Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category

Heads should roll for this

July 6th, 2008 5 comments

[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:

October 16, 2007

June 7th, 2008 3 comments
Phillipsburg, NJ. October 16, 2007.
Categories: Hot topics, Policy watch, Politics, Taxes Tags:

Not Another War

June 6th, 2008 6 comments

Don’t let Bush Expand the War and Attack Iran

*** Apologies – NJ.Com took down the photos, which were originally published on my “NJ Voices” column at NJ.Com. I was able to save the text, but not the photos. What assholes.

Obama speaks at rally at Capitol in Harrisburg Pa. on April 19, 2008

Probe Called For In Clifton Toxic High School Fiasco

May 20th, 2008 3 comments

Inspector General Asked Why “Kiddie Kollege” Law Failed

DEP Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson

[Update. See: Board defends handling of Brighton school site
See also my letter of clarification:Download file
The purchase of a polluted former industrial site for conversion to a Clifton High School without environmental testing shows that legislation enacted last year in the wake of similar scandals from toxic-laden schools and day-care centers is not working, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER today asked New Jersey’s Inspector General to determine why anti-pollution rules were set aside by state and local environmental and educational officials.
The $11 million high school annex for 500 students in Passaic County is located in an old industrial site which used more than 50 types of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, arsenic, and a host of volatile organics. Despite this history, the school district did not perform a “due diligence” investigation into potential hazards before purchasing the property. In addition, according to an analysis of the Clifton case filed by PEER:
1) The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowed local construction to begin prior to certifying that the entire site required “no further action” to clean it up;
2) A stream running behind the property was not tested for contamination;
3) Soil samples were limited to only certain pollutants in selected locations;
4) the school district failed to notify the public and DEP about known toxic contamination of soil and groundwater at the sites; and
5) DEP expedited approvals at the behest of legislators and DEP Managers held private meetings that excluded concerned citizens.
“What is going on at the Clifton high school is precisely what the highly touted reforms enacted just a few months ago were supposed to prevent,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, referring to the “Kiddie Kollege” legislation, named after a day-care center was found to be operating in a mercury-laden former thermometer factory. “We want the Inspector General to look into this case, name names and hold responsible officials accountable; otherwise we can expect school construction debacles like this to recur on a regular basis.”
In a prior 2005 report, the Inspector General determined that New Jersey has spent nearly $330 million to purchase environmentally contaminated lands found by to be “patently unsuitable” for schools, including a radioactive former Manhattan Project facility in Union City and a Superfund site in Gloucester City. This latest experience in Clifton suggests that the underlying flaws in the school construction program remain unabated.
One aspect of the case PEER is asking the Inspector General to review is private meetings between elected officials who were promoting the project and top DEP officials. It is unclear whether DEP improperly expedited the school project in response to political pressure.
“The safety of a high school should not be hashed out behind closed doors with politicians without the parents present,” added Wolfe. “I am utterly amazed that New Jersey is still putting its children into facilities built on some of the nastiest toxic pits in the state.”

Read the PEER letter to the Inspector General
View the PEER analysis of problems with the Clifton high school
Look at e-mails about closed door meetings inside DEP
See the weaknesses in the school construction reforms enacted in 2007
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.

Memo to Jon -“Skin in the game”

April 30th, 2008 1 comment

Dear Jon:
I read in today’s paper that you are denying speculations about privatizing the parks – thanks a lot pal.
However, you did say you were considering privatization of Parks concessions (Governor denies plans to privatize state parks
Let me suggest that there are better alternatives – especially for the corporations that hold easements over state lands to – as you like to say – get some skin in the game.

See below. Be advised that this same information was presented to your Transition Team over 2 years ago, so someone’s got some explaining to do, no?
New Jersey Parks Lose Millions in Uncollected Lease Payments
Park Closures Could Be Averted by Reaping Concessionaire and Easement Revenue

TRENTON, NEW JERSEY – April 21 – 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.
Governor Jon Corzine has proposed to close several parks serving an estimated two million visitors each year and lay off 80 park workers in order to save the state roughly $4.5 million. Yet, the Governor’s people failed to consider the unutilized revenue potential of the system they are trying to collapse.
“Collecting rents is basic management 101, but that is a course our top folks evidently failed,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) analyst, noting that utilities, oil companies and other big corporate players are not paying current market rates for use of state lands, facilities and right-of-ways. “Our parks can no longer afford corporate welfare.”
Internal documents from DEP, the parent agency for the Division of Parks and Forestry, indicate that uncollected and subsidized rents are common throughout the system. Problems include lack of lease agreements, failure to collect owed rents, rent-free arrangements, and outdated decades-old leases:
Millions of dollars in lease revenue goes uncollected from major corporations granted use easements for transmission lines, pipelines and sewage lines across State Park lands;
In Six Mile Run and Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, for example, none of the agricultural tenants are paying any rent nor do they even have current leases; and
The parks Office of Leases and Concessions routinely signs off on “rent abatements” and other give-aways described by one former superintendent as “a scam”.
Over the past few years, Parks Supervisors repeatedly identified similar problems, but DEP management took no action. DEP also ignored a series of Office of Legislative Services Audit reports issued in 1997, 1999 and 2003 documenting a lack of internal financial controls needed to track lease payments owed.
“With parks facing shutdowns and visitors hit with higher entry and parking fees, it is past time to put our fiscal house in order,” added Wolfe. “Our parks are supposed to be free for the enjoyment of the public, not the concessionaires.”
Look at 2003 OLS Audit finding that DEP had not addressed prior reports of lost lease revenue
See the lease arrangements at one state park
Read e-mail describing Office of Leases and Concessions problems

Categories: Hot topics, Policy watch, Politics, Taxes Tags: