Scathing N.J. report details millions of taxpayer dollars spent on municipal employee perks

Posted on December 1st, 2009 by bile
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http://www.northjersey.com/

Hundreds of North Jersey municipal employees are guaranteed paid time off — at taxpayers’ expense — to go Christmas shopping, attend weddings, and even donate blood, according to a scathing report released Tuesday by the State Commission of Investigation.

The 108-page report examined a cross-section of local government contracts and policies across the state, finding that tens of millions in taxpayer dollars are being wasted to fund luxurious benefits for municipal employees.

Among North Jersey’s biggest offenders are Englewood Cliffs, Fort Lee and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, which each doled out massive lump-sum cash payouts for unused sick time and personal and vacation leave. Several other towns, including Englewood and Paterson, were cited for shelling out “exceptional perks,” such as paid days off — in addition to regularly allotted vacation and personal time — for getting married or donating blood.

And most importantly to me being a Fort Lee resident:

Taxpayers in Fort Lee are on the hook for more than 30,000 days of unused leave banked by the borough’s 408 full and part-time employees. If all of this accrued leave were to be cashed in at once, the tab would exceed $7 million – an amount equal to 11 percent of Fort Lee’s annual budget of $63.6 million, the report reads.

Between 2004 and 2008, the borough paid retiring employees a combined sum of more than $1.4 million for unused sick, vacation, holiday, terminal and other leave. More than one third of the payout – approximately $547,000 – was for accrued sick time.

The report also casts a spotlight on municipalities who grant their employees “special perks.”

  • In Fort Lee, police officers receive one or two days off if they qualify at the firing range as expert or distinguished expert marksmen, the report states.
  • Rutherford has a lottery system that awards cash payments to civilian municipal employees who have perfect attendance for a certain period of time. Between 2004 and August 2009, these sick leave incentives totaled $12,600.
  • In Union City, all civilian municipal employees receive one day’s leave at full pay every year for Christmas shopping.
  • Englewood gives its fire and police personnel a paid day for moving, and city police officers get three additional paid days when they get married.

Bureaucrats taking advantage of the their position? No!

Can anyone name me a business or field which has such perks? Or is it only those which are funded through coercion? Is anyone surprised that those who utilize coercion through threats of violence rather than convincing people to do business with you by providing a good service increase their abuse of their victims over time?

LCLReport covers Donna of the Fort Lee Police Department flipping out

Posted on September 21st, 2009 by bile
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There is an update regarding the strip of road and signs. The curb has been painted yellow and the conflicting signs removed.

Thanks Tarrin.

You can find the original post here.

For taking a photo of a parking infraction a Fort Lee, NJ bureaucrat threatens to have me locked up, calls cops

Posted on September 10th, 2009 by bile
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To recap: Around the corner from where I live there is a section of road which had been three’ish parking spots. A white curb, a sign indicating it was for residential parking and one indicating when the town cleans the street. There are also two sign posts on either side of that section of the block which indicate the flow of traffic. Recently “No Stopping or Standing” were added to the outside posts and several individuals on the block have found out the hard way that that now means no parking. Given most people on the block has gotten ticketed you rarely will see a car parked there.

So I get off the bus yesterday (2009-09-09 ~6:05pm) and I see that there are two cars parked on that section of the block. I notice that one of them is the same vehicle we’ve seen parked there times before without receiving a ticket. A car which has a sign on the dashboard saying “official police business.”

Fort_Lee_bureaucrats_car PoliceBusiness

I took out my camera to record the fact that this town or bureaucrat owned and “officially” used vehicle was parking in a location which had been designated, at least in practice, as not for parking and it had been parked there regularly negating the likelihood it was actually parked there for “official police business.” I took two quick photos and was turning to leave when I hear yelling coming across the street. I look up to see a woman walking down the steps of a house coming toward me. The footage below is what transcribed after I got the chance to switch on video.

The camera started in my hand and then was clipped to my shirt so please excuse the awful video footage. It may as well been audio but more information the better. Additionally the video was edited for time not content. It’s largely unedited with only the time between the woman’s call to the the police and continued dialog cut. Therefore it may be considered repetitive and long winded due to the constant back and forth. I didn’t have the time to edit it for only the good parts.

