Monday, October 25, 2010

DPW Site Contamination: Announcement and Observation

The October 19 M&C Public Meeting had a surreal feel, both at the meeting and days afterwards.  First, the meeting was delayed by over 45 minutes.  Second, the mayor announced that major contamination that dated to the 1980's were apparently never remediated.  Comments followed from the borough administrator, borough attorney and council members. The usual committee reports were deferred; the borough administrator devoted all of his time to this issue.

I asked the mayor whether he could make any and all information related to this case available on the borough website without residents having to file OPRA requests. The council president could be seen nodding in seeming agreement to my request. The mayor responded that he would take it under advisement. There was silence from the council. I returned to my seat. Why would the mayor appear not to immediately honor my request for making information public?

An article appeared on the Record, but not until October 21, two days later.  The title took several turns, from "Dumont Tries to Address Its Past", to "Dumont Contamination Heats Up Race for Council", to the current "Dumont DPW Cited by State Over Contamination, But Paperwork is Missing".

As of October 25, there was no press release found on the borough website.  Why is news so important to health and property such as this being left exclusively to the newspaper for coverage?

A casual inquiry to the NJDEP revealed the following from their records search facility called "DEP Data Miner":

NJDEP "DEP Data Miner" Query for Dumont DPW Public Records

Take a look through the search results using "Data Miner" on the NJDEP home page.  The pages are specifically sequenced so that anyone having access to the internet can step through and duplicate the inquiry and results.  Perhaps the violations that were announced do not appear on the online database.  To the untrained eye, it appears that during both current and previous administrations:

  • Various permits were applied and granted; 
  • Periodic inspections were conducted; 
  • Violations were found during some inspections.

Again, I do not claim expertise in this area, so I will leave further interpretation to the reader.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dumont's Transparency - Lip Service?

Back in July, I emailed the Mayor and copied the full Council on a suggestion that, I thought, may benefit the mayor's self-proclaimed mission bringing transparency to borough hall.

This was not just a one-line suggestion that would have required much of the Ordinance and Resolution Committee's time or effort to complete.   With permission, a template crafted by the Open Government Task Force was used to minimize the effort and speed the adoption, rejection or the modification of the proposed resolution language:

Letter to Mayor and Council

Sample: Dumont Resolution To Enter Closed Session

I received no response from either mayor or any council member.

I then asked councilman Carrick at the August 17 Council meeting whether he received the e-mail.  He claimed he never received it and asked me to resend the message.  I did so and I have heard nothing since.

I am not sure why either the Mayor or any O&R committee member seems silent as to the suggestion's disposition.  Even if they were to respond "The Ordinance and Resolution Committee met and discussed your suggestion and has determined the Closed Meeting resolution will remain unchanged at this time" I would have respected the response even though it was not what I desired. Is the lack of response to a written inquiry considered professional?

Unfortunately this is one of many suggestions that remain unanswered, status unknown, perhaps pitched into the black hole of inconvenient questions and suggestions.

From a local blogger in Bergen County: "...it is perhaps time to start listening to constituents and begin to abandon the 'we know better than you mantra' before a desperate state treasury that begins to search for monies that have been misappropriated ,ill spent ,wasted ,ill advised and other wise foolishly squandered."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Missing Documents?

Recently it has come to my attention that some files appear to be missing from the Borough of Dumont Official Website.  It appears that certain files posted earlier this year for one reason or another did not make the transition from the previous provider (C3) to the current provider (E-government.com).

As a public service, files reported missing (meeting minutes, ordinances, resolutions) restored from the archive will be placed in this file folder until the file appears on the official website. The file will then be removed from this folder.

Remember:  Only files obtained directly from the borough website or via OPRA are considered official.  Documents found here are for convenience only.



Sunday, October 10, 2010

Official Request?

Recently I received the following request from a council member:

I was looking at your website.  I am just curious why you have all of the Democratic Councilmembers and the Democratic Club reports but not for the Republicans?

Thank you.



As a result, the folder has been updated to include all R-1 forms filed with ELEC by all council candidates running in the 2010 Primary and General Elections in the Borough of Dumont filed in calendar year 2010.






Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pay for Performance?

Paying for performance is a perfectly acceptable practice.  For example, some folks will go through great lengths to put their children through private school even if it strains their finances.  Why?  Because they feel it is worth it.

According to the borough audit summary for 2008 (completed in July 2009), the outside auditor issued nine "recommendations" relating to borough financial operations.

Fair enough.

One would think that the borough audit summary for 2009 (completed in August 2010) the same auditor would have either fewer "recommendations" or at least have different ones, right?

Here are auditor identified financial deficiencies from 2008 that carried over to 2009:
  • Internal controls regarding the preparation of the Borough’s general ledger be reviewed to ensure that the general ledgers for all Funds are complete and reconciled with the subsidiary ledgers and records on a monthly basis;
  • The encumbrance system be enhanced to ensure that materials be ordered only after a purchase order has been executed;
  • Internal controls of the Recreation Commission financial activities be reviewed and enhanced;
  • The General Capital grant receivable balances be reviewed and action taken to collect or clear of record.
  • The Borough review its procedures relating to developers escrow and ensure that procedures comply with New Jersey Statutes.
I am no expert; however, these recommendations suggest a history of poor record keeping.  While in and of itself poor record keeping is not considered wrongdoing; however, it does open the door to future trouble, possibly exposing the borough to financial risk.  Did this deserve a 3.5% raise?  But hey, I am just a "misinformed" dopey resident.  What do I know?

Full audit report is here.

The 2009 Audit Corrective Action Plan is here.  As taxpayers, how do we know that the actions will prevent identical "recommendations" by the auditor next year?  Is this the performance we are rewarding?

It appears the auditor agrees that several deficiencies have not been corrected from 2008:

2009 Dumont Auditor's Report (Full)

Again, there is a lot here.  I thank the SEC for the disclosure.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dumont's "Very Good" Financial Condition?

As you may be aware, it has been difficult for an average citizen to obtain borough financial information, even via OPRA.  This is because the borough is only required to publish current and previous year data.  This has made longer duration analysis challenging as many different documents must be stitched together in order to determine whether the many declarations from various elected and appointed officials whether the borough's financial condition has vastly improved can be confirmed.

