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Christie's efficiency test vexes towns

Questions confounded some municipalities. Low scores will cost 161 between 1 and 3 percent of their state aid.

Gov. Christie is trying to make managers more accountable. (File Photo / AP)
Gov. Christie is trying to make managers more accountable. (File Photo / AP)Read more

The results of New Jersey's new local-government efficiency test are in, and the municipalities that received poor grades are getting their allowances docked this month, so to speak.

To penalize the 161 towns and boroughs with the lowest scores, the Christie administration is withholding a portion of their previously approved state aid.

The tiniest boroughs will be penalized a few hundred dollars, while the larger ones will lose as much as $6,500, or up to 3 percent of their final aid payment.

Gov. Christie is trying to pressure the state's 566 municipalities to operate more efficiently and be more accountable to the public. The 88 items on the Local Government Best Practices checklist include questions about whether a municipality maintains a website, conducts an energy audit, shares services, and controls overtime costs.

But many mayors and town managers say the test, handed out Aug. 25, was unfair and clumsy. They said some of the questions had surprised them, and that no guidelines had been issued to help them prepare and comply.

An examination of all the scores reveals a wide disparity in how municipalities interpreted the yes-or-no questions. The goal was to answer "yes" as often as possible, but many officials believed some questions were designed for a "no" answer.

Other officials, however, saw wiggle room and were less harsh in their self-evaluation, skewing the final report posted on the Department of Community Affairs website:

The DCA cut 1 to 3 percent of the final funding package to towns whose scores fell below a certain threshold. Most of the 535 municipalities that participated passed.

"It all comes down to how you interpreted what they meant," said Kevin Heydel, business administrator for Monroe Township. The town took a $1,927 hit, partly because it was late adopting its budget while struggling with a $1.2 million state aid cut to its roughly $32 million spending plan.

Woolwich Mayor Joe Chila called the test "a tactic to not fully fund the towns." Woolwich did not raise municipal taxes but still lost state money due to questions that "didn't apply to our community," Chila said.

Bernardsville, in Somerset County, was the only community to get a perfect score. Its officials answered "yes" to all 88 questions, even though some answers appeared to be contradictory.

For example, one question asked whether a town has its own health officer, and another asked if it shared a health officer with another municipality.

Bernardsville Administrator Ralph Maresca said the officer worked for the borough and was shared with a neighboring town. It's a "gray area," he said.

When the test was issued, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities complained it took a "one-size-fits-all" approach and criticized questions as ambiguous and contradictory. In response, DCA instructed officials to answer "not applicable (NA)" whenever they felt a simple "no" didn't take their circumstances into account. Officials also could answer affirmatively if they planned to comply within a year.

Spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said DCA was flexible in working with municipalities on their answers. The test was a success, she said, because it helped local officials "see areas in which they are doing well and areas in which improvement is needed. This can only help municipal officials in their efforts to run their local governments more effectively."

Next year, Ryan said, the test will be improved, and penalties will be "more meaningful." This year, she said, minimal penalties were assessed to put towns on notice that they need to meet guidelines.

Some towns dismissed many questions as not applicable, while others decided just to answer "no" and take their lumps, saying the funding loss wasn't enough to worry about. Still others weren't aware of the revised instructions.

Moorestown Township Administrator Chris Schultz said severe budget constraints and deep cuts in state aid in the summer had made it difficult to comply with all the checklist items. For example, the test asks whether the police department is accredited, but that would require replacing a police officer who had left, and the town doesn't have the money.

Schultz said the town was being prudent, but still had been penalized $862.

Several other local officials applauded the measure.

"It's a great idea. . . . It forces towns to look within themselves and explore shared services and work together," Evesham Mayor Randy Brown said. "For decades, municipalities and school districts have not been held accountable."

East Brunswick, in Middlesex County, did well on the test after asking DCA "exactly what the legislative intent" of the questions were before completing its answers, administrator James White said.

As a past president of the New Jersey Municipal Management Association, he said the DCA should have consulted with the group and the League of Municipalities to phrase the questions better and make the test fair.

"Some type of performance measurement for municipalities is very important," White said, "but we would have loved to have some input to help out the governor's office in this endeavor."