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. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

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, towns 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).
Of the many solutions, tax type reform, shared services, regionalization, reallocation from municipalities to the county, the most extreme solution may be consolidation.  That is the topic of our next Sharing Services Seminar on Thursday, April 7, 2011 at the Hunterdon County Complex, Building One on Route 12 in Raritan Township at 7:30PM.  Our two program speakers will address what they believe is the source of our problem, Multiple Municipal Madness, to quote the book’s title and that we in New Jersey need the Courage to Connect and consolidate our municipalities.  This session is for taxpayers all; elected officials, concerned citizens, public employees, volunteer first responders, etc.
We will also introduce a new tool we hope will help in the analysis of the cost savings from sharing, regionalization, reallocation, or consolidation, the Hunterdon Municipal Database.  This database is a compilation of taxing and spending by all 26 municipalities in Hunterdon County.  It allows all of us to make some rough estimates about the savings potential from the various possible solutions to reduce property taxes in our county.  For more information on sharing in Hunterdon County, please go to our website

On Behalf of the Hunterdon Shared Services Working Group,

Freeholder Rob Walton

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hunterdon County Mis-Communications

Hunterdon County was a leader in the area of both Shared Services and 911 Communications Dispatch when it was the first county in New Jersey to open a county wide shared dispatch service.  The county provided the latest in communications equipment, hired the necessary staff including managers, supervisors and administrators to ensure that our citizens had the protection of a competent communications and dispatch system.

Over the course of the last several years, our Communications operation has taken a turn for the worse.  Benign neglect has resulted in undertrained staff, insufficient supervision and a precarious situation for the taxpaying public. 

Currently, we have only one Supervisor in Communications.  His duties include Open Public Record Act requests, maintain and upgrade all radio equipment, computer equipment, computer aided dispatching software (CAD), maintain and update fire box alarms, implement new box alarms for EMS, the complete sweep of issues that arises from a modern Public Safety  Answering Point/Public Safety Dispatch Point AND supervise some 30 dispatchers.  This has proven to be too much scope for any one Supervisor.
There are four important factors that need to be fixed and fixed fast.
  1. Supervision:  As stated above, the dispatchers answer to a Technical Supervisor who is responsible for the technical/infrastructure side of dispatch and now with an unfilled vacancy in the position of Supervisor of Communications, the operations side too.  This scope has proven to be too broad and the vacancy of Supervisor of Communications (or the formal civil service title of Chief Public Safety Telecommunicator) must be filled.
  2. Training:  The training of new dispatchers is a near constant process as we have a revolving door of dispatchers who leave for better pay, out of frustration from not being adequately prepared or being asked to leave for incompetence.  Better training would weed out those who lack the particular talents for the job, prepare those who have the talents to do the job right and deliver a better product.
  3. More Staff:  Not every problem can be solved with more manpower (or woman power) but here the need is justified.  Just a short 10 years ago, an accident would garner a handful of phone calls.  Now, with everyone having cell phones, even the smallest incident can bring in a storm of 911 calls.  Each call must be answered, screened for important new information, and then the appropriate dispatch and update must be made.  We do not have the staff to do this properly.
  4. Better pay:  Hunterdon County will never be, nor should we be, the highest paying county.  We do not waste taxpayer dollars with lavish pay to public employees.  But we must pay a salary that keeps our skilled workers here especially in our essential areas like 911 dispatch.  This would require union negations to allow us to raise these salaries while keeping other employees in line with private sector pay raises (which these days is 0 zero or even cuts).  Our contract with the union to which our dispatchers belong is up at the end of this year.

Hunterdon County, to much fanfare, opened our new dispatch room last year and we are updating the software used to dispatch firefighters, EMT’s and police.  Unfortunately a shiny new hammer doesn’t make the carpenter a better craftsman.  We need to improve our dispatchers now.  A good first start would be the hiring of the right individual for the role of Supervisor of Communications.  It is a vacancy left open too long.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My Statement as Deputy Director Prior to Freeholder Action on the County Layoffs

The following was read aloud at our January 18, 2011 Freeholder Meeting.
On November 18, 2010, the Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders after great deliberation submitted a layoff plan to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission that would reduce the County workforce by 30 positions.  This was due in large part to a Public Employment Relations Commission, (PERC) decision that required furloughs to be negotiated as part of reopening a union contract with appropriate bargaining units rather than the choice of the employer.  The choice to furlough or lay off employees was largely the result of our continued economic downturn which has depleted the ratable base of this county, our main source of revenue via the property tax.  That coupled with increases in group insurance costs totaling 9.9 million and pensions costs totaling 3.65 million has resulted in a projected $4 million budget shortfall on our $94.1 million budget.  After 3 consecutive years of drawing down our surplus, a full hiring freeze and across the board cuts to operating and capital budgets each year, we were left but little else than to reduce the county workforce.  A reduction in force is dictated by state civil service rules.
We have worked very hard to avoid these layoffs and the following resolution will result in saving 10 jobs.  Our administrator, the department heads and all of the staff have found further savings to obtain this result.  We have met repeatedly with the CWA to find more cost savings and we did offer at their suggestion an expansion of our retirement incentive plan.  I thank them for their cooperation.
Unfortunately, for our janitorial staff, who have done a commendable job in keeping our County facilities clean and neat, the price savings to privative this service will result in saving in 2011 $530,000 and in 2012 $$640,847.  This savings is too large to ignore and we have a fiduciary responsibility to make this choice.  We understand that the employees of this new service will need to be screened and supervised closely to develop the same trust we have in our current employees.  We will be doing background screening ourselves though the department of Public Safety and quality control inspections with our Building and Maintenance department.  On top of our past efforts, including securing for these employees jobs here in Hunterdon in the same pension system with the same public employment service time, we will be bringing in the department of labor’s rapid response team to facilitate their transition from county employment.
I am sure my colleagues share my sentiment that we do not take lightly these actions.  We recognize that difficult economic conditions require difficult and painful choices.  This choice which we will now vote on is likely the most difficult one we have to date.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HC News

