February 24, 2006

Seeing Red

The Union County Public Information Department has been hard at work pumping out press releases attempting to buffer the thud that is sure to come when the county budget hearings end and the finished product finally lands square on the backs of the Union County tax payers.

The county manager released his proposed budget last month complete with alerts from the PI Dept. saying cuts to programs would be necessary, but adding, it was not certain what action the board would take to contain expenses that they say are careening totally out of their control.

It was announced that a hiring freeze was being promptly implemented until further notice and that departments were instructed to come to the scheduled budget hearings with options for cutting costs and ideas to generate new revenues if possible.

The threat of budget cuts has most department heads scratching their noggins hoping for an Epiphany that will play a role in keeping their department’s budget at 2005 levels.

Saturday, February 11,2006 - Budget Hearing
In almost a whisper, Mr. Joseph Sharp, Administrator of Runnells Hospital, quietly announced that the hospital operated at a deficit in 2005 though the final figure was yet to be determined, the guesstimate is somewhere between $250,000 and $1mil. High overtime by the nursing staff was one reason given as a factor for the negative figure, the hospital like private business is forced to keep jobs open in compliance with the Family Leave Act. An unfortunate fact of life is that the cost of temporary nursing staff to fill the voids is equal to if not more than paying regular employees’ overtime.

The Freeholder board has, for a few years, used Runnells Hospital as a campaign issue touting the fact that it has been operating in the black under their guidance. They have been labeling all opponents as being partner to wanting to close the facility in an effort to do the unthinkable, save cash. They have tried to terrorize the public with this negativity and have many voters shaking in their boots thinking that if they do not reelect the encumbents they will be losing an emergency care facility, which of course is not the case.

What was he thinking?
It was interesting to watch the current board chair, Al Mirabella who is up for reelection this year, suggest that perhaps the rehabilitation dept should expand its out-patient services in an attempt to generate new revenue. A move of this sort could require a sizable cash investment as the administrator woefully admitted that the necessary space did not currently exist, and would have to be created. Support for this option did not appear to be enthusiastically forth coming from the county manager who remained non-committal on the subject when the board chairman attempted to gain his agreement; the finance committee members were quiet as well. A wise move politically when one considers that the budget hearings were intended to come up with ways to curtail spending and not increase the budget, perhaps Mr. Mirabella already has his campaign materials in the works trumpeting the successes of Runnells and is now confronted with a costly rewrite.

Booming Industry
It does seem odd that with the nursing home/rehabilitation industry booming because of the sheer numbers of elderly needing extended care outside of the family home setting that this facility isn’t raking in revenues. Perhaps Runnells is now feeling the impact caused by acute care hospitals in the area, such as Robert Wood in Rahway, who are offering extended stay rehabilitation on their own sites to include handling the paperwork thus sparing families the burden of having to relocate patients to other facilities.

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to spend money to make money but new projects which require changes to the physical plant certainly are not the answer at this point in time. Rather, an in-depth look for what is causing the hospital to once again run in the red is certainly called for.

However the argument can be raised that perhaps the all too brief stint in the black was a fluke and that there is no hope for recouping the millions of tax dollars that the freeholders have already invested.

February 23, 2006

Keeping our babies safe?

During last nights freeholder meeting the board was again having us focus our attention on their child seat safety inspection initiative. They have been toting this “initiative” going on 4 years now. It’s a warm fuzzy issue for them to hide behind. After all what is more important than keeping our babies safe? As the chairman of the board so gushingly rhetorically asked in his closing comments.

I raised my hand to answer, but he wouldn’t call on me.

I wanted to tell him that the juveniles who are incarcerated in the Union County Detention Center were once someone’s babies, and as teenagers are still loved by their families, and since Juvenile Detention is a basic county service and the county budget is now at 413-million dollars and their car seat inspection initiative only costs about $75,000 a year (which I’m pretty sure is covered by a state grant) why can’t they run a humane juvenile detention center before they inspect our car seats?

