Sunday, April 28, 2013

Waiting to get Offended

I am glad that the article concerning consolidation and shared services in the Hunterdon County Democrat that featured many quotes by me has sparked more conversation about the same, consolidation and shared services that is, not me, although it did do both.  Two letters appeared last week challenging our consolidated school concept and the other crying foul for my broad statements on shared services.

In reverse order, true enough there are examples of shared service efforts, and I am keenly aware of these.  Not an exhaustive list, but Lebanon Borough is largely run by shared services, South Hunterdon is to be commended for its effort and my friend Mayor Daniels and his colleagues in Califon are to be lauded for their achievements, efforts and enthusiasm.   I have hosted seminars with the people behind these efforts as speakers so I am all too aware of the great work they are doing.  Shockingly a brief interview for a brief news article broadly about shared services with selected quotes will sometimes result in broad comments that omit some specifics. 

My comment that “There’s an apprehension to even look at a study, to see what the numbers would be,” is true, but it doesn't mean everybody is apprehensive as one writer inferred.  And I have always asserted that school consolidation would both improve education and reduce costs.  Again the writer infers slights that are not there. 

There were many good questions raised about a single school district. The first question about where we got our data was answered in an article by Cristina Rojas/Hunterdon County Democrat on January 24, 2012. The answer to the second is yes, why not 4 or 8 districts, we are open to more than one.  Our data shows that one district may offer the savings we have suggested based on what other counties around the country do, but we would have our study would open to any number depending on what best improves education and secondly reduces costs.

Bigger isn't necessarily better and no one is suggesting that expressing a cliché should substitute for a thorough study.  Let’s get the facts and let the facts guide us.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Entitled to Respect and Dignity

Several weeks ago, I asserted that Hunterdon County should not do business with Planned Parenthood.  Never once did I say I was doing this because I am Catholic or because my faith tells me too.  But that is exactly the spin on my stand by the press.  They cited my service to and attendance at St Ann’s Church as the motivation for my policy choice.  While I am proud to be Catholic you need not be conservative (see Mary Meehan), Catholic, Christian or even a theist (see Nat Hentoff) to oppose abortion, all one needs is to have passed high school biology and a normal sense of right and wrong.

Life begins at conception, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female join to form the blastocyst, zygote, a new distinct organism [Langman, Jan. Medical Embryology. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975, p. 3].  That organism has DNA, that DNA is human, that human DNA is unique and distinct from the father and the mother.  It is its own human life.  There is no moral difference from a zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager, adult, or senior citizen.  Each is entitled to respect and dignity and the government must protect each equally.

The right to abortion as embodied in Roe vs. Wade relies on the premise of a right to privacy.  The notion that a right to privacy is greater than the right to live is folly.  As the Reverend Jesse Jackson stated in his article in Right to Life News in 1977:

“If one accepts the position that life is private, and therefore you have the right to do with it as you please, one must also accept the conclusion of that logic. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to concerned.”

Roe is not the first grave mistake our Supreme Court has even made.  The Dred Scott decision of 1857 was overturned by the 14th Amendment following our Civil War and   Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 was reversed in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, 58 years later.  One day Roe too will be overturned.

The other assertion is a right to one’s own body.  True enough, you have a right to do with your body what you please up to and until the point you do harm to another.  You cannot use your body to hurl your fist at another or kick someone nor can you use your body to do harm to the unborn baby.

Some also state that an abortion ban would lead to many social problems like unwanted children, handicapped children, etc.  While these concerns are usually overstated and beside the point, the answer is not to kill children who would present problems, but solve those problems.  We don’t kill seniors because social security is insolvent, we don’t kill the poor to solve poverty, nor should we slay the unborn to avoid some social ill.

Another familiar line of attack is to dehumanize the unborn baby.  You aren’t killing a baby you are aborting a pregnancy.  This is the same tactic used to justify passed evils this country long ago overcame.  Again as Jesse Jackson wrote:

“That is why the Constitution called us three-fifths human and then whites further dehumanized us by calling us "niggers." It was part of the dehumanizing process. The first step was to distort the image of us as human beings in order to justify that which they wanted to do and not even feel like they had done anything wrong. Those advocates of taking life prior to birth do not call it killing or murder; they call it abortion. They further never talk about aborting a baby because that would imply something human. Rather they talk about aborting the fetus. Fetus sounds less than human and therefore can be justified.”

Whatever linguistic gymnastics and contortions abortion advocates use, it is inescapable that abortion is the taking of a human life, an innocent, defenseless one.  This is not a statement of religious dogma but one of science and reason, morals and ethics.

Once one concludes that life begins at conception, our policy choices become clear, although sometime painful. Our Declaration of Independence states our nation’s credo in direct unapologetic terms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If the right to life can be taken then how can a right to bear arms, to assemble, to exercise your religion, and on and on have any credence.   The first job of government is to preserve our rights, first among them is life.