Dear Readers,
Many of you may have read an earlier story on the HC News about the County’s looking into shared services, consolidation of services and/or reassignment of local government from municipalities to the county.  The goal is not to pick on or highlight Clinton Township or any one municipality’s spending, but to exam how we can together deliver local government services in the most economic way.  I apologize for characterizing the spending of any municipality as wasteful. Without full context, those judgments cannot be fairly made.

I have gathered a small group of elected officials, one small town Councilperson, one large town Committeeperson, and a small school Board of Education member (we are looking for a large school Board of Education member) to look at the spending and budgeting of us all and make recommendations on which areas to tackle and in what order to tackle them.

We will be putting on our website a comparative spending guide for all 26 municipalities, showing what each municipality budgets for personnel for several major categories and job titles.  It will include the real dollar amount as well as the cost per person, household and land area.  This will be an invaluable tool to exam what the real savings may be for example if the county was to have a county wide police force as some have suggested, a county wide construction code enforcement division, or what the real savings would be for two municipalities to share a service or even consolidate.  It is not all inclusive but it is a good first step.

The next step would be to more thoroughly examine an area that looks promising and to include all associated costs and revenues.  All this we hope will lead to real action within the year.

Once costs are known and quantified, voters and the people who represent them can make better decisions about whether the cost is worth the potential loss in service.  Are having taxes collected locally instead of by the county worth the extra cost to taxpayers (assuming there is a savings)?  Is keeping the local identity and control of living in a small municipality worth the extra cost (again assuming there is an extra cost)?

Please feel free to contact me with any questions.  We will be following up in the near future with the site name and information on how we, including all local elected officials and most importantly the taxpayers who pay for all of it and the voters who assign us to make these decisions, can work together to tame property taxes.

Rob Walton, Hunterdon County Freeholder

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Speech upon being Sworn in as Deputy Director

Of the many functions of county government, there is one that is more important than all the others.  While we value all of our employees equally, whether they carry a broom or a gun, those County employees who dispatch our fire, police and EMS service in this county carry a greater burden and have a higher responsibility than nearly any other. To that end, they must be held to a higher standard of service and accountability.  Confusing Junction Road in Hampton with Junction Road in Flemington on a planning document or when paving does no irreparable harm, but when alerting emergency services to a crime, fire or accident, it can be the difference between life and death.  To ensure the well being of our residents, we have established new expectations and new measures of accountability on our dispatchers and our entire Public Safety operation.  Reliability, accountability, uniformity will be, must be the hallmarks of Hunterdon County Emergency Services going forward.
As we enter the 2nd decade of this still young century, and I enter my last year in my thirties, my thoughts often turn to what my generation will leave to my children and what we have inherited from the prior generation.  We find ourselves here in New Jersey and in these United States with serious long term problems.  Every man, woman and child, Alex, Samantha, Michael, and Lauren, Hardy, Paige in Hunterdon County owes to some level of government nearly $53,000 due to our collective debt.  $6,000 of that is our state government and $45,000 of that is to the federal government.  Contrast those numbers to what we owe on average per person to our home towns, a mere $1,800 and to the County government, only $185 and one might think local government is doing well.
But to appreciate the true scope of our straights here in Hunterdon, these numbers are much more important.  The federal government, a paragon of inefficiency and bureaucracy, has 8 employees for every 1000 people.  The local governments of Hunterdon, County and Municipal, have 12 employees for every 1000 people.   Over 1,000 jobs in our 26 municipalities held by 760 different people and another 600 county jobs almost each one earning a pension and medical benefits.  Couple that with a 2% cap on the growth of local spending, and you can see where we are heading.  In the next year we must make substantive progress on sharing services, consolidation of municipal functions and reallocation of local governance or as the New Jersey State Senate President, now former Freeholder Steve Sweeney promises, Trenton will do it for us or better put, TO us.
We in County government sometimes view shared services like a man asking for a joint checking account at a bank.  When the teller asks with whom are you sharing your account, the man replies “Whoever has more money than me.”  In this analogy, municipalities are coming to the County to share our checking account.  But this is backward.  The county has no money, municipalities have no money.  Taxpayers have the money, government takes it and then spends it.  So the question we need to ask is not who benefits, the County or the towns, but how can we take less money from the taxpayers, regardless of who does the taking.
To the end, I have constituted a Shared Services Working Group, elected officials who understand that the shortest answer is doing.  As there is no money for studies and consultants, we will do the work to analyze what areas in Hunterdon should be consolidated and recommend a course toward smaller more efficient local government.  Then we will lead by example and work to bring about these changes.
We have seen the start of this with our Sharing Services Seminars which will continue throughout the year.  We have seen progress already from our first meeting in November.  Annandale Hose Company and Clinton Fire Company have a regional day time response and are working toward shared duty nights.  The EMS companies in the north part of our county are working on a new mutual aid model.  We will next tackle education and reveal on January 31 the results of our comparative analysis of all 26 municipalities.
The County government can and must be partners and leaders in this effort.  This is not something we can leave to the next generation to solve, the job rests with us.  It is on the makeup of local government that we will be judged by posterity.
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 we can write the history of this County and our generation.