Friday, July 21, 2006

State Budget - Bergen Record - 6 of 6 - Tracking tax dollars blocked at every turn

Published in the Bergen Record, Friday, July 21, 2006

Final of six parts
Tracking tax dollars, blocked at every turn


It's one of a citizen's fundamental rights: the ability to keep tabs on where tax dollars go.

If you don't know how your money is spent, how do you know when you're paying too much?

In New Jersey, however, getting your hands on basic public information like payrolls can be difficult, even though state law mandates easy access.

In the process of reporting on the salaries and benefits of government employees, The Record requested electronic versions of payrolls, budgets and audits from more than 200 municipalities and school districts in its readership area.

Roughly one in three handed anything over in the requested form. Many balked at providing electronic records; others said they would charge hundreds of dollars in data-processing or copying fees.

"It's all bull," said Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester County. "With governments knowing what the law is now, there's no excuse not to have the information available electronically and the software to deliver it. It's taxpayers' money they're spending and all of it is subject to review."

The state Open Public Records Act says documents such as budgets, audits and payroll ought to be "readily accessible for inspection, copying or examination." Another provision of OPRA, which was adopted in 2001, allows for electronic access to records that are kept that way.

Whether or not it has anything to do with the availability of information, most North Jersey residents have no idea how public employers spend their tax money.

In a Record poll last month, just one in three voters came close to estimating that police officers in northeast New Jersey routinely make more than $100,000 in total pay. And all said a classroom teacher makes no more than $60,000, when in fact 10 percent of Bergen County teachers earned more than $90,000 in 2005-06, according to state records.

"Citizens, in truth, can't make decisions about the future of their towns without this information," said Sen. Robert J. Martin, R-Morris Plains, who helped write the OPRA law. "There are certain things we need to know about the effectiveness of government. First and foremost is the cost of doing business and without that, a citizen is at a loss. It's exactly what the OPRA is meant to alleviate."

State's troubles

The Record and the public aren't alone. Even the State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation had trouble getting information from some school districts.

In its March report on secret sweetheart contracts awarded to public school administrators, the SCI said some districts forced citizens to "run a gamut of impediments" when seeking basic information to which they are entitled.

The SCI has subpoena power, but even when it used that formidable legal weapon, state investigators had to "keep bothering" district staff to release documents, said SCI assistant director Lee Seglem.

"It makes you wonder, when you see it happening time and again, what the motivation is in an era where technology allows for speedy recordation and recovery of basic statistical data and documents like that," Seglem said. "It makes you wonder why they were not more forthcoming and more efficient."

Elaine Kennedy, president of the Municipal Clerks' Association of New Jersey, said many municipal clerks lack the technological know-how to deal with electronic records.

"These towns are on a shoestring budget," said Kennedy, who's been a town clerk for 21 years. "There's a lack of money to invest in electronics."

When it came to The Record's request, no municipality or school district turned it down cold. For the most part, all acknowledged that the requested information was public.

Beyond that, the responses were all over the map. Some, like Hillsdale, promptly handed over electronic copies of all the requested documents, including payroll.

In Teaneck, officials initially claimed that payroll information was only available in paper copies, and not electronically. But when a reporter visited the municipal building, he was told the payroll records were maintained on 24 separate CDs that were in storage and wouldn't be available for review for a couple of days. The reporter was additionally told he would have to bring his own laptop to view the files.

Dumont also didn't have a copy of its payroll available for public inspection.

Pompton Lakes officials initially told the newspaper that OPRA didn't require "that a document be created or a topic be researched to provide a response to a question." But when a reporter visited borough hall, she was offered a diskette containing the requested information.

A Park Ridge clerk was able to hand over payroll information, but only on paper, and salaries, overtime and benefits like sick pay were listed separately. The clerk said it would cost $500 to "build a program" to merge the data and provide it electronically.

Response varies

Some towns did better with specific requests. For instance, several Bergen County towns that balked at the initial request provided payroll information on individual police officers within days when asked.

"The response is so variable, it's staggering," said Sen. William L. Gormley, R-Atlantic County, who helped draft OPRA. "It's unbelievable. It's very confusing to people."

The law says municipalities can charge for copying and "the cost for any extensive use of information technology, or for the labor cost of personnel providing the service."

The statute is less clear on costs associated with contractors who handle public records. Some municipalities outsource payroll to private firms like ADP. In those cases, The Record was told the information was available -- for a price.

Leonia responded to The Record's request with two cost quotes from outside firms. The borough's payroll contractor, ADS, said it would charge $255 for the information requested, while the borough's auditor, Nisivoccia and Co., asked for $400 to $750 for an electronic copy of the budget and most recent audit.

The Record filed suit against Leonia last month in state court.

Ease-of-access issues go beyond local government. The state, for instance, keeps its pay records in two locations. The state Personnel Department handles base pay, while overtime records are at the Treasury Department, which charged The Record $977 to furnish the database.

The high cost is the result of a payroll system that was installed in 1971, said State Treasurer Bradley Abelow.

"If the data were easier to access, it wouldn't be such an expense," Abelow said. "Your difficulties in getting the information are not at all surprising to me given the lack of investment in basic infrastructure."

Staff Writers Adrienne Lu, Maya Kremen, David Sheingold, Brian Aberback and Cathy Krzeczkowski contributed to this article. E-mail:,

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.