Local N.J. officials at annual conference focus on spending, not saving, taxpayer money
Much of the focus for New Jersey’s local government leaders at their annual conference in Atlantic City this week is on spending money — despite property tax bills that are at an all-time high.
Attendees are greeted inside the convention center by a sea of booths advertising products and services that are being offered by vendors who feed off taxpayer-funded contracts.
And the agenda for the convention, organized every year by the New Jersey League of Municipalities, is filled with workshops that teach local officials different ways to use their budgets for everything from crime prevention and green energy to transportation infrastructure and "emerging video technologies."
"You see a lot of ways to spend money," Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said. "What you don’t see is how to regionalize and save money."
About 20,000 people are expected to attend this year’s event, which runs through Friday. Many are billing their communities for meals and lodging, and most are in a public pension system that is teetering toward collapse, one that was the subject of a conference session held on Tuesday.
Other seminars are geared toward better collecting tax money. One is scheduled for Thursday afternoon that will offer ways local officials can fight their residents’ property tax assessment appeals in an effort to maintain their current budgets.
Another workshop scheduled for Friday will teach ways to use digital technology to improve tax maps.
The agenda includes a number of workshops focused on budget savings, including several discussions on consolidation and shared services, two themes that were often heard during the recent gubernatorial election, which saw voters side with Republican Chris Christie, the candidate who most aggressively called for tax cuts and reduced corruption.
Others seminars talk about ways to find savings through auditing, energy conservation and the use of new technologies.
"I think everyone here is focused on how we’re going to have more efficient government," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union). "They’re the ones people are stopping in the grocery stores." But only a handful of workshops will directly take on local property tax bills that are at an all-time statewide average high of $7,045.
Kean and Sweeney participated in a well-attended legislative forum this afternoon, where state mandates and other state policies were blamed.
The lawmakers were challenged by Tenafly Mayor Peter Rustin to do a better job of checking state spending.
"The government can’t be all things to everybody," he said.
But when asked what he would cut, Rustin replied: "My budget isn’t as bad as yours."
Sweeney said there has to be a focus on sharing services and overcoming a tradition of home rule that is celebrated at the conference.
"It’s not always the answer, but a lot of times it is the answer," said Sweeney, who also serves on the Freeholder Board in Gloucester County.
The conference agenda, meanwhile, is offering only a few sessions on ethics and pay-to-play — the practice of financing elections with contributions from regular government contractors — despite recent high-profile corruption busts that resulted in the arrests of several officials.
One of those local representatives in trouble, former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, was indicted on corruption charges earlier this week.
Ingrid Reed, director of Rutgers’ New Jersey project and the chair of the state’s Local Government Ethics Task Force, led a session today she said served as an introduction.
Citizens are demanding more transparency from their local governments when it comes to budgeting, competitive bidding of government work and conflicts of interest, she said.
"I think that’s really what people are concerned about," Reed said. "It’s not just bribery that they’re dealing with, it’s relationships that are built up over time that are not examined."