I visited the NJ state capital in Trenton for the first time this week. I had to make an appearance before an administrative law judge nearby. Under state law a business’ representative is not required to be an attorney to represent a client in this court. The hearing went fine; I avoided a larger fine by paying a much smaller late payment penalty. But I felt that I completely failed in my self-appointed mission of being a voice of small business in the rural southwestern part of the state.
Comments by the judge were discouraging. I mean no disrespect. He said that he understood the economic issues of our rural Southwest region of the state but his comments revealed that he had no clue. I commented that many business owners here have piled up substantial operating losses since Sandy. He replied that if they can’t make a profit then they should get out and get someone else to run the business. The comments that followed made it clear that he discounted the massive cooperative efforts that many professionals are making – mostly as volunteers – to revitalize this region’s economy. In the back of my mind I wondered “Does he really think that we are a bunch of country bumpkins down here?” Surely people in Trenton must have read about the massive efforts to recruit the best talent from across the state and region to attempt to solve our community’s challenges! I’ve never had cause to wonder what northerners thought of us as business people and professionals before but today the issues seemed front and center. I’ve always just presumed that it was known that we are doing the best possible job under extremely difficult conditions. The judge then pulled out a list of my client’s customers and made a comment that it seemed to him that the business should easily be prosperous. In reality, this client was a tiny business with substantially less than $100,000 gross revenue that I am helping out of love for the marine industries and the individuals involved.
I attempted to reinforce my points that it was unfair to compare our economy with those of northern parts of the state. I said that some of my clients who run businesses here do not have bank accounts, nobody has internet access (it is not available here except through slow very expensive satellite connections), and there is limited cell phone reliability. One senior lifetime resident here (recently deceased) did not even have a social security number. I said that I recognize the incredibility of this region but that I was only able to deal with the situation as I find it ant try to make a positive contribution.
After the hearing I took the time to walk around and visit a few more sites around the state capital. I have an unusual history in this tactic; sort of like a Forrest Gump story. The last time I visited Harrisburg, for example, I met (former) Governor Corbett outside a downtown burrito stand where I was having lunch. There wasn’t anyone else around except for the two of us for about a minute until his black SUV pulled up to whisk him away. (I’ve met a handful of other governors in NJ and other states under similar odd circumstances. I’ve also met valuable business connections in many locations simply by wandering around). But I learned that Trenton isn’t anything like Harrisburg.
The neighborhood surrounding Trenton is not inviting for a guy like me who likes to wander. I have no fear in any of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods but I felt unsafe by some of the comments and reactions of locals within a few blocks of the capital building.
I was surprised at the level of decay in the most prominent buildings. The paint is peeling from the Statehouse building and the quality of the grout work on the masonry would be embarrassing to almost any do-it-yourself home remodeler. One helpful person pointed me to an archaeological excavation site next to the capital building. I found it interesting but noted that the farm house that I grew up in was older than the building that the dig had uncovered. That sort of dimmed the importance in my mind.
Being a CPA, I thought I might poke my head into the Division of Taxation Building. No go. I had a brief conversation with a security guard at the door. That’s it. Unlike in other states where you can at least get a feel of the layout and organization of a public building, Trenton does not work this way. This same experience was repeated elsewhere. It turns out that you can’t even enter the state capital except on a guided tour. Contrast that to the welcoming and lively public areas of the Pennsylvania capital where it is common to see protesters and lobbyists (literally in the lobby).
I did, in the end, have a few useful conversations with representatives of agencies in Trenton that might prove to be useful in the future in our ongoing effort to find a sustainable environmental and economic future for rural southwest New Jersey.