New Jersey towns race to ace efficiency test needed for state funds

Still reeling from deep state aid cuts, New Jersey municipalities are anxiously completing a written test of their management efficiency that will determine whether they receive all the funds owed them.

The new test, believed to the first of its kind in the country, has sparked an uproar among local officials as they struggled this week to submit it by Friday's deadline.

Many of the 88 questions on the Local Government Best Practices checklist are ill-conceived, confusing, and unfair, and could jeopardize thousands of dollars in needed money, some have complained.

Others say the criteria are a good, albeit clumsy, way to rein in government costs by forcing municipalities to operate more economically.

Failure to comply with enough of the practices could result in the state's withholding as much as 5 percent of the town's final aid payment, expected in December.

"I don't know that that's exactly fair on short notice," said Paulsboro Mayor John Burzichelli, noting that municipalities already were locked into budgets based on approved state aid figures. Officials received the questionnaires Aug. 25.

The forms ask whether municipalities share services, conduct energy audits, require employee contributions to health plans, control overtime, and maintain comprehensive websites, among other items. Pensions are not addressed.

The state's 566 municipalities are scurrying to answer "yes" as often as they can to avoid a penalty. Some have hastily adopted ordinances to show better compliance to approved practices, while others are providing explanations for why some questions do not apply to them.

The state Department of Community Affairs will consider the reasons and "use discretion" in deciding whether to count those questions when calculating the score, said Lisa Ryan, an agency spokeswoman. When the budget law was passed in June, she said, it "put towns on notice" that a checklist was being prepared and that penalties could be assessed.

The intent of the questionnaire is good, said Marc Holzer, director of the National Center for Public Performance at Rutgers University and an expert on governmental best practices. But it remains to be seen whether it will bring results, he said.

The form is time-consuming to complete and answers require verification because towns may engage in "game-playing" or have different interpretations of what was asked, he said.

The question, he said, is "Are the answers real?"

Some queries appear to encourage tiny towns to merge, Holzer said, though research indicates that regionalization and shared services are superior ways to cut costs. He said management checklists are commonly used across the country, but he had never heard of another that was "tied to state aid."

Gov. Christie proposed the checklist to reward local governments that have sound policies and spending practices. The list is part of a "tool kit" designed to help municipalities stay within their budgets and minimize taxes.

When the questionnaire was released in August, the League of Municipalities pounced on what it called the state's "one-size-fits-all" approach to running communities with varied sizes, shapes, and forms of government.

Calls from irate mayors were "burning my earlobes," said Bill Dressel, the league's executive director. But after meeting with state officials, Dressel said, he was told towns could answer "not applicable" to questions and not be penalized.

For example, a question about whether a town shares a tax assessor with a neighboring municipality should not be answered "no" if officials can show it is cheaper to hire their own part-time assessor, he said.

"This is unprecedented, the first time any administration has tried to establish these kinds of best practices in the state," Dressel said, calling the effort worthwhile. He said the state had been receptive to working with the league to make the checklist fair.

A town's grade, he said, would be based on the percentage of "yes" replies to the questions answered, a change from the original plan.

Lou Manzo, the mayor of Harrison Township, said he appreciated the effort to make communities "more diligent" in seeking economies, but he was irked by a question that asked whether the township had projected future budgets.

That would be nearly impossible, Manzo said, because "everything hinges on what we assume or know we will get from the state," and aid has fluctuated wildly over the years. "That question is not fair," he said.

Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague hesitated before giving his opinion of the checklist. Some questions will require a dreaded "no" response even though the town has reduced taxes during the last two years, he said.

Haddon plans to establish a meetings-attendance policy for elected officials and to require them to take classes on government, things needed to raise the final score, Teague said. But the town may still fall short, he said. That is because small towns cannot do all that the checklist suggests, such as having their own health officer, he said.

Similarly, other mayors have complained that the large size of their municipalities puts them at a disadvantage when asked if they share a health officer or tax assessor.

Officials should have been given time to comply, Teague said. The checklist, he said, is more like " 'Do you do it now - yes or no?' and 'We don't care if you're going to do it next year.' "


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.