More Unplanned And Secretive Decision Making By Tabernacle Township Committee

At the September 27 meeting (there’s only one meeting per month these days), the committee voted to pay all bills including a $1,980 bill described as “Tabernacle Board of Education Appraisal Fee Community Center.” The motion to pay all bills, including this one, was seconded by
Committeewoman Kim Brown.

All committee members, including Ms. Brown, voted to pay the bills. As an employee of the Tabernacle Board of Education (TBOE), Ms. Brown had a conflict of interest. She should’ve publicly announced her conflict, recused herself from voting on this bill and voted on the rest of the bill list. Her conflict of interest, which was known by everyone including Township Attorney Peter Lange, went unaddressed.

Tabernacle’s payment of a bill for a TBOE appraisal is unusual. At public comment, I asked the committee if the appraisal was for the old Squad building on Hawkin Road and why the TBOE appraised it. Deputy Mayor Steven Lee who is the committee’s liaison to the TBOE, answered but was tight with information.

Deputy Mayor Lee answered first.

As the representative of the liaison committee the municipality and Tabernacle Board of Ed [TBOE] both collectively worked with an appraiser to have two buildings done….The idea was for both of us to have an appraisal we want done. We both collectively went together on the appraisal to lower the cost to the taxpayers is all.

I had to ask a follow-up question for him to confirm if it was the old squad building that was appraised. He nodded, and said “Um hmm,” which passed for “Yes.”

When I asked further questions, especially about the undisclosed cost-splitting arrangement, Deputy Mayor Lee stopped providing information. “That’s an interesting question, but I’ve already answered your question as much as I’m going to at this point,” he said.

I tried to ask another question, but Mr. Lee interrupted. “You asked a question on the bill list and I told you what it was, that’s the end of it.”

Mayor Barton gave a broader explanation about the cost-splitting arrangement. But wouldn’t confirm that the TBOE appraised Sequoia.

MAYOR BARTON: We needed to do an appraisal of the building [the community center]. We hired one appraiser to do both buildings. We’re reimbursing them [TBOE] for the cost of the building that their appraiser did for us.

FRAN BROOKS: The other was for this building over here (pointing to Sequoia)

MAYOR BARTON: I suspect.

FRAN BROOKS: You suspect?

MAYOR BARTON: I don’t know; I don’t know what the Board…I wasn’t interested in what the Board had appraised; only interested in what we wanted appraised.

Mayor Barton’s response was silly and false.

At the July 23 meeting, Deputy Mayor Lee reported on the TBOE’s appraisal of Sequoia. He spoke enthusiastically and at length about the possibilities of Sequoia for Tabernacle. Mr. Lee described how Sequoia would be a great opportunity and how suitable it would be for municipal offices, TBOE offices, a community center and other uses. He also said: “they’re [TBOE] looking at appraisers right now to see what the value of the building is.” All committee members knew that the TBOE was going to appraise Sequoia.

After Deputy Mayor Lee’s discussion about Sequoia, Mayor Barton said “…we can get an appraisal of that building [the old squad building] and find out what that’s worth.”

The committee didn’t make any decision in public about an appraisal for the old squad building. No one made a motion to take action or spend money or to work with the TBOE. The discussion ended with Deputy Mayor Lee’s comment: “Think about it over the next week or so.”

That’s exactly what happened. Having seen the emails of the decision-making process, it’s clear that the committee, which had already been working with the TBOE on the appraisal arrangement, intended to push it forward privately in the next few weeks.

Emails between Administrator Doug Cramer and his counterpart at the TBOE, Jessica DeWysockie, show that Tabernacle was working privately with the TBOE on the appraisal before and after the July 23 meeting.

The earliest email that I received from Tabernacle Township was from the afternoon of the July 23 meeting. It’s an answer to a voice mail conversation that began even earlier. It shows that the TBOE staff was already expecting Tabernacle to provide information about the properties that it wanted appraised.

Monday, July 23, 2018, 3:23 PM
From Jessica DeWysockie to Doug Cramer:
“Hi Doug, Yes – I was going to work on that for you guys. If you could give me the addresses of the locations as well as the lot and block numbers that would be great.”

