Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thoughts on why a $45 million budget is unnecessary

The City Council met last night. The LBA hates the moronic public comment section of the meeting and is reminded of feeding time at the zoo.

The Asbury Park Press printed an article on the adoption of this year’s $45 Million municipal budget. Three things were painfully clear in the article:

1. The Asbury Park Press simply does not possess the capacity to conduct an investigative report on the local level and chooses to accept a mere regurgitation of superficial details from their local “reporters”
2. The Asbury Park Press does not possess (or chooses not to demonstrate) even an elementary level of competency in understanding and interpreting the nuance of municipal budgets—much less the ability to detail the reasons behind budget increases. Again, the APP chooses to accept the canned statements of budget proponents and detractors and goes no further.
3. The City of Long Branch does not appear to be interested in stemming the growth of the city budget by taking serious action to change the way business has been done in town for years.

Some thoughts:

In general, the municipal government needs to work harder and cost less. If the city would adopt the Long Branch Advocate’s position that the city administration should immediately adopt a service-oriented government rather than an employee-oriented government, the effectiveness of the municipality would increase dramatically. When one adopts (or allows) an employee-oriented administration, the focus is on the employee first and service delivery second. The goal should be on delivering the service first, and employees second. It appears that the unions have entirely too much control in the city and it appears that the current governing body has lost their “edge” and either needs a shot of energy or a shot of new blood.

To be clear, the Long Branch Advocate truly believes the current Mayor and City Council to wholly consist of good people trying to do good work. We do not believe their motives to be anything other than good but we think they have been together for so long that “group think” has set in. The effusion of support and love poured e is little doubt

Elimination of Non-Critical Social Programs from the City Service

The city does a lot of WONDERFUL things that are not critical to the health, safety and welfare of the public. These non-critical programs should be spun off the municipal budget and onto public-private partnerships.

The Senior Center Operation should be completely self funding and should be provided by a social service organization. There are only two reasons why the city would provide a club house and activities for senior citizens; altruism and votes. Altruistic reasons are self explanatory but votes are more telling. Senior Citizens vote more regularly and consistently than any other demographic group. The Senior Center, its staff and programs are blatant pandering for votes—and a successful pandering for votes at that. If you doubt that it is anything other than that, ask where the city’s Generation X Center is located or the Fortysomething Center for that matter. Better yet, ask where the Youth Center is. . . then again, don’t ask about the youth center. . . Joe Ferraina would probably want it named after him.

Speaking of youth, the Recreation Department is another operation that should be outsourced to a not-for-profit, self funding, public private partnership. Recreation is a non-critical function of the city. Sure it is nice to have baseball and basketball leagues and summer camp for the “inner city” population but we do not NEED these things. At the very least, the entire Recreation operation should be 100% funded (not just offset) through user fees. In other words, revenue should complete cover expenses from one year to the next.

Beaches should be spun off into their own utility. Beach operations are an expensive and dangerous operation—which is why New Jersey continues to rightfully charge for beach access. However, keeping beach operations as part of the recreation budget allows the city to use beach revenue to offset general expenses wherever they may exist. BY making the beach a utility, we force the operation to be self funding and to keep the funds separate from the city. Any surplus from the beach operation would then be useable to offset general expenses the following year. Most importantly, the cost of beach personnel, management, insurance, utilities, uniforms, training, etc. would all be directly linked to the beach utility. No longer could expenses be hidden or true costs blurred. The utility is the way to go.

Regionalization of resources makes sense in certain areas and does not make sense in others. Areas where regionalization would result in a cost savings should be immediately explored and implemented. Public works is a no brainer. We have a huge public works operation with all kinds of specialized equipment and dozens upon dozens of employees. In fact, if you were to add up the total number of public works employees in Oceanport, West Long Branch, Deal, Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach (total population 20,548), you still would have less than HALF the number of DPW employees in Long Branch (population 31,340). It would make the most sense for Long Branch to contract their entire DPW operation out to one of these smaller towns. By shifting the employees out of the AWFUL New Jersey Civil Service System and into a Non-Civil Service (and potentially non-union) community, the savings would be HUGE, the number of grievances would be smaller (read: forced concessions to labor) and it would allow management to start driving the ship for a change.

Contrary to popular opinion, when big towns deliver services to little towns, the little towns lose out and the big towns don’t make as much money as they thought would be possible. Whenever possible a true regionalization of services, where all participants are equal participants, is most beneficial. In order to truly regionalize services, egos and personal agendas have to be excluded, something not likely to happen in the clubby atmosphere of Long Branch.

