Tabernacle Committee Postpones TAA Agreement After Transparency Problems Surface

broken_glass_2-t2The Township Committee hit a wall at the November 28 meeting when it acknowledged that the Tabernacle Athletic Association Agreement, which it planned to vote on, wasn’t the Agreement that it previously released to the public, but was actually an updated Agreement that Mayor Lee and Deputy Mayor Yates privately revised with TAA President Lynne Hedden in September 2016.

Mayor Lee had the TAA Agreement listed on the agenda as old business but wouldn’t take public comment when the Committee discussed it. The Mayor also wouldn’t take public comment at the first public comment session, which is reserved for comment on agenda items, which the TAA Agreement was.

When the Agreement was reached on the agenda, Mayor Lee said that a lot of changes and modifications were made in September and there was a lot of discussion about them. All of these discussions had to be private, because there hadn’t been any public discussion of any version of the TAA Agreement. The Mayor then opened the matter for input from the Committee.

Only two comments were made, and they were not very informative. Committeeman Barton said that his only concern was addressed by President Hedden:

[which] was the user fee we charge non-residents, which more than covers the cost of insurance. So with that, I’m quite pleased [and] support the license.

Residents had no idea what he was talking about because the August Agreement didn’t address non-resident participant fees and there was never any public discussion of them.

Committeeman Franzen said:

…we took a close look at this earlier and I know some of us made some changes and everything that I’ve seen I feel comfortable with.…But, I’d like to hear some of [the public’s] comments which might have an impact….

This “close look” was done in private.

Public comment on the TAA Agreement was allowed later, after eight other agenda items, which included reports by the township attorney, township engineer and the four Committee members (Kim Brown was absent, again).

The comment period for the Agreement was merged into the second public comment session, which is for comments on any topic. Because the September version was never publicly released, and because there was no separate comment period on this agenda item, citizens were rushed and at a loss to offer thoughtful comments.

The public comment period on the TAA Agreement was a disaster. The Committee wouldn’t answer any questions. It just listened as people spoke. Residents asked the Committee to clarify if it was discussing the August Agreement or something else. But the Committee wouldn’t reply.

Stuart Brooks commented that the August 2016 Agreement was vague about what financial reports the Committee wanted and that the Committee should clarify what they were looking for. Unbeknownst to him, the Committee and TAA had completely deleted the requirement for TAA to submit any financial records. But neither the Committee nor its staff bothered to mention this.

Committeeman Franzen finally admitted that the Committee was discussing an agreement revised in September. As the story dribbled out, it became increasingly difficult for the Committee to vote on the Agreement. Mayor Lee postponed the matter and instructed the Clerk to make the latest Agreement, which includes a change made at the November 28 meeting available to the public.

So, what are the changes? Here are four major ones that I found:

1. (New Provision, Section III, Page 3) Agreement Term

The Township will review the terms of the Agreement with the TAA and amend or modify it, if deemed necessary by the Township, not less than every five years after adoption.

Comment: In its discussion of another item on its November 28 agenda, the Committee spoke about the inflexibility that resulted from being locked into agreements with utilities for up to 50 years. During public comment, it was pointed out that the proposed TAA agreement was perpetual, which is considerably longer than 50 years. It was hard for the Committee to stick with a perpetual agreement, though some members said they were comfortable with it.

The problem with the new term is that it doesn’t specify that the review will be done in public. It allows the TAA and Committee to do the five-year review in private. That’s wrong and should be changed.

2. (New Provision, Section X, Page 6) User Fee

TAA will now pay Tabernacle a non-resident user fee of $10 for each non-resident who participates in seasonal-league programs.

Comment: This is the provision that Committeeman Barton was referring to. But the public didn’t know it at the time.

It’s good to see that the TAA is finally abandoning its official position that it doesn’t have to reimburse the Township for the insurance costs of non-resident participants because it’s not required to. I’ve been recommending this change for years. The correct and fair policy should always have been that Tabernacle taxpayers don’t pay for kids who live in other townships.

According to the TAA’s 2014/2015 recreation report, it had 130 non-resident participants and it paid the Township $1,300 for them. Apparently this transaction is where the $10 non-resident user fee comes from. But what does this number mean? What cost does it cover? The $10 fee obviously doesn’t cover total insurance costs because Tabernacle pays over $9,000 for TAA’s insurance. We just don’t know.

TAA and the Committee refuse to discuss this, even though taxpayer funding is a significant part of TAA’s support. There’s never been a public accounting of the total costs of non-resident participants. Indeed, there’s never been a public accounting of whether TAA’s costs are covered by its user fees.

Taxpayers generally support TAA’s youth sports programs and have been very generous. Most recently, taxpayers paid for its $300,000 snack stand, and the Agreement will allow TAA to keep 100% of its proceeds (approximately $6,500 net of costs in 2015). In addition Tabernacle taxpayers provide TAA with other maintenance and supplies. Taxpayers are right to ask if the Township’s support of TAA, and other volunteer organizations, is fair to all taxpayers.

3. (Deleted Provision, Section IX, Page 5) Financial Records/Reports

The TAA is no longer required to submit annual financial reports and records to the Township. Item IX of the August Agreement required TAA to submit the previous year’s financial records and federal tax return, to describe their financial condition to the satisfaction of the Township. But that was deleted, apparently, at TAA’s request.

