How do you compare the governments of a tiny borough such as Tuckerton with a massive resort such as Atlantic City? Or the state’s smallest city, Corbin City, with the state’s largest township, Hamilton Township?
The state Department of Community Affairs sought to do that in August with an 88-question “best practices” survey it distributed to local governments, aiming to uniformly assess their management and services.
But municipal officials said it is impossible to devise one checklist for the state’s diverse 566 municipalities — and it is especially unfair to tie a small percentage of state aid to how well they score.
“I think everyone had the same reaction. The reaction was, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Teresa Delp, the part-time CFO in Cumberland County’s Stow Creek Township and Shiloh Borough. “Some of these places are run by two or three people. It was unbelievable that they would put us all on the same scale.”
The Press of Atlantic City reviewed the 65 completed surveys from local governments in its coverage area and found the responses reflected their wide variety of sizes, forms and personalities.
The “yes” and “no” questions are based on seven categories: general management, financial management, public safety, public works, health, energy and utilities, and municipal and school relations.
They range from topics covering shared services, to how budgets are prepared and the percentage of recyclables collected. And if governments do not check off enough “yes” boxes, they may lose aid money.
But in response to an initial wave of complaints, the state instructed governments to add an additional response column: “Not applicable.”
Stow Creek led in that category, with 41 “N/A” answers, followed by Shiloh, which had 40.
Other governments chose to check-off boxes for items they intend to do in the future.
Woodbine chose to answer “yes” to 22 questions about different services that it explains in an addendum will be implemented in 2011. Commercial Township wrote “Intend to” next to several questions it answered affirmatively.
In fact, the checklist itself spurred some officials to implement new services.
Weymouth Township is looking to upgrade its website to comply with features the checklist asks for, while Washington Township is building a website.
“We were going to do it sometime,” Washington Township Mayor Dudley Lewis said. “This just sped up the process.”
Different interpretations of the questions make it difficult to compare the lists, since many completed surveys have scribbled explanations in the margins and others have typed explanations attached.
On a purely numerical basis, Hammonton had the most “yes” answers with 82 of 88. Shiloh had the fewest with 16.
Deerfield Township answered “no” to the most questions — 46 — while North Wildwood answered “no” only twice, albeit with 11 “N/A” answers.
DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said the whole effort, which stemmed from Gov. Chris Christie’s “tool kit” aimed at making government more efficient, is an effort to gauge what municipalities are doing as well as incentivize better management and transparency.
The list was prepared by 25 mayors, administrators, CFOs and auditors from 17 different counties, Ryan said, and it will be revised in future years.
The department is currently reviewing the responses, which were submitted Oct. 1 for governments that budget on a calendar year. Municipalities working on a fiscal year must submit responses by April 1, so Millville, Bridgeton and Vineland have not turned in their surveys yet.
Ryan said the surveys will be judged using some discretion rather than a strict adherence to the number of responses in each column. Negative answers won’t count against governments, while not applicable questions may be excluded when computing the percentage of aid to be distributed.
And even if governments answered “no” to every question, they would only lose 5 percent of their aid, she said. There is a scale based on the number of “yes” answers, with 76 such responses and above meriting 100 percent of aid.
But several governments challenged the whole idea, calling it just another way for the state to take away aid.
“The state is not giving us nearly as much as they collected in state aid on our behalf,” said Absecon City Council President Evelyn Caterson. “We’re doing this for them to give us back our own money.”
Caterson’s administration attached a resolution to its response, listing the amount of aid it has already lost and opposing the survey because it thought “many of the questions which Absecon must answer do not represent Absecon’s true status because of the way the question is phrased.”
Governments also noted that some of the reforms simply cost money they barely have.
“Unfortunately, implementing some items on the checklist are expenses the borough may have a tough time accommodating, especially considering the direct impact on the budget and tax levy CAPs,” wrote Tuckerton CFO Laura Giovene on her faxed response sheet.
Some government representatives said some of the ideas on the list have up-front costs that can prove to be good investments over time.
A comprehensive website, for example, can take time and money to set up, but can later save employees time distributing information.
“Normally, having everything on the Web is efficient because it cuts down on people coming in to see everything,” Hammonton Deputy Township Clerk April Maimone said.
But some officials still have questions from the process.
“My question to the state was, ‘Did they answer the questions themselves?’” Delp said. “I didn’t get an answer on that.”
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