State Comptroller Shines Light on Money Trails From State Coffers through Counties to NJ Towns

When New Jersey receives its share of the Federal Stimulus Spending that was approved by Washington in February the office of the state comptroller will be overseeing how $17 Billion will be spent. Matthew Boxer’s office has been quite busy recently, for those who don’t know, Boxer is the “Independent” New Jersey State Comptroller. His office, according to the website, is an independent office created to bring greater efficiency and transparency to the operation of all levels of NJ’s government. Actually his office does audits, performance reviews and examinations of government contracts. Heaven knows we could certainly use more transparency around these parts.

Created by Governor Corzine in 2008 Boxer’s people have been snooping around some rather interesting places, to include the finances of the Township of Irvington. It seems that Irvington has not balanced their books since 2000, perhaps they figured Y2K would create so much confusion that no one would notice, however that not being the case, the request to check them out came from several quarters to include the Dept. of Community Affairs. As it turned out everywhere they checked the controller’s office found discrepincies one of the most amazing aspects of the audit was that Senior Finance officials of the township didn’t know how many bank accounts the township actually maintained. The township said that they used 29 accounts to do the municipality’s business when actually Boxers people found that there were more like 35 active bank accounts. In fiscal year 2007, Irvington spent federal grant funds of $4.5 million and state grant funds of $2.9 million, and received additional state aid in excess of $11 million. Certainly not chump change perhaps the state needs to step in and protect our interests as they have been attempting to do in Camden, whoops I forgot that plan hasn’t exactly proved to be very successful.

And speaking of grants, in the later quarter of 2008 Boxer’s office conducted an audit of the agency “The Governors Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse” or GCADA. The agency, it was found, has been giving out $10 millions in grant monies annually without the proper reviews. GCADA grants actually drift down to the municipalities thru the counties coffers to fund drug awareness and educational programs managed by the local Municipal Alliances. Results of the comptrollers 26 pg audit of the agency, available here found them to be overstaffed and still failing to meet the agency’s basic responsibilities. Boxer’s audit was the first that the agency had undergone since it’s inception in 1989.

The following is an excerpt from the comptroller’s Press Release of December 4, 2008 and is only a sampling of what the audit uncovered.

GCADA does not know if the programs it funds produce positive results

o The audit found GCADA has no mechanism in place to assure that funded programs produce tangible results. Among the activities funded by GCADA were $2,500 for petting zoos and pony rides that were categorized as consulting and supplies and $2,425 for a fun house, walk-around characters, tattoos and balloon art at a community day event. Another expenditure was for a monthly “rent expense” totaling $2,700 for grant year 2007. The checks were paid directly to the municipal coordinator and sent to her residential address. There was no documentation justifying the expense.

o One Municipal Alliance used grant monies to pay for fruit baskets that were delivered to the Alliance members even though these expenditures were not related to a GCADA-approved program.

At the state level two State Alliance coordinators are employed by GCADA to monitor the grant awards. The grants are managed at the county level by “County Coordinators” and at the municipal level by “Municipal Coordinators”. In Union County there are 19 Municipal Alliances and the grants for 2008 totaled $609,657, according to the controllers report. Annually a letter of agreement is executed between the GCADA and the counties stating that the state is responsible for the fiscal and programmatic monitoring of the counties and a similar letter is executed between the counties and their Municipal Alliances. To test adherence to program guidelines the State Comptroller’s office included visits to four counties to review documentation that was to support program expenditures through to the local level.

Results were disappointing to say the least:

At the municipal level, Municipal Alliance Coordinators are responsible for grant administration including the submission of documents to support the costs of programs…..Coordinators are allowed to act as paid program consultants who are hired by Alliances to conduct drug and alcohol prevention programs. The identification of coordinators and consultants is not tracked by GCADA….time and activity reports are not required. Since coordinators and consultants are paid out of grant funds without this documentation, there is the increased risk of duplicative payments by GCADA

(Readers can get the full picture by visiting the controller’s website and reviewing the press releases and audit reports which appear on line.)

What can be viewed as especially interesting is that though the GCADA said that the findings of the comptroller’s office were not true they did not offer any evidence in their response to dispute the findings but rather confirmation of the steps that they were taking to comply with those recommendations that the comptroller made. The comptroller’s office released not only its findings but also its recommendations and is charged by statue to monitor the implementation of their recommendations which in this case includes the consolidation of the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, GCADA, with the Dept. of Human Services Division of Addiction Services. After reading the report perhaps this consolidation is a good idea.

One thing the report did was to direct some attention to the local level. In one municipality the mayor’s wife is the chairwoman of that Municipal Alliance. It appears that in exchange for running a couple of luncheons and securing some printed materials she receives payment from the grant funds totaling $5,000 which is more than twice what her husband receives for serving as the town’s mayor. When this was pointed out at a public meeting by an activist the local newspaper reported that the mayor disagreed that it was unethical or that the fee was excessive. He replied that paying a coordinator is not new and that in the past another woman ran the Municipal Alliance for many years and when she stepped down his wife and another person volunteered to take over. Now his wife runs the Alliance alone, so with that said it appears that because someone was paid in the past his wife’s $5,000 is justified now. Who knows, but it certainly does appear that no one has been keeping a watchful eye on these programs until the comptroller’s audit.

The Independent State Comptroller’s Office under the direction of Matthew Boxer has its work cut out for it as it oversees the stimulus monies especially, since it has been reported that there will be no additional staff added to the 55 employees who are already doing an admirable job. Boxer has been quoted in the news as saying that when the opportunity is ripe, as it is now, for someone to do something inappropriate there is always someone who is going to do something inappropriate and his staff is committed to ensure that every penny goes where it is intended to. Let’s hope he is right.

State Comptroller Shines Light on Money Trails From State Coffers through Counties to NJ Towns