The 2011 to-do list for many struggling New Jersey municipalities just got a whole lot longer.
Hoping to avoid a loss in state aid, many towns took New Jersey's new "Best Practices" checklist to heart and pledged to conduct energy audits, update their websites, reduce wages, share services, and on and on. Greater compliance, they reasoned, would be looked on favorably by the Christie administration.
Now the state says it's holding town officials to their promises. Never mind that other municipalities simply skipped a majority of questions on the 88-item management checklist and suffered no penalty in the most recent aid installment this month.
In Tavistock, officials answered 69 questions "not applicable" or "NA." The Camden County borough is so tiny it can't pay for most of the new management efficiency requirements, and its size exempts it from some regulations.
Officials there made no promises to change, and the borough still got all its aid.
Stung by criticism that the novel checklist took a "one-size-fits-all" approach, the state Department of Community Affairs in September revised its instructions and allowed communities to opt out of questions they believed were not applicable.
The department also permitted municipalities to answer that they were in compliance with a guideline if they agreed to make sure they were in coming months.
"There was great flexibility given to towns in terms of answering the checklist questions," department spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said.
When the scores of 535 municipalities were released a few weeks ago, some officials learned a hard lesson about test-taking, Jersey-style. Opting out of a question appeared to have no ill consequence.
"Maybe I will just put NAs" on next year's checklist, John Camera, Seaside Heights administrator, said sarcastically. "What a silly exercise in futility."
The small Ocean County borough, known for its boardwalk and amusements, was the only municipality that did not fill out the controversial checklist.
Camera said he took "a quick glance" and decided it wasn't worth taking the time because he believed the town would simply fail.
"I would have to say 'no,' if I answered truthfully, to half the questions on the first page," Camera said.
The former Seaside Heights councilman decided the borough of roughly 3,000 residents should just accept a $400 loss in state aid, a small portion of its $11 million budget.
"It wasn't worth worrying about," Mayor P. Kenneth Hershey said. It could have cost the administrator $1,000 to do all the research to fill out the answers, he said.
But next year, Hershey wants Seaside Heights to participate, especially as the penalty may be increased and could affect taxes.
Amey Upchurch, a government policy manager with the Department of Community Affairs, said she reached out to Seaside Heights and other towns that risked a penalty. She informed them of the "NA" option and allowed them to revise their checklists.
Only 161 municipalities ended up losing money, between $100 and $6,500, for their low scores. Asked whether they complied with Best Practices, they too often answered "no" rather than "yes" or "not applicable."
"We understood, just because this is the first time out of the gate, there would be issues," Upchurch said.
For smaller towns, making changes to comply with some of the items would not be cost-effective.
About half the municipalities that relied on "not applicable" answers still got full funding, she said. The other half made promises to improve in the new year. Only one municipality - Bernardsville, Somerset County - got a perfect score.
Camera said he thought a town could opt out only when the question truly could not be answered. If a town uses state police, for example, questions about its municipal police force would not be applicable.
But he said he believed questions about whether the town posted ordinances and budgets on its website were not supposed be answered "NA" just because a town could not afford to maintain a site.
Mayor Jeraldo Fuentes of Woodlynne, another tiny Camden County enclave, said he did not rely on "NAs" because he mistakenly believed it was an implicit promise that the town would meet the requirement in the future.
"I have more important things to worry about than a Web page," Fuentes said. "If I promised to do this in the future, I don't want them to see me as unreliable when I don't."
Kevin Heydel, administrator of Monroe Township in Gloucester County, said he thought "NA's" were to be used in rare circumstances.
For example, he wrote "no" to a question that asked whether he offered overtime assignments to workers based on a system other than seniority. The town was penalized for that answer.
"I'm not going to sit here and lie," Heydel said.
The checklist, believed to be the first in the country tied to state funding, is being revised. It was created as part of Gov. Christie's "tool kit" and his proposal to hold municipalities accountable for the funding they receive.