Friday, April 26, 2019

"Managing" Expectations

“Managing” Expectations

When the announcement of my first blog article was posted on the Township website it said that it would be a “weekly” blog. What???!!!  Sadly, the person who posted that albatrossian (new word) burden is no longer with the Township.  I’m kidding of course.  Anyway, to be clear, I will have a weekly blog but it just may not be every week!

I have given a lot of thought about what this article should be.  I was thinking about discussing the Township’s tremendous sustainability efforts over the years or possibly trying to address the “marijuana” question from our community perspective.  But as I write this today, Friday April 26, 2019, it is the end of a very long week addressing citizens’ complaints on a variety of issues.  It is as if residents got together and had a secret meeting and agreed (NOTE: I’m not using the word “colluded”) to present their varied complaints during the week of April 22.

I really have no intention to make this article about a sympathy grab for me or to prompt positive comments of support.  I knew what I was getting into when I accepted this position (…actually, not really, but that’s another article).  But I thought this may be a good opportunity to set forth what my role is within the community and, in a broader context, what the municipal government provides to the community.

The statutory definition of the role of the Municipal Manager in our form of government (Council-Manager Form under the Faulkner Act) is described as follows:

1.       Chief Executive and Administrative Official of the Municipality and responsible for the day  to day operations of the municipal government;

2.       Appoint and remove all department heads and all other officers, subordinates, and assistants, except the tax assessor;

3.       Negotiate contracts on behalf of the municipality subject to the approval of the municipal council, make recommendations concerning the nature and location of municipal improvements, and execute municipal improvements as determined by the municipal council;

4.       Ensure that all terms and conditions imposed in favor of the municipality in any statue, public utility franchise or other contract are faithfully kept and performed, and upon knowledge of any violation call the same to the attention of council;

5.       Attend all meetings of the municipal council with the right to participate in discussions, but without the right to vote;

6.       Recommend to council for adoption measures as may be deemed necessary or expedient, keep the council advised of the financial condition of the municipality, make reports to the council as requested, and at least once a year make an annual report of his work for the benefit of council and the public;

7.       Investigate at any time the affairs of any officers or department of the municipality;

8.       Perform such other duties as may be required of the municipal manager by ordinance or resolution of the municipal council.

9.       Prepare and present the annual budget to the governing body;

10.   Manager shall be responsible to the council for carrying out all policies established by it and for the proper administration of all affairs of the municipality within the jurisdiction of the council.

Obviously, there is a lot to all of those items identified above.  But what it really means is that I serve our elected officials to ensure that their policies are carried out.  I serve the municipal employees by supporting them so that they can do their jobs to the best of their ability.  And I serve residents by ensuring that the municipal offices perform competently and in a fiscally responsible manner.  This, coupled with an “open door” policy to my office, leads to…let’s just say…..interactions from all fronts at all times.

I titled this article “Managing” Expectations because in a very real sense much of what I do involves trying to communicate effectively what can and can’t be done by the municipal government in addressing “community” issues or issues affecting a single resident.  Looking back over these past two years, I think most times I have been successful, but I will admit that there have been some fails too.

I had posted on FaceBook recently about what happens to me (inside) when a resident demands that I take action on any given item because “I pay taxes,” or when a frustrated resident asks “Why do I pay taxes then?” when I respond I can’t help them.   Since I have a captive audience, let me just get this off my chest now.

Yes, the Township of Lawrence mails out your tax bill.  Yes, the Township of Lawrence collects your tax bill.  These are truths that can’t be denied.  But many, many residents are surprised to find out that the municipal government, though responsible to send out the bills and collect the money, only receives and uses in its budget 20% of what you pay.  For example, if your tax bill is $8,000, the municipal government receives $1600.  The school receives 53% or $4,240 and the County receives 27% or $2,160.  Even more interesting, if someone fails to pay their tax bill, the municipal government must still pay the school and the county 100% of what they are owed and take the loss from its own budget.  Jiminy Cricket!!!  (I was challenged by someone to get that term in an article….mission accomplished!).

For $1600 (which is close to the average amount paid), you get the following:  5 elected officials who pass laws, make general policies, supervise local government, and appropriate funds for various needs; professional management of community money; police protection 24/7; fire protection 24/7; paved roads cleared of snow and ice when needed; garbage pick-up, brush pick up (Ugh…that’s even painful to type at this point); parks and sports fields maintained, health services provided; recreational activities for both the young and the old; construction oversight to ensure homes and buildings are built safely; animal control; engineering and planning for projects within the community; licensing for animals (yes, it is important and needed for a safe community); election services so your voice can be counted in all local, county, state and federal elections. 

These are things off the top of my head.  I am sure if given the time or having the inclination, I could come up with much more.   But to be clear, when someone asks me in anger or frustration “what do I pay taxes for?”  I think of all of these things.  It’s more of a feeling because it is a momentary jolt to my insides when I hear the question and I have to continue with the conversation. 

I didn’t invent this system of government and, therefore, I take no credit for it.  But for the money, this Township provides an awful lot of services to its deserving taxpayers, and it has many dedicated employees working hard to meet their expectations.  The day-to-day challenge is to deliver these services in the best manner possible in a financially responsible way.  The additional challenge is to find any means possible to communicate to residents so their expectations of what their Town provides them are clear and reasonable (to a reasonably minded person).

