Editor’ note: The following letter was sent to Red Bank Business Administrator Ziad Shehady. To read about that borough budget meeting, click HERE.
Red Bank Resident Responds to Tax Hike and Non-Transparency
Letter to the Editor:
Red Bank is coming off a tax hike of 5% in property taxes in 2018 only to be led into another 2.3% hike for the 2019 budget; Red Bank has a problem, and no one seems to care or at least be acting to fix it.
Our tax base is healthy and growing yet claims from our Business Administrator is “revenue” is “down” and a perspective that a $50 increase in taxes is “minimal”. Moreover, the appearance of a Mayor and Council that is simply dismissive and even downright disrespectful to recommendations on instituting a more solvent budget which would translate into a more efficient and customer service driven Borough operation.
This entire budget process was not transparent and simply saying “transparency” does not mean you are being transparent.
I have made many recommendations to the Borough on easing our residents and business owner’s tax burden. Some of these ideas have been outsourcing our fire-police-EMS dispatch to Monmouth County 9-1-1 (who already answers our 9-1-1 calls), consolidations in the fire department, shared service concepts which include public works and our police department to a more aggressive approach to establishing payment in lieu of taxes on the many non-profit ratable properties in the Borough.
I have also presented an issue I felt the Borough government should advocate the legislature in Trenton for local government reform such as how and who we can hire as our Borough Tax Assessor. Although none of my proposals have come to fruition, and frankly its Mayor and Council’s prerogative to manage as they deem fit, they have no valid plan or process for how they develop and implement any budget, process or task in the Borough.
We read in many social media posts by elected officials along with media releases from the Borough on how successful their efforts are to improve the Borough, save you money and make life better for you.
Tangibly, what has been made better for you? Has your tax money really been used in the best manner? Truly, I don’t think I can answer “yes” to either of these questions, but I do have solutions to make my answer different. Do you really feel the budgetary process (or any governmental process) is truly transparent?
In my review of the 2019 budget, contrary to claims from the Business Administrator, the public works department has an increase in its budget by $1 million dollars. However, the Administrator wants to describe the rise in the budget or how it was crafted it is still an increase. I think a bit more alarming is when I made open records request for the information on how the budget was crafted, I received a one-page e-mail from the DPW Director to the Administrator which outlined fuel costs for vehicles. The Administrator claims many meetings and other sessions to craft the budget, but the evidence does not back that claim up.
Looking forward to this year and future years I observe $2.3 million effort (included in the 2019 budget package) to complete "improvements" at what is described as the DPU site which I assume they are referring to the current public works site on Chestnut Street. To this point, the Borough has produced no plans or concepts for these improvements. I am seeking this information from a recent public records request but have little faith in any tangible documents being provided on this project. I should not, nor should any resident, have to continually submit public records requests for this information. This is just another point in the failure to truly be transparent.
The Borough has an issue with planning in the sense there is no true plan, measurable benchmarks or timelines for Borough projects and operations.
Recently, the Borough started workshop meetings bringing in reports from all line departments of the Borough. This concept is great, but it has no structure. A real structure would be presenting the Borough residents and business with a strategic plan that contains priorities, standards, goals/objectives, timelines, and benchmarks. This is exactly what’s needed to be truly transparent of how Borough government is being run and put us all in view of the plan forward. Absent this basic management structure, the development of a budget, workshop meetings, development authorities and whatever quasi authority the Borough creates is simply waste. There is not only waste in tax dollars but a waste of our financial solvency as a Borough and future accomplishments.
This concept is not at all “breaking” news when it comes to strategic planning. The Management Enhancement Review issued in May of 2018, blasted the Borough for this very issue. It's sad that it took a study to note a basic management concept, but it did, and to date it does not appear like much action has been taken on this strategic planning effort. If there was any work to develop this plan it should have been the first exhibit when introducing the budget.
In previous meetings I have heard Councilman Michael Ballard describe a five-year budget plan that has not been shared; if there is also a confidential strategic plan this is not right and truly not transparent to the Borough residents and businesses. A quote from a Borough employee says it all about this point, “We are all out of sync. I don’t know what the goals and objectives of the Mayor and Council are.” This quote is directly from the management review and quite disturbing to validate this point.
Public works seem to be a large wasteful expenditure by the Borough. Let's be clear that I am not classifying the water and sewer authority operation which can easily be confused in this discussion.
Since garbage, recycling, and bulk pick-up has been implemented over the past few years, I have continually questioned the body of work performed by our public works department. I have yet to ever receive a clear answer on what the public works department is doing every day. There are obvious tasks such as snow removal, brush pick-up, and janitorial services. It now seems the Borough wants to institute an aggressive street cleaning effort with alternate side of the street parking and occasionally I see the street sweeper out around the Borough not sweeping the streets so efficiently.
These points back up a perspective of a lack of a plan or even a full understanding of what the Borough does on a day-to-day basis. Many public works operations can be effectively outsourced, of which they are doing with garbage collection and landscaping services and save on tax dollars along with future liabilities in retiree benefit costs and so on. These conversations should be happening, and decisions should be made to make our Borough more efficient with tax dollars and provide a greater service to our residents and businesses. All of these matters should be address in strategic planning with goals and objects in the forefront.
Where is it a priority in the strategic plan, that does not seem to exist, that street sweeping, and alternate side of the street parking became such a priority? Not only a priority but increasing the frequency of this task when it is performed, in my opinion, at a substandard level now. Aside from understanding how this became a priority, what would the enforcement mechanism be to ensure the streets are prepared to clean, equipment availability, adherence to schedules, risks/liabilities with an increased number of accidents with equipment and so on? Unfortunately, I think none of these points have been addressed in the development of this plan.
Red Bank has a problem and I hope to bring this more attention; more residents and businesses need to get involved and educate themselves.
Red Bank's Mayor, Council members, and Business Administrator are betting that you won't educate yourselves and challenge the status quo. Over the past three years, I am only one of two residents that have challenged the Borough budget. I understand that, at times, tax rates may have to increase, but it should not occur a non-transparent process.
The budget process of planning and development should be open to the public and have a mechanism for greater input. Moreover, the establishment of a strategic plan, to be developed through public hearings, needs to happen as soon as possible. It is imperative the Borough let its residents and business owners know what is in the plan and what our future challenges may be. This is truly the roadmap to a commitment of a culture of performance, customer satisfaction and borough staff adhering to the highest values.
My goal and want as a Borough resident are to see fairness and true transparency and to never see quotes from Borough employees such as, "Important issues here have been ignored for much too long."
If the Mayor and Council are not looking to change then maybe it's time to let your dissatisfaction known in the voting booth and make them change.
Thomas R. Wieczerzak, Red Bank, NJ
To read The Management Enhancement Review, click HERE.
To read the TAPinto article on the Borough council meeting that approved the budget, including the breakout of the overall dollar figures, click HERE.