After scrutiny, Legislature looks to loosen compensation rules for some top county officials

The bill’s sponsor said Union County officials asked for the change after a state comptroller’s report criticized them for shielding pay changes from public view. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A Senate panel approved a bill Monday that would lower the bar for counties to set non-salary compensation for top officials, a move that comes months after a state comptroller’s report found Union County bigwigs received more than $400,000 in stipends and tuition reimbursements that were not properly approved.

The bill, which the Senate Urban and Community Affairs Committee approved in a 3-0 vote with abstentions from both the panel’s Republicans, would remove a requirement that compensation for county commissioners, department heads, and county executives or their equivalents be approved through ordinances. The bill would require ordinances only for annual salaries.

The proposal — which would touch Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, and Union counties — met with opposition from acting Comptroller Kevin Walsh and good government advocates who warned it would leave taxpayer dollars open to abuse.

“Whatever the intent of this bill was in a particular situation, in our view [it] opens a loophole you could drive a truck through, and this is not the kind of thing that should go unchecked,” said Maura Collinsgru, director of policy and advocacy at New Jersey Citizen Action.

We see this as an attempt to spend taxpayer dollars without adequate transparency, public oversight, or scrutiny.

– Lucy Del Gaudio, with the League of Women Voters of New Jersey

In New Jersey, ordinances are subject to stricter disclosure requirements than resolutions. Before an ordinance sees a vote, a county must provide at least one week’s notice, and no ordinance can be voted on until at least 10 days after its introduction.

Resolutions can be passed at the meeting of their introduction, and there’s no requirement they be made available — or even described — to the public in advance of a vote.

Bill sponsor Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) said Union County officials brought the matter to his attention.

“They just felt that this would be an easier way of doing it and it would also keep up with the salary guide,” said Stack, who praised Union County’s government.

The comptroller’s December report cited one Union County resolution that approved $120,000 in annual stipends for the county’s finance director, Bibi Taylor, yet the wording of the resolution only allowed the county to enter a memorandum of agreement with its improvement authority. It made no mention of providing extra compensation to Taylor.

Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Walsh urged lawmakers on Monday to amend the bill before advancing it.

“At minimum, the bonuses, the stipends — the things that go in the paycheck — those are the things that I would urge you to give a second thought to before moving this bill forward,” Walsh told the committee.

Though other counties face notice requirements on compensation-setting resolutions, no such requirement is levied on the six counties affected by the bill because state statute requires they set top officials’ compensation by ordinance.

“Taxpayers do not and should not distinguish stipends, bonuses, benefits, tuition reimbursements and other compensation from annual salaries,” said Lucy Del Gaudio, director of advocacy and organizing for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “We see this as an attempt to spend taxpayer dollars without adequate transparency, public oversight, or scrutiny.”

Officials from the New Jersey Association of Counties charged the bill would codify existing practice into law for the six counties organized under the Optional County Charter Law.

“The ordinance piece, for the past 50 years for the six counties that adopted the optional charter form of county government, has been to include just base salaries,” said John Donnadio, the association’s executive director.

Much of Donnadio’s testimony centered around attacks leveled at the comptroller, reairing complaints the group made in a letter to legislative leaders last month that urged the Legislature to hold hearings on whether the comptroller had outstripped his authority.

New Jersey counties have faced scrutiny from Walsh’s office in recent months.

Last month, a report from Walsh’s office said Essex County officials flouted federal, state, and local procurement rules in administering its $40 million vaccination program.

The county made 15 payments totaling $871,211 for which no invoices exist, the report says. At one point, the comptroller noted in the April report, the county made a duplicate $110,514.41 payment to a politically connected consulting firm then did not seek to recoup the full value of the erroneous payment.

In March, Walsh’s office released a report noting Hudson County repeatedly violated procurement laws when approving more than $50 million of prison health service contracts.

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