Mayor: Better times lie ahead despite slowed economy

By TOM TIGANI
Sunday Times Newspapers

 

TRENTON — The city currently faces the same financial difficulties as other communities, but some recent positive developments bode well for the not-too-distant future.

 

“Today I’ll concede that in Trenton, things have been much better in the past,” Mayor Gerald Brown said in his recent state of the city address, “but I will make a positive prediction.”

 

His forecast calls for the beginnings of a turnaround in the economy in the third quarter of this year. Based on what he’s read, conversations with economic experts and “simple, good old-fashioned gut feelings,” he believes the auto industry will become more stable, and that housing values and unemployment numbers will rebound.

 

“Yes, I am an optimist,” Brown said at the Feb. 9 address at the Westfield Activities Center sponsored by the Trenton Rotary Club and the Trenton Business Association, “but I sure smile a lot more than those who seem to choose the pessimistic view on everything.”

 

First the bad news: city expenditures are up, driven by costs for employee wages; active and retired employee health care; utilities for city buildings; and repair and replacement of aging roads and water mains.

 

Total active and retired employee costs amount to about $4.1 million, he said, with about $2.5 million of that going strictly to retirees’ health care benefits.

 

The city again is looking at reduced revenues because of declining house values, Brown said, and officials expect to take in $600,000 to $700,000 less in taxes this year. He also said that any potential decline in state revenue sharing will escalate the city’s problems, but that he is hopeful that state legislators will keep that from happening.

 

Still, Trenton is poised to pass a balanced budget in May, Brown said, because of staff reductions that began in 2001 bringing the number of city employees from 200 to 161. Officials also have been able to contain costs through increased co-pays on health insurance and prescription coverage, as well as employee contributions to their own health care premiums.

 

“I want to compliment the unions that have settled contracts until July 2011 and the nonunion personnel for stepping up and understanding the economic problems of today,” Brown said.

 

He added that in another “sign of the times,” the city will be hurt by the recent decision by Solutia to discontinue its Saflex product, causing 115 workers to lose their jobs and leaving the company’s Trenton plant with only 70 employees left to operate it.

 

Brown also had some positive news to report, however, including:

 

• A developer is set to buy the former Riverside Osteopathic Hospital site, vacant since 2002, and demolish about 95 percent of the hospital and professional building in order to build a mixture of commercial and residential structures.

 

• Fritz Enterprises moved its administrative offices from Belleville to Trenton last summer.

 

• Oakwood Southshore Medical Center’s five-year, $60 million remodeling and renovation, which was celebrated with a grand opening in June.

 

• Construction of the 800,000-square-foot Chrysler LLC Phoenix Engine Plant, which is set to be unveiled in June.

 

• “Very serious discussions” about restarting DSC, the former McLouth Steel site, as a sole-source manufacturer of armor plate steel for military vehicles. While legally limited in what he could say, Brown said he is confident that more progress will be made soon, and that the federal economic recovery plan is expected to play a part, and

 

• Other stimulus projects, such as a proposed $26 million overpass for the railroad tracks north of Van Horn across Fort Street and a $45 million waste treatment plant that also would serve Riverview and Grosse Ile, which would share construction and operation expenses.

 

The mayor also cited plans for Ellias Cove Marina, the renovation of City Hall and a new karate studio that recently opened downtown as signs of better things to come.

 

“Yes, we are in a recession,” Brown said, “but with hope and working together, we will bounce back and will be a much stronger community and state as a result of going through it.”

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