June 25, 2007

Trucks, Trains and Union County

Arlo Guthrie romanticized the freight train in his song The City of New Orleans painting the idyllic picture of 2 conductors and 25 sacks of mail rumbling past farms, fields and the grave yard of the rusted automobile.

Well, North Avenue, Route 28, doesn’t have any farms, fields or junk yards; what it has are homes, apartments and a proliferation of retail businesses as well as office buildings, this goes for South Avenue as well, at least through Union County. But it also has the Raritan Valley Rail Line, currently a commuter line transporting thousands, daily to their workplaces in New York City and other business hubs along the way.

Commuters are dropped off or park their cars at train station lots in Westfield and Cranford among other towns in the early morning hours and in the evening whole car loads of spouses with young children can be seen waiting in the family vehicle for their loved one to disembark for the return to their homes in the burbs, an expensive life style but worth it none the less.

The truth be told most central Union County residents paid little attention to the brouhaha going on to the east of them when the county Freeholder Board started the process of reactivating freight lines adjacent to the back yards of the residents in nearby Roselle, Kenilworth, Roselle Park, Springfield and Summit. One of the intents of the train was to help reduce the number of trucks traversing the major arteries of Union County, which would include Route 28 aka. North Ave. and South Ave as well. Certainly welcome relief for those living and doing business on those thoroughfares.

But the newest twist according to the Star Ledger 6/12, appears to be the development of “train to truck” depots in the county’s suburban areas, perhaps nearby Cranford and Roselle, to handle the expected increase of containers coming into Port Elizabeth/Port Newark. These containers would be hauled around the area to their destinations obviously by trucks which it would appear would increase the truck traffic and not lessen it on North and South Aves.

And what of the opening of the Chemical Cost Line by the NJDOT to marine cargo from Staten Island including garbage from Fresh Kills Landfill it would seem that that freight is being pushed west along with chemical products from the Bayway Refinery, would it be inconceivable for the long discussed use of the Raritan Valley Line for this type of freight to become a reality sooner rather than later.

Shouldn’t the residents along the line be informed of this activity before tanker cars go rolling through downtown, Cranford, Westfield, or Plainfield on their way to PA.? The impact of even a minor freight accident on this major commuter line near, for instance the Westfield or Fanwood Station is bone chilling.

Union County residents pay dearly for this life of little league, backyard barbeques, and excellent educational opportunities for their children and shouldn’t they also be able to enjoy a relatively safe existence complete with peace and tranquility?

One would certainly think that that would be the case since we hold the dubious distinction of being in the top ten, nationally, of county’s with the highest county taxes. But alas, this picture of the American dream could end up being just that, a picture. It seems that we will have to pay the price for not paying attention to what was going on in neighboring communities because though they are getting an unwelcome train we here on the Route 28 corridor will be getting the whole shebang if we are not careful and than the family in the car waiting at the station can count the freight and tanker cars as they go whizzing by.

June 21, 2007

YO!......Look Out for the Locomotive

Judging by an article this week in the Star Ledger it appears as though the UC Board of Chosen Freeholders is working to get what has been referred to as the UC Garbage Train back on track.

County Manager George Devaney released some snippets from a report prepared by the county’s Department of Economic Development at the request of state Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri. Before the state sent another dime Kolluri wanted a full review of the costs and benefits of restoring service on the two train lines: the Staten Island RR, from Cranford to Linden and the Rahway Valley Line, from Cranford to Summit.

Work was stopped on the controversial reactivations over one year ago when financing was halted much to the delight of many residents who reside in close proximity to the tracks and others who do the daily drive on the heavily traversed roads which would be impacted by grade level crossings.

According to a new analysis by the county of the 14 mile stretch of track there would be created at least 500 jobs and more than $10million generated. But, what is particularly interesting is that the report also states that 1,000 jobs could be created and that the county itself could end up receiving an estimated $200,000 a year. Well which is it?