Until now.

Because of the borough's seemingly insatiable appetite for debt in the past five years, they have been seeking short term financing.  Short term financing, those of duration of about a year or so, are not subject to financial disclosure requirements.  With regards to long term financing, loans obtained from other agencies such as the Bergen County Improvement Authority (BCIA) are also not subject to financial disclosure.  This year; however, the borough instead sought long term financing independently in the municipal bond market.

Bingo.

Going it alone has exposed an opportunity to the public:  While the mere declaration that borough finances are improved from the mayor or finance committee members would probably satisfy most residents, federal regulators require a far more comprehensive disclosure to potential investors.

The entire document is here.  Some observations:

On page 31, the municipal tax rate increased 25.3% over the period, yet on we see that total debt grew 25.4%.  Even with interest rates being nearly zero, having debt grow faster than revenue is unsustainable.  With a steadily decreasing population and increased foreclosures, remaining taxpayers will be squeezed even harder for tax revenues.  With all the noise about runaway education expenses earlier this year, school tax rate from 2005 to 2009 increased 20.4%.  How ironic:  Taxpayers can vote the school budget up or down, yet it is the municipal tax rate that has been running away.

Bond Prospectus

This is a big document, so feel free to look through it and see what else you might find.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mixed Bag on Salary Raises

On the August 17 M&C Public Meeting, ordinance #1455 was passed 5-1-0.  While it was a relief to hear that council members decided to keep their salaries unchanged, it appeared that salaries were increased 3.5% for the staff at borough hall not under collective bargaining.  Though the borough administrator added that the staff now contribute 1.5% of their salaries into their healthcare benefits (where there was no contribution before), I consider myself very fortunate that I do not have to try justifying that these are "tough terms" to someone who is either underemployed or unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.

Big deal, you say.  Why is this crazy blogger making a big deal out of seemingly nothing?  So we just pay a few dollars more, the staff is doing their job.  Is that not worth the aggravation?

For those who saw the estimated tax bill and can easily handle the new payment, let's see what our administration is paying for "performance" in a future post.

P.S. Those seeking adventure may find instructions on repealing this ordinance via referendum here.  By the time you have figured out how, it is probably too late.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Email Correspondence with Councilman Matt Carrick

The following is an email exchange with Councilman Matt Carrick when I asked him to instead oppose  Ordinance #1415.  The body of the correspondence appears without editing.  Keep in mind that Councilman Carrick served on the Dumont BOE as a board member before he was elected to the borough council:

KC:  I am writing today regarding Ordinance #1415 that passed first reading at the July 20 council meeting.  I recall that you voted to oppose the resolution to approve the amended budget because you felt that the cuts at borough hall were not deep enough considering the steep cuts imposed on BoE.  Do you find it troubling that the CFO, who prepared the ordinance, was cited two years in a row by the auditor as deficient in internal controls and record keeping according to public records?  Would it be appropriate to reward this performance with a raise? 


KC:  I respectfully ask that you oppose #1415 on second reading so that you may show the residents you feel their pain and show your shared sacrifice in this difficult economic climate.


MC:  Mr Chen you are a funny man. Ordinance #1415 is just a guide line. The budget is what sets the Raises. As I remember I was the one that abstained from the Budget Vote. Also the MONEY I receive as a Councilman is given back in DONATIONS to families in Dumont that are need. I do not like that you attack my fellow Council People with your incorrect information please get your facts straight before you put pen to paper. If you can not get the correct information feel free to call me. As Council Members are job is to keep the public informed let's us do are job that we were VOTED into office to do 


KC:  Thank you for responding.  Are you objecting to my speaking out?  What are you suggesting?  Kindly cite the specific statements I made that you feel were incorrect.


MC:  I have no problem responding to you. Just don't try to bait me as you have on your BLOG. Ordinance #1415 is just a guide line the BUDGET is what sets raises.  Your article in the twin boro states that the Council received raises not true for the last 10 years the amount has been the same. I know for a fact that Councilman Stylianou and myself Donate are SALIERS back to people or organizations in Dumont who need it.  


MC:  As far as PAY to PLAY you were at the meetings and you how hard me and Harry fought for it. Instead of writing something negative try write something positive. I take pride in being on this Council and also put what's best for this town first.  


MC:  Freedom of Speech is great and I like that you use it.


KC:  The accusations pile on, yet I am unable to see specifics.  While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, there is only one set of facts.  


KC:  With all due respect, It seems now you are telling me what types of stories I should write.  Feel free to write your own if you don't like mine, or simply stop reading my posts.  No one is forcing you to do so.  All I wrote in the email is respectfully requesting you to oppose ordinance 1415.  Either respond yes, no or ignore my request.  


KC:  You claim you are responsive to my requests.  If so, then what is the disposition of my request and sample resolution to enter closed session I emailed the mayor and council members last month?  Was there any discussion in the meeting last month, or is this the 'bait' you claim I am setting for you?

KC:  Mr. Carrick, I was very hopeful and optimistic when you came on board in January.  Based on the O&R committee meetings and the recent email exchange; however, I am left disappointed.


MC:  I can see this only goes one way your way good luck sorry you are Disappointed

Keep in mind we elected this person into office just months ago.  I think the conversation speaks for itself; I wish I could make this up.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Salary "Stimulus" on Resident Backs?

With the Mayor selectively vetoing Public Contracting Ordinance #1411 making a splash on the headlines, one is led to believe that a majority of the council is fiercely battling the mayor and his council support member minority.  According to the council president, the council is looking to protect the residents.

If that would have been the whole truth...

With the sole abstention coming from councilman Freeman, Ordinance #1415 was otherwise quietly passed with no public discussion.  Shrouded in vague doublespeak, this ordinance gives the ability to award salary raises for elected officials and top managers employed at borough hall without further discussion or approval public input or review.

Nevermind that we are in the middle of the most serious recession in decades, a doubling of unemployment in Dumont from recent years and scores of foreclosures with more on the way.  In an economic boom, these awards would appear rich.  In this climate, these awards seem unconscionable:

Council President's Salary - up to 50% increase;
Councilperson Salary - up to 50% increase;
Mayor's Salary - up to 20% increase;
Managerial & Confidential Title Salary - up to 20% increase.

Just weeks ago, the municipality of Bell, Calfornia, size modestly larger than Dumont, made national news because top officials were earning mid 6-digit salaries.  Though the appointed officials resigned in disgrace, I do not blame them.  As an employee, one has the right to negotiate a maximum salary and benefit for themselves.  The blame falls squarely on the elected officials who approved the lavish pay packages for those officials.

As a resident, you can show your appreciation to the council in the following ways:

- Email the council members.  Tell them how much they deserve the salary increase, after extracting concessions from our teachers and custodians in the BOE budget.  Never mind the public contracting ordinance was crippled by the mayor, it's the effort that counts, right?  Approve the raises!

- Tell the council members in person how much you appreciate them helping themselves at the expense of taxpayers.  Brings a whole new meaning to "Dumont Delivers", does it not?

- Attend the next council meeting scheduled at 7:30PM on Tuesday August 17 at Borough Hall.  Cheer them on with chants like "Full Rewards for Half Work" would give them the needed encouragement.

Anyone care to join?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Letter to the Editor, Twin-Boro News

Dear Editor,

I read Council President Harry Stylianou's letter to the editor on August 5th with interest as I have been to most of the committee meetings and have the video recordings online for anyone interested in viewing them.


In the letter, he appeared to congratulate himself and the three council members who voted with him for approving ordinance 1411, the so-called Public Contracting Ordinance.  On the same day, a Record article "Dumont Mayor Vetoes Most of Pay-to-Play Ordinance" reported our mayor vetoed portions of that ordinance, rendering it lame.


Why did Mr. Stylianou appear so eager to declare "mission accomplished"?  Did he and the others who voted for it anticipate the mayor to exercise his powers as granted by law?


In the same Record article, he said "I'm looking to protect the taxpayers of Dumont".  If so, what was he thinking when he and four other council members voted to approve ordinance 1415, which, if it passes second reading on August 17, allows pay increases of up to 50% for elected officials like himself and up to 20% for top managers in borough hall?  Curiously, only council member Freeman voted to abstain ordinance 1415, which I refer to affectionately as the "pay me" ordinance.


The public contracting ordinance is now broken.  I hope Mr. Stylianou makes it his first priority to fix it.  I hope our elected officials take care of the taxpayers first, before taking care of themselves.  He needs to set aside the pay raises for himself and other top officials until next year, at the very least.


Sincerely,


Kai Chen
Dumont

Monday, July 5, 2010

Transparency in Government, Part 2 - Pay to Play for Residents?

In the previous post, it appears that council members want to make Dumont law stricter than that of NJ.

How nice. 

Is it mere coincidence that the council members pushing hardest also happen to be running for re-election this year? 

Is the motivation due to the sheer embarrassment from the Record expose or just plain smart re-election campaigning?

Meanwhile a recent letter to residents from our mayor hails the coming of long needed improvements to Dumont's infrastructure via NJEIT Phase 2 Project.

If the mayor wanted to promote all the wonderful infrastructure improvements, would it not be in his best interest to place all the documentation online for all the residents to see for themselves?  Why are the design documents from NJEIT Phase 1 or 2 absent from the website?

The other day, I visited the borough clerk's office to look at the NJEIT Phase 3 documents as I reside in one of the affected properties that would be impacted by heavy construction. When an attempt was made to record the documentation since the documents were not available for lending, I was asked immediately to cease recording and to leave the office if I had no further business with the clerk.  I was then assured by the borough attorney's office that I would receive my own copy of the document and plans.

Of course, the verbal assurance was just that.  In the interim, the borough attorney changed his mind.
 
It turns out that interested residents need to:
- Visit the borough clerk's office during office hours to review their copy of the documents;
- Pay for a resident's own copy of the documents.

Pay?  Correct.  T&M needs $63.50 for a paper copy or a whopping $276 for a searchable electronic copy of the design documents and plans.  This is the same T&M that, according to the Record expose, donated $38,000 to Dumont Democratic accounts in 2009 and $5,200 to Dumont council candidates, one of which is not running until 2011, this year.

For some reason, the clerk's office is unable to scan their copy of the documents and plans online.

I then went to NJDEP.  While the agency recommends submitting electronic copies with paper documents and plans, it is not a requirement and according to the NJDEP representative over the phone, electronic submittals for this type of application are rare.  Duh?  it's not a legal requirement.

So I paid $63.50 and received my copy.  Unlike the ever-shifting "transparency" coming from the current administration; however, I will not be keeping the documents and plans to myself...

Here they are:

- View NJEIT Phase III Environmental and Drainage Design Proposal (download here)
- View NJEIT Phase III Application to NJDEP (download here)
- Download Supplemental Drawings
- Download Construction Plans

Look them over.  Ask questions.

First of all, why is the current administration refusing to release any NJEIT project on the borough website?  It's easy to solicit questions when the residents have no official information - almost assured that any questions asked will be of the marshmallow type.
 
Good questions would include:

- How many properties will be disturbed and the extent of heavy construction on the properties;
- How long the disruption would last (duration of construction); 
- How much this project would cost as a separate assessment to all borough residents;

A better question would be whether the improvements would remedy the pooling of water to affected residents in the area every time it rains (the answer is no and can be found on page 7).  If not, residents in and out of the affected area should wonder whether this project is wothwhile, if the project is needed at all.

If you lived in the affected area, did you know that contractors can enter your property without your permission?

Finally, after all this, why are Dumont residents paying to remediate a problem that appears to originate from neighboring Haworth according to the FEMA map (Appendix E, pages 266 and 267)?

Yesterday we celebrated, as a nation, our independence from the British Empire and their oppressive taxes.  As a borough, would it be ironic if we discover we were held in bondage from those representing us in Dumont? 

How long would we allow this to continue?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Transparency in Government, Part 1 - Selective Transparency?