Highlights:

  • The woman refused to tell me who she is. (Update: On a second listening of the first video it appears her first name is Donna. At about 8m10s in you can hear her as she talks on the phone with someone at the police station. Danny or Daren?)
  • She refuses to tell me what official police business she’s claiming to be involved in at that moment.
  • She implies that because her car is private property I can’t photograph it while it’s parked on a public street.
  • She threatens to have me locked up.
  • When I attempt to make the point that her business, in regard to potential illegal parking, is my business because she’s supposedly a public servant and that has a different standard from those who work in private institutions she informs me that I belong in an institution.
  • In an accusatory tone asks me if I’m a good Samaritan? Don’t I have a life? A job? Something better I could be doing? Why it’s my business? Why am I looking out for my neighbors? “You trying to get into heaven?”
  • She calls the Fort Lee Police department. She appears to do so in a personal rather then professional capacity as any other third party to the police would. Two officers in seperate vehicles show up. Officer 220 (Ordonez (sp?) Part 2 10:15) and 224 (Kutrabenous (sp?) Part 3 3:30).
  • Officer 220 started off with an attitude. Informed Laur and myself that “She can park where ever the hell she wants. She works for the city.”
  • Officer 220 blocked traffic and when informed was completely unconcerned leaving individuals stuck behind him.
  • Laur called him out for being confrontational and his demeanor changed. He ended up agreeing that the signs were contradictory and told us that he’d tell other officers that there was an issue with that section regarding parking and not ticket anyone until the appropriate changes were made to the signs/curb.
  • We are told we can’t rely on calling the town to get anything done. It must be done in person. Obviously speaking highly of the town bureaucrat’s level of service.
  • Officer 220 claims he generally doesn’t give tickets unless it’s unsafe.
  • Officer 224 says at one point that she shouldn’t be parked there regardless of signage due to it being effectively a turning lane.

The woman was totally out of line. I can understand questioning the taking of photos or being ignorant of the others who had received tickets but her attitude was completely uncalled for. Clearly she should not have the “official police business” sign in the window of the car if she is in fact not performing official police business and since it seems obvious she was not in fact performing official police business she was caught lying. She made threats and threw insults. And rather then deal with the supposed issue like mature individuals she called for backup. Called her friends / coworkers at the FLPD likely to come intimidate me. Makes me happy to know I’m forced to pay for her “services.”

Officer 220 was out of line too. He obviously was acting with a bias due to his relationship with the woman. Not only was his demeanor unbecoming but his initial defense of her action and claims she is effectively above the law was a clear sign that they see themselves to be of a privileged class. Not unlike how the NYC traffic cops see themselves. The officer attempts to make lite of the fact that these admittedly “bullshit” tickets will have to be fought in court and likely dropped. As if calling out of work to attend said court date is not often a larger cost then just paying the ticket. Unlike those in many government jobs, those in the productive sector of the economy generally can’t afford to randomly take off to fight a $28 ticket regardless of whether the ticket will be waved or not. He also admits that “for the first couple times” getting a ticket I’ll have to be “inconvinenced” and fight it. Why should I have to be inconvenienced? They made the mistake. They are costing myself and others time and money. Both of which we will never be compensated for. And as many know bureaucrats tend to look out for themselves and while I’m unaware of what goes on in Fort Lee many towns will drop tickets against officers and their friends automatically so the claim they’ve gotten tickets before is likely irrelevant. If indeed these tickets are “bullshit” all “No Stopping or Standing” violations issued in the past month or so should be dropped without any effort required by those who had been issued them.

Officer 224 seemed more calm and reasonable. I was a bit startled though when he lightly grabbed my shirt and leaned in to clearly speak his name into the camera. I honestly didn’t hear his name the first time. He probably shouldn’t have done that but given they didn’t make any issue otherwise of my recording and it was probably completely innocent I’m happy to ignore it. NYPD tend to be far more concerned with cameras and confrontational about them.

So any employees of the FLPD, other officers or random bureaucrats… no hard feelings but know that you aren’t above the law.  You’re supposed to work for us and if you step out of line there will be those of us who will record your digressions and publicize them. I would hope that you’d agree that this oversight is necessary and beneficial for all involved. We don’t want any corruption and you shouldn’t want to be associated with corruption. And please learn to regulate yourself in such situations. I’ll admit I got a bit testy but I was the one being threatened, insulted, cut off while speaking and had the cops called on for merely looking out for my neighbors well being.

I’ve considered issuing an official complain against the woman especially since she claimed to be acting in her official capacity. However, this post and video are likely to make their way back to the FLPD and to her and I think her behavior speaks for itself.

Despite the economic turmoil the Fort Lee Police Department keeps on trucking

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by bile
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http://www.northjersey.com/…

Apparently, the arbitrator handling the Fort Lee police contract did not get the state memo counseling fairness in his award.

I HAVE read with great interest recent articles relating to binding arbitration and the rewards of arbitrators.

In these days of reduced state aid, crashing stock markets, plummeting real estate values and record levels of unemployment, we who govern municipalities feel quite alone. Fort Lee has imposed hiring freezes, instituted novel income-generating programs, amended billing methodology of various vendors of the borough, adopted a “zero balance” budget protocol and have done everything possible to avoid layoffs. Our responsibility is to our taxpayers. However, human nature dictates we depart from ledger sheets and calculators to consider the lives and families affected if layoffs were to occur.

I believe that most people understand the deplorable circumstances we face. Accordingly, employees, department heads, contract vendors and most union leaders have worked with government to negotiate fair contracts that balance reasonable compensation with a recognition of the already excessive burden on taxpayers. They are sophisticated and considerate enough to recognize that “beating the hell” out of us for an excessive raise or costly benefits may potentially trigger that “four-letter” word: layoffs.

There is a glaring exception to this culture of cooperation: Arbitrators who render determinations on police contracts apparently have not gotten the memorandum and exist in a vacuum. The recent arbitrator’s award concerning the Fort Lee police contract disregarded economic conditions, the government’s fair and, by most accounts, generous offer to settle and the significant burden placed on our taxpayers.

I cannot blame our local police representatives. It is human nature to ask for as much as possible and achieve the most for their organization. Were it not for the economic turmoil, I would have enthusiastically supported a generous contract. I can, however, blame the arbitrator for the complete disregard of the current economic climate.

State officials have told me that arbitrators have been counseled to be fair with their awards and remain cognizant of the economic climate and the fragile financial state of municipalities. Apparently, the arbitrator handling the Fort Lee arbitration did not get that memo either.

The borough is now compelled to spend tens of thousands of dollars processing an appeal in the hopes of avoiding the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars. If, after exhausting every alternative, layoffs are unavoidable, I can look back with certainty and precision in identifying which straw broke the camel’s back.

The arbitrator’s actions in Fort Lee – and the actions of arbitrators across the state for that matter – leave municipal officials feeling abandoned and worried about what lies ahead. With the arbitration award for Fort Lee police, I now sit behind my desk staring at a list that I hoped I would never be required to look at. I know each of the young men and women on the list. I grew up with many of them and in many cases was instrumental in their hiring. If we have to lay off personnel, I intend to deliver this essay to the arbitrator, personally.

Mark J. Sokolich is mayor of Fort Lee.

He’s right in that it’s natural to ask for as much as possible. What is not however is monopoly and that’s ultimately the cause behind this issue. The FLPD has a monopoly on the use of aggression in the geographic area which is known as Fort Lee, New Jersey. The town does not take bids from a range of defense providers. They have a single group of people who are paid by funds taken through the threat of force who have been given their aura of legitimacy by the entity called Fort Lee. There is no true accountability to a customer. All market signals are at best distorted if not outright blocked.

They are given immense powers and a monopoly. What do you expect to happen? They are given the ability to do things the public is not. They are allowed to aggress against individuals who have not infringed on the rights of others. They are allowed to get away with actions which others in the community can not. They are held up as idols without the corresponding expectation of more perfect morals. A man like Johannes Mehserle can murder a man and he’s defended both by his department and many in the public. His defense is ultimately paid by taxpayers and even if found guilty he’ll likely be given a less severe penalty. If the roles were reversed and that young man murdered a cop by shooting him in the back police all across the country would be calling for this mans death as would most of the public. There would be a huge, paid by taxpayers, funeral with pomp and circumstance. Does anyone really believe that such treatment would not lead to large heads and a feeling of superiority?

If Mark J. Sokolich wants to correctly respond to the current economic crisis he will work to marketize the many aspects of the Fort Lee government and allow the market decide who and what are most needed.  By definition any government action, any employment they provide, is less efficient than the market’s. Otherwise the money would not have to be taken but would voluntarily be exchanged. I’d like to say too that layoffs in a time of economic difficulty is a good thing. Jobs are not a cause of a sound economic environment but the result of one. They represent efficiently allocated labor resources.

On another topic… I’d really like to know what these “novel income-generating programs” are. Often that means they are increasing random fees and tickets given to people for victimless crimes. Fortunately for the government, unfortunately for the average serf, most people are too busy to deal with such fees and tickets. The government has individuals who’s jobs are to go to court. The rest of us, the productive ones, have real jobs which often don’t allow us to take a whole day or more off to fight the ticket. If even just a small percentage of those who received tickets and such fought them the courts would jam up. While it’s possible the bureaucrats could further grow government in order to deal with the increase it is more likely they will continue to function at current capacity and at some point they’d need to reduce the enforcement of such statutes. At least one can hope.