The history of the project has indeed been confusing all along, starting with former Freeholder Nick Scutari’s letter to residents stating that the train would not be reactivated when indeed a contract had already been signed 5 months prior for track maintenance. The freeholders did some back pedaling at the time telling residents we feel your pain and stated that they had to sign a contract so that they could maintain control of the situation to protect the interests of the residents and not let it fall into other more powerful and heavier hands like the federal government.

The questions remain over what is to be transported and how frequently residents would have the 9:02 passing by their bedroom windows just feet away, who are they to believe.

On first blush the train sounds like a “sweet” idea, relieving our roads of traffic by encouraging industry along the lines to move materials and goods by rail, taking over 30,000 or more trucks off Union County’s roads per year, but is it really?

Two recent rail accidents come to mind. The first of course is the Graniteville train disaster in January 2005 where 10 people died and at least 250 were treated for chlorine exposure while 5,400 residents within a mile of the crash site were forced to evacuate their homes for nearly 2 weeks.

The second just recently, Feb ’07, nearby in South Plainfield, NJ where two locomotive engines and a box car crashed 150 feet through the cinder block wall of a pigment manufacturing plant before coming to rest. The locomotives were pulling a train of 82 tanker cars loaded with ethanol fortunately none of the cars ruptured and thankfully no one was injured as it was during non working hours.

Both accidents involved rail sidings and switching situations in light manufacturing areas in proximity to residential settings. These are the kinds of scenarios that the towns residents are concerned about as they realize that the county misrepresented the situation already and now has no guarantee what the trains will be hauling in 9, 10 or even 11 years as the contract with the rail line was very limited in duration and quite open ended in scope.

I first heard of the UC project when appointed to the UC Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) in 2000 representing Garwood. We would be unaffected as would other towns on the Raritan Valley line that runs along North Avenue; after all, those trains are of the commuter variety so few of the powers that be cared.

However that could change in a minute as there was talk, even at that time, of adding a third track to provide light freight service along the Route 28 corridor, including investigation of how track use is combined overseas. We know that these ideas just don’t disappear once proposed as someone usually figures out how to make a buck and the public’s safety be damned.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn just who owns stock in what RR’s here in NJ.

June 19, 2007

Who really will benefit from the freight rail project?

Submitted by:
Richard Lenihan

Instead of spending public funds on safety and environmental assessments and measures, both Union County and State officials have decided that the citizens of Union County would be satisfied with a "vapor report" on the so-called economic benefits of restoring the M&E Freight Rail.

In assessing economic benefits, the Union County Report blows bubbles into the wind. The Union County Office of Economic Development bases its report on 10 potential customers of the M&E Freight haulers. These so-called customers remain nameless because this information is not in the public domain. Yet, public funds given to the M&E have already passed $11.62 million according to this May 10, 2007, report.

The success of the project Is based on, in the words of the report, "establishment of businesses' confidence in the railroads' success, viability, and staying power." Why should a business have confidence in a small, privately-owned freight company, subsidized by public funds, without public accountability? According to the UC report, "all information regarding rail operations and maintenance costs, as well as contractual rates with shipping companies and customers are proprietary to the railroad operator." Secrecy may work in private businesses but is ethically unacceptable when the private business is totally subsidized by public funds for this restoration of rails.

Even more outrageous than the "information" projected in this report is the fact that the State and the County are not demanding safety and environmental studies from Gordon Fuller, M&E Operating Officer, even though he could have spent some of the public funds provided to him for this purpose.

On September 22, 2005, I was present in an auditorium filled with Roselle residents when Gordon Fuller said safety studies were done and that those reports would be sent to Mayor Garrett Smith. As of this date, safety, environmental, or quality of life reports have not been sent to the Mayor, nor to the Roselle Borough Engineer who has more recently requested these documents.

Why should a business have confidence in the M&E Freight Rail whose marketing specialty is avoiding disclosure, saying one thing and doing another?

Why should citizens have confidence in the Union County officials who have pumped millions of dollars into this freight rail project and then "pass the buck" on safety, environment, and quality of life issues?

Anyone wishing to read the UC Economic Assessment Report of 5/10/2007 can see it by clicking HERE.

Anyone wishing to read the 5/9/2002 contract between M&E and Union County can see it by clicking HERE.

Anyone wishing to read the Envrionmental Justice Petition for Roselle can see it by clicking HERE.

Read the documents for yourself and see who really will benefit from this freight rail project and where our tax dollars are going.

June 17, 2007

Bills are still adding up for harassment lawsuit against Sheriff Ralph Frohlich, Inc.

An appellate decision, which you can view HERE, filed on Thursday overturned a prior decision to deny Virginia Fanelli's attorney legal fees, as reported in the Ledger. Initially, Fanelli's attorneys had asked Judge LeBlon to order the county to pay $1.1 million for legal fees. The judge reduced that amount and denied a request to pay about $20,000 in supplemental legal fees.

Here's what we've been able to add up to date for this Sheriff's office petty case of employee harassment against one of their own, a decorated Sheriff's officer:

Fanelli settlement: $990,000
Fanelli legal bills: $816,000
County legal bills: $420,668
Total $2,226,668

County had to sue their insurance company because they didn’t report the incident properly. Cost:
County vs Coregis Insurance legal fees: $25,917

Total $2,252,585

Insurance covered only $510,000 of the above

Total CASH cost to taxpayers: $1,742,585

Original case:
MacDonald settlement: $128,000
County Legal fees $70,000
Malcolm $7,500
Total $205,500

Total $2,458,085

Additional Fanelli bills found in the check registry after case was settled paid to Lacorte, Bundy, most likely for this appeal, $5,818.

Total $2,463,753.82--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
County foots bill for lawsuit against sheriff
$800K in legal fees are added to $1.4M for defense and settlement
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff
After spending $1.4 million to defend and settle a lawsuit filed by a former sheriff's officer, Union County must pay an additional $800,000 to cover her legal fees, according to documents released yesterday.
The officer, Virginia Fanelli, sued Sheriff Ralph Froehlich and four other officials in 2001, claiming they wrongly punished her for defending a co-worker accused, and later cleared, of forging overtime reports.
After spending $400,000 over five years of litigation, the county agreed in February to pay Fanelli $990,000 to drop her complaint. In June, Superior Court Judge Vin cent LeBlon ordered officials to pay $816,000 to cover her legal fees, according to the court order ob tained through the state's Open Public Records Act.
Attempts to contact Fanelli yesterday were unsuccessful. Her at torney, Bruce P. McMoran, failed to return a call seeking comment.
County officials, including Froehlich and County Manager George Devanney, declined to comment, citing a confidentially agreement with Fanelli.
Before she filed her suit, Fanelli was a 14-year sheriff's department veteran who had worked as an undercover narcotics agent in Thailand and was touted among the department's rising stars.
The events leading to her lawsuit began in 1998, when sheriff's officer James MacDonald was accused of forging an overtime report. Officials charged that he was at Fanelli's house in Roselle Park while he claimed to be working.
Fanelli defended MacDonald, insisting he arrived only after his shift. He was later cleared.
Afterward, Fanelli claimed officials barred her from administrative offices, demoted her from undercover work and assigned her to a security post at the Union County Courthouse doors, according to court papers. Officials also confiscated her service weapon and ordered Fanelli to undergo psychological counseling, the court papers said.
She took a leave of absence shortly before filing the suit and is no longer employed by the county.
Initially, Fanelli's attorneys had asked Judge LeBlon to order the county to pay $1.1 million for legal fees. The judge reduced that amount and denied a request to pay about $20,000 in supplemental legal fees.

