraws in the Recreation budget last year that the Mayor directed the finance team to "override" in a memo dated June 28, 2012.

So, NO! Council should NOT PASS the Mayor's proposed recreation budget.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A taste

On Monday, July 2, 2012, the City of Trenton hosted a celebration of Giuseppe Garibaldi birthday celebration.

The refreshments for the reception after the ceremony were provided by Amici Milano in Chambersburg.  The city paid $2,550 for a hot buffet for 150 people. See the invoice and purchase order here.

The purchase of the food was paid for out of the Economic Development "Profession Services" budget line.

The event was announced in this June 18 Press Release.

While we have nothing against the celebration of the many ethnic groups that have made Trenton what it is, we have to question this expenditure.

Why did the city, after over 100 years of presence of Italians and Italian-Americans, decide, in one of the worst fiscal years ever, decide to foot the bill for this extravagance?

Is the following sentence from the press release a clue?
Letters of friendship will be signed by Mayor Mack and the Italian delegation, establishing a bond between Trenton and Sicily.
Sicily? With all of the connections Trenton has with Naples, Casandrino, San Fele, etc. why all of a sudden are we "establishing a bond between Trenton and Sicily?"

Could it be because Tony Mack confidant, supporter and, now, co-defendant, JoJo Giorgianni is of Sicilian ancestry?

And why Amici's? Not that we have anything against Jimmy and his restaurant, but wasn't Amici's the place that put on the evening reception after the January folderol regarding the Mayor's Commission Committee on International Business Affairs? The one that supposedly sent a letter to the city stating the cost of the reception was donated only the city could never produce said letter?

It doesn't really matter.

What does matter is that a broke and broken city can't afford this kind of frivolous luxury.

Why did we spend $2,550 of tax payer dollars on this? And did anyone take a head count? Did we actually provide food for 150 people?

While we have learned to expect and revile this type of foolishness from Mayor Mack, didn't we expect that BA Sam Hutchinson and the DCA would put a brake on this kind of spending?

The only economic development to come out of this event was the money that went into Jimmy Kamies' pocket.

Good for Jimmy. Bad for the city taxpayers?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Testing, Testing. 1, 2, 3.

When will it end?

When will Tony Mack and company stop spending our tax dollars on foolish purchases?

We had hoped that with Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson coming on board, there would be some slowing down of the Mayor's profligate spending.

Alas, that does not seem to be the case.

Take for instance this purchase from ProLine Music in Fairless Hills, PA.  The City of Trenton spent $15,793.97 to purchase a fairly sophisticated sound reinforcement (PA) system.

$15,793.97 of our tax money. For sound equipment that we probably don't really need.  And just where is this equipment being stored? Who will have access to it and track its use?

The purchase was paid for out of the FY2012 Recreation budget, specifically the "Electric and Communication Supplies" and "Recreational Equipment" budget lines. 

It would be nice if someone would provide a rationale, an explanation of why this purchase had to be made now.

With the city in such dire financial straights, is this the wisest use of our money?

What happened to the oversight that Mr. Hutchinson is supposed to be bringing to the table?

Was this really a sound idea?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The little man with the outsized ego

Mayor Tony Mack was arrested Monday on federal charges of conspiracy. He was arrested along with his brother, Ralphiel, and JoJo Giorgianni.

That is old news.

While Trentonians breath a little sigh of relief that something, finally, is being done about the inept and allegedly corrupt Mack administration, the saga has not ended.

We say that because the arrest was just the first step in the process of bringing Tony and Ralphiel and
JoJo to justice. Next comes the grand jury and (expected, but not guaranteed) indictments. Then, months later, a trial.

In the mean time, Tony Mack is still the sitting Mayor. He still has the authority and power granted him under state law.

And that brings us to the point of this post.

Tony Mack, as reported in today's Times, has no intention of stepping aside and letting someone else run the city while he deals with his legal issues.

Tony Mack, no matter how much we want to think otherwise, is still "in charge."

We cannot forget or overlook that. We must continue to scrutinize everything that is done; every penny that is spent; and whether or not proper process and procedure is being followed.
here are still thousands of dollars of expenditures out of the Recreation budget that were not properly explained, contracted for or approved by council.

We still don't know whether radio station WIMG ever aired a single commercial for the $12,000 the city paid them last June.

We still don't know what Herb Ames and the Capital Region Minority Chamber of Commerce did with the $12,000 the city contributed to it in two installments over the past year.

What we do know is that Mayor Tony Mack is not any more likely to change his way of doing business than confidant and aide Anthony Roberts is likely to change his taste for garish, striped suits.

Take for just one, small example city Purchase Order #12-00211.

This purchase order in the amount of $170.00 is made out to Trenton Photographers and Video. It is for 4, 8x10 Color Portraits of the Mayor, in a step-up mat and frame.  The bill was paid out of account number 01- 10 -1000 -299 which is the budget line for the Mayor's Office, Other expenses.

Again, the amount, $170.00, is not terribly significant. The purchase is, however, indicative of how our Mayor's tiny little brain and out sized ego works.

While the documents don't state it specifically the fact that there are four of these portraits suggests that they might be destined to hang, one each, in the Mayor's Learning Centers.

The timing of the purchase is interesting. The invoice was placed May 31, 2012, the requisition and PO are dated July 16, 2012.

The order was apparently placed late in FY2012 at the same time that the first three Learning Centers were being opened and the fourth was being worked on and while questions were being raised about the Mayor's free spending ways.

The purchase was completed and paid for out of FY2013, a new budget year. Coincidentally, the requisition and PO were dated just two days prior to the FBI providing a surprise wake-up call to the Mack residence in the early morning hours of July 18.

There is another interesting bit about the requisition and PO.  Both are signed by Anthony Roberts.

Normally, wouldn't one party complete the requisition and another sign off on the PO? You know, just to provide a little bit of control over spending?
And under what power, what position, what title is Mayoral Aide Anthony Roberts authorized to sign city purchase orders? He hasn't been the "acting" BA since Mr. Hutchinson came on board in mid-April.

Certainly the dollar cost of this purchase is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. It remains symbolic of the Mayor's belief that he is above the law and that the meager resources of our beleaguered city are there to serve him, not the other way around.

How many other purchases have been requisitioned and/or approved by Anthony Roberts with no proper authorization beyond "the Mayor wants it?"

How much in tax dollars and state aid has been wasted merely to stroke the overreaching ego of our inept and ineffective Mayor?

Things will not improve until Tony Mack is no longer Mayor of the City of Trenton. And the sooner that happens, the better.