FLPD, things are tough right now as I’m sure you know. Those of us who ultimately pay for your salaries and for everything that goes along with protection you are supposed to provide are having to tighten their belts and make sacrifices. You need to also. Besides the moral reasons for doing so there are economic reasons. By not downsizing, by keeping salaries and spending artificially high, you are keeping resources from the economy which need to be saved and put toward more productive uses. It is the same as with the bailouts. Taking resources from productive members of the economy and putting them in the hands of the less productive or negatively productive members. I’d suggest reading Murray Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression for a better description of what Hoover and FDR did wrong and how things are repeating themselves and how you are contributing to that.

No way to know if they are breaking their own rules

Posted on December 29th, 2008 by bile
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In my last email to the FLPD concerning the officer of car 464 talking on his cell phone I requested a copy of their standard operating procedures. Turns out they aren’t publicly available.

Unfortunately our SOPs are not public information due to officer safety security reasons.

So I have to pay for their operation whether I’d like to or not and I have no direct way of finding out if they are breaking their own rules? You know how many are upset that the banks receiving TARP money aren’t telling them where it’s going? This isn’t too dissimilar. We have the police policing us… who polices the police? Assuming I knew the no cell phone while driving law had an exception and it wasn’t vague I’d have no way of knowing that the officer in question was breaking any statute or rule. Unless another officer saw him and cared enough to report him nothing would have been done. If we trust the officers to self police themselves why couldn’t we trust the public to police themselves? Isn’t it a matter of degrees and not kind?

I doubt many other departments are any different. To an extent I understand the safety concern but I still should be able to know exactly what the SOPs are. I definiately should be able to know what they are and are not allowed to do. In what way does knowing whether they can talk on the cellphone while driving endanger an officer? The excuse given for not saying rings of the whole waterboarding is torture debate. “We can’t say we don’t or can’t torture because that would embolden the enemy.” Right… it also allows the authorities to get away with just about anything they wish.

Turns out I was wrong: Fort Lee officer didn’t break NJ statute but an in-house policy

Posted on December 27th, 2008 by bile
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Seems Google failed me. Due to slight variances in the search terms I used to find the anti-cellphone usage while driving law I failed to come across an exception for particular authorities. I had found the press release which referred to N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3. The law linked on the site I referred to in the original post, which amended rather then added to the statutes, did not include the following section:

39:4-97.4 Inapplicability of act to certain officials.

2.The prohibitions set forth in this act shall not be applicable to any of the following persons while in the actual performance of their official duties: a law enforcement officer; a member of a paid, part-paid, or volunteer fire department or company; or an operator of an authorized emergency vehicle.

I’ve yet to track down where and when this exception was added or if it was part of the existing law and was kept to apply to the newly added/amended text.

The officer who I was in contact with last wrote me this:

Hello,

Thank you for your last response and I now understand your concern regarding NJS 39:4-97.3 (Use of handheld devices while operating a motor vehicle). I also appreciate the fact that your wish is not to punish the officer, but rather to question the overall reason and validity for the statute itself. In spite of the fact that there is a statute regarding the use of hand held devices by law enforcement personnel, this agency does in fact have an in-house policy that prohibits officers from using cell phones while operating their patrol vehicles, unless there is an emergent situation that warrants the use of the device. Based upon your request, this matter will be investigated and most likely be resolved with the officer being counseled in regards to this allegation.

For your convenience, I have cited the above mentioned statute:

NJS 39:4-97.4 (Inapplicability of act to certain officials).
The prohibitions set forth in this act shall not be applicable to any of the following persons while in the actual performance of their duties: a law enforcement officer; a member of a paid, part-paid, or volunteer fire department or company; or an operator of an authorized emergency vehicle.

As we all know, laws and statutes are always subject to individual legal interpretation. For example, this particular statute refers to “while in the actual performance of their duties”. Could it be that simply patrolling the borough of Fort Lee may be considered an actual performance of their duties? Perhaps it could, depending upon one individual’s interpretation.

At this time, I would again like to thank you for your leniency towards the officer. Unlike yourself, there are many people who are on a mission to attack our officer’s to the fullest extent for minor infractions such as this one, forgetting that the very same officer would bravely respond to their aid when they are faced with a life or death situation of their own.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me any time.