June 12, 2007

$30,000 Shared Services Ad Hoc Committee has nothing to share with us

In 1999 the County of Union passed a resolution which established an Ad Hoc Committee to be known as the Union County Shared Services Committee. The Committee was composed of seven (7) members that were supposed to serve a term of two (2) years which term may be extended in order to complete any pending report. They were to be compensated $3,000.00 per annum. The resolution then goes on to list 9 tasks the committee was charged with. It appears that the Committee disbursed in 2001 after being compensated $30,000 collectively and there is no proof that they ever met.

What did these seven politically connected committee members do to earn their collective $30,000? Township Commissioner George Jorn of Cranford, who was paid $4,500.00 to serve on the committee had no pubic comment when, myself and then 2 other residents publicly commented on the subject during Cranford’s meeting this evening.

The county has no documentation regarding what the taxpayers received for their $30,000. An Open Public Records Act request seeking the following documents was returned that no documents existed:

Meeting minutes and all reports, recommendations and correspondence of the Shared Services Advisory Board since its inception to present.

The only documents the county released were those that showed what the commissioners were compensated.

1. George Jorn Cranford (Township Commissioner) $4,500.00
2. Patricia Plante, Fanwood (Patricia & Thomas Plant are Democrat Committee members) $4,500.00
3. Michael Crincoli, Garwood (former Mayor) $3,750.00
4. Angelo Bonanno, Hillside (former Health Inspector) $4,500.00
5. Carmela Colosimo, Kenilworth (former Councilwoman) $3,750.00
6. Gregory Kinlock, Roselle Park (former Councilman) $4,500.00
7. Jodi Bergen, Springfield (Jodi & Bruce Bergen are Democrat Committee members) $4,500.00

Resolution 963-99 View HERE

Shared Services OPRA response no docs View HERE

Shared Services Board Compensation View HERE

June 10, 2007

What Happened to the UC Directions?????

WOW…what happened to the Union County Alliance’s Primary Election edition of the Union County Directions?? Perhaps it wasn’t completed in time to arrive in county resident’s mailboxes to serve its true purpose – Election Campaign Literature - thinly disguised as an informational newspaper, perhaps the powers that be decided to scrap the edition.

We hear that at least one county GOP legislator declined the opportunity to submit an article for publication in the paper. Featured in it’s pages are stories and photos of Democratic candidates, mostly incumbents seeking reelection, throwing in a Republican legislator or two certainly lends the rag some credibility that it is fulfilling it’s intended purpose and it can be pointed out that it is not a campaign piece paid for with taxpayer monies.

For whatever reasons were that the Directions didn’t make it to the homes of county residents the fact remains that an expanded version of the Union County Senior Newsletter did work its way into thousands of homes of the county’s Senior Citizens about one week before the Primary Election on June 5, 2007.
NJ ELEC law says that these types of informational pieces, with incumbents, paid for with tax dollars must reach the general public in the district at least 60 days prior to an election. The laws also go on to say that incumbents are only permitted to respond to letters from specific residents for specific reasons or notify the citizenry of a pending emergency, anything else constitutes campaign literature and cannot be paid for with tax dollars.
Neither of these situations exists unless one was to believe that Granny is in dire need to know that Parliament-Funkadelic would be appearing at Cedar Brook Park in Plainfield. Or that George Devanney, the County manager, took an all expense paid excursion to the Empire State building in NYC awhile back to present a Board of Freeholders resolution, to a Welsh Rocker who is holding a walkathon prior to another county concert scheduled for September.
There was however one article worth reading about the county’s Division on Aging which actually contained useful information on available services, otherwise, true to form it was a Freeholder Brag Sheet worse than anything ever tucked into a family Holiday card. There are four incumbent Democrats running for reelection in November, and note that three of the four have feature articles with photos, for the fourth one needs only to purchase the latest Soap Opera Digest at the A&P checkout to find out all about him.

The County Directions was the subject the following Star Ledger article in July of 2006, any resident who feels that the Senior Newsletter is more of the same should file a complaint with the New Jersey Elections Commission in Trenton.

