On October 1, every municipality will puts its state aid on the line. As part of the governor’s reform Tool Kit, towns will only receive 100 percent of their state municipal aid payment if they respond “yes” to at least 76 out of 88 questions listed in the governor’s “Local Government Best Practices.” Not having enough “yes” answers will cut their final aid payments for this year at a time when most municipalities have already lost some of their state aid.
Many of the questions make sense. Elected officials should understand their responsibilities and obligations and should attend most of their organization’s meetings. It would be good for the municipal websites to include standard useful information like municipal budgets, minutes and agendas of the various governing bodies and boards, and the names of people to contact. A personnel manual is important for employees of the municipality to know the rules…and certainly the municipality should have rules.
Many questions suggest that important policies are in place and are recognized as important. Since assessed values are the basis for the property taxes people pay, towns should recognize that maintaining those records is a critical feature of good management. Unfortunately, only 60 percent of municipalities will be able to answer “yes” to that question.
Other questions contradict each other so if a municipality says “yes” to one, it can’t say “yes” to the other. For instance, one question asks if the municipality employs a full-time health officer. The next question asks if the municipality shares health services with another municipality or county. If you say yes to one, the only way you can say yes to the other is if you have more than one health official.
Some questions contradict state policy. For instance, the questionnaire asks if the municipality limits health benefits to full-time (35 or more hours weekly) employees-excluding from coverage all part-time employees, elected and appointed officials. Newly enacted laws on this subject (P.L. 2010, c. 1 and c. 2) define full time for local government employees as 32 or more hours a week.
And while the questionnaire asks whether the municipality has implemented cost sharing for health benefits by collecting at least 1.5 percent of salary for all employees, it is silent on pensions. If the state is interested in health benefits why not also pension costs? It might be a big surprise for the borough administrator to find out how many pensions some of their shared service workers are entitled to receive upon retirement.
Of course, that is not a “yes” or “no” question, but it could be phrased along the lines of, “Do any of your full-time employees also work full-time in another municipality?” Also, “Do you know how much your full-time employees get paid by the other municipalities where they also work full-time?”
How about nepotism and political patronage? Because this issue clearly fits into the category of ethics and personnel manuals, what about asking, “Does the municipality condone the hiring of a son by a father, a sister by a brother or a mother by a daughter?” or maybe even a more pointed, “Does the municipality allow a mayor, council person or other public official to buy municipal property?”
How about various sanitation practices? Under the public works section of the questionnaire, several questions are asked about recycling. But how about asking whether the municipality picks up trash more than once a week? Or whether the municipality picks up grass clippings?
And what about the ultimate questions?
Are you too big or too small to function effectively?
Do you annually have a joint meeting of officials from every taxing authority to see how you can coordinate and manage the services you provide taxpayers to guarantee that you are providing the highest quality, most cost effective services possible?
“Yes” and “no” questionnaires have both value and limitations. They are like public report cards. If made public, they raise questions. NJPP has always believed information should be provided to the public in an understandable way. “Yes” and “no” is pretty simple. And making municipalities answer the questionnaire or lose state aid is a pretty direct stick. But tying these “yes” answers to the allocation of state aid may not be the best practice when non-compliance is likely to amount to further increases in property taxes to make up for lost state aid.