As fate would have it, that night the Daily Show did a skit with a new dad taking care of his infant. They showed John Steward driving a convertible with a baby on his head. Car seat safety brings another image to mind, the recent photos of Brittney Spears driving with her baby on her lap.

Given the mentality of the public and the county’s in-house million dollar public information department, it’s hard to get the point across to county residents that the freeholders are spinning us to death. I have my own rhetorical question: Do we need county government to check our car seats or do we need them to run basic governmental services?

Every year the freeholders use pictures of this child seat inspection initiative in both their taxpayer-funded and pay-to-play funded campaign literature.

If we had a healthy democracy in Union County, which we don’t, while campaigning for re-election the freeholders would be forced to answer for the way they ignored rules, regulations and even kept juveniles locked up in filthy, unsafe cells for the past ten years, which resulted in a 17 year old hanging himself on an exposed sprinkler head that was sited by the state as a suicide hazard 17 months prior to his death, yet the county didn’t bother to repair it. The abuse didn’t stop there. County employees didn’t find the boy; it was his fellow inmates that happened upon him.

The last time the juvenile detention center issue was debated by the freeholders in public was when there was a two-party ruled freeholder board. Since the board turned one-party ruled the only thing being debated in pubic are warm and fuzzy issues.

At this same meeting the freeholder’s appropriated more funds for legal bills stemming from a law suit that was filed against the taxpayers for the 17 years olds death in 2003. I spoke at the meeting and brought up documentation I had received recently through an Open Public Records Act request. These documents show that the state inspected the Union County detention center in December of 2004 and found 18 suicide hazards. The state didn’t bother to do a re-check of their findings until the following year. A report dated December 2005 shows that out of these 18 suicide hazards noted the county had only addressed 7; 4 were partially address; and 7 went ignored by the county, just as the sprinkler head did for 17 months prior to a boys death.

Checking our child safety seats makes for nice photo ops. No freeholder would be caught inside that detention center checking that suicide hazards are taken care of. In fact, since the boy’s death the county did away with the Juvenile Detention freeholder liaison so no one freeholder could be held accountable for the way the detention center is run.

When I raised questions about the suicide prevention inspection documents it was the director of the facility that offered up excuses for the county’s inactions. The freeholders weren’t familiar with the documentation that I sited. Apparently they don’t even bother to check the states inspection findings. They must be spending all their time posing for photo ops at child seat inspections.

February 19, 2006

County Correctional Facilities - A Death Sentence

Every once in a while a story appears in the newspaper that sends shivers up the spine and just won’t stop playing games with the brain; it just won’t go away.

Last week a headline in the Star-Ledger read, “Another Lawsuit Cites County in Inmate’s Death” it went on to say “two men with medical conditions have died in the past two years while being incarcerated."

Probably what made the story have such an effect was the manner in which the inmate died, the fact that he was only 22 years old and that this story came on the heels of another story which told of a 20-something male who also died while incarcerated at the Union County jail.

Aaron Pittman and Donald Davis had something in common: they both died horrible deaths; Pittman from Crohn’s disease and Davis from a stomach infection. According to family members, both were left untreated and their screams of pain were ignored.

What is Crohn's?
Crohn's disease is a chronic inflammatory disease involving the small intestine and colon. The cause is unknown.

Crohn's disease can cause ulcers in the small intestine, colon, or both. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and weight loss are symptoms of Crohn's disease. Intestinal complications of the disease include obstruction and perforation of the small intestine, abscesses and intestinal bleeding. Massive distention or dilatation of the colon and rupture of the intestine are potentially life-threatening complications.

It has been said that Pittman’s medication for treating his Crohn’s disease was confiscated when he was arrested and detained for violating probation and that he died just a few hours after being found unconscious in his cell. One can only imagine the nightmare of pain this young man’s last few days had needlessly been.

