Monday, May 11, 2009

AP Resident Sees Lots of Room for Improvement in AP

Here's what a 10-year resident had to say about today's Asbury Park:
Like quite a few other residents of Asbury Park, the City “inspector” left a notice in my mailbox last week – something to the effect of, “Apply for a permit to fix your sidewalk within 20 days or you will be fined.”
One 18” sidewalk panel is on the very left corner of our frontage (total 40-foot property width) is distinctly damaged. Incidentally, over the course of the last 60 days, my wife and I have been aggregating contractor quotes for rehabbing our entire front hardscape – well before the notice was dropped.
That is not the point. This is…
Asbury Park seems to continually enact self-permission to extract yet more money from its residents. Therefore, I figure nearly $10,000 per year in taxes (between our small residential and commercial spaces) gives me permission to extract some explanations from Asbury Park, especially those same officials (council people) who will, most assuredly, unabashedly wield their political capital come reelection this month.
What I find wholly offensive is the government’s utter and continuing dearth of checks and balances – a legacy that has, in fact, grown iconic. Permit me the opportunity to demonstrate.
I took the following photos last week. They illustrate the sidewalk and parking lot of, you guessed it, our very own City Hall. Please bear in mind that if the City is earnestly concerned about safety/liability, this particular stretch likely entertains 250-500 times the amount of daily pedestrian traffic than my quiet, suburban block.
(The photos were good, but didn't carry over to this blog. Most of us who've been to city hall have already seen the cracked sidewalks and pot-hole marred parking lot.)
On the surface (pardon the pun), the sum of this may appear to be nothing more than City government’s perennial misguided trivialities. But the reality is far from frivolous. Just where do our monies go? And how do such governmental and municipality measures flow? And most importantly, who is minding the store when the shopkeeper is not looking? The answer to the last question is… WE are, or at least, we SHOULD be.
So, let’s put all of this in perspective, shall we?
Sure, you may hear that the numbers are down. And some are to a certain degree. But the fact remains. This city continues to struggle… exceedingly so.
§ Asbury Park’s population hasn’t increased in 10 years
§ But the police force has increased by over 30%; we have 98 police officers for a town of 16,550!
§ Nearly 40% of Asbury Park’s city payroll is allocated to the police department
§ The national average salary of a police officer is $46,000; the average salary for an Asbury Park police officer is $70,000

§ National Violent Crime Rates have been decreasing for years and now stand at 17.7%; yet Asbury Park Violent Crime Rates: 21.2% (10 years ago, Asbury Park’s violent crime rate was less @ 20.8%)
§ National Crime Index = 320.9, Asbury Crime Index = 877.9 (this is extraordinarily tragic)
§ Asbury Park has nearly five times the national average in robberies
New police cars. New horseback patrol. New bike patrol. But, with all this new gear and financial support, a police force 30% larger in the last 10 years and a population that has actually declined in the last 10 years, what exactly is happening here? (This is not a slight against hard-working cops. This is purely a quandary that needs an answer, and a very succinct, no-nonsense one at that.)
You can elect all the school board members you want. You can hire all the MBA educators you want. You can pump in all the Abbott monies you want. But the fact remains. Education in this town continues to wallow in unfathomable failure.

