by guest blogger Linda Baum
This was the second TOMSA Board meeting I’ve attended, and like last month, I was the only member of the public there.
The meeting started promptly at 7:30 p.m. — I made it there just in time — and the first thing on the agenda was a public hearing on TOMSA’s 2012 budget. Huh?? I knew nothing about it and hadn’t even had a chance to read the words “Public Hearing” on the agenda sheet when Executive Director Pat Parkinson asked if there were public comments. He never announced that it was a public hearing, so I didn’t know. He just awkwardly asked if there were comments. How am I supposed to comment on a budget I haven’t seen at a hearing I didn’t know about? I was caught by surprise and said nothing – a free pass they won’t get next time – and the Board quickly moved to adopt the budget by unanimous vote while I was still scratching my head.
Because the public wasn’t notified of the hearing in line with statutory requirements, the budget is subject to legal challenge. I intend to press this issue in order to get another hearing scheduled. I want the opportunity to review the budget (and, oh yeah, obtain it) and to prepare prior to the hearing. You may be wondering why I don’t just use the public comments period at the end of the next Board meeting to discuss the budget. Because hearings are a better forum for obtaining information – different rules apply to them. For one, there’s no time limit, so you will get all of your questions in, while public comments following a meeting may be limited to just a few minutes. Of course, even at hearings there’s no guarantee you’ll get any answers.
If you’re behind on your sewer bills, now’s the time to pay up. There will be an accelerated tax lien sale on December 20th for sewer fees that were due by the end of June 2011. Between 300 and 400 households (or businesses) will be affected.
This is the second year that TOMSA, which operates on a calendar year budget, has done an accelerated tax lien sale. December 2010 was the first one. Prior to that, sales were held each April, including a sale in April 2010. So there were two such sales in 2010, which coincidentally is the first year that TOMSA transferred surplus revenue to the Township – transfers were $365K in 2010 followed by $368K in 2011, per the Township’s 2011 adopted budget. TOMSA’s switch to an accelerated sale schedule in 2010 gave them a one-time boost in extra revenue for that budget year that made up for some of the Authority’s forfeited revenue that year.
One other observation. Late payers caught unaware by the accelerated sale schedule in 2010 may have found themselves with an unexpected lien on their properties and owing far more than they anticipated.
If you read my post on the November 10th meeting of the TOMSA Board, you may recall that there was a lot of discussion about the excessive fees TOMSA was charging for OPRA requests. Well, there’s news. Since then, TOMSA’s OPRA request form has been revised to list the correct fees per the 2010 amendment to the OPRA law, which lowered fees to just 5 cents for letter-size copies and 7 cents for legal, effective 7/1/10.
I mentioned at the December 7th meeting that TOMSA may owe a refund to people who have submitted OPRA requests since 7/1/10. Executive Director Pat Parkinson quickly replied that there haven’t been any requests. No OPRA requests in a year and a half??? I said that seemed unlikely, and some guy at the table actually had the nerve to mock me as if Parkinson’s word is law and I should believe what I’m told. (It was that Brian Nelson-esque fellow I mentioned in my last post. I’ll have to get his name next time.) Well, I’ve done some checking around, and I now know of at least 2 OPRA requests submitted to TOMSA in that timeframe.
A couple of days after the Board meeting, I submitted my own OPRA request to TOMSA. One of the things I asked for is a list of persons who have submitted an OPRA request since 7/1/10. I figure those folks might like to know they have a holiday bonus coming. Mr. Parkinson handles all OPRA requests personally, so it will be interesting to see what I get.
I’m learning that Parkinson has almost complete control over all public communication outside of regular customer service. I’m not sure, but I don’t think the clerical staff even records when an OPRA request comes in – stuff just gets passed right along to Parkinson. If you call and ask for anything more than the most basic information, you will be referred to Parkinson. Other people either don’t know the answers or appear to be under a gag order. Surely, professionals such as the manager or staff accountant have knowledge enough to respond to many questions, but they won’t, and the clerical staff will tell you as much. “You’ll have to speak to Mr. Parkinson,” they say.
One of the capital projects discussed at the meeting had to do with “digging out” manhole covers that had been buried under dirt, tar, or other material over the years. Some were covered during construction operations, some just by the accumulation of foliage. I asked if TOMSA was going to seek reimbursement from any parties whose work projects caused the manholes to be covered in the first place, like the County, the Township, or private contractors. I was thinking, in part, that there might be insurance liability coverage available. Parkinson replied that the projects were done 15 years ago and that TOMSA has no plans to seek recovery. He said that TOMSA now has its people stationed at work sites to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Fifteen years doesn’t strike me as all that long ago. TOMSA was formed in the 1960s, so they’ve been around long enough to have had procedures in place in the 1990s to ensure that manholes weren’t buried during construction projects and, if they were, to be informed and to remediate in a timely manner.
Because TOMSA won’t be seeking possible recovery from the at-fault parties, rate-payers will bear the cost. Even if this is a relatively small project for which TOMSA has money in its budget, it means there is less money for other projects or less surplus to offer the Township for tax relief.
More on manholes: An interesting revelation was made at the Planning Board meeting just this past Wednesday, December 14th. An engineer was making a presentation about infrastructure in and around the Bamm Hollow site, where 190 homes are to be built. He mentioned that the sewer system currently in place is overloaded to the point where sewerage is leaking out of manholes, and that TOMSA is currently sealing manholes to prevent the leakage.
I have to wonder, now, if some of the manholes to be uncovered as part of TOMSA’s “access recovery” project were sealed by TOMSA itself.
There was an update at the TOMSA Board meeting on the Monmouth County Improvement Authority’s solar project, in which TOMSA, the Township, and the Board of Education are participating. The MCIA received only one bid for 16.9 cents per kilowatt hour and the bid was rejected by the MCIA as too high. No word yet on the next move by the MCIA or any of the participants.