Later emails show that Tabernacle and the TBOE had discussed sharing an appraiser for multiple township buildings prior to the July 23 township meeting; and that Deputy Mayor Lee changed that plan sometime later. The possible appraisal of multiple buildings was never discussed at a public meeting.

Monday, July 30, 2018, 1:20 PM
From Doug Cramer to Jessica DeWysockie:
“Hi Jess, The Township would be looking for a price to do an appraisal on The Community Center located at 81 Hawkin Road, Block 323, Lot 1.”

Monday, July 30, 2018, 1:30 PM
From Jessica DeWysockie to Doug Cramer:
“Only one property? Just wanted to make sure [sic] I was at the meeting – it was discussed there was [sic] two.”

Monday, July 30, 2018, 3:34 PM
From Doug Cramer to Jessica DeWysockie:
“Jess, That is all I was told, I will check with Mr. Lee to see if there is another property.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2018, 10:02 AM
From Doug Cramer to Jessica DeWysockie:
“Jess, It is just the one property, Steve talked about the ESB, but we know the cost of construction and don’t need an appraisal.”

Here’s how the committee privately agreed to accept the TBOE’s proposal to appraise the old squad building for $1,980. Again, this is shown by the emails between Tabernacle Administrator Doug Cramer and TBOE administrator Jessica DeWysockie.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018, 11:00 AM
From Jessica DeWysockie to Doug Cramer:
“Doug, The cost for the appraisal for 81 Hawkins will be $1,980. They applied a 10% discount for us to have both appraisals completed. Let me know if you’d like to move forward.”

Monday, August 6, 2018, 1:06 PM
From Doug Cramer to Joseph W. Barton, Stephen V. Lee, IV; Richard Franzen: [Note: Mr. Yates and Ms. Brown don’t use township email accounts. They may have been consulted in other ways.]
“Township Committee, Quote as requested. They could do appraisal at end of August. Do you wish to move forward with appraisal?”

Tuesday August 14, 2018 1:54PM
From Doug Cramer to Jessica DeWysockie:
“Jess, The majority of the committee wishes to move forward. If you can provide me with the name and address of the appraiser I can get a PO [purchase order] ready.”

Over the years, the committee has been justly criticized for regularly conducting public business in private. That criticism applies here. A majority of the committee met privately via email and conducted township business. They decided to appraise the old squad building and to accept a proposal for the appraisal.

On August 5, 2011, the Burlington County Prosecutor determined that the use of emails by a governing body to conduct township business violates the Open Public Meetings Act. He specifically recommended that these types of emails never be addressed to a majority of the governing body and never include a request for a response. By now, this committee should have changed its policies and reformed its behavior. But it hasn’t.

One result of the TBOE contracting for the squad building appraisal is that Tabernacle isn’t the appraiser’s client and isn’t the intended user. The appraisal report makes this very clear in bold underlined terms. This is what it says.

The intended user is Tabernacle Board of Education. The report is not to be used by any other parties other than the intended user.

Hopefully this limitation doesn’t interfere with Tabernacle’s plans and doesn’t cost more than the $220 that Tabernacle saved by having the TBOE hire the appraiser.

Another result of the community center appraisal is that it fills in the history of the township’s acquisition of the old squad building. Tabernacle acquired it from the Tabernacle Rescue Squad on February 21, 2013 for $1.00. At the time, the TRS provided an appraisal that valued the property at $455,000.

The purchase price of $1.00 made it seem that the committee acquired a valuable property at no real cost. It also showed the TRS in a generous and civic-minded light. The committee partly justified the outlay of $4 million for the Emergency Services Building (ESB) on the acquisition of the $455,000 TRS property for $1.00.

But the narrative changed when an additional term in the deal leaked out in 2017. That’s when the committee began to face the reality that taxpayers were spending $200,000 per year to finance the ESB while the TRS was using it rent free as a profit center. TRS was generating over $200,000 annually from insurance billings and still is.