§ Asbury Park High School has a National Great Schools® rating of 1 in 10 stars. (1 = worst)
§ New Jersey Language Arts literacy rate: 83%, Asbury Park Language Arts literacy rate: 25%
§ New Jersey Math proficiency: 75%, Asbury Park Math proficiency: 14%
§ National high school graduation rate: 74%, Asbury Park high school graduation rate: 67% (one in three Asbury kids drops out of high school)
§ Percentage of students who go to college and graduate: 26%, Asbury Park students: 7%
§ Total per pupil expenditures, New Jersey: $14,603, total per pupil expenditures, Asbury Park: $28,532
So, we give double the money for a quarter of the proficiency. How can that abysmal ROI continue?
The Mission Statement for Asbury’s Public School System:
To provide comprehensive, innovative and technologically progressive educational programs to all students so that they can develop the full range of their talents and maximize their learning potential. All students will develop a commitment to education, family and community which will enable them to be positive, contributing citizens.
This is precisely the kind of drivel that may serve an annual report or temporarily attenuate an inattentive populace, but on finer note, it is nothing more than vacuous. To impel a constituency of predominantly poor folks, you need to invoke reality first and practicality second. YES, a better public school system will draw more dollars into the till and thereby reduce the tax burden on citizenry. We all get that. But, that and that alone is not manifest destiny. Children deserve a good and more importantly EFFECTIVE learning environment. THAT is sacrosanct. And anything less untenable, maybe even criminal.
New Jersey has the dubious distinction of having the highest property taxes in the nation, the third-highest income tax rates, the 10th-highest sales tax and the 11th-highest corporate tax rate. Let’s just say it has made the state an “unattractive place to do business” and barely enables residents to keep their proverbial heads above water. The Tax Foundation released its annual report showing the Garden State ranked DEAD LAST in the nation in "business-friendliness" for the second straight year.
OK. But we live here and that’s the way it is, right? Well, let’s take a deeper look at our municipal microcosm…
Median Household Income
§ National: $49,199
§ New Jersey: $67,035
§ Asbury Park: $28,100
Median Household Property Value
§ New Jersey: $372,300
§ Asbury Park: $208,636
Median Taxes
§ Property taxes paid for housing units, NJ: 2.4%
§ Property taxes paid for housing units, Asbury Park: 3.2%
§ Asbury Park has the 6th highest tax rate per capita out of 52 Monmouth County municipalities
§ National unemployment rate: 8.5%.
§ Asbury Park unemployment rate: 11.6%.
§ New Jersey residents with income below poverty level: 8.5%
§ Asbury residents with income below poverty level: 30.1%
§ New Jersey residents with income below 50% of poverty level: 4.2%
§ Asbury residents with income below poverty level: 15.2%
Alright, so you get the picture by now.
Well, let’s just add a few more rather decisive details to that picture.
Cost of Living
Asbury Park has a 131.6 Cost of Living index based on a National index of 100. Each 10 points equals a 10% increase. So, Asbury is effectively 31.6% higher than the national average. That is quite significant.
Which takes me to these final points…
I love Asbury Park.
I have lived her for nearly 10 years and escaped here virtually every year since a child with his family in the late 60s. All of us have our Asbury stories, none less or more important than the other.
But loving something does not exempt us from challenging it.
Asbury Park remains broken. Very broken. And I’m not talking about its sidewalks.
The newly occupied boardwalk pavilions, the occasional New York Times article, the rehabbed facades... they are not signs of “progress”. In fact, progress is ordinarily ill-defined overall. It has very little to do with brick and mortar. It is, first and foremost, the strengthening of social fabric, not paving over old problems with new parking lots. Progress is celebrating cultural depth and diversity, not poorly manifested physical developments that merely attempt to patch tax shortfalls and nurture narcissism.
If we learned anything from our presidential elections – no matter what party affiliations we may entertain – it’s that people are at the root of change, not politicians.
Asbury is the perfect sized locale for a national municipal test model.
How about a “green city” replete with urban farming, botanical gardens, mandatory sustainable new construction, reconditioned public transportation and so on.
How about a hybrid public education system adopting successful inner city and charter initiatives, a zero tolerance policy for failure for students, educators and administrators, and finally, a complete disconnect from egregious State and regional dispensations (Abbott and others) that nurture social and logistical iniquities.
How about a 100% transparency mandate from the citizenry – that’s us! All government practices must be available virtually and hard-copy. I’m not requesting, I’m demanding to know how all permit fees are calculated, how all fines are determined and levied, how all city employees are deemed fit for hire, if/how all safety objectives are being realized, how all monies are being invested in real time and how the social integrity and growth of the electorate will be managed for the short and long terms.
So, here’s my final thought, actually an exemplification of what is all-awry at City Hall.
Let’s take the event called THE TASTE OF ASBURY that just took place. The City’s Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) launches the event each year. It’s a political fundraiser, pure and simple. The UEZ charges Asbury businesses (mostly restaurants) a large fee to participate and also mandates that restaurants supply an enormous amount of food and/or drink. It equates a huge investment for businesses that are already foundering in a down economy. I know about this event. I used to run an art gallery with a small café on Cookman Avenue. (In fact, I know a lot about most or all events in Asbury. I even founded First Saturday in Asbury (with my wife and friend) nearly four years ago.)
This is the City’s M.O. While they demand more and more tax dollars, while they enact more and more commercial regulations, restrictions and permits, and while they do so without hesitation or explanation, they also perennially arrest thousands upon thousands of dollars from these same local businesses via “fundraisers” like Taste of Asbury and other events. They also exploit these businesses for public relations, because there is little if any governmental communications initiative. And, they never, and I repeat, NEVER, ordain tax abatements or other incentives to keep businesses marching forward in a more fair and fiscally sound manner. Hence, the atrocious commercial attrition year over year.
So, before our Mayor gets another gig for his band to play The Taste of Asbury… or the Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) makes tens of thousands of dollars off the very courageous souls who have the cojones to open their retail doors on Cookman, or Tom Gilmour or Terry Reidy triumphantly sing the City’s praises, I suggest that all of us pull the carpet up and look at what lurks beneath. I guarantee you’ll find a bundle of termites on rotting floorboards.
It truly might be gainful if Dan Jacobson – yeah, the guy who pens the whorish rag called the TriCity News – actually does some reporting someday on matters like this instead of bilking suburbanites for ad money they can’t afford and then condemning them for being suburban. Actually, The Coaster isn’t exempt from this responsibility either. I like them, but I don’t learn much from them.
The question remains… what do we want and need our City to look like – not just today, but tomorrow? This is not a white question or a black question, a straight question or a gay question, a private question or a public question. This is a question that we must all ask ourselves and each other before plopping down yet another couple hundred bucks for some mysterious permit to fix a water-cracked sidewalk tile on a street with no drainage.
Thanks for reading my little diatribe.
Doug Forbes

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