Construction Services is another area where regionalization or outsourcing is appropriate. Spread out the hills and valleys of the construction and housing market by sharing your risk. Consistent rumors of nepotism and cronyism have plagued the Building Department for years. One need only look to the fact that then-City Administrator Francis “Tiny” Hayes hired his own son Kevin Hayes to be the City Fire Official to see how the nepotism begins. Tiny Hayes has since passed away but Kevin Hayes, with no college degree or prior experience, is now not only the City Fire Official, but also the Director or Manager of no less than FIVE separate city offices and departments: the Building Department, the Planning and Zoning Office, the Office of Community & Economic Development, the Fire Prevention Bureau and Code Enforcement Operations. Working within the department are friends from hither and yon. Until quite recently a relative of Mr. Hayes was even employed by the department. Mr. Hayes’ son was also appointed a police officer before he was forced off the force for shaking down an undercover police officer posing as a criminal.

Like most city operations, the Hayes-Offices are employee centered. Call for an inspection and you are given a vague time frame to expect an inspector rather than a specific one. A specific inspection appointment (“You can expect the inspector at 9:30 AM, Sir.”) is respectful of the citizen’s time and is service-oriented. A general inspection time (The inspector will be at your house between 1 PM and 4 PM. If you are not there when the inspector arrives, you will have to reschedule your appointment.”) is designed to make life easier for the employees (scheduler and inspector) at the expense of the citizen-taxpayer. Then, more often than not, the inspector goes beyond trying to guarantee code compliance and moves into other realms—reinforcing the widely held belief that those who try to comply with the law are treated worse than those who avoid the law. “Tis easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

Specialized police functions should also be marketed to other municipalities. The Long Branch Police Detective Bureau and Traffic Bureau could easily handle the few incidents in the surrounding communities with little need for additional manpower or equipment. This would be a great savings to the surrounding communities in salaries and wages and this savings would be shared with Long Branch. It should be noted that Public Safety Director William Richards seems to be doing an admirable job keeping a firm hand on the reins of the Police Department.

We also believe that Police should be dispatched by the Monmouth County Sheriff’s department. We understand that the Fire Department and both First Aid Squads already are dispatched by the county.

Any function that can be done by part time employees should be done by part time employees. Two part time employees can do the work of one full time employee for less than the cost of one employee’s benefits and salary. Many city functions can be performed by part time or per diem staff including most seasonal positions, clerical positions, inspectors, firefighters and social service posts. The total payroll costs may be more but the total compensation costs would be less.

Having said that, any function that can be done by volunteers should be done by volunteers. Flowers should be planted by garden clubs, recreation leagues should be run by parents and participants, art shows and band concerts should be run by arts guilds and marathons should be run by runners, physically and mentally. One must wonder why we pay firefighters when we also have volunteer firefighters. One must wonder why we pay special police officers when we could have a volunteer police auxiliary force. Middletown is more than twice our size but relies solely on a volunteer fire department. Sayreville has 25% more people than Long Branch but Sayreville relies solely on an volunteer police auxiliary to provide special police functions.

The Mayor and City Council should give up their paid stipends and any other benefits of office. They volunteered to run for office and should not be compensated for their service—particularly in tough financial times. It should also be noted that most of the current crop of elected officials already are vested in the New Jersey state pension plan and, upon reaching retirement age, can collect a lifetime pension for their service as elected officials.

We also believe that all political appointees should be expected to take a 10% reduction in salary or fees, particularly those department heads making in excess of $100,000 per year in combined salaries as well as all professionals including attorneys, engineers, planners, etc.

The size of the fleet of municipal vehicles is also enormous. Exempting specialized vehicles like dump trucks, ambulances, fire trucks, beach trucks, etc. that have nut one special use, the number of passenger vehicles for municipal use is staggering. One need only try to find a parking space at city hall to know just how many cars we own. The number of take home vehicles is also unbelievable. Does the CFO need to take home his own car? The Recreation Director? Seemingly every police officer above the rank of Sergeant?

Finally, the city seriously needs to look at the usage of two key pieces of real estate. The Senior Center and the Recreation Department Building. The Senior Center sits right in the middle of the redevelopment area and. The Recreation Department Building is actually a riverfront house in the fashionable north end of town on Bay Avenue (at the end of Long Branch Avenue). BOTH of these facilities should be sold for market value and the operations contained therein should be outsourced or made into public private partnerships with third parties.

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