Tabernacle’s Inner Circle

At the June 15, 2020 meeting, the township committee approved the payment of $200 for Certified Finance Officer Rodney Haines’s participation in a webinar conference. The webinar was held by the Tax Collectors and Treasurers Association of NJ. Mr. Haines is Tabernacle’s part-time CFO. He is also the full-time CFO for Little Egg Harbor Township in Ocean County.

The June 15, vote was the committee’s second attempt to approve this payment. The first occurred on May 26, 2020. But the committee “replaced and superseded” the entire May 26 meeting and rescheduled it for June 8. Special Counsel to the township, Attorney William Burns, said that the replacement of the May 26, meeting was done “out of an abundance of caution.” But the actual reason for the replacement was because the township’s notice for this meeting was defective.

The June 8, meeting became a problem when the electronic meeting platform excluded people who called in by telephone. That also happened at the May 26, meeting but the township forged ahead anyway. But on June 8, the committee stopped the meeting immediately and rescheduled it to June 15.

In anticipation of potential electronic problems with the June 15 meeting, the committee allowed the public to attend it in person at town hall, as a remote location, as long as attendees were masked up (see video below). The committee members participated electronically.

At the June 15, meeting the committee didn’t have any electronic problems, but it seemed to have problems with notice. The 2020 budget was on the agenda as a public hearing. But after Township Attorney Peter Lange’s review the committee tabled the budget hearing. The committee completed the other items on its agenda, including the approval of the $200 payment for CFO Rodney Haines’s webinar conference.

Adapting to electronic meeting procedures for COVID-19 has been a new issue. I understand that it takes time to learn a new system. But the township chose an electronic platform that’s unnecessarily cumbersome. The judiciary and other townships and agencies use easier and more reliable platforms. The township emphasizes that its problems are part of the learning curve imposed by COVID-19. The choice of the bad electronic platform isn’t a COVID-19 problem.

Problems with routine notice requirements aren’t COVID-19 problems either. Notice requirements for budget hearings and public meetings aren’t new. They’re longstanding Open Public Meetings Act requirements that have been in place for decades. They are procedures that recur regularly. Compliance should be automatic.

When the Haines bill came up at the May 26 meeting, my husband, Stuart Brooks, asked the committee why Tabernacle was paying the entire $200 cost. Mr. Haines was the full-time CFO of Little Egg Harbor Township. It seemed that these costs should be shared in some way. Mr. Haines explained that sometimes he bills Tabernacle for these costs and other times he bills Little Egg Harbor; and that’s how the costs get shared.

I thought it odd that an employee would decide what costs Tabernacle should pay. That responsibility lies with the committee and its policies. Tabernacle has been using a part-time CFO for years. Its policy should address training and education for part-time employees.

Administrator Doug Cramer then explained that Tabernacle has an official policy to pay for Mr. Haines’s webinar costs. Both my husband and I suggested that the policy should be revised to address part-time employees. Why should Tabernacle residents pay to train a part-time employee for the full-time benefit of another township?

Later, through an OPRA request, my husband got a copy of the policy that Mr. Cramer referred to. It doesn’t distinguish between full-time and part-time employees. It provides full reimbursement regardless of whether the employee has a full-time position at another township. Indeed, Tabernacle paid for the education and training for its previous CFO Terry Henry even though he was also full-time CFO for Haddonfield Borough.

Because Mr. Haines had publicly announced that he worked full time for Little Egg Harbor Township, we also got a copy of Mr. Haines’s contract. Little Egg Harbor Township hired Mr. Haines in 2019 to be its full-time CFO. His contract runs from January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2021. He earns a substantial salary; in 2019, $122,000, in 2020, $122,000 and in 2021, $124,000. He also receives health insurance benefits. He earned approximately $24,000 from Tabernacle in 2019.

Little Egg Harbor also pays for virtually every expense associated with Mr. Haines’s CFO training, licensure and professional membership expenses. Here’s what Item 9 in his contract states:

PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS AND CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL EDUCATION: the The Township shall pay the costs of training, seminars and classes that related to position of Chief Financial Officer. The Township shall pay for any additional training, seminars and classes necessary for the Chief Financial Officer to maintain any licenses relevant to his Township employment subject to the approval of then Township Administrator. The Township shall also pay for travel expenses relating to the attendance of the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities Convention. The costs of training, seminars and other reasonable expenses shall be limited to the amount approved in the annual administrative budget.