As some committee members publicly discussed charging the TRS rent, Committeewoman Kim Brown let slip that they had also privately promised not to charge TRS rent. The promise was never written down, and it wasn’t discussed publicly until Committeewoman Brown revealed it. She said she opposed charging rent because committee members should be true to their promise to the TRS.

Committee members are fooling themselves if they think there’s honor in being true to a promise that was so unethical and sleazy that it couldn’t be written and had to be hidden. The private promise not to charge the TRS rent was a breach of the committee’s duty to Tabernacle residents.

Tabernacle’s relationship with the TRS remains controversial and is a subject of public comment at township meetings as contract negotiations continue.

The new appraisal, which was sent to me in response to an OPRA request, establishes how grossly overvalued the old squad building was. The TRS’s valuation of $455,000 was always hard to believe. The number was very high; the single page report didn’t provide much support; and the building was in poor shape.

Since Tabernacle bought the property, it has spent, as best as I can determine, at least $80,000 on improvements. Yet at the July 23, 2018 meeting, Mayor Barton said that even more work was needed, including a new roof. And that doesn’t consider the ordinary costs of maintenance.

The new appraisal, which is a 73-page report, values the property at $175,000. That’s substantially less than the $455,000 valuation done for the TRS. The new appraisal proves that the old squad building was grossly over-valued when the township bought it.

Another issue about the appraisal is how it fits into a larger plan for Tabernacle’s future office and community needs, and how that plan is being implemented. At this point, there’s no comprehensive plan and the committee is lurching from one idea to the next, as it usually does.

At the July 23 meeting, Deputy Mayor Lee said that it would be irresponsible for the committee to do nothing with Sequoia. At the August 27 meeting, I responded that it’s irresponsible for committee members to pursue major public improvements without a comprehensive plan.

The first step should be to determine what Tabernacle needs. This has never been done. The lack of this information slows down every effort to move forward.

The committee’s only effort to address Tabernacle’s office and building needs is a “working document” produced by Committeeman Franzen around 2014. But this document has no analysis of the township’s needs or options. It’s not a basis for long-term decisions.

Having skipped the needs analysis, the committee has now announced some undefined idea involving the community center, Sequoia and the existing town hall. But they can’t or won’t say what that idea is. Maybe that’s what Deputy Mayor Lee meant when he said to me, “…I’ve already answered your question as much as I’m going to at this point.”

This new movement towards Sequoia is 180 degrees opposite of what the committee accepted from Mr. Franzen. The Franzen report doesn’t mention Sequoia at all, even though Sequoia was a rental property that could be available to the township.

Instead, the report recommends that the town hall property become the center of township government by expansion into the area where public works and the annex are. It recommends that a new public works facility be built elsewhere. It also recommends extensive renovations to the old squad building to make it a “home” for volunteer organizations and a place for some activities currently held at the township building.

This work-it-out-as-we-go, backroom, non-planning approach is typical of this committee’s management style. The committee’s inability to analyze issues and plan properly ends up wasting time and money.

Over the last few years, the committee has also tasked Mr. Guzzi to develop quickie plans to relocate public works, analyze the old squad building and evaluate the town hall property. None of these were aimed at a long-term goal or built on an assessment of Tabernacle’s future needs. None of these efforts produced results. They’ve frittered away time and money.

Tabernacle’s use/acquisition of Sequoia as municipal offices, TBOE offices, a community center, municipal court, a library or any of other uses that have been suggested so far (or which may be thought of in the future), is an extremely significant long-term project. It will be expensive and transformative. It demands a thorough and professional analysis from the early stages of the project. The idea that committee members can do this themselves in a back room is mistaken and is very poor management.

At the September 24, 2018 meeting, Stuart Brooks asked Mayor Barton for an update on the committee’s progress towards meeting the New Jersey Comptroller’s 2013 recommendations for legal billings. The recommendations were made to improve transparency and accountability.

The vagueness and lateness of Mr. Lange’s invoices have long been an issue and have been raised many times at township meetings (see April 15, 2017, TTJ POST).

