Monday, March 29, 2010

Useful Documents

Here are some documents that have arrived on my desk in the last several days.  I hope you find them as useful as I did into understanding how our government works:

1.  Citizens' Campaign Municipal Pay-to-Play Reform Ordinance (PROFESSIONALS ONLY)
2.  Citizens' Campaign Municipal Pay-to-Play Reform Ordinance (ALL CONTRACTS)
3.  Dumont Board of Education 2010-2011 Proposed Budget (machine readable)
4.  Dumont Board of Education 2010-2011 Proposed Budget (scanned)

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:

Fair Lawn;
Hasbrouck Heights;
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.