In 1998, the Westfield Leader reported that the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded a $3.4 million contract to Correctional Health Services, Inc., of Verona, to provide health services to inmates at the County Jail and detainees at the county’s juvenile detention center. They would be helping the county switch from public to private management of the two facilities.

Citing reports of other counties utilizing CHS, then-County Manager Michael Lapolla predicted the savings would be at least $350,000 over the following two years.

Contracts vs Contributions - What a Coincidence!

Union County has awarded contracts to CHS since that time to provide medical/health care services at the jail, detention center and also the children’s shelter, the last being for the term of January 2004 through December 2006 at a cost not to exceed $3.6 million for year 1; $3.7 million for year 2; and $3,968,940 for 2006.

According to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Correctional Health Services, Inc. has awarded contributions to the Union County Democratic Committee in excess of $60,000 for the period from September ’98 through March ’04.

About two years ago, two inmates in Essex County correctional facilities died on the same day within hours of each other. Their families filed a joint wrongful death suit against Essex County and a private health care firm that provides jail medical services.

The cause of death of both of these inmates is listed as diabetic ketoacidosis, an emergency medical condition caused by a severe lack of insulin.

It is said that in both cases, the inmates, while in custody and known to be diabetics, pleaded for insulin, which was denied.

A Feb. 27, 2005 article in the New York Times calls “Private Health Care in Jails a Death Sentence” and speaks of numerous incidents around the country where inmates have died as a result of being denied necessary maintenance medication for everything from Parkinson’s disease to heart ailments to psychiatric drugs.

In New York, state investigators say they kept discovering the same failings: medical staff trimmed to the bone, doctors under-qualified or out of reach, nurses doing tasks beyond their training, prescription drugs withheld, patient records unread and employee misconduct unpunished.

It seems as though this is what is going on in Union County. It also seems as though no one is asking questions and demanding answers. It seems as though no one cares, least of all the people who have repeatedly hired CHS: the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

I wonder how can they sleep at night?

February 18, 2006

Political Reputations Need to be Brought into the 21st Century

February 18, 2006

Mark E. Morchel, Esq.
Deputy County Counsel
County of Hudson
Office of the County Counsel
Department of Law
Administration Building Annex
567 Pavonia Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07306

Dear Mr. Morchel:

I want to thank you as well as commend you and your staff for providing me access to public records in a timely and professional manner.

On February 6, 2006 I placed an Open Public Records Request to the county clerk in which I sought an electronic file of a complete list of Hudson County resolutions for 2005. I was promptly informed by you, through a message left on my voice mail, that the county did not have such a list, but you would work to compile it. I believe you used the words “we’ll bring Hudson County into the 21st century”.

As I’m sure you're aware, the OPRA only applies to existing records and you were not required to compile information for me, yet you did and at no cost to me.

Having been made to file 15 OPRA complaints with the Government Records Counsel against my home county of Union your approach to open government was refreshing to say the least.

Former Governor Brendan Byrne should be alerted to the need for him to bring his burial wishes into the 21st century. If Byrne still has political ambitions to stay active in politics after his death, he will have to change his plans and move his burial site to Union County.


Tina M. Renna
Union County Watchdog Association, Inc.

cc: Thomas A. DeGise, County Executive
Alberto G. Santos, Clerk of the Board

February 17, 2006

Activism Works in Scotch Plains
Residents band to scrap County misuse of Open Space

This past Monday over 300 residents stormed a Scotch Plains Zoning Board meeting to protest the county’s plans to lease the Ponderosa Farm property in their town to a children’s petting zoo.

The meeting room, which had a capacity for only 140 people, was inspected by the fire department who then determined that the overcrowding was creating an unsafe condition, and they shut down the meeting.

In 2003, Union County purchased the 20-acre Ponderosa Farms property on Cooper Road from the Sevell family for $10 million using Open Space Trust fund monies.

At the time, residents of Scotch Plains were relieved to know that their elected officials were dedicated to preserving one of the few remaining parcels of undeveloped land in the community.