I hadn’t mentioned in the email chain what I wrote at the end of the original post so he must have seen it there. I’m glad to see this officer is, or at least appears to be, OK with my public response to this matter as those who are regulars would know not all at the FLPD have been pleased with my posts regarding my problems in obtaining handgun purchasing permits.

Regarding NJS 39:4-97.4, I have to take exception with it especially given the reasons for the prohibition. The primary reason is safety. One poster used in the campaign to raise awareness of the law reads: “Put the phone down. No conversation is worth a ticket or your life.” As I’ve mentioned I’m against such prohibitions due to the nature of the act. The use of a cell phone while driving is not an aggressive act. Being distracted while operating a motor vehicle is not in and of itself an infringement on another’s rights. Driving recklessly is what threatens other driver’s safety and deserves some level of attention. The cause for such actions are, at least on the surface, of little relevance. For arguments sake lets accept the claim that hand-held cell phone usage is more distracting and therefore more dangerous to allow then hands free usage or changing the radio station or listening to often infuriating political talk radio. Accepting that theory, I would say that if there is anyone who I’d rather not have distracted while on the road it would be “the following persons while in the actual performance of their duties: a law enforcement officer; a member of a paid, part-paid, or volunteer fire department or company; or an operator of an authorized emergency vehicle.” All those listed should at all times be focusing on their respective job. Their jobs require not only that they pay attention to the road and the surroundings, which can be difficult enough especially in a densely populated area, but also communicating with some dispatcher and particularly for law enforcement officers watching for criminal activity. Anyone who has ever had something catch their eye as they drive through town or caught themselves sightseeing while driving know how dangerous it can be when you take your eyes and mind off the vehicles and pedestrians around you. A patrolling officer’s job is practically to drive around and do just that. Adding another distraction, especially one that has been said to degrade driving ability to that similar to being drunk, is not in line with the stated intentions of the law.

The officer points out, somewhat obviously, that these laws are up for interpretation. Does “actual performance of their duties” include patrol? I believe it absolutely is performance of their duties. What the law may imply and/or should say is “this act shall not be applicable to any of the following persons in and for the actual performance of their duties.” I would hope the exception did not intend to allow those listed to just sit on the phone and chat it up with a friend or loved one or check the balance of their checking account. Given the ambiguity (and arguable contradiction) of the law and the increased distraction it can cause I’m fine with and glad there is an in-house restriction. It unfortunately does not bring the FLPD officers and the general driver to equal treatment. The officer in this case will simply get a talking to yet had the actions and cars been reversed I’d probably be in possession of a $100 to $250 ticket and the choice of payment or bringing it to court with all the possible unpleasant outcomes regarding them. I can hope that the FLPD realize this difference and uses discretion when considering utilizing the authority granted to them by NJS 39:4-97.3. Even better I think would be that in addition to reserving such power for individuals who actually endanger others, institute an unofficial policy that recommends any officer caught breaking in-house rules or State or local statutes which threatened no one and caused no harm to donate what would be the fine for the regular driver to a local private charity.

And in response to the final paragraph. Many, including some libertarians, are extremely critical of police. Like with many aspects of life the good or neutral or expected are glossed over and the negatives are often exaggerated. And while it is important to acknowledge when something is done right it is more important to criticize when something is done wrong. The good acts do not negate the bad ones nor vise-versa. When an officer acts in defense of another’s person or property they have acted due to contractual obligations with regard to their job or for other personal motivations but they are not obligated to do so in that there is no legitimate reason to force him/her to perform such acts. They are in the right should they act or not act. If they act they are acting on the behalf of the victim, hopefully with their consent, against the aggressor and if they do not act they have obviously not initiated any force, fraud, theft or the threat of. However, if the officer is enforcing a statute which punishes or prohibits another individual’s actions which in themselves did not cause harm to another or their property the officer has become the aggressor. So just as I don’t want police to enforce laws prohibiting consensual / victimless actions I don’t want officers who themselves perform the victimless action to be aggressed against or punished. What I do want in the least is consistency and accountability. I want to make sure that the public knows of any inconsistencies in the enforcement of laws and that those in supposed positions of authority are aware that there are those of us who are paying attention to such things. To minimize the possibility of the blue code of silence. To minimize and reduce the growing feeling that those who work in the government are in a class above the rest of us.

Update:

I’ve responded to the above email requesting that should the officer find out my identity, due to the fact that some in the FLPD will inevitably read these posts, that I be given his. While I feel that it’s legitimate for that information to be public I offered to keep it private. While I acknowledge I’ve enabled this situation I feel it’s a reasonable request. I also asked if there is a publicly available copy of the FLPD standard operating procedures and polices.