Our mayor seems to take nearly every turn trumpeting his accomplishment of bringing transparency to borough hall.

A recent Record article seems to have some Dumont council members supporting bold initiatives concerning public contracting.  The impression to the public is that council members want to go beyond that allowed by law.

How quaint.

What can the M&C show for after spending in excess of $45,000 on website services since 2008 besides posting council meeting agenda and minutes, hosting an events calendar and an emergency alert system that was absent during the March 13 storm when residents needed information most?  While I applaud the posting of ordinances and resolutions since April 2009, why have past ordinances and resolutions before then not appeared?  Why were the posting of commission and committee agenda and minutes intermittent or nonexistent?  Could a flurry of Joint Land Use Board meeting minutes have been motivated by this gentle reminder

Is it just me, or does it seem interesting that well-paid, full-time staff (who, by the way, appears to be receiving a 3.5% salary raise for 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 along with all permanent municipal staff) needs to be reminded by a resident to do their job?  What does that say about the teachers and janitorial staff from Dumont Board of Education who were pressured during the May budget talks, would they have agreed to concessions knowing the mayor had just signed some of those same collective bargaining agreements with borough employees around the same time?  I would not be surprised if these folks, many of whom are also Dumont residents, join the residents who voted down the BOE budget back in April to remind the council incumbents in November, justified or otherwise, how they enjoyed playing three card monte?

The contracts are public information.  They should be online for all to see from an official source.  No resident should have to file an OPRA request to access them.  No borough clerk should have to waste their time and taxpayer dollars servicing trivial OPRA requests other than to tell the requestor where on the website they can be found.  Sadly, this happens in Dumont more often than one would like to believe.

Why?  I forgot - the law does not require posting online.  So much for appearing to go beyond the law for the sake of election year politics.

Residents should ask why ABetterDumont.com, a privately operated website having no affiliation to the Borough of Dumont, is hosting public information that should be accessible via the official borough website?  How much public information will the current administration continue to withhold from the official website before residents see the facade for what it is and realizing money spent on this service, regardless of how small, is money wasted?  In other words, if it is not required by law, then why have one at all?

Oh, that's right - Dumont wants to provide more than what is required by law. 

Boy am I confused now.

Where can that transparent government, so often touted by the Mayor, be found again?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The 2010 Municipal Budget

With the barrage of media coverage this year with everything related to local BOE budgets, the Dumont 2010 Municipal Budget seems to have received little attention.  Introduced on April 6, 2010:

The 2010 budget will require that municipal taxes increase $1,309,205 for support of municipal operations.  The 2010 municipal tax rate will increase 6.2 tax points or $237 on an average home assessed at $382,000.

Is my math incorrect or does that translate to a tax increase of 8.96% over last year?

Where is the outrage?

Recently the Council in Tenafly tried introducing their 2010 budget which had an 8% tax increase.  What happened?  According to the Record,

(Tenafly) Residents shared their concerns about a proposed 8 percent municipal tax levy hike at the May 6 budget workshop, causing the governing body to delay introduction of the spending plan.

The Dumont council held two hearings since the introduction, one at the senior center and another at borough hall.  Only one resident was present at borough hall to ask questions about the budget.  When asked whether the introduced budget reflected any cuts, the answer was no.  A number of other questions revealed that the Finance Committee seemed just as forthcoming as the BOE when it came to their respective budgets - if at all.  In addition, many practices seemed troubling as to how the municipal books were maintained.

When a request was made for the municipal budget's background information, this was the response:

...request for OPRA #29-documents that provided the background, details and basis for Dumont’s 2010 municipal budget introduction-is denied. The Borough attorney stated that it is considered deliberative work product and is not discoverable under OPRA and common law right of access.

Upcoming resolution being voted on the May 18, 2010 meeting appears interesting:

#10-156 Self-Examination of Dumont Municipal Budget *

How does that look when the council wants to "self-examine" a budget that they have refused to open to the public?  What does that say about their credibility?  Why are the budgets of Englewood and Mount Olive completely open and easily downloadable?  Is this similar to the BOE budget, where one resident thought it was "planned to fail"?

Since the council is reviewing the defeated BOE budget and suggesting further cuts, would it be fair to have the BOE review the municipal budget and suggest further cuts as well?

Every day I thank our Police for keeping our streets safe and our DPW for keeping our streets orderly.  I even thank all the staff in Borough Hall from Administrator to administrative assistants in all the various departments for keeping the borough's house in order.  Having said that, does this mean that our elected officials are relieved of their responsibility to negotiate new and re-negotiate existing labor contracts at every level to reflect the "shared sacrifice" currently experienced by residents?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Should the highest bidder get my vote, Parts II and III

In early February this year I wondered if the generous contributions of a borough professional influenced a council member's vote for the professional's re-appointment.

Apparently, two other council members seemed also to be beneficiaries at that vote.  On the February 2, 2010 council meeting, councilwoman Zamechansky could be heard praising the resident engineering firm:

Over the past year, I really have to commend especially Dominic for all the extra time that he took to stick with us to explain things, to do walkthroughs not just for the mayor and council, but for all the residents in town that the board members and I asked to do for them, the walkthroughs, really this helps everyone with the process, how, so that's my comment.

Councilman Manna chimes in later:

On the NJEIT Phase I project, uh, they've brought the project in ahead of schedule and the budget, so you know, uh, when we're looking at inputs and values and dollars saved, I can certainly, uh, both of us, Mr. Mayor, do thank you, Mr. Mayor.

Gentle readers, please feel free to correct for the record if I have misheard what the council members actually said.

Of the elected officials who spoke advocating the re-appointment of T&M Associates as the borough engineer, ELEC records show that a check for the state legal maximum of $2,600 was received by the primary campaign account of Ms. Zamechansky dated 01/11/10.  Records also show a check for the state legal maximum of $2,600 dated 01/05/10 was received by Mr. Manna's primary campaign account even though his primary election is not until June 2011.  Each campaign transferred $2,000 each to Mr. McHale's primary campaign account on 01/18/10, $525 each to Dumont Victory 2009 on 01/23/10 and $75 each to Mr. McHale's primary campaign account on 02/17/10 even though the mayoral primary election is not until June 2011.  All reports were filed with ELEC dated April 15, 2010.