The freeholders, none of whom reside in Scotch Plains, did not consult the residents of Scotch Plains when they decided to enter into a memorandum of understanding to allow a petting zoo with 140 animals, parking, portable toilets and animal waste receptacles to be built by Green Meadows on the former Ponderosa Farms. For a mere $50,000/year lease.

Scotch Plains residents were served well with local organizers who quickly laid out the impact the county’s actions would have on their neighbors:

1) The zoo plans call for PARKING to be built for 250 CARS and 24 BUSES! this will cause a great deal of TRAFFIC and CONGESTION along an already busy road.

2) In the midst of a quiet RESIDENTIAL neighborhood, a COMMERCIAL enterprise will exist that will generate CROWDS, GARBAGE and NOISE SEVEN DAYS A WEEK.










When the fire department shut the meeting down the county had been only about 15 minutes into making their presentation to the zoning board in which the county attorney was defending their right to do what ever the hell they wanted with “the county’s property."

If I didn’t know what the nine freeholders looked like I would have taken this attorney for one. He was acting like a freeholder himself by being arrogant and trying to bully the large crowd. He insisted that the county was only making a presentation out of a courtesy to the residents and that the local zoning board had no jurisdiction over the county property.

He warned that the town would have to file an expensive suit in Superior Court if they wanted to object to the county’s plans.

The county failed miserably at trying to bully the people of Scotch Plains, which was evidenced by the large crowd that night and by a statement by Mayor Martin Marks reported in the Westfield/Scotch Plains Leader in this week’s edition.

The mayor said that the township committee stood behind their residents and that they were pursuing a diplomatic resolution with the county. The mayor also stated that even town officials were surprised by the breadth and scope of the county's project.

The mayor said that if their diplomatic efforts failed then they would take it beyond diplomacy if necessary.

The Scotch Plains Coalition to Stop the Farm also turned out en masse at Thursday night’s freeholder meeting. After listening to residents make their case, the freeholders went into an executive session meeting to discuss the issue. When they came out they dramatically announced to the packed room in what was surely meant to be a public relations coup: “Democracy worked! We listened to the people!” This resulted in a standing ovation from the crowd. The freeholders had scrapped their plans, for the time being, but still maintained that they had a right to “build on open space."

If democracy was working in Union County then the people of Scotch Plains would have been consulted about plans for their town before the county entered into an agreement with an outside business.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the farmer, who looked like a deer caught in headlights when addressing the zoning board, backed out of the deal when he saw that over 300 residents surrounding the location of his new business venture were so adamantly against him. I’m sure he has a tale to tell. It’s evident that he didn’t expect a problem since the Green Meadows website had been already listing Scotch Plains as a location: www.greenmeadowsfarm.com/images/mulberryforweb.pdf

Scotch Plains won this battle because a passionate and talented group of residents were successful at rallying their neighbors. They also won because the Scotch Plains township committee aren’t puppets of Union County Democrat powerbrokers.

The moral of the story here folks is that balanced representation and active citizen participation works!

February 09, 2006

From Elizabeth:'Throw out free-spending, disgraceful pols!'

The following is a letter to The County Watchers:

Here we go again! Now that the Union County government reorganization meeting is over and the wordy, worthless speeches by the politicians are gone with the wind along with their fake and phony toothy grins, it is time to screw John and Jane Q. Public once again!

County taxes will rise 5.5 percent this year under a $413 million budget county, manager George Devanney proposed to freeholders on Jan. 17. The hike will be the county's sixth since 2000 and will mean county taxes have risen 45 percent in six years.

The proposed budget represents a 5.9 percent increase from last year's $390 million. The freeholders will begin "debating" (time out while I indulge in a side-splittin', belly-bustin' and rafter-rockin' round of laughter) the budget in February and pass (unanimously, no doubt) a final version by May.

What an outrageous state-of-affairs in Union County government! Once again, the smug, arrogant and asinine assemblage of Darling Dems ride roughshod over the taxpayers with impunity.

These pathetic punchinello's, with their 9-0 lock on "our government" continue to do as they wish, despite repeated calls for financial and ethical reforms. These bold, insensitive, shameless, and self-serving denizens of the public trough are a disgrace and an outrage!

The legions of half-wits and party loyalists who voted them into office are equally guilty and have betrayed the citizens of Union County. They have sacrificed true democratic representation in order to keep the political puppets in power. They worship well before the altar of the party bosses! Their prostrated positions suit them well! Their whipped, whining and whimpering chorus of "your wish is our command oh mighty and magnificent ones" echoes throughout the sordid and sleazy halls of the Democratic Party's fiefdom. Shame and disgrace on all responsible.

Once again, I draw on my own words from the past and declare that it is time for the good people of this county to wake up and wise up and storm the steps of government with voting ballot in hand and cast out these political parasites and brazen bureaucrats who turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their constituents' concerns!


Joseph P. Doherty
Elizabeth, New Jersey

February 07, 2006

Letter to the Freeholders

From: Tina Renna [mailto:tinarenna@unioncountywatchdog.org]
Sent: Tuesday, February 07, 2006 7:21 AM
To: 'amirabella@ucnj.org'; 'rproctor@ucnj.org'; 'aestrada@ucnj.org'; 'cholmes@ucnj.org'; 'bkowalski@ucnj.org'; 'amapp@ucnj.org'; 'dscanlon@ucnj.org'; 'dsullivan@ucnj.org'; 'nward@ucnj.org'
Cc: 'RYAN, JOSEPH'; 'mangeles@starledger.com'; 'union@njnpublishing.com'; 'editoral@thelocalsource.com'; 'Worrall Newspapers'; 'subnews@njnpublishing.com'; 'ipeditors@njnpublishing.com'; 'Gearhart@nj1015.com'; 'letters@thnt.com'

Subject: Please explain to the public why your extensive office of Public Information isn't informing the public.

I asked for the schedule of the budget committee hearings and haven’t received a response to date. If the Public Information Department doesn’t exist to inform the public then just what do they do?

Your arrogance is as breathtaking as usual considering that the past three freeholder debates, and possibly more, someone would always protect your spending by stating "none of the candidates have bothered to attend budget committee hearings."

Could it be that you don’t want anyone to attend? A quick check around your tax-payer funded Web site shows your self-laudatory press releases don’t mention anything about the hearings, and they aren’t listed on your meeting schedule.

I’d also like an explanation as to what this department’s budget is; a complete listing of employees who report to this department; and because I have personally seen some of these employees working on your re-election campaigns as well as being listed on ELEC reports as paid campaign works I DEMAND a list of paid days off for these in employees in 2003 and 2004 which doesn’t come with a disclaimer stating "this record may contain errors or omissions."

In fact, as a taxpayer who has asked for all of the above in OPRA requests to be given flippant responses, I DEMAND a full explanation to the usefulness of this department and what it is costing the taxpayers.

The overburdened taxpayers are now footing the bill for your $413 million budget and you can’t even keep accurate employee records. Even when you post the inevitable press release that you "saved a million by cutting back the budget" (which was inflated to begin with) it won’t justify your incompetence and in this case what looks like your corruption.

From: Tina Renna [mailto:tinarenna@unioncountywatchdog.org]
Sent: Sunday, February 05, 2006 2:54 PM
To: 'info@ucnj.org'
Subject: Budget Hearings

Please provide me with the schedule for the upcoming budget committee hearings. Kindly include the dates, time and place.

Thank you in advance.

Tina Renna
Union County Watchdog Association, Inc.

