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Heads should roll for this

[Update: 8/3/08- the press finally covered this story. See:
DEP’s lease program disorganized — but at what cost?
State loses money on leases
Star Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine recently correctly took me to task for not doing my homework before making inaccurate comments on his recent column. I was held accountable for and as a result quickly acknowledged my (minor) error. Case closed. Academics and science work in a similar fashion: peer review discloses errors – errors are then corrected.
But, I wish someone would do basic research on the issue of whether the threat to close State parks due to lack of money – and the recent diversion of beach replenishment funds to fill the funding gap – was even necessary. If my facts are accurate, current, and complete, someone has a lot of explaining to do.
Follow this brief chronology:
1. December 2005: I was asked to make recommendations to the Corzine Transition Team on environmental policy. One recommendation – based on prior OLS audits and internal DEP information provided to me – was to look for uncollected revenues in the DEP Office of Leases and Concessions. I provided documentation to Corzine’s staff to back this up.
2. February 2006: These recommendations were presented to the Assembly Budget Committee (see question #10, page 17 of this link:
3. April 2006: The Department was asked and provided written response to legislative questions on the FY 2006-2007 budget on leases and concessions revenues, specifically in response to Question #10 (page 17)
“Have any leases been renegotiated or back rent collected during the past year, and if so, how much more revenue is anticipated as a result of these actions in FY 2006 and FY 2007?”
DEP response to that question concluded:
“… we do not foresee the collection of back rent and the renegotiation of existing leases generating “millions” of dollars of revenue for the state.”

So, it looks like the end of the story about DEP leases and concessions, right?
WRONG. Lets get current.
4. April 21, 2008 – Anticipating the huge debate about closing the parks, I filed an Open Public Records Act request (OPRA) at DEP to get current data on collection of EXISTING leases and concessions revenues. I was blocked by DEP, who asserted OPRA loopholes and threatened to levy “extraordinary charges” for the information sought. Frustrated by the OPRA barriers and the DEP’s apparent failure to consider my Transition recommendations on leases and concession revenues, I released this:
NEW JERSEY PARKS LOSE MILLIONS IN UNCOLLECTED LEASE PAYMENTS — Park Closures Could Be Averted by Reaping Concessionaire and Easement Revenue
Trenton — Questionable deals to reduce or waive rental payments from private leases and concessions throughout New Jersey’s State Parks is costing taxpayers a bundle, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The state has ignored repeated warnings that it is forfeiting millions of dollars each year by failing to collect what is owed by easement-holders and concessionaires, including some of the state’s largest corporations.
5. May 11, 2008 – the NY Times reported a compromise that involved leases and concessions:
“[DEP Commissioner] Ms. Jackson said options for coming years include seeking money from private leases and concessions,…..”
A Reprieve for State Parks, but Not a Solution
6. May 12, 2008 – I wrote DEP Commissioner Jackson, outlined the above chronology, and asked this pointed question (never received a reply):
“I request that you update this [April 2006] testimony, as appropriate in light of current data and your May 11, 2008 NY Times statement. I ask that you specifically clarify the status of revenue collection and renegotiation of access easements across State park lands.”
7. June 30, 2008 – According to the Governor’s press release, Corzine signs legislation which “allows in FY2009 up to $9 million from “Shore Protection Fund” to be used to help defray State park and forest operation and maintenance costs; requires DEP to study State park and forest fee structure and revenue sources, and modify fees accordingly.”
While the term “and revenue soruces” is vague in the press release, a close reading of the bill he signed reveals that this includes EXACTLY the EXISTING (not NEW) easements, leases and concessions revenues that are uncollected! Section 4 directs DEP to::
(2) conduct a re-appraisal of the rents and fees charged for all
residences and other buildings and structures, and for utility
easements and right-of-ways, located on State park or forest lands
to ensure they reflect current fair market values
and will continue to
do so;

8. July 5, 2008 – The Gannett papers reported opposition by republican lawmakers regarding the diversion of beach replenishment funds to keep state parks open. According to that story:
“The bill allows for funding to be shifted for one year only; by year’s end, the DEP is supposed to complete a study of its park system and identify ways — such as higher admission and parking fees, new amenities or better collections of existing leases and easements — to use parks to fund parks.”
We know that DEP denied any problems in the Office of Leases and Concessions in April 2006, but did the Governor threaten to close parks with the full knowledge that DEP had not collected revenues or upgrades leases, easements, and concessions to reflect current market rates, as recommended by a series of prior OLS audits?
How did DEP get in so wrong in April 2006? How has DEP dodged accountability and suffered zero criticism for this?
How could Corzine have known this and threatened to close parks?
Will entrance and parking fees for people at State parks be increased while this corporate revenue goes uncollected?
Who will hold these folks accountable? I sure have tried.
And someone please correct me if I am wrong – I diligently tried to get current facts and asked the DEP Commissioner as well.

Categories: Hot topics, Policy watch, Politics, Taxes Tags:
  1. nohesitation
    July 6th, 2008 at 17:03 | #1

    Folks sometimes ask why I am so persistently critical – here is one of the better responses to that question I just came across:
    “Why I keep underlying bad news

    “But more importantly, this is about identifying causes and allocating responsibility for what’s happening today. The crises I have been describing are a direct – and in many cases, desired – result of political choices that have been imposed on us, and it is fundamentally important that the underlying ideology be (i) identified and (ii) blamed for what happened, rather than amorphous and uncontrollable things like “globalization” or “economic cycles.” There is a crime, there is a culprit, and there is a motive. ”

  2. JRacioppi
    July 6th, 2008 at 17:26 | #2

    I get that all the time; “you’re so negative”, blah blah blah; The truth hurts, but it should be told nevertheless; there is nothing worse than false optimism while the train is derailing;

  3. unprovincial
    July 6th, 2008 at 17:57 | #3

    They could also save some money by collapsing some of the layers and layers of mgmt at DEP and/or reducing the outrageous salaries some of them make, particularly those who got their jobs by who, not what, they know.
    I suspect Corzine wanted to close parks in order to make this budget as painful as possible, as suggested by all the political commentators, so that he can drag out his toll plan again. He also doesn’t seem to mind wasting taxpayer money fighting the court-ordered release of those emails to and from Carla Katz. There could be a lifeguard at a lot of state beaches for that coin.

  4. nohesitation
    July 7th, 2008 at 08:05 | #4

    unprovincial – good points on DEP management, but on the parks issue, you restate the conventional wisdom.
    But my point is: suppose Corzine didn’t know that revenues were uncollected and that he never had to announce parks closure?
    It is conceivable that information was withheld.
    Either the Office of Leases and Concessions withheld info from Commissioner Jackson (this would explain the April 2006 DEP budget testimony: no revenue avaialble).
    Or Jackson witheld it from Corzine.

  5. unprovincial
    July 7th, 2008 at 12:14 | #5

    Or it is possible that the bean counters are totally irresponsible and/or incompetent. The Site Remediation Program admitted to staff a few months ago that invoices to Responsible Parties had not been calculated or mailed for work done dating back to the 1980s! That was only because the Treasury had done an audit and found this out. And instead of hiring some good accountants, they continue to place people with no experience or training in accounting practices in the billing bureaus in order to create positions for people who got tired of technical work and/or want a fast-track to a higher mgmt position. In other words, the people that can’t do their jobs get rewarded by being placed in a position with more responsibility, not less. No wonder things are screwed up.

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