If the endorsements were monetized, what was each word worth?  Ms. Zamechansky's statement came in at 68 words; approximately $38.24 per word.  Mr. Manna's statement came in at 46 words; around $56.52 per word.  Expensive words indeed.  Think that residents do not pay for this?  Think again.  Here is a recent quote for anyone wishing a copy of the proposed NJEIT Phase III project who wishes to take home a copy of the proposal plan and drawings since one need only look at the stack of documents and drawings to conclude that it seems hardly reasonable to review it in the clerk's office:  $63.50 for hardcopy and a whopping $276.00 for an electronic copy.  Apologies to folks who, like me,  received a letter that their property is affected by this construction project.  I would have considered shelling out $63.50 from my pocket for an electronic copy and sharing it with my neighbors, but $276.00 is a bit too rich for my budget.  Besides, what good is the borough website anyway, if it costs the borough $1500 per month for something that costs neighboring municipalities nearly 70% less?  I guess I will have to save that discussion for another day.

I must emphasize that the campaign contributions and the account transfers in this discussion, also known as "wheeling", are activities currently legal in the state of New Jersey; however, the Ordinance and Resolution Committee chaired by Councilman Stylianou is attempting to enact local legislation based on model ordinance supplied by Citizen's Campaign that would outlaw this practice.  The ordinance is already on the books in nearly a dozen Bergen municipalities and dozens of NJ municipalities and counties. 

One would think that coming off the heels of the Record investigative report and follow-up, council members might express concern in being seen as dragging its feet.  After two months and four meetings, green shoots of progress may finally be emerging.  But one has to wonder whether the green shoots cultivated by Mr. Stylianou can survive the trample of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), concerns expressed by Mr. Manna and Mr. McHale, both advocating the proposed ordinance's perfection over speedy adoption with future updates if and when needed.

Mr. Stylianou's excellent idea proposing the ordinance to be retroactive to 01/01/2010 signals his commitment to reform.  Will he prevail, or will he be unable to overcome opposition from other council members appearing either unable or unwilling to kick the habit of generous campaign fund injections  in 2010 and beyond from firms doing business with Dumont?

Connect the dots...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Select Borough Public Meetings

There have been many new additions this week on the video site.

4/27 Joint Land Use Board Meeting

4/28 Ordinance & Resolution Board Meeting
        Part 1 - Revised Rent Leveling Board Ordinance, Park and Playground Ordinance
        Part 2 - Campaign Finance Reform (Pay-to-Play) Ordinance

P2P Ordinance is the subject of a recent editorial and the meeting received some press attention.

Happy viewing!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Finally, some good news!

Motivated by Board Member Ken Melamed's letter to action, I attended the Joint Land Use Board Meeting on Tuesday April 27.  Do you find it interesting that the board meeting could not be located on the borough calendar for any month in 2010?  I hope this oversight is rectified soon.

Anyway, at the meeting it was announced that T-Mobile, the cellular operator applying for a variance to erect a tower on 75 Armour Place (Block 203, Lot 19), is in active discussion with the borough of Dumont to see whether the carrier can relocate the tower application to place it on borough property so the borough could earn some revenue and (possibly) offset future property tax levies.  Do you see the ring of antennas on the radio tower about three-fourths the tower height?  Currently MetroPCS is leasing that space from the borough and is paying $2500 monthly, their own utilities and a 3% yearly raise for the 5-year term.

Video is available here.

Please refer to this earlier post for background.  Stay tuned for (hopefully) further progress and eventual success!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Free? How about $15,000? Just Say No.

Back in 2008 and again in 2009, when folks asked why the council decided against televising council meetings, they responded that their "research" indicated the cost was too prohibitive.

As gentle readers like you know that I have been providing recordings of select council and other public session meetings since December 2008, accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world reachable via the internet 24/7/365 and realize that I have been doing so spending less than $300 to date, would you like to know why the council has not done so yet? 
While I remain uncertain as to why, I have found the following that make the reason economic unlikely.  In Dumont Borough Codes Chapter A546 and adopted on March 19, 2002 as Ordinance 1269, aka Cable Franchise Agreement.  In part, the borough receives the following free of charge:

  • One high-speed cable modem and monthly Internet access service, including a standard installation to one municipal location designated by the Borough;
  • Network up to three additional personal computer terminals in the designated building (four computers total) to the cable modem;
  • One high-speed cable modem and monthly Internet access service, including a standard installation to all state-accredited primary and secondary public schools within the Borough;
  • One high-speed cable modem and monthly Internet access service, including a standard installation to the municipal library;
  • A noncommercial public, educational and governmental channel for the Borough use, upon request by the Borough. This channel may only be used for noncommercial programming.


So what does this cost?  In this ten-year agreement, Dumont receives 2% of gross receipts, which for 2010, the borough anticipates this revenue to be $189,214, almost double from 2009 of $95,000 anticipated.  The contract continues:

In consideration for the rights granted by this ordinance, Cablevision shall provide the Borough with a one-time grant of $15,000 to be used by the municipality for cable and/or other telecommunications-related purposes, including to supplement PEG access related production and programming efforts in the Borough.

So where did the grant go?
Who is to blame this time?

Why is the Mayor of Englewood so intent on having council meetings streamed live and archived for anytime access?
 
Excerpted from the article:
 
He added, "I want to make it as easy as possible for residents to get information about their government so they can participate in critical issues."

Huttle said the current economic crisis meant that the council needs transparency "more than ever." The city, he said, is at a critical stage in the budget process and transparency is essential in order for the residents and taxpayers to be informed.

"It’s past time to show the people who elected us that we are serious about running a transparent, open government on their behalf," Huttle said.

I guess we will just have to do with lip service here in Dumont and completely trust our elected officials.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Open Letter to Joint Land Use Board Member Ken Melamed

Dear Editor:


I read Mr. Ken Melamed's Letter to the Editor on April 8 with interest as I recall attending the hearings in 2007. In fact, I agree with Mr. Melamed to the extent that residents should attend the upcoming Joint Land Use Board (JLUB) hearing. They should also be asking Mr. Melamed and our elected officials the following questions:

1. During the hearings, both variance applicants Verizon and Voicestream, aka T-Mobile, had representation from relevant technical experts. Why did the adjustment board, as it was known back then, seem to be silent when it came to challenging the technical presentations? Did the board not retain a radio expert to challenge the applicants? Will the JLUB have a radio expert on board at the upcoming hearing?

2. Mr. Melamed indicated that if T-Mobile were to return to Dumont, "they would... put equipment on Verizon's tower". How does Mr. Melamed know that T-Mobile is not planning to co-locate at the Sunset site in addition to the proposed Armour site? I am also curious as to how Mr. Melamed is qualified to conclude that the Sunset location provides equivalent cellular coverage area as 75 Armour Place, almost a mile away even though the hearings have not yet started?

3. Mr. Melamed claimed that the Dumont Board of Ed “dragged their heels” resulting in "the zoning board had no choice", presumably denied the variance applications. Why did the adjustment board fail to take leadership and left the BOE effort to languish without an alternative of their own?

4. Was the adjustment board, as it was known back then, aware that cellular carriers had a responsibility to provide coverage to populated areas and that carriers could be penalized by the federal government for repeated failure to comply?

5. Why did Mayor McHale adopt an adversarial stance with the carriers as reported in a February 2009 Record article? Were the town’s coffers too flush to turn away badly needed revenue? Another recent Record article indicated some nearby towns receive annual revenues in excess of $200,000 for leases on municipal property. For Dumont, that would have nearly offset the aid cut by the state this year. Currently the borough receives residual revenue, if any, from Sunset and the same would be for Armour if approved because the site lies on private property. If so, then would it not be in Dumont's best interest to adopt a cooperative stance to try and accommodate all concerned on borough property? How would things be different if cell towers were located just past the border in a neighboring town; residents would see the same eyesores yet the borough earning no revenue? Can we afford to turn T-Mobile and other carriers away again in a mission proven ultimately futile?

6. Mr. Melamed repeatedly uses the term "adjustment board" in present tense. As a board member then and now, is he aware that a referendum was passed in 2008 and adopted in 2009 that merged the boards of zoning board of adjustment and planning into the JLUB? While I applaud Mr. Melamed's service to the board, I hope that this is an oversight as we need active members who are in touch with current events on the board in which they serve.

But there is hope in renewed opportunity. The DPW facility is only feet away from 75 Armour Place. A relocation to borough owned property may be able to achieve win-win by all: Dumont residents will have better cellular coverage and the borough will have recurring revenue. If the borough negotiates wisely, they may also be able to gain a professionally maintained backup facility for our police, fire and DPW radio systems at no cost to the borough. Do we not want robust and reliable radio coverage for our first responders?

As a Dumont resident, I agree with Mr. Melamed that we do not want cell towers all over town. On the other hand, we cannot blindly turn away revenue opportunities that save jobs and lessen the blow of tax increases. We have learned that taking an adversarial stance resulted in a net loss for the town in wasted resources and fees. We must turn out to the April 27 JLUB hearing at 7:30PM in borough hall and demand that attorneys, engineers and planners on both sides put their heads together and come to an agreement that benefits cellular carriers, municipalities and ultimately residents.



Sincerely,



Kai Chen
Operator, http://abetterdumont.com/ and http://abetterdumont.blip.tv/
Dumont

Monday, April 5, 2010

New Math in BOE Budget?

The following article on the revised budget appeared on Sunday with some revised numbers.  I should be able to locate the revised numbers and plug them in, right?  Start with the budget spreadsheet.

For example, the 2009-2010 Tax levy appears on revenue sheet, cell D9.  Substitute revised 2010-2011 Tax levy into E9. Check.

Now on to the 2009-2010 Budget.  Where is the matching number on the revenue sheet?  D32?  D59?  Why is it not there?

How about 2009-2010 state aid?  Is it on revenue sheet, cell D22?  2010-2011 state aid number provided seem to match E22.

Why could some numbers be matched and not others?

Good question.  According to the Record article's author, the information was supplied by Business Administrator Kevin Cartotto.

Could it just be misplaced data or the new math being taught that I missed?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

BOE Budget Meeting

The Dumont Board of Education held a special meeting to discuss the 2010-2011 budget on Wednesday March 31 at Dumont High School Auditorium.

Technical difficulties were encountered in posting the videos online but those issues have been resolved.  Here are the videos for your viewing pleasure:

Part 1 - Powerpoint presentation of changes to budget first proposed on March 25
Part 2 - Public discussion Q&A
Part 3 - Voting on modified budget and closing

I hope this is helpful in your understanding how the Dumont BOE operates.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

SPECIAL REPORT: Residents flock to join new finance committee

The Dumont Borough Council's outreach to financially savvy residents in advance of its 2010 budget process was "almost too successful," according to a source reportedly close to Mayor Matt McHale.

Nearly a dozen residents have already signaled their desire to join the council's committee, which will shape the borough's finances for this year.  A source reportedly close to Councilman Carl Manna, the chair of Dumont's finance committee, had announced at the March 11 council meeting that he was soliciting advice from residents with backgrounds in finance for help with the budget.

The committee will meet throughout the spring, with the objective of finalizing a budget for the council's approval by the end of June.

The source for McHale, at the March 25 council meeting, credited an article that ran in local press as helping to generate publicity for the project.

The source for Manna had previously said that he expected around six residents would join the committee, but that the council would make accommodations if that projection was exceeded.

"You don't want to turn anyone away," said Manna's source.

more... please scroll down...
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
THE ARTICLE WAS A FABRICATION, NONE OF IT IS TRUE.
BUT IT IS FACT ELSEWHERE IN BERGEN COUNTY.
DUMONT'S FINANCE COMMITTEE MEETINGS REMAIN CLOSED.
NO MINUTES ARE TAKEN.
AUTHORIZED BY THE BOROUGH ATTORNEY.
THOUGH IT APPEARS THE STATE AG DOES NOT AGREE.
 

 
HAPPY APRIL FOOLS' DAY FROM A BETTER DUMONT!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Borough Attorney: Closed Meetings, No Minutes OK

I received the following letter from the Dumont Borough Attorney with regards to closed session meetings by the Finance Committee, chaired by Carl Manna.

Read letter here

Now compare with the Open Public Meetings Act provisions here.

For the record, in 2009 there was only one budget hearing, held immediately before the vote by council. In other words, the decision was already made; the residents had little chance.

However, residents were not without fault. Less than a handful asked questions. Thanks everyone for making M&C's job way too easy.  I guess everyone else had no problem paying more taxes last year.

Will it be just as easy for the M&C to do the same this year? That's up to Dumont residents.  As of this writing, this blog's unscientific poll indicates an overwhelming majority feel our elected officials "are committed to reforming public contracting law".  How does that reconcile with outlandish rumors of certain rank and file borough employees receiving 15, even 30% salary increases, for talent retention?  Does that level of trust extend to paying whatever tax levy increases are recommended, sight unseen?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What Grows in Darkness?

As reported by the Finance Committee Chair (cue to 16:15), as of March 10, the borough received 22 foreclosure letters.  This raises the foreclosure total to 34 year to date. 

Yet the borough administrator reported in February (cue to 64:00) that "delinquencies are down" and "tax payments have gone up to 98.75%... a record in years".

The Finance Committee Chair continues (cue to 18:05), that the committee has already met five times, "looking at each line item and talk about... responsibilities going forward". 

Sounds like official business, right?

Yet a recent inquiry to the Borough Clerk as to the status of the next Finance Committee Meeting returned the following response:

The budget committee is scheduled to meet Monday. There will not be a quorum and no official business will be conducted. Therefore, it is not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act and not open to the public.

Two things stood out:
  • No Quorum;
  • No Official Business.
For the first point, when asked to confirm whether the committee comprised of three council members and inquired as to what constituted quorum, the response:

A simple majority of 4 members of the Governing Body constitutes a quorum for the purposes of the Open Public Meetings Act.

Huh?  Does that mean that when the full membership of the Finance Committee meets, it will never achieve quorum and thus not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act?

A further request to confirm whether there were three members in the Finance Committee has been unanswered as of this posting.

For the second point, if "looking at each line item and talk about... responsibilities going forward" does not constitute official business, what is?  Personally I do not care if council members want to shoot the breeze, but why meet at borough hall?  This seems to contradict the Sunshine Act provisions.

Why make such a fuss?

On March 16, when significant parts of Dumont was struggling with a power outage caused by the weekend storm, borough finance were far from everyone's mind.  Yet it was at this sparsely attended public meeting that the Finance Committee Chair reported that municipal revenues have decreased 23.15%, necessitating a proposed 9.99% municipal levy increase for 2010/2011.  Of course, we now know the assumptions of no change in state aid and keeping the surplus intact were far too optimistic.

How about the statement that taxes collected have increased?  Here is a pie chart of 2009 municipal revenue distribution.  If "delinquencies are down" and "tax payments have gone up to 98.75%... a record in years" (cue to 64:00), how could we have a overall revenue decrease of 23.15%?  What entire categories of revenue have we lost?  Even with the 20% loss in state aid, the share is still 7% (from 9%) of total revenue. Something does not add up here.  Does this make sense?

Would you vote on a 3.5% tax increase sight unseen, let alone 10%, especially if prices for consumer goods have decreased over the last year?

There is absolutely no way that in this down economy any additional tax levy requiring passage of a separate resolution be allowed without full disclosure!!!

Whatever happened to the mayor's pledge to open and transparent government?  Is there only openness and transparency when convenient? 

If there is nothing to hide, then prove it.  Show me the budget details, in advance.

Attention Finance Committee Chair Carl Manna, are you listening???

Thursday, March 18, 2010

State Aid Figures

State aid figures for 2010 have been released.
The distribution to Dumont is as follows:

Aid to Municipality
2008:  $1,747,332
2009:  $1,703,648
2010:  $1,355,252 (-20% from 2009)

Aid to Board of Education
2008:  $8,882,768
2009:  $9,326,906
2010:  $7,361,216 (-21% from 2009)

Local Finance Notice 2010-8 notes an interesting provision to the aid:

In addition, budget language regarding State aid distribution is being modified to reduce aid payments to those municipalities that use formula aid reductions as an add-on to the levy cap calculation. In other words, any amount of state formula aid reduction used as a levy cap exception [N.J.S.A. 40A:4-45(b)(2), as shown on Line A-10 of the Levy Cap Calculation Workbook] will result in an offsetting decrease to CMPTRA/ETR formula aid payments.

In related news, despite past proclamations of tax payments being up from 2009, it appears they may have been merely semantic sommersaults from borough officials.  Borough revenues overall were reported down 9% from last year.

Enough of the silliness.  "We've cut to the bone on our budget' is no longer an acceptable explanation.
Let the residents see how far the budget should be cut.  After all, we're paying for most of it.

Also from Local Finance Notice 2010-8:

The March 31 introduction date is now modified only to the extent that the introduction date for budgets that cannot be introduced by March 31 is extended to the next regularly scheduled governing body meeting after March 31.

Looks like the budget will be introduced at the next M&C meeting April 6.  Will Finance Committee Chair Manna make the deadline?  I would not hold my breath...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Guide to Contracting Ordinances in Other Municipalities

As preparation to the upcoming Ordinance & Resolution Committee meeting on Wednesday March 24th at 6:30PM, the following are some muncicipalities in Bergen County that have passed a version of the Model Ordinance supplied by the nonpartisan group Citizen's Campaign:

Emerson;
Fair Lawn;
Hasbrouck Heights;
Hillsdale;
Oradell;
Ramsey;
Ringwood;
Saddle River.

With so many examples and predecessors, writing an ordinance that suits Dumont and incorporates lessons learned should be easy, right?

Now that you have access to legislation enacted by our neighbors in the county, see for yourself whether it makes sense to take as long as they are in getting a draft ready for review.