CommentHave they lost their minds?! Committee members can run their own households or businesses without reviewing income or expenses if they want to. But they surely know that the subsidies they give to TAA are taxpayer’s money. They have a duty to monitor it.

The Committee requires annual financial statements from the Township’s other primary volunteer organizations, Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1) and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS). Neither of them handles as many cash payments as TAA does. And financial irregularities are not uncommon in youth sports organizations. It’s terrible policy, if not malfeasance, for the Committee to go along with TAA’s request to be free from the Township’s financial oversight.

When the Committee publicly released the August agreement, I published it and offered these comments (see TTJ Post September 5, 2016, “TAAs Golden Snack Stand”). They still stand:

Because the Agreement addresses the costs that will be born by the Township taxpayers, it raises the larger question of whether the level of the Township’s funding to the TAA is fair. My basic comment on the proposed TAA contract is the same as I made on the Township’s proposed contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad and it’s existing contract with the Tabernacle Fire Company #1.

 

All of these contracts should be based on a complete and public understanding of the overall costs and revenues of the organizations. Only then can the Township rationally and fairly determine what the public funding should be. That’s the only way to assure that these Agreements are fair to everyone. Unfortunately, for all organizations, there’s little to no public understanding of the financials.

4. (New provision, Section IX, Page 6) Criminal Background checks.

The new item IX requires that TAA conduct criminal background checks on coaches, managers, program directors and administrators in accordance with the existing Township Ordinance (Township Code Section 2-29).

CommentThe background check requirement is important. It’s already part of TAA’s policies and Tabernacle’s Ordinance 2008-6. It doesn’t hurt to re-state it in the Agreement, even if it’s redundant. But it does seem odd to replace an essential requirement for financial accountability with a term that’s redundant.

Conclusion

The Township Committee just can’t shake its habit of doing the public’s work in secret with the local volunteer organizations. The end result is always bad for taxpayers. TTJ has written extensively about many of these. There were the TRS’s financial chalkboard presentations that allowed TRS to get substantial Township subsidies while pocketing about $250,000 annually in insurance billings. There was the year of not asking about the TRS agreement with Shamong Township, which allowed TRS to use Township resources for its own outside billings. There was the Township’s burial of the Garty report which allows the TFC#1 to operate without recommended discipline and safety procedures (see TTJ Post November 26, 2016).

The same habit also applies to the Committee’s dealings with the TAA. It’s not that youth sports is bad; it’s not. It’s just that this Agreement and the process by which it was made, isn’t fair to taxpayers and there’s no accountability.

It would’ve been easy for TAA President Lynne Hedden to appear before the Committee at a township meeting(s) to explain the TAA’s needs and how it would like the Township to address them. That would give the public the chance to understand the issues and voice its concerns about the Township’s responses. This is never the Committee’s approach. Instead, the Committee conducts this type of business in private and relies on deceptive practices, like secret revisions and the deletion of provisions for financial accountability.

The Committee’s lack of transparency is in sharp contrast to the comments made by Glen Robbins, Tabernacle School District’s new superintendent. Mayor Lee introduced Superintendent Robbins at the November 28 meeting, the same meeting that the TAA agreement was discussed. Superintendent Robbins was warmly welcomed. In his comments he said he’d do everything he could to make the town better, including being more transparent. Committee members should follow his lead.

More Fire Department Problems

At the November 28 meeting, Stu Rubin, longtime Tabernacle firefighter and current TFC#1 member asked if the Township had run out of money for fire truck repairs and why it took so long to get fire equipment fixed. He mentioned repairs on the tanker truck lights, which he said haven’t worked for a long time.

Township Administrator Doug Cramer answered that the repair account had been drawn down to $2,000 and that he knew of $9,000 of outstanding repairs. That would have left a shortfall of $7,000. But Mr. Cramer also pointed out that $11,000 had been transferred to the repair account at that night’s meeting and this left a balance of $4,000 until the end of the year.

But there was a lot of confusion about the repairs. Mr. Cramer mistakenly thought that some of the repairs dated back to the Fire District, which was dissolved in November 2014. Cheryl Smith, President of TFC#1, clarified that Mr. Rubin was talking about repairs from October 14, 2016, not 2014. Mr. Cramer said that he can only work with the information that he’s given; and that he had only just learned about some of the repairs. It was clear that Mr. Rubin, President Cheryl Smith, Chief Dave Smith and Mr. Cramer aren’t on the same page.

The Committee was also on a different page; it knew nothing about the repairs. “How many repairs are there? How many did we know about?” asked Mayor Lee. No one else from the Committee spoke.

When fire trucks need repair, there should be a simple process to fix them. Tabernacle had a simple and effective process when it had a Fire District. The fire commissioners were firefighters. They knew what repairs were needed. They were in regular contact with the fire chief. They officially met every month to take care of Tabernacle’s fire business, including truck and equipment repairs.

When the Committee dissolved the Fire District, this simple and effective process ended and a new process was created. The new process relies on management by Mr. Cramer, quarterly reporting by Chief Smith and control by the Township Committee.

This new process isn’t as effective as the Fire District’s process. Fire business is almost never discussed by the Committee; Mr. Cramer’s reports almost never mention fire services; Chief Smith doesn’t report quarterly (there’s been one in 2016) and no one from the Township has mentioned the absence of these reports despite questions from the public. “It’s no way to run a fire department,” said Mr. Rubin.

The next Township meeting will be December 12, 2016, at 7:30 PM, at town hall.