Lower Township Manager Mike Voll took out his frustrations Wednesday morning by shooting off several emails to the Governor’s Office.
Voll’s issue was the State of Emergency Gov. Chris Christie had declared Tuesday night as a winter storm approached New Jersey.
The problem: It didn’t snow here. There was no ice. It wasn’t even that cold outside. A steady rain fell as Voll drafted his latest email complaining how the declaration would force him to pay comp time to police dispatchers, clerical help and other workers at a time when budgets are tight and workers will likely be called in on overtime when those comp days are cashed in. The union contract calls for the perk if the governor declares an emergency.
Local workers were not the only issue. Voll noted Christie’s declaration also closed state offices in the region for no reason. Courts, motor vehicle, human services, inspection stations and other state offices were closed in several southern New Jersey counties as the state gave nonessential workers the day off.
Meanwhile, Voll said state Department of Transportation workers sat in trucks, getting paid, ready to plow snow that never came.
“It’s frustrating. It’s a waste of money. The snow plows were called in at midnight, state DOT trucks and private contractors, and all we got is rain. It’s got to be done county by county. There’s no common sense,” Voll said.
Wednesday’s was the second recent winter storm in which the governor declared an emergency and it didn’t snow here, yet last week the township got six inches of snow and there was no declaration since it didn’t snow in Trenton, Voll said.
“There have been recent declarations that may be affecting other parts of the state but not us down south. Comp time equates to future payouts. I am requesting in the future each county be evaluated,” Voll wrote to the governor.
Voll said he plans to negotiate with the unions to allow the payout only when the township declares a state of emergency, not the state. That’s how many towns, including neighboring Cape May, do it.
Voll, who was mayor for almost two decades in Middle Township, said he declared an emergency twice during that time. They used to be rare, usually involving a hurricane, a major northeast storm or a blizzard, he said.
Cape May County Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Pagliughi is also a longtime mayor in Avalon. He recalls “about a dozen” declarations over the past 27 years. Declarations can be made on the state, county or local levels. He has no exact figures, but anecdotally Pagliughi believes more emergency declarations are being made these days. Christie has declared nine of them in four years in office.
“Everybody is gun-shy after Sandy, and they’re jumping at every weather event,” Pagliughi said.
He said the declarations allow mobilization of emergency efforts and notes that Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the reimbursement of storm costs is given only if there is a timely declaration. Pagliughi said in the past the declarations could be made retroactively, but that is no longer allowed.
In addition to frustrations for municipal officials, South Jersey residents also felt the impact of the emergency declaration.
Atlantic City resident Oliver Crumble was among more than a dozen people attempting to do business at the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Egg Harbor Township shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday only to be turned away. A handwritten sign taped to the window told them the office was closed due to the state of emergency.
“This is crazy. There’s no snow,” Crumble said. “It’s out of control. People have things they need to do.”
Crumble was there with friend Ravon Jackson, who said he needed to register his car to get it out of an impound lot. He said the lot will charge him $60 to keep his car an additional day, and more if the office remains closed.
Egg Harbor Township resident Dave Gunn said he needs an address change by Friday to keep his parents’ insurance active. He said it was surprising to see the office closed considering it was open last week while snow was falling.
Mitch Somers, also of Egg Harbor Township, was confused by the closing but less upset than others. He was there to renew his license and registration, which he said he needs to do by the end of February.
“What are you going to do?” Somers said. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Pagliughi said the law doesn’t allow the governor to declare an emergency by county. He noted all Motor Vehicle Commission offices are tied into a central computer system in Trenton. If Trenton closes, they all must close.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, doesn’t see these as insurmountable problems. He said the region seems to be suffering an extraordinary run of weather events, but he thinks declarations should be “more location-dependent.”
“There’s a big difference between what state workers go through in Cape May County, Sussex County and even the Mercer County-Trenton area. In this case, there is no obvious reason for people in Cape May, Cumberland County or Atlantic County not to be working,” Van Drew said.
He said there is more focus on the weather “than ever before” and perhaps people are “softer than ever before.” He notes his staff reports to work no matter what the weather.
Employees declared “essential workers” do have to report in an emergency. Workers at state schools for the developmentally disabled in Cape May and Cumberland counties worked Wednesday. State prison workers are also essential.
Cape May County Freeholder Director Jerry Thornton said the county solved the problem more than 25 years ago by declaring all workers “essential.” This means they have to report to work and there are no salary perks. He said they are allowed to take a vacation or personal day if they want to stay home.
Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney, a retired state worker, did not second-guess the governor. With a storm coming, he said, the declaration protects the public by getting them off the roads and making it easier for emergency vehicles to operate. He noted it also makes it possible to collect FEMA reimbursements.
“I guess the governor is taking the tack, better safe than sorry,” said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson. “If he’s going to err, he’s going to err on the side of caution,”
Voll never did get a response to his emails, and the Governor’s Office did not return phone calls from The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday.
Contact Richard Degener:
Contact Braden Campbell: