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.