January 5, 2010

 

Extraordinary aid must be reformed
 

Taxpayer dollars cannot be doled out to the same towns year after year with little reasoning.

Gloucester Township officials found out recently that the township -- facing a major property tax increase this year -- will get $250,000 in extraordinary aid from the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

Still, the aid won't save Gloucester Township residents from an increase on the municipal portion of their property tax bill that will come out to about $250 more per year in taxes for the average Gloucester Township homeowner.

The extraordinary aid, formerly known as discretionary aid, is just that -- discretionary. The process by which towns are awarded money is largely secret, yet certainly not random. Many of the same towns get aid year after year.

We want Chris Christie, when he becomes governor in two weeks, to reform the extraordinary aid program. Frankly, it would be OK if he got rid of it altogether. There's already a redundant special municipal aid program that towns can apply to for extra state aid, as needed. The extraordinary aid program -- which awarded $175 million over five years -- looks from the outside like a political slush fund.

It's supposed to go to towns facing sudden, unexpected fiscal crises. But the same towns tend to get the aid year after year. So it's not exactly being doled out according to its written purpose.

For example, Gloucester Township will get $250,000 this year in extraordinary aid. It got nothing from the DCA last year -- the year Republican Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton was up for re-election. Before that, the township regularly got $500,000 to $900,000 a year in extraordinary aid.

Among the towns that received large sums of extraordinary aid at least four of the past five fiscal years are: Egg Harbor City in Atlantic County; Bogota in Bergen County; Lawnside in Camden County; Maurice River in Cumberland; South Orange in Essex; Woodbury Heights in Gloucester; Weehawken in Hudson; Hightstown in Mercer; Perth Amboy in Middlesex; Lake Como in Monmouth; Prospect Park in Passaic; Penns Grove in Salem; Bound Brook in Somerset; and Hillside Township in Union.

Lawnside again was awarded $450,000 in extraordinary aid for this year.

Are taxpayers around the state really to believe these towns all face unexpected new fiscal problems each year? Unlikely.

Joseph Monzo, a former administrator of the Division of Local Government Services in the DCA told the Courier-Post in November that all awards of extraordinary aid don't fall under dire fiscal crisis and that politics can be involved in selecting which towns get funds.

"A lot of it is political. I'm not letting the cat out of the bag by saying that," Monzo said.

Everything about how this aid is doled out needs to change with the new governor. The process must be completely open. How towns are selected must be fully explained. The criteria for how towns are ranked for selection must be clear and must be known. And the same towns should not be able to get extraordinary aid year after year.

Either those things must happen, or Christie should scrap the program altogether.

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