Certainly there is no lack of expertise as we have an attorney and experts in financial operations and construction management on board.

We are looking to your leadership, Mr. Stylianou.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Too Much Sunlight?

Even though the Mayor, Council President and committee members could be heard calling on public participation in future meetings, it will not be happening in the next meeting.

Nevermind what was seen and heard as to the next Ordinance and Resolution Committee meeting scheduled on Wednesday March 10.  According to the borough clerk:

At the last Ordinance meeting it was decided to schedule the next Committee meeting March 24th. It will be a regular Committee meeting with only the three committee members attending-not the public.

How could I miss the recording?  Looks like the backroom talks began as soon as I shut off the camera and left the room.  Apparently dissuading other council members from attending was not enough.  Now they want the public out too.  So much for openness and transparency...

In the darkness, hopefully whatever they make will not stink and be closer to wine than vinegar.  Is that a reasonable request?

Miss the meeting?  It may be the last ordinance and resolution committee meeting recorded this year.  See the video for yourself.  Is there any wonder why?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

How To Motion Reform Without Really Trying

After being caught in a scheme so complex that the Bergen Record had to use a flowchart to diagram the many donors and recipients of campaign cash while still being ELEC compliant, the folks at Borough Hall are finally considering reforming existing laws.

So how does one make the motions to reform without seemingly intent on doing so?

1.  Post Public Notice on Borough Website seven hours before meeting (page 2, items 7 and 8);
2.  Advise non-committee members that they are precluded from voting, effectively dissuading them from attending;
3.  Ponder about so-claimed restrictive code on public contracts in Lavalette;
4.  Whine about the long, arduous and the complex process to get the final product just right;
5.  Spend a good portion of time on unrelated issues;
6.  Punt "real work" to the next meeting.

Yeah, let's hear from from all those contractors who have been "hurt" from giving generously to their favorite elected officials.  Looks like Lavalette taxpayers have already spoken here (page 1, column 3) and here (page 3, column 2). 

Excerpted from Citizen's Campaign Fact Sheet:

Q:  What about a person’s 1st amendment right to contribute?

A:  Our pay-to-play law is constitutional because municipalities have the power to set the conditions of contracts for professional services. In other words, this is not broad campaign finance reform, but public contract reform.

Q:  Why are only professional contracts included?
A:  Professional Service contracts are “no-bid” contracts. This means that municipalities can set their own standards for hiring professionals- like attorneys, engineers, and auditors. Contracts for such things as snow removal automatically go to the lowest bidder. A town doesn’t necessarily want the lowest bid professional, therefore the council has broad discretion.

Q:  How does pay-to-play impact public tax dollars?
A:  It boosts costs to taxpayers by limiting competition and enabling the favored contractors to pad their charges to cover their political expenditures. It's corrupt and it should be outlawed.

Q:  What towns have passed pay-to-play reform?
A:  As of October, 2007, about 60 municipalities & three counties have adopted the model ordinance, they are: Asbury Park, Atlantic County, Atlantic Highlands, Belmar, Berkeley Twp, Bradley Beach, Cherry Hill, Collingswood, Dover Twp, East Greenwich, East Windsor, Edison Twp, Emerson, Ewing, Evesham, Fair Lawn, Freehold Twp, Hamilton, Hasbrouck Hts, Hightstown, Highland Park, Hillsdale, Hoboken, Holmdel Twp, Hopewell Twp, Lawrence Twp, Lavallette, Manchester, Margate, Marlboro, Mercer County, Metuchen, Millstone Twp, Monmouth County, Monroe (Middlesex), Montgomery, New Providence, Newark, Ocean City, Oceanport, Oradell, Pennington, Ramsey, Red Bank, Ringwood, Saddle River, Sayreville, South Brunswick, Spring Lake, Teaneck, Tinton Falls, Trenton, Upper Freehold, Washington Twp (Mercer), West Milford, Washington (Gloucester), West Windsor, Woodbridge.

Q:  Should towns wait for Comprehensive State legislation?

A:  No, Pay-to-play reform is a simple first-step to reducing the municipal portion of property taxes. A recent state law was passed, giving towns & counties the authority to control how professional service contracts are awarded. By passing this ordinance, contracts would be awarded on merit and cost-effectiveness, and the result is likely to be significantly lower costs.

Q:  By adopting pay-to-play reform, won’t individually wealthy people only be able to afford to run for office?
A:  In fact, pay-to-play provides an insurance policy for career politicians. Since incumbent politicians award the contracts, they get the overwhelming majority of pay-to-play dollars. These pay-to-play funded war chests discourage challengers and eliminate competition. 

Even worse, pay-to-play helps build the power of party bosses. Since county party organizations can take up to $35,000 annually from an individual contributor or business entity, they become the best conduit for contributions aimed at winning or maintaining government contracts. 

These dollars go overwhelmingly to the party who controls county government and allows them to maintain that control and stamp out any opposition. This is why county freeholder boards that used to have a mixture of Democrats and Republicans have moved to nearly all Democratic or all Republican.

Eliminating pay-to-play will help level the playing field and restore competition to elections at all levels of government. It will reduce the advantage that incumbent politicians currently have in fund raising over potential challengers.

Further, ending pay-to-play may motivate some candidates to adopt new techniques for fund raising such as the very successful Internet fund raising from small-and medium sized donors pioneered by Howard Dean and used with tremendous results by Sen. Kerry and President Bush.

While candidates for state, county and local office cannot hope to duplicate the results of a presidential candidate, there is still much untapped potential in this approach.

Q:  Who wrote this ordinance?
A:  Constitutional law experts from the Brennan Center for Justice and members of the Citizens’ Campaign Legal Task Force.

To sum it up, if the reformers are to maintain their credibility, they need to:

1.  Show up (you know who you are, we see you);
2.  Remove your bluetooth headset - do you really need to take that call during the meeting?
3.  Pass ordinance by May 10, 2010 (29 day pre-election report, Primary Election, ELEC reporting).

Stop stalling, you have 60 days.  This is far from rocket science, folks.