Dems deny flier is campaign lit

Republicans say newsletter should focus on programs, not politicians

Sunday, July 23, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff
Before each election, a publicly funded, nonprofit corporation called the Union County Alliance publishes a newsletter, packed with smiling politicians.
The latest edition arrived at every Union County household days before last month's primary, featuring front-page photographs of Linden Mayor John Gregorio, Rahway Mayor James Kennedy and three county freeholders.
All of them are Democrats. All are up for re-election.
The alliance is headed by Michael Murray, Union County's former director of public information, and receives more than $250,000 annually from the all-Democratic county freeholder board. Each time the newsletter prints, local Republicans condemn it as Democratic campaign literature, subsidized by taxpayers.
"It's free advertising for their candidates," said Patricia Quattrocchi, a former GOP freeholder candidate.
For years, local Republicans have accused Democrats of taking advantage of their control over county government to win elections. They argue that by strategically featuring candidates in taxpayer-funded literature promoting programs and services, Democrats give themselves an unfair edge at the polls.
Democrats retort that publicity is the natural benefit of incumbency. They argue the programs touted through publications like The alliance's newsletter are administered by Democrats, and Democrats have every right to take credit.
"If the Republicans don't like it, they have to start winning elections," said state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, Union County's highest ranking Democrat.
Last fall, Union County Republicans asked state officials to investigate whether Democrats violated campaign finance law by not reporting several publicly funded publications and broadcasts as political donations. A spokesman for the State Election Law Enforcement Commission declined to comment on the status of the request, citing agency policy.
The GOP complaint targeted a brochure and television commercial promoting county health programs and featured a freeholder up for re-election.
The complaint also cited the alliance newsletter.
The alliance was founded in 1994 as a bipartisan organization to promote local economic development. The corporation still boasts both Democrats and Republicans on its board and is registered as a tax-exempt, 501(c)(4), organization, which allows it to engage in political activity.
Nevertheless, Murray maintains the organization and its newsletter are not political.
"My goal is not to promote freeholders. My goal is to let as many people who live in Union County know about what services are available to them," Murray said.
Union County provides the alliance with roughly 80 percent of its $300,000 annual budget. Freeholders also grant Murray use of a county-owned 2002 Ford Explorer. Kean University provides offices for the alliance's three staff members.
Murray said the newsletter supports itself via advertisements from businesses and organizations including Trinitas Hospital and Conoco Phillips. Roughly half of the ads in the current edition came from Union County government agencies or Urban Enterprise Zone funds from Elizabeth, Linden and Hillside, all Democratic strongholds.
The newsletter is a full-color, 24-page ode to county government, highlighting senior programs, summer concerts and ribbon cuttings. It is devoid of overt campaign pitches and thick with features about programs, services and columns penned by Democratic and Republican politicians.
Among Republicans' chief complaint is Directions' timing.
Murray contends the newsletter is scheduled to arrive during peak spring and fall marketing seasons, saying it is difficult to grab readers' attention during the summer and holidays.
That it regularly arrives weeks or days before primary and general elections is coincidental, he said.
"This publication is not timed with any election cycle at all," Murray said, adding that the fall 2005 Directions debuted more than 30 days before the general election.
State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. is an honorary co-chair of the alliance. He maintained the organization is not political, but said the newsletter's timing was troubling.
"I certainly think the publication dates of Directions should be moved to remove even the appearance of political purpose," Kean said.
Local GOP leaders, meanwhile, criticize the publication for its prominent photographs of campaigning Democrats.
"The thing speaks for itself, especially when you look at it over time," said Philip Morin, Union County Republican chairman.
The fall 2005 Directions featured a front-page photograph of a freeholder up for re-election. The previous fall, the front page featured two campaigning freeholders and Sheriff Ralph Froehlich, who was also up for re-election.
Murray contends the trend is, again, coincidental.
Yes, the mayors and freeholders pictured on the recent cover are up for re-election, Murray said. But, he added, none of them faced stiff competition in last month's primary.
If Directions were a political tool, Murray said, it would focus on Democrats running in heated races.
Besides, Murray said, every state legislator representing Union County -- whether Democrat and Republican -- is invited to submit a column, which runs in Directions unedited.
Charlotte DeFilippo, Union County Democratic chair, said the GOP's complaints about Directions being political were merely jealous prattle.
"If the Republicans were in charge, they would do no less and probably more. They are simply being crybabies," she said.
State Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union) was among the Republicans with a column in the recent Directions. Nevertheless, he, too, said he was concerned about publication's politics.

"If the purpose is to feature programs," Bramnick said, "then why feature all the politicians?"

June 06, 2007

Another bloated Union County Democrat powerbroker-controlled budget is passed

The following are Garwood resident, Bruce Paterson’s comments during the Union County Budget commentary session held on May 24, 2007.

Last year Union County finally got a dubious distinction of being in the top 10 of American counties with the highest taxes on its residents. And what did the freeholders do? They increased the budget 3.4% and raised county taxes 5.9%.

I went to a budget meeting back in February. Certain freeholders asked questions. The public could not. Any financial concerns that were brought up and odd it was minimal, was answered by department heads with a “next year we will do this” or next year we will do that”.

Next year is NOW! Over 5 years the taxes skyrocketed putting us in the 10 worst counties for taxes.

Freeholder Adrian Mapp, when he ran 3 years ago said in a publicized debate that he wanted to be part of the budget process. Mapp has a degree and is strong in accounting. He is the only one with accounting and financial experience. But you wouldn’t let him on the budget committee for the 3 cycles he has been on the Board. And now you are dumping him from this next election.

The taxpayers are now on life support! For 5 years we have faced financial disaster and fiscal mismanagement. Now we are in the top 10 worst taxed counties in the nation!

I’m not going into depth in the budget since I only have 5 minutes to comment, but some items that would start us on the road to fiscal integrity:

1) Dump the taxpayer funded booze at the freeholder VIP tent during county events. You’re already drunk with power.

2) Cut down the county car fleet. We had a freeholder who put 30 thousand miles on his vehicle in one year and he lives 4 miles from this Administration Building. A county director uses his to go to exercise class. (This is where Chairwoman BJK leaned to Attorney Barry and BJK said that I am getting “close to the line”.) (After this comment it was reported in the Star-Ledger that photos were taken of a Linden Councilman, who is also a county employee, using his county vehicle on the campaign trail.)

3) Make sure part-time jobs are part-time jobs. Your Union County improvement director sits at home making $140,000 a year for nothing. Stop mailing her the check. She’ll get the message.

4) Make sure the full-time jobs are full-time jobs. You finance director works also as finance officer of Linden. This is disgraceful. And many financial errors have been made since he’s had these 2 jobs.

5) Pay to play- Pass a resolution to stop the millions of dollars that go to professionals who donate money to your political pockets. Since the contracts are non-competitive, it’s easy to fatten up with extra dollars in order for the professionals to donate to your political campaigns. No more dealing with these types of people.

6) Get rid of the retroactive raises and 4-5% raises. For a 400-million dollar budget, I have a hard time seeing any county employee results that are stellar and deserve raises like that.

7) Stop giving out “health benefits for life”. You offered early retirement and about 150 people took it, with “health benefits for life.” You have lost control of benefit costs with this type of mismanagement.

The taxpayers of Union county got big problems and you created them. There is no more future; the future is here and now.

You just can’t make hard financial decisions. Everything’s a mess. The only accountant on the Freeholder Board you are throwing off the Board.

The only choice now is to vote down the budget and vote down the tax increase. Then start again with a zero increase.

Thank you.

Notes: The budget that evening was voted on unanimously with the exception of Freeholder Adrian Mapp who abstained from voting.

The 2007 Budget Hearing’s can be viewed on-line at the Union County Watchdog Association’s Veotag account HERE.