The main criticism of my stand has been that I am imposing my religion on others.   This is false.  I am not advocating putting statues of Mary  at our county parks, I am not promoting closing county offices on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I am advocating respecting the wishes of our constituents and not have tax dollars go to an organization that provides elective abortions. 

We can still provide the health care for low income residents without subsidizing abortions.  Recently the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a state health program that excludes abortion providers from receiving government funding.  We should do the same, not because it is the teaching of the Catholic Church, but because science and ethics demonstrate that it is wrong, gravely wrong to abort babies.  Furthermore and perhaps more importantly from a governing standpoint, a majority of Hunterdon taxpayers, prolife and prochoice do not want their tax dollars spent on providers of elective abortions.

I do not mean to diminish the importance of my faith.  My faith informs and buttresses all that I do.  My faith gave me the strength to stand up for the unborn,  the perseverance to withstand the anti-Catholic condemnations, the assaults from intolerant abortion advocates for whom it is not enough to have the freedom to obtain abortions,  rather they demand that taxpayer fund their choices.  Most importantly it’s put into perspective the judgment that I will get from the residents of Hunterdon County.  While I am concerned about representing my constituents well and cognizant that I will face their judgment in 2014, I am far more concerned about passing the judgment of my Lord at the end of my days.  I believe my position will be approved by both.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Studies: When Warranted Not Wantonly

A resident last week wrote of his frustration that the county has not engaged in multiple studies on a host of issues.  He chided the Board of Chosen Freeholders for failing to reduce the cost of government.  First, we Freeholders have cut the budget and taxes four years in a row, lowering the cost of government.  Secondly, we have investigated multiple shared services avenues and taken action to move forward on a number of these items.
The issues that the writer wants studied included police, fire, EMS, schools, tax collection and tax assessment.  In reverse order, tax assessment cannot be reallocated to the county by statute.  Our Shared Services Working Group including Assemblywoman Donna Simon, investigated the pilot project in Gloucester County.  Based on their success, we determined that Hunterdon County could potentially save $1 million on our $2 million dollar county wide expenditure.  This need not be studied.  Once the State changes the law, Hunterdon can act.
Tax collection, which is similar in scope to assessment, is also by statute to be done by municipalities as they are the tax collection agency for all local governments.  Changing the tax collector to a county function would require several law changes.  Similar savings could likely be realized.  Again, no study is necessary, what is required is action in Trenton to allow us to make these changes.
Schools have been the subject of a several month long analysis that has been written about in several newspapers. Raritan Township Committeeman John King and I, along with several community members have developed a request for proposal for the county to issue to study school consolidation.   Before diving into a study, we did a lot of examination on the educational improvements and financial benefits of regionalized and/or a county wide school.  A study of this magnitude is not something to be jumped into wantonly.  We have been taking a thoughtful approach before moving forward.
EMS and fire service could serve as an example to all government agencies in cooperation and regionalization.  These services are already dispatched by the county, training is largely done by the county, and through their respective Chiefs’ Associations, they coordinate response policies on a county wide basis.  Structure fires get responses from multiple companies with several resources, thus no one company has to fund and staff the full array of equipment needed to properly fight a fire.  EMS agencies coordinate in a similar fashion.  Recent policy changes coordinated with Hunterdon County Communications resulted in a 76% improved response time to cardiac calls.  By working with these agencies the county is keeping costs in check without expensive consultants and studies.
Police merging was studied in great detail.  The rosiest scenario would save a typical Hunterdon county homeowner in one of the 13 towns that have police about $50.  Even a casual observer of the Somerset County study, the referendum in Franklin Township and even the events in West Amwell and Flemington when police mergers were suggested demonstrates that the majority of voters want their police.  The County stands ready to help towns pursue mergers if they wish the help.   
The notion that my colleagues and I have not reduced the cost of government, reduced its size and shirked our duty to the public is farcical.  Millions less in spending, a public workforce reduction of nearly 20%, actively engaged in the effort to share services, consolidate and regionalize.  We will perform studies prudently, after a thorough analysis that shows the money spent will bear fruit, to do otherwise would be, well, not doing our job.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vision 2020

The following resolution which I authored was passed last Tuesday by the Board of Chosen Freeholders. It represents our effort to look beyond the next budget to the long term health and welfare of our county and her residents.  We are asking our Divisions to look at what services will be required, and how best to deliver them so we may budget and plan appropriately.  Fiscal conservatism should concern itself with not just today's taxpayers but future tax payers.