The challenge and struggle to manage the expectations of our residents is real and daily.  To give you a sense of some of the issues that came up this week we were asked to fix: A neighbor’s American Flag is flying over the complainant’s property when the wind blows; A neighbor’s bush is overgrown and extending onto the complainant’s property which is causing a serious issue for their landscaper; A neighbor’s gutter is clogged and is effecting the complainant’s property when it rains; a resident has a swale on his property (not Township property) that is failing and wants the Township to repair it; many, many residents have called to explain their “special circumstance” as to why they can’t comply with the brush pick up policy and wanted an individualized response from our PW crew (try accommodating (in theory) 11, 400 special circumstances!);  or a classic from the past, a resident planned to clear his woods from brush and debris and called to reserve a PW crew for one or two days of work 

For every one of these complaints or requests for assistance, there are many that we can and should resolve in one way or another.  I often tell people that my first impulse is to say “Yes” to a request, and then consider it fully looking for the reason why it can’t be done.  If there is none, we have a happy resident.  If there is a reason why I can’t help, well responses run the spectrum from disappointed but respectful to outrage demanding that I be fired.   The easiest conversations I have with a resident is when I can say yes to the request.  The most satisfying, however, is when I have great conversation with a resident and explain why I can’t help and they understand and find a way to say thank you regardless.   I often send them a personal note in the mail thanking them, re-affirming that I empathize with their situation, and that it was nice to have spoken with them.  

A primary reason for me to use social media, post on the various community sites and do this blog is to better engage the residents.  To let them know that there are real people (our employees) working hard for them in our municipal offices.  And that decisions being made by our elected officials or by me are after careful deliberation and always in good faith for the best interests of the community.  You may not agree with the decisions or policies, and that is your right, but we need to make sure there is a basic understanding as to why decisions are being made.   It is also my hope that working to manage expectations will promote better relations between citizen and local government.   A man can dream……

CAVEAT:  I wrote this article from a first person point of view.  But to be fair, the Township’s department heads and front line employees are often the ones that handle the initial citizen complaints or inquiries before they reach my desk.  I am confident that the great majority of the time these interactions are handled to a satisfactory resolution by them, and I wanted to acknowledge and thank all of the employees for their professionalism and patience when those moments challenge them the most.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The "Pit Stop" site aka "Our Zombie Property Front and Center"

      The pressure to come out strong on my first blog is real.  So what sells better than a good Zombie movie?  Unfortunately, this Zombie doesn't just walk at night and feed on the living.  This one actually doesn't move, and is visible for all to see day or night.  And though it doesn't threaten to eat us as we pass by, it eats away at the soul of our community.  Yes, I just wrote that....very dramatic.

     The old commercial site at 1175 Lawrence Road known as the "Pit Stop" is the very definition of a "zombie property."  The only problem is that it is not tucked away in the corner of town down some industrial road. Rather, it is located right in the center of our town on our main street.  Some will argue that it is not the geographic center of our town, but emotionally it is because of where it is, how it looks and what it represents.

     When I was being interviewed by Mayor and Council for the position of Municipal Manager, we discussed this site along with several others that needed our attention.  I told them that, to me, this one is the most important project to address to improve our community (setting aside the Lawrence Shopping Center because it is privately owned by a company with a clear plan to revitalize it).  I know by making this statement many will challenge me with something that is more personal to their interests.  But I think I am on safe ground if majority rules.

      The problems with this site are complicated to say the least.  It is a site that is owned by a now defunct limited liability company whose principal member is now deceased.  Family members are handling the estate, but have no legal obligations to address any of the issues involved in this site.  There is no motivation to sell it because it currently has liens against it from the NJDEP for past remediation work and the Township for taxes owed close to $2 million.  The property, of course, is not worth anything near that amount.  Additionally, the site is still contaminated and requires extensive remediation work.

      So how can the Town get involved?  First, it can't foreclose upon the property and take over ownership because liens by the NJDEP are not extinguished in such a foreclosure action.  Leaving the amount of lien claimed, due and owing by the new owner (the Town).  In addition, if the Town would assume ownership, it assumes all responsibility for future environmental remediation costs.  I'm thinking the taxpayers would not be pleased with that obligation when we have so many other issues our taxes must address.

     To solve this problem, I contacted the deceased owner's family member and explained that the Town is motivated to improve this property.  Not surprisingly, he was interested in helping but deeply concerned that the estate (that has no real value) would incur further liabilities that may transfer to its heirs.  So the deal we struck was that if the Town (1) was able to convince the NJDEP to waive the liens it holds against the property, and the Town (2) eliminates the taxes owed, and the NJDEP (3) agrees to fund the complete clean-up of the site under the NJDEP Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF), the estate would (4) deed the site to the Town for $1.  His long, languishing problem is gone, and we get a clean property at virtually no cost to us.  He agreed in writing to do this.

     Our Municipal Engineer and I then met with representatives of the NJDEP, and began the application process for funding from HDSRF.  This required us to hire a site remediation firm to study the history of the site and perform testing on it to determine what the anticipated costs would be for tearing down the building and remediating the contamination.  This work was performed, and we submitted our completed application. This process took about a year to do.

      In several meetings with the NJDEP representatives, we have received very positive feedback that this is the type of site that they want to fund.  Our application was submitted approximately 8 months ago, and we have been told that a decision is imminent.   If we do receive the funding, the building comes down, the site is cleaned, the Town becomes the owner and, pursuant to the requirements of the grant, we must use the site as a passive park area.  We are good with that!

     I will end this by noting that there is a long, complicated history to many problem sites throughout our State and throughout our Town.  Our elected officials had the fortitude to charge me with addressing this issue.   There are many projects that our talented employees are working on right now that are designed to improve our community in some way.  You can't see this work that is being done, but it is.   When all of you drive by and see that site and wonder "What is going on here?" you know.   Let's all think good, positive thoughts while our application with the NJDEP is being considered!

My Deepest Apologies to Rich and Frankie and their families.

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