Tabernacle Hides Info On Municipal Court Deal

Hiding informationThe township continued to conduct business in an opaque and non-transparent manner with its approval of a deal with Woodland Township to share municipal court services. If adopted by Woodland Township, the shared services agreement would then require the approval of the New Jersey Superior Court in Burlington County.

The committee adopted Resolution 2018-51 without any discussion of the financial details of the shared services agreement. Instead, it gave the public a general statement that they knew what they were doing and that it was good deal.

At the first and only public discussion of the agreement on April 9, it was clear that the committee had already made up its mind. Its discussion seemed like a choreographed gesture without any facts or deliberation.

The shared services agreement isn’t a complex financial transaction. The basics of it are quite simple:

  • Tabernacle and Woodland will combine municipal court services in Woodland.
  • Tabernacle will pay all wages and supplies for the shared court.
  • Tabernacle will pay Woodland $1,200 per month rent.
  • Tabernacle will keep all fees and fines.

It should have been easy for the committee to discuss the factors that they believed made this a good deal for Tabernacle residents. For example:

  • How much will the additional wages and supplies cost Tabernacle?
  • How much fees and fines does Tabernacle expect to receive?
  • What costs will Tabernacle avoid by sharing court with Woodland?
  • Is Woodland’s facility capable of handling the combined court?

None of these questions are mysterious. The committee is currently deliberating Tabernacle’s 2018 budget and it has Tabernacle’s municipal court revenues and costs. Currently, Woodland is sharing a municipal court in Bass River. But surely it has information about its own revenues and costs.

It was no surprise to the committee that residents wanted to know the financial details. In the first public comment period, before the committee addressed the agreement, Stuart Brooks commented that none of the financials had ever been discussed in public and the public couldn’t determine if this was a good deal.

I made similar comments, adding “ So, it would be good if you would go into those details.“

At the start of its discussion of the agreement, Mayor Barton asked Administrator Doug Cramer to review Tabernacle’s efforts to share a municipal court. Mr. Cramer summarized how Tabernacle had approached several townships over the years without success. He explained that Woodland Township’s existing agreement with Bass River was coming to an end. And that Tabernacle’s proposed agreement enabled Woodland to generate income from its existing court room.

Mr. Cramer further explained that a large capital investment would be needed to update town hall to meet standards, including an elevator and new security measures. The shared services agreement, he said, would enable Tabernacle to avoid spending money on those improvements.That makes sense in the abstract. But what are the specifics? Except for the elevator, there was no specific mention of the other improvements or their estimated costs.

Nor was there any discussion of how the costs of the avoided improvements (the elevator and the security improvements) squared with the committee’s long standing plans to renovate town hall. The committee has discussed renovations to town hall for several years. Those discussions have always included an elevator to replace the chair lift. Does the Woodland agreement eliminate Tabernacle’s need for an elevator?

It seems that the renovation plans are moving forward regardless of the shared services agreement with Woodland Township. At the April 9 meeting, the committee re-authorized a bond for $700,000 for building improvements. Three hundred thousand of this bond remains unspent. In addition, the proposed 2018 budget includes a capital improvement plan that includes $2.5 million in 2019 for municipal building projects and another $2.5 million in 2020.

Throughout Mr. Cramer’s review, he avoided answering the questions that had previously been asked about the financial details. Instead, he gave generalities.

1. Question: How much will the additional wages and supplies cost Tabernacle?

Answer (Cramer): “We will have some additional expense based on the court load.”

2. Question: How much fees and fines does Tabernacle expect to receive?

Answer (Cramer): ”Based on the dollar amount they took in last year and in previous years we hope to do at least as well as they did last year, if not a little better.”

3. Question: How much cost savings, if any, would Tabernacle achieve?

Answer (Cramer): “Some of our savings will come in our ability to not have to spend capital money on this building.”

4. Question: How is Woodland’s facility able to handle the additional people and parking?

Answer (Cramer): “They have a facility that meets all the standards that are current right now and it’s sitting unused.”

After Mr. Cramer’s presentation, the committee conducted a very general discussion, which also avoided all of the financial questions that were previously asked. It then passed the resolution approving the shared services agreement with Woodland Township.

At the second public comment period, Mr. Brooks and I criticized the committee for not discussing any financial details. The committee did not respond.

At the very end of the meeting, just before the meeting was adjourned, Mayor Barton offered yet another generality.

I’d like to talk about the shared service agreement with Woodland Township. We did not go into it blindly. We do know what the agreement was with Bass River; and we do know their revenue; and we know what our revenue is. We feel that this is a win, win for both sides.

I’d like to take the Mayor at his word when he says that they had the financial information. It’s a better alternative than acknowledging that the committee acted blindly.

But if they had financial information, why didn’t they discuss it? The questions that were asked were simple and straight forward. Why wouldn’t the Mayor disclose the financials? By hiding the information, the committee said, essentially, “trust us,” rather than demonstrating that committee members knew what they were talking about.

The fact that the committee wouldn’t discuss any financial details isn’t just an instance where it makes a backroom decision without giving a thorough, rational and public explanation. It’s certainly that.

But it also, unfortunately, suggests that there’s more to this deal than shows up in the agreement. And it’s something that the committee doesn’t want the public to know about. Let’s hope that this deal is no more than an agreement to share municipal court services and that it makes financial sense for Tabernacle taxpayers.

By the way, it was easy to get the financials and agreement from Woodland and Bass River Townships. They’re public records and available through the Open Public Records Act. Here they are.

TTJ readers will see that the Woodland/Bass River Agreement and the Tabernacle/Woodland Agreement are almost the same, except for rent and the fines from code enforcement.

Woodland Township pays no rent to Bass River for its current use of Bass River’s courtroom. Under Tabernacle’s agreement, it will pay Woodland $1,200 monthly to use Woodland’s courtroom.

Under its current agreement with Bass River, Woodland Township keeps the fines attributed to its code enforcement. Under the Tabernacle agreement, Tabernacle will get those revenues. The amount of those revenues isn’t broken out in Woodland’s budget, and our elected officials didn’t want the public to know how much these revenues are.

The next township meeting will be held April 23, 2018, at 7:30 PM at town hall.