Real Deal Guide to Local Government (draft)

This is burypensions blog number 500 and to make it special (for me anyway) here is the skeleton of my first book born from six years of discursive research and two hours in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library writing in longhand.

PART A: The Scene

CHAPTER ONE: The Lure – Tax Money
Taxes are the price of living in a society that we expect to improve our lives.  If you have a job, own property, drive, or buy ‘luxury’ items there is a premium that, after you have been inured to paying unquestioningly, often gets diverted to those who have learned how to game the system.  [Chart of taxes New Jerseyans pay with inception dates]

CHAPTER TWO: The Ticket – Campaign Donations
The easiest way to be on the receiving end of that tax money is to be associated, either by birth or though contributing to their campaigns, with whomever is in a position to reward you. Though there are pay-to-play laws they serve as a road map to legalized bribery rather than any effective dissuader of it. [Chart of pay-to-play rules and limits]
For example, in Union County one law firm got individual lawyers to donate a total of $30,000 each election cycle [Table of those lawyers with donated amounts] to candidates guaranteed of victory for which that law firm received on average $1.5 million in fees annually from various county jobs. A particularly unfortunate result of this relationship was a scheme that the firm tried to sell to put $45 million in solar panels around the county promising no cost to taxpayers. The deal was closed in 2011 but only at $15 million and soon thereafter the Solar Renewal Energy Certificate market crashed and the bonds defaulted leaving taxpayers on the hook for bond repayments plus professional fees which had accumulated to $2 million.

CHAPTER THREE: The Tools – Politicians
Look at the makeup of governing bodies and you will find very few with much fiscal or organizational expertise. That is because those with that experience would prefer to sell their talents at higher prices either in the private sector or, if in the the public sector, to people deficient in those talents which is why a qualified candidate for them is one who needs their assistance and can get taxpayers to pay for it. Then why would anyone prostitute themselves and betray taxpayers to accept elected office under these terms? Possibly for an ego boost but the wily ones have clear personal goals.

CHAPTER FOUR: Payoffs – Jobs, Pensions, Benefits
A) Jobs: From judgeships to being an event planner at a university making the ‘right’ decisions in office can lead to better seats on the political gravy train either while in office or immediately afterward [Chart comparing UC Freeholders with their government-related other jobs]
B) Pensions: Because officeholders making over a certain amount accrue service credits which they can apply to higher government salaries earned either before or after serving in elected office pensions get padded. [Examples: Sullivan; McGreevey]
C) Health Insurance: If they do not have coverage on the outside they get it even for many part-time positions and, if they do have outside coverage, they can take advantage of buyback-money stipends. Also for those with enough years lifetime health insurance could be available.
D) Future Favors: A freeholder who approves the inflated budgets of some departments has a better chance of getting a job in that department once their ‘public service’ ends. Also, approving bloated contracts to legal and consulting firms allows for the possibility that those firms could have a place for a government liaison expert six months after you have left office.

PART B: The Facilitators

CHAPTER FIVE: An Ill-informed Electorate
There are over 500,000 people living in Union County yet public attendance at freeholder meetings averages about five – on a good night – for several reasons:

  • General apathy
  • Frustration at witnessing preordained actions
  • Intimidating atmosphere

Over my six years attending Union County freeholder meetings no citizen requested solar panels, a new family courthouse, or a banquet center.  Yet all these projects got bonded for and built because they were needed, not by most residents, but by political sponsors who needed the jobs and contracts.  If you want something accomplished through the government you are better off spending $1,000 for a table at a rubber-chicken fundraiser than taking to the podium at a public forum where you may have to justify the benefits that happen to accrue to you.

CHAPTER SIX: Buying Distraction – The Media
There are scores of scandals obvious in Union County with stories that practically write themselves but many media outlets appear uninterested.  One reason is that among the wasted tax dollars are those spent on legal ads.  Nobody attends these meetings because an ad appears in a newspaper but plenty of people are not told of the fiscal chicanery endemic to the county because that ad appears in a newspaper.  Another reason is that media people, generalists of necessity, are often untrained, or disinclined, to examine issues that have been intentionally complicated.

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Missing – Official Oversight
The Local Finance Board is a rubber-stamp that occasionally barks but rarely bites.
Registered Municipal Accountants need not follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles when doing the books for New Jersey localities and that flexibility is stretched to levels that would be criminal in the private sector (i.e. allowing the theft of Open Space trust fund money).
The state of New Jersey is required to dedicate income tax money to reduce property taxes and their preferred method is to provide state aid without considering its need or overseeing its use which is how a sizable portion of county employees in departments like Finance are paid through grants.

PART C:

CHAPTER EIGHT: Steps for Citizen Action
Two distinct roads here.  First, in order:

  1. Vote only when you are fully informed – otherwise you could be voting against your own interests
  2. Learn as much as you can.  In New Jersey we have Open Public Records laws and you are supposed to be able to get answers to questions at public meetings.
  3. Follow the money on every issue
  4. Raise your voice either at a meeting, a letter to the editor, or a blog and listen carefully to any answers – or the lack of any answers.

Failing that:

  1. Pray

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Don Campbell on June 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Book? Wonderful. I’m doing a cookbook.

    >

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tough Love on June 29, 2014 at 1:36 am

    I like the point …follow the money ….. and suggest the following:

    (a) who promised it (and are there are any ulterior motives),
    (b) how generous it is (measured against a “reasonable” standard),
    (c) and who is paying for it (and specifically, in what proportions)

    ESPECIALLY when the subject matter is Public Sector pension and benefits.

    Reply

  3. Posted by jim buettner on June 29, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Being one of the five people who has faithfully attended the UC freeholders meetings over the last five years I can say that John has a real grasp of the situation. I too have asked the questions, written the letters (to the one paper that will publish them), and have been thrown out of many a meeting when I’ve exceeded my five minute time allotment for public comment. I too am dismayed that when, for example, I’ve asked: What is the cost for the 100% free LIFETIME healthcare for 750 non-union county employees? Only to have the answer come back from the freeholder board chairwoman: “I do not know- math wasn’t my strong subject in school”. This is just one example of the ineptitude or down right contempt for the taxpayer that UC government exhibits without fear of EVER being called on it.
    John, I agree with most of what you have written above with the exception of Chapter Eight. Yes steps 1 thru 4 are logical in their approach but unfortunately when one political group has complete control of the electoral process without any chance of it ever changing it will take more than these 4 steps to ever see significant change. Nor do I believe that Prayer will be of help either. I laud you for your analysis, insight, and conviction to the process.

    Reply

  4. Posted by bpaterson on July 3, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    the 2 biggest unknowns to a person is his future retirement funding and his future health cost funding.

    Compare the private sector and the public sector benefits and one gets an idea of why each system operates as it does and the participants that are in each.

    Reply

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