So why does Tabernacle pay for Mr. Haines to attend the webinar when Little Egg Harbor Township has already agreed to pay for these costs. Why does Mr. Haines want Tabernacle taxpayers to pay for expenses that are more properly paid by residents of Little Egg Harbor? Why does the Tabernacle Township committee and Administrator Doug Cramer approve of this?

Neither Mr. Haines’s explanation about how he shares expenses nor Mr. Cramer’s explanation that Tabernacle has a policy address these questions. As usual, the committee didn’t ask any questions either even though they likely knew that Mr. Haines was the full-time CFO in Little Egg Harbor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against training or continued education. There’s a real benefit when an employee improves his/her capabilities. Employers should pay for that kind of training when it’s job-related. The point is that Tabernacle’s policies on training and reimbursement need to be revised because Tabernacle taxpayers shouldn’t be paying education and training costs for its part-time CFOs if they’re full-time professionals elsewhere.

Tabernacle’s committee hasn’t shown much commitment to tackling practical policy. Most of its time is spent on policy that has been ceremonial, purposeless or ill conceived. It’s fire policy was to give the fire company a 90-day termination notice to squeeze TFC#1 into contract revisions. Fortunately the notice was never sent.

The policy behind the fire contract revision hasn’t ever been publicly discussed. Instead, the committee dodged public deliberation by saying it would be too long-winded. All we know is that the policy involves training, rescue and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. It has been pushed into the backroom and called “contract negotiations.” It’s still unfinished and looming.

Time spent on a new sign policy including professional expenses was discarded after Murphy’s Market chose to enter a NJ Department of Transportation’s sign program that’s been available for decades. The committee spent hours on gun policy, when the committee doesn’t have the authority to set gun policy, and adopted a non-binding resolution.

In another instance, the committee got involved in all sorts of shenanigans and spent time and money on a resolution that allowed a resident to temporarily live in an RV during house construction, even though the temporary use of the RV required a variance. If the committee wanted to allow the use of RV’s under special conditions, such as after a fire or renovating a house or building a home, it should adopt a new policy and change its ordinance to address these specific conditions for everyone in the township.

This committee and staff rarely thinks about policy. They act to serve their friends instead of acting in the interests of all residents.

Setting policy on employee training and reimbursement is squarely among the duties of the Tabernacle committee. With the exposure of the problems with the payment for Mr. Haines’s webinar conference, it’s clear that Tabernacle’s policies need revision. Here are three suggestions.

1. The policy should distinguish between full-time employees and part-time employees, especially where Tabernacle’s part-time employee has the same full-time job at another township, such as Mr. Haines does and Mr. Henry did. Again, Tabernacle residents shouldn’t pay to train a part-time employee for the full-time benefit of another township.

2. The township shouldn’t pay the costs of maintaining a state license. If a condition of employment is having a state license and the salary is based on having the license, the employee should assume those costs.

3. The township should require documentation that the employee actually participated in the training. For example, it wouldn’t be acceptable for the township to pay the attendance fees at the League of Municipalities Convention if the employee merely went to casinos and ate large shrimp. It’s fair for the township to require employees to document what courses they take and demonstrate attendance at the courses.

The uncomfortable explanation for the township’s payment for Mr. Haines’s webinar is that he is a friend, a member of the township’s inner circle. Friends helping friends at the expense of the larger Tabernacle taxpayer community is the standard operating procedure in Tabernacle. Here are some, but not all of the examples of the township helping its friends.

1. The Tabernacle Athletic Association (TAA) Snack Stand, Free Ride. TAA was supposed to pay for and build the snack stand at Patty Bowker park without township assistance. This was the arrangement the committee and TAA initially agreed to. But that’s not what happened. Back in 2012, township residents paid at least $100,000 for the construction of the snack stand that TAA said it would pay for. This $100,000 is essentially a penny and a half on our tax rate. Burlington County also paid around $150,000 for the snack stand, which is taxpayer money.

TAA was never asked to reimburse township taxpayers for the money it received to build the snack stand and it is allowed to keep all of the money that it makes from snack stand sales.

Another giveaway to TAA is that township residents pay for its insurance. The cost of insurance is part of the cost of TAA’s programs. It should be built into the participation fees. That way, the people who use the programs pay for the programs instead of having all township residents pay for them.

