January 29, 2006

How to Save Money: Cut the $1.5M 'Public Info' Dept. From County Budget

In his inaugural address, Gov. Jon Corzine said ethics reform is his top priority. He said that “every dollar squandered in violation of the public trust is a book not bought for a classroom, a prescription drug with higher co-pay, meals-on-wheels not delivered, a road or science lab not built.”

Corzine then asked for the resignations of 463 political employees. Many were public information officers.

Will we ever hear the all-Democrat controlled Union County freeholder board say that ethics reform is their top priority? Not without a visit from Attorney General Christopher Christie.

Our budget is about to increase again without one county job, raise or perk turned in. They certainly didn’t cut back on their mailings and TV commercials at election time in 2005, which cost the taxpayers approximately $327,759.85.

Like Corzine, the county should first cut costs with their public information department. It is this department’s job to inform the public about county services, yet they won’t inform the taxpayers about their own departmental costs which ultimately deflects money away from other services.

The county has refused to release information regarding this department’s budget, number of employees and give an accurate accounting of the paid days off that these employees took in 2003 and 2004.

I requested a list of paid days off of the head of this department who was seen frequently on the campaign trail during and after business hours, as well as on the ELEC reports as getting paid $1,250 for get-out-the-vote efforts. My request came back with a disclaimer: "this record may contain errors or omissions." Who could believe that they control a $413 million budget yet they can't keep accurate employee records? This is either incompetence or corruption.

When I asked for the budget of this department I was told it would take forensic accounting and the county would charge me $30 an hour for the service, which in the end the number would be the best guess of this very employee. I was also told that they didn't know the exact number of employees in this department because they are shared with other departments.

We have a county government that has a public information machine that apparently exists to keep information awayfrom the public.

They churn out press releases featuring freeholders who are up for reelection, as can be found on the county Web site - as well as produce the 30-minute infomercial called 'Freeholder Forum' which always stars a campaigning freeholder.

If the county had nothing to hide then they would have released the requested information immediately. What they are hiding is that this department is an in-house campaign staff.

Speaking of campaigning, the county also refused to give a full accounting of the long-standing no-bid contract with the firm Media Squared, Inc. The county has been awarding the same $72,000 annual contract for creative consulting services for at least eight years, as well as paid millions of dollars for the actual work they produced in the form of marketing pieces and commercials which are released mostly during the campaign season. Several of these mailers, as well as the commercial and some letters produced by the PI department, resulted in ELEC complaints being filed by the Republican challengers in 2005.

Coincidentally, MediaSquared also does work for the freeholders' campaign, which is no wonder that the taxpayer-funded pieces look exactly like the campaign pieces sent out by the Dems. A recipient would have to look very closely to tell if the message was coming from their county government or from a campaign committee. We have to wonder if the freeholders are getting their campaign work produced at a reduced fee by this firm because the taxpayers are paying them $6,000 a month for unspecified consulting work.

Documents obtained through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) have shown no description of these creative consulting services. A proposal dated March 9, 2005 consists of just four short paragraphs which Freeholder Chairman Rick Proctor states that this no-bid contract was awarded for monthly creative consulting.

Another document states "The services to be offered by MediaSquared, Inc., are based on the extensive involvement with the County of Union in the planning and development of a marketing plan for the county. An OPRA request for the marketing plan mentioned was returned "document does not exist."

$72,000 a year is a lot of money for any business. I would doubt that even a major corporation could award a $72,000 no-bid contract for creative consulting services without a concrete marketing plan, proposal or contract specifically outlining what the company could expect for their money. The Union County taxpayers deserve to know exactly what the county is being consulted about for $6,000 a month. Perhaps there is a crumb of advice in there that would benefit a local business.

MediaSquared states in a certification: "This firm specializes in assisting government sector organizations like yours explain the process of government to its constituencies and make public services more readily accessible to the people who need them the most."

What the constituency needs explained by Union County government is this $72,000 annual creative consulting service as well as the costs of the Public Information Department and an accurate accounting of these employees' paid days off. They should also cut out the $327,759.85 per year taxpayer-funded campaign pieces.

Reigning in all of the above abuses would no doubt result in at least a $1.5 million reduction in the budget. Don't hope for Chris Christie on this one; the FBI. will only investigate federal elections. As it stands now, no other law enforcement agency will touch a Democrat in New Jersey.

It's no shocker that a government body within New Jersey is getting away with any of this. What I find most shocking is why isn't any Union County media reporting any of this? As it stands now, no Union County media will touch the Union County public information department's abuses of the public trust.

That's the taxpayers’ biggest problem.