Whereas, Hunterdon County has rightly spent the last five years focusing weathering the economic recession without diminishing critical services cutting spending by over $10 million, reducing the amount of money raised by taxation by over $6 million and reducing its workforce, mainly through attrition, by over 20%, and
Whereas, the Board of Chosen Freeholders credits and thanks our employees for their dedication and continued commitment to the residents of the County, and
Whereas, Hunterdon County will face great burdens on infrastructure and services in the years to come, and
Whereas, to properly prepare for the future needs of our County, its residents, businesses, other public institutions, proper forecasting and preparations must be made so as to meet these future needs, and
Whereas, each and every Division of the County will play a critical role in meeting these future needs,
Now, Therefore, Be it Resolved, that every Division working in concert with their Appointing Authority, Department Managers, Advisory Board(s), Clients and Constituents, develop a scoping document spelling out the future statutory and discrectionary requirements of that Division to meet the needs of our residents in 2020 and beyond, and
Be It Further Resolved, that these Visions of Hunterdon County in 2020 and beyond be forwarded to the Board of Chosen Freeholders for our use in the proper development of future budgets, capital budgets, durable goods and infrastructure purchases and long range planning for the betterment of our County’s nearly 129,000 residents

Thursday, May 10, 2012

2012 Hunterdon County Budget

     On Tuesday, the Board of Chosen Freeholders will be introducing our 2012 budget.  The budget, when taken together with the Library budget will reduce taxes by $1.4 million and reduce spending by $1.9 million dollars.  Since peaking at $99.4 million in 2007, the 2012 County operating budget will be at $88.6 million, the lowest since 2005.  This is a remarkable achievement for which the credit belongs to our Finance team, our Administration, our Labor negotiation team, my colleagues on the Board and mostly to our 500 plus employees who bear the brunt of our choices.
     Critical areas of government are appropriately funded and vital capital needs are met.  As with any budget that cuts spending in some areas, there will critics who lament the loss in funding.  Such is the nature of make hard choices in a down economy. 
     This budget represents many difficult cuts but more importantly embodies many more responsible reforms.  Senior staff has been reorganized, departments with retiring department heads have been moved under other departments reducing upper management, and other functions have been consolidated.  We have made important improvements to how we deliver public health nursing services, how the county gets legal services and, using a shared service and better management, we are improving the delivery of health division services.
     Lower taxes, lower spending, real reforms; a responsible budget for our 130,000 hard working taxpayers and residents.  This is the budget we will introduce and hopefully pass so we can continue to meet the needs of this the best County in our Country.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What was really said.

In the Hunterdon County Democrat August 11, 2011 edition, a letter to the editor appeared chastising me for several offenses to the writer’s credo of how police services should be delivered.  Unfortunately the straw man the author establishes is absent of facts and misstates my intentions and the statements of others.

I am not advocating consolidation of police services into a county run police force.  Rather I am supporting a thorough examination of the cost of our current model of 14 separate police forces in their respective municipalities and the cost of alternative means of policing those 14 communities.  This is in response to resolutions passed by most of the municipalities in the county and most of the municipalities with their own police force requesting just this help from the County government.

Once those costs and the savings, if there is any, are known, the municipalities can choose to move forward with making an informed choice.  That choice should take into account, as this paper’s editorial rightly points out, the value of the existing level of service.

The writer also misstates what the Somerset model would do if enacted.  The Somerset study would not create a County wide force but rather a single municipally run force.  At no point, in either the model Somerset County is pursuing or in the presentation I made, for which the writer was not present, was it suggested the County government pay for a police force.

It is my opinion that police is a municipal function and should remain a municipal function.  I stand ready to help municipalities work to find a way to meet the demands of shrinking tax bases, increasing costs and the restrictions of the 2% cap law.  That could mean merging forces into one large force, several regional forces or keeping the current police forces intact.  What should not be done is to force upon the municipalities and their residents a dictate, be it from Trenton, the County seat or the énarque writer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Remarks at Warren County Shared Services Seminar