Mr. Brooks last raised this issue at the June 2018 township meeting. Mayor Barton then responded that the committee would work to clarify legal invoices. Mr. Brooks’s September questions asked for an update of Mayor Barton’s June comment.

Mr. Lange provided the update:

I will indicate that I did speak with the Mayor and I have taken that criticism to heart; we looked at the attorney general recommendations [New Jersey State Comptroller]; we looked at the history of the billing and so we are instituting some practices to be more elaborate, elaborate more with respect to the billing, and I think that you’ll note that the billings that have been submitted since that time will reflect that; we’d be happy to hear from you in the future on that issue.

Before examining how the new invoices stack up to the Comptroller’s recommendations, it’s important to understand how the old invoices were deficient. A more detailed explanation of the Comptroller’s report is described in the April 15, 2017 TTJ POST. This analysis of Mr. Lange’s new bills summarizes some of the Comptroller’s recommendations.

Mr. Lange’s typical invoice describes his work items in terms that are so vague that the committee can’t tell what he worked on unless the committee receives a detailed second set of bills. The general public can’t tell either.

For example, a typical invoice lists subjects such as: “General,” “Contracts,” “Public Safety” and “OPRA.” Often these subjects are repeated in the same invoice.

The Comptroller recommends that invoices identify the actual matter worked on, the task(s) performed and the time spent on each task.

The problem of vague descriptions is compounded by Mr. Lange’s practice of submitting invoices three or even four months after the work is done. This long delay makes information go stale. Committee members surely don’t remember what each particular “General,” “OPRA” or other unspecified matter was after four months have passed.

The Comptroller recommends that invoices be submitted monthly.

Because the bills aren’t detailed or self explanatory, and because committee members probably forget what Mr. Lange worked on months before, they really have no way to determine if the bills are accurate. Yet the township committee always approves payment without any questions asked.

Another problem with Mr. Lange’s invoices is that they all include a charge of nine percent “administrative charges.” Administrative charges seem to include expenses because, as the Comptroller explains, the hourly rate ordinarily includes administrative costs. The committee built this into its contract with Mr. Lange.

The Comptroller found that payments based on a percentage of the bill encourag over-payment. For obvious reasons, payments for expenses should be reimbursements of actual expenses.

Although Mr. Lange’s legal invoices haven’t ever complied with the Comptroller’s recommendations, in 2014 and 2015, Administrator Cramer and former Financial Officer Terry Henry certified to the State that the invoices were in compliance with the Comptroller’s recommended practices.

Bad legal invoices aren’t unique to Tabernacle. They occur statewide and at great cost to taxpayers. The Comptroller’s report says:

In projects we have undertaken over a period of years, [we have] encountered various deficiencies in the way municipalities and school districts handle their contracts for legal services….The potential financial impact of developing more cost-effective practices in this area is significant.

The Report goes on to estimate the cost of this problem:

…municipalities and school districts across the state collectively spend more that $100 million on legal fees each year, not including amounts spent …by other government units such as counties, fire districts and independent authorities.

So, how do Mr. Lange’s new invoices stack up to the Comptroller’s recommendations? They’re better than the abysmal invoices that were routinely submitted and approved before. But they fall significantly short of the Comptroller’s standards.

1. Overall, there’s no systematic identification of each matter name, each task worked on or the amount of time spent on each task. These are cornerstones of the Comptroller’s report and basic elements of any responsible invoice.

For example, here are items from Mr. Lange’s invoices for June through August 2018. I could provide more examples:

“Review issues on bonds” – [Which bonds?]
“Research on OPRA” [Which OPRA(s)?]
“Review rollback issues/hearings.” [What matter was this?]

2. Mr. Lange still charges a nine percent administrative fee instead of billing for actual expenses. That’s a contractual problem that the committee needs to address in the next contract in January 2019.

3. The invoices are still being submitted every three months or so instead of monthly.

Invoicing practices reflect what the committee wants. Mr. Lange now says “we’d be happy to hear from you in the future on that issue. The committee should set a responsible standard now, so that it can be implemented in its 2019 contracts.

The next township meeting is Monday, October 22, 2018, at 7:30 PM at town hall.