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Red tape is office's enemy

Part of the N.J. state government exists to help people wrestle with - the state government.

TRENTON - Think you can't fight City Hall?

A little-known service within the state Department of the Public Advocate is helping New Jersey residents do just that.

The Office of Citizen Relations puts the muscle of the advocate's office and the expertise of its five staffers to work for residents who cannot resolve their dealings with public agencies on their own.

"Our No. 1 aim when a member of the public has a question is to get them an answer," said Public Advocate Ronald Chen. "It may not always be the answer they want. Hopefully, sometimes it is."

The Office of Citizen Relations resolved problems for more than 2,000 residents who called its help line last year, more than double the number seeking help in 2007, according to its director, Donna Jago.

Most commonly, the office helps with tax-related problems, such as tax bill errors and difficulty obtaining a rebate check, she said. It also has helped people retrieve old birth certificates or other records, and obtain transit service for the disabled after an original request was denied.

"A lot of times they're just at an impasse," Public Advocate spokeswoman Laurie Brewer said of people who use the office.

Such was the case with Joe and Camille D'Angelo, a Bergenfield couple who feared that their home would flood with every serious storm. With the help of the Public Advocate's Office, the D'Angelos were able to get the town to replace pipes, add a storm drain, and make other improvements.

"We don't have to hold our breath anymore when it rains. They truly did help us," she said of the advocate's office.

Among its successes, the agency says, it:

Saved a North Jersey businessman more than $100,000 that the Department of Labor incorrectly said he owed in taxes.

Found housing for a Middlesex County cancer patient and her children who otherwise would have been homeless.

Helped a Cherry Hill widow get her Homestead Rebate check, which was being withheld because it was in her late husband's name.