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.