Budget Committe Hearing Scheduled which was obtained without the help of the county:

wed., feb. 8
county manager's budgt - 5:30 p.m.
county counsel - 6:00 p.m.
public safety - 7:00 p.m.
sheriff - 9:00 p.m.

sat., feb. 11
economic development - 9:00 a.m.
engineering/DPW - 10:00 a.m.
Runnells - 11:00 a.m.

wed., feb. 15
surrogate - 5:30 p.m.
elections - 6:00 p.m.
supt. of schools - 6:30 p.m.
tax board - 7:00 p.m.
county clerk - 7:30 p.m.
rutgers co-operative extension - 8:00 p.m.

thurs., feb. 23
parks - 5:30 p.m.
human services - 6:30 p.m.
administrative services - 7:30 p.m.

February 03, 2006

Durango or Suburban - Whatever

The Star-Ledger reported this week that Union County Manager George Devanney was swapping his gas-guzzling 2004 Chevy Suburban for something a little more economical in an effort to save the taxpayers money.

Mr. Devanney’s new wheels are reported to be a 2005 Dodge Durango with four-wheel drive like his former vehicle. He is among the 70 or so employees who have county-owned vehicles available to them under the heading of “Portal to Portal,” which translates into commuting to their jobs.

Employees also shown having county cars at their disposal “portal to portal” are assemblymen Joe Cryan and Gerry Green. I have to wonder if they “commute” to their part-time assembly jobs in Trenton on the county taxpayers’ dime.

Coincidentally “Car and Driver” magazine released the results of their “LONG-TERM TEST” on the 2005 Dodge Durango with 4WD in the January 2006 issue and just as coincidently the mag turned up in my house the same day the article hit the Ledger. (And who says divine providence doesn’t exist.)

The article speaks of the amenities the vehicle offers, some standard and some optional, but what caught my eye was the paragraph which addressed fuel consumption.

It read “fuel economy, an oxymoronic phrase in connection with SUVs in this class, was lamentable. The Durango averaged 14 mpg over the course of this test. If you want performance in a vehicle that weighs over 2.5 tons, you're gonna pay at the pump."

By all indications, the test lasted in excess of 10 months with the vehicle driven for short and long cross country trips in all types of weather. http://www.caranddriver.com/article.asp?section_id=17&article_id=10399

This past fall, Mr. Devanney, in another Star-Ledger article about the county fleet and the increasing cost of gasoline, stated that he would get rid of his Suburban, which got about 17 miles to the gallon, and replace it in January with something more fuel efficient; perhaps it could be a hybrid (gas/electric combo). Hybrid SUVs have reportedly gotten as high as 36 mpg city and 31 mpg on the highway. A visit to http://www.fueleconomy.gov/, a website with links to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, it backed up the “Car and Driver” test results in the fuel consumption department. Findings for the ’04 Chevy Suburban AWD: MPG city 14, MPG highway 18 and combined 16MPG. Findings for the ’05 Durango 4WD: MPG city 13, MPG highway 18 and combined 15MPG.

Well, it appears that the county didn’t do much in the line of cutting Mr. Devanney’s gasoline usage; in fact they perhaps unknowingly upped it a tad. I understand the 20 mpg figure attributed to Davanney’s new Durango comes from the people at Dodge/Chrysler. However, I could not locate an independent study to support the manufacturer’s claims. Too bad, as I would have liked to have seen a savings, rather than more of the same.

The http://www.fueleconomy.gov/ website lists the most and least fuel efficient vehicles grouped by EPA Size Classes and ranked by city mpg. The Ford Escape FWD Hybrid is a sure winner at 36 mpg city and 31 highways, followed by the Escape model which runs solely on gasoline, with 24 mpg city and 29 highways.Although these are four cylinder engines as opposed to the Durango’s six or eight, (I don’t know which Mr. Devanney has), I am sure that they would have gotten him to any emergency scene in the worst of weather. My daughter’s 2005 Ford Escape has done just that getting her up the mountain from Garwood to Summit daily in rain, snow, sleet and hail.

Looks like someone at the county didn’t do their homework very well, and that someone reports ultimately to Mr. Devanney, the County Manager, whom I might add has the final call over who gets what vehicles and when. It appears that the only thing that this switcheroo of vehicles is going to save the county taxpayers is a few feet of space in the county garage.