Thank you Freeholder Sarnoski, for having me here in Warren County on this the most important day of the year for New Jersey tax payers.  Today is Tax Freedom Day the day where all of us in New Jersey stop working for the government and start working for ourselves. As Ronald Reagan used to say, a taxpayer is someone who works for the government but doesn’t have to take the civil service exam.
Most of us are familiar with the parable of the boiled frog the notion that a frog when thrown into a boiling pot of water will leap out to safety but if placed in a warm pot and slowly brought to a boil, will allow itself to be cooked. This is very analogous to how we deliver, and more importantly pay for local government services in New Jersey.  Certainly, no one 10 years ago would wake up one morning and find themselves paying what we now pay for schools, municipal and county services and not demand an immediate fix.  Yet, slowly but surely, like a pot boiling, property taxes in Hunterdon has risen 64% from an average of $4,930 in 2000 to $8,091 in 2010 (APP).
There are 5 drivers of property taxes in our state:
·        Reliance on property taxes as the main tax to fund local government instead of sales or income taxes Regressive tax
·        Volume of school districts and municipalities and the duplication of functions
·        Sprawl
·        The Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey
·        Legacy costs
Most of these problems are out of our hands and many of these would yield very large savings, but that does not free us as elected officials in local government from doing our part.  
The solutions at the disposal of local officials consist of four (4) areas shared services, regionalization, reallocation from municipalities to the county, and consolidation. Shared services was invented in 2005 by Governor Jon Corzine when he cut aid to municipalities with less than 10,000 and less than 5,000 people disproportionately to larger towns.  Not really, of course shared services were around for many, many years.  It worked because it didn’t involve the state or frankly politicians in general.  One DPW manager would ask his neighboring DPW manager if he could borrow a cherry picker or track hoe.  Towns shared with each other because that is what neighbors do. Governor Corzine formalized the effort in 2005 with Share Grants to facilitate and encourage more of this.  It led to more contracts or shared service agreements and in many ways shifted the onus of property tax reform, at least politicially, from the state to towns and schools.
Regionalization is multiple towns or school consolidating areas of services into a single entity or authority.  Shared or joints courts and regional high schools being the most common of these.  It brings the advantages of greater economies of scale while preserving local control or “home rule.”  
Reallocation is the moving of a local government function from municipalities to the county.  We have seen this done with county wide dispatch.  In Somerset County, they are working on a police study for county wide police that will save 15% if fully enacted.  In Gloucester County, they are doing county wide tax assessment saving more than 50%.  I have studied both of these and can answer any questions you may have on these efforts.
The most extreme is consolidation.  We hosted a seminar last month on municipal consolidation in Hunterdon and half a dozen Mayors’ and local official were openly talking about doing the studies that is the first step to consolidating towns.
What we are doing in Hunterdon is taking these issues head on.  We have created a small Shared Services working group that has as its mission:
Is to facilitate local officials, municipal, school and county, in Hunterdon in a thorough exploration of all opportunities for sharing, regionalizing, reassignment or consolidating of governmental functions to ensure that essential services are provided to the public in the most efficient and effective manor and at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. We recognize the following two undisputed challenges must be addressed:
·        New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation.
·        The 2% Property Tax Cap
As elected County, Municipal and School officials, it is our obligation to fully explore all options to meet these significant challenges. In these difficult financial times, this must be our top priority. To support this, the Shared Services Working Group is committed to assisting elected officials and the public by: Gathering all the data about municipal operations and spending along with related information to support innovation and collaboration on the mission. Sharing this information in a public forum via a website and through seminars to focus attention on the challenges; surface potential solutions; recognize past and current actions that demonstrate innovation and commitment to the mission. Initiating and supporting action to make steady progress toward the mission.
We have held three seminars on shared services.  The first was fire, police and EMS.  We have seen action on sharing police and movement toward regional police forces.  The northern EMT squads have made an effort to organize in a regional group for many of their activities.  Several fire companies have changed their daytime response protocols following our meeting.
We brought all of the schools together and several school boards to talk about what they are doing to share superintendants three of our schools who all go to the same regional school district told of their effort to create a K-12 district.  I am sorry to report that beyond those schools that spoke that evening none have made any movement toward more sharing or regionalization. But I am proud to report that a question to consolidate 3 schools into one K-12 Passed in all 3 towns even while the regional high school overall budget failed.
The only progress from our last seminar on municipal consolidation is that the conversation regarding consolidation changed from never to we need to give this serious consideration.  I am trying to get as many local officials as I can to jointly agree to at least study this.  
One tool we created to study the issue of local government spending is the Hunterdon Municipal Database. (Show and explain the database)
When I talk to people about saving money in local government I often get the same story.  From firefighters and EMT's, I get were volunteers, public works, that’s where the money is.  DPW guys tell me they are cheap, look at Police, Police will say the money is in the schools, look at your tax bill, Boards of Education members tell me, it’s not our fault, it’s the state and Abbot funding.  Folks in state government tell me were better off than the federal government and on and on.  I contend that each of us must do our part in our own sphere to improve the lives of our residents.
Change is constant and inevitable.  What works today will more than likely not work tomorrow.  Don’t mistake this as a call to change our principles.  It is about applying core principles to today’s conditions.  Do we want to be the ones who drive change or the ones who are taken along for the ride?  We need to adopt our thinking to address the current dynamics and with new thinking comes renewed action.  
Change is painful, but I argue that failing to change is far more painful. Will you look back 10 years from now and wish you had made changes, or will you look back and be thankful for having made the painful choices that in the long run were better for your communities.  If you could go back ten years, what would you have done differently so you would be in a different place today?
The offices of Freeholders and Mayors, Council and Committeepersons lack the prominence to bend history itself, but each of us can work together and change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts you can write the history you’re County and your generation.