Administrator Doug Cramer and committee always have some excuse for why township residents should further subsidize the costs of participants. Township residents already provide the free use of the fields and their maintenance. The reason TAA doesn’t have to pay the its insurance costs for its programs is because it’s a member of the inner circle.

For a very long time, the committee and the TAA also thought it was acceptable to have township residents pay the insurance costs for out-of-township participants. No one among them thought this was unfair to Tabernacle taxpayers. After I exposed this, the TAA grudgingly agreed that Tabernacle taxpayers would no longer pay for the children from other townships. This is just a baby step. People who use the programs should pay for them. The costs could easily be included in the participation fees and should be.

Another option is that the TAA could pay for the insurance costs itself. It has the money. In 2018, net assets were approximately $143,000. The insurance costs are less than $10,000. If they don’t want to charge non-township participants that’s the organization’s internal policy. But the program, not non-participating Tabernacle taxpayers, should cover all of its own insurance costs.

TAA could also cover its insurance costs by reallocating the money it gives as scholarships. TAA is chartered to provide athletics for high school age and younger children. Scholarships for college-bound students, though they might seem wholesome, are completely outside of the TAA’s mission. The insurance of participants in TAA’s programs is part of TAA’s mission. Giving money to selected people to attend college is not.

By the way, CFO Rodney Haines, is intimately connected to TAA. Not surprisingly, he defends the organization.

2. The Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) and Shamong Township. The Sacred Cow. The TRS has been using Tabernacle resources in Shamong Township to provide free transports to uninsured Shamong residents and to bill the insurance companies of insured residents. Shamong taxpayers pay nothing for the TRS’s services. This arrangement goes far beyond mutual aid. The arrangement with Shamong is described in the TRS’s annual financial disclosure reports.

Tabernacle taxpayers are paying for the $4 million dollar bond for the Emergency Services Building at New Road that houses the TRS. Shamong residents don’t pay a penny to support the bond payments and the Tabernacle resources that its residents get for free. Moreover, the TRS gets to keep all of the Shamong insurance payments plus all of the insurance payments from Tabernacle residents and it gets annual cash payments from Tabernacle Township.

The TRS’s financial arrangements with Tabernacle are, by any measure and by comparison with other municipalities, an extraordinarily sweet deal. There is no doubt that the TRS is friend and member of the inner circle; Tabernacle Fire Company #1 not so much.

3. Favoritism is not limited to organizations. There are plenty of individuals who are friends and favorites of our elected officials and staff. There are property owners who receive farmland assessment and are taxed at the lowest rate possible who shouldn’t receive it. One person was allowed to build a cell tower on property that was continually assessed as farmland. There are other people who are given permission to use property contrary to township zoning. Development notice requirements have been relaxed for certain individuals.

Now all of this inner circle stuff may seem to readers to be just the ordinary way that government operates and enables officials and staff to increase their personal power. But it has real life consequences for the larger taxpayer community. It increases taxpayers costs and leads to budget and tax increases and doesn’t treat all residents fairly.

At the July 27, township meeting, the committee will hold its 2020 budget hearing. It’s doubtful that the committee will reduce spending and belt tighten. The budget contains numerous packed line items, significant salary increases and unnecessary expenditures such as having two attorneys. These costs lead to another year of tax increases.

Because of the State’s costs to address COVID-19, Tabernacle will likely receive much less money from the state. Prior to COVID-19, the administration intended to increase state aid to Pinelands towns. Now, the Murphy administration plans to reduce this municipal aid. These revenue reductions will surely lead to a larger municipal tax levy at a time when unemployment is increasing statewide, and probably in Tabernacle.

The larger tax levy will again highlight for taxpayers the consequences of the committee’s decision to let the TRS keep all of the insurance revenues without significant reimbursement to Tabernacle. Virtually all other townships capture this insurance revenue to reduce the tax levy. Tabernacle doesn’t. Our tax-and-spend-committee would accomplish more by revising the TRS contract instead of squeezing the fire company.

The next public meeting will be held July 27, 2020, at 7:30 PM. Attendees can participate electronically, by telephone and in person at town hall. Electronic participation requires registration. Information about this meeting is posted on the township’s website on the “agenda and bill list” page.