Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Friends of Donna C.

Friends of Donna C. Foundation
84 Idolstone Lane
Aberdeen, NJ 07747
EIN # 27-1047919

To whom it may concern:

I'm writing on behalf of the Friends of Donna C. Foundation. Our group is a non-profit organization raising funds for Donna Calicchio and her family. Donna is a long time resident of Aberdeen, NJ. She is a loving mother, devoted wife, and thoughtful friend. Three months ago, Donna suffered a brain aneurysm. She has been in the hospital since then and has had multiple brain surgeries. Although she has shown signs of recovery, she has also had major setbacks. As of late, her husband, Tony, has found out that their health insurance reached its maximum and will no longer cover the medical expenses. Since Donna's traumatic injury, Tony has not been able to return to work full-time. He has he been daily by Donna's side and is caring for their 10-year old daughter. We need to raise funds to help relieve some of the monetary burden that the Calicchio family will be encountering in the weeks, months, and years to come. We are working hard to raise these funds.

We need your help with our upcoming auction on December 6th, 2009, to benefit the Friends of Donna C. Foundation. We need items we can offer as prizes for our auction. We'd appreciate a donation of any value to help us achieve our goal for this fundraiser, which is $20,000.

Your generous donation will be publicly acknowledged at our event through promotional announcements, fliers and a prominent note in our program. We feel that your business will benefit from the community goodwill generated by your kind donation to our group.

To learn more about our group or our event, please contact Michael Donohue, Treasurer, at 732-547-3872 or 732-970-3066, or the contact information listed below.

Thank your for your consideration of our request, and we look forward to hearing from you in the near future.


Jenny Cox
Volunteer, Chairperson
27 Fierro Avenue
Matawan, NJ 07747

PS - So that we may better plan our event, would you kindly let us how your decision by November 15,2009. Thank you.
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Clarification on the School District's Stimulus Funds

At last night’s meeting, Dr. O’Malley clarified the details swirling around the use of the stimulus funds for balancing the budget and funding the RTI program.

Last March, the state informed the Matawan-Aberdeen school district that funding would be flat. Dr. O’Malley then presented a zero tax-levy increase budget based upon the state’s assurance that state funding would remain at the prior year’s level.

In September, the state informed the school district that federal stimulus money had been used to fund the state’s obligations to the school district. The federal government was now requiring a report as to how many jobs were “created or saved” through the use of the federal stimulus funds.

Dr. O’Malley recommended we report to the state that the funds were used to “save” the RTI teaching positions.

Moving forward, however, Dr. O’Malley does not expect that funding will be available next year. That means we’re likely looking at a $1.7 million revenue shortfall for next year.

Next month, the district will provide a review of the RTI program. Undoubtedly, a $1.7 million revenue shortfall will entail program cuts somewhere or everywhere.
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What Would Joey Do

For the three or four people out there who are wondering what I would do if I were mayor of Aberdeen (not that I ever will be), these would be my plans:

Property Taxes – There are only two ways to cut property taxes – cut spending and increase revenue. For those property owners who have fallen behind in their payments, the tax collector should be authorized to contact and negotiate payment plans just like IRS agents before people get hit with huge interest charges. This year, 100 properties are likely going to tax sale, most for small amounts. (Hat tip to AberdeenNJlife)

Payroll Cuts – Offer every municipal employee the opportunity to purchase up to 2 weeks vacation time. In the private sector, this is considered a huge perk and it’s far more amenable than mandatory furloughs.

Professional Services – Establish a threshold above which the town is required to issue an RFQ – request for quote. The township is not required to accept the lowest bid but all bidders will feel pressured to offer competitive pricing.

Shared Services – Pursue shared services with neighboring municipalities, particularly in police services and sanitation. If Matawan isn’t interested, check with the other neighboring towns.

Township Engineer – It makes no sense that the person charged with ensuring all engineering projects are cost effective earns more as those projects become less cost effective. Bar the township engineer from directly participating in any engineering projects.

Better Financial Planning – We’ve been spending down our reserves by going over budget. Why are we going over budget? The township first discussed changing healthcare plans in 2008. Why the delay? We borrowed money to conduct the revaluations so far in advance that much of the loan was paid back before we ever paid for the revaluations. Why?

Legal Fees – The school board hosts a committee meeting about two weeks prior to the action meeting to give board members and the public the opportunity to review and comment upon action items. The school board has also ended the practice of having an attorney present when no action will be taken, meaning nearly all the committee meetings. The town council could adopt the same practice in place of the current schedule of workshop meetings preceding regular meetings that same night. Doing so would be better governance and cut several thousands of dollars of legal fees.

The town council should also avoid pursuing legal action when there’s little chance of success.

Land Development – I would aggressively pursue commercial development through massive tax giveaways that gradually disappear over a ten-year period using the PILOT program. Any tax revenue we’d generate in the meantime is more than we’re getting now and without the tax giveaways we’re unlikely to see any near-term commercial developments. As for residential development, I would not grant variances to any residential development that does not “pay down” our existing COAH obligations. The costs of COAH are too high to justify residential development.

COAH – Nobody wants “the projects” built in their neighborhoods. The argument that these homes will go to cops, teachers, and other public workers is nonsense. Most young couples have dual incomes. Plus, there’s a waiting list to get these homes and, by the time a name is called, cops and teachers would likely be earning above the income limits. I would not provide any variances to any development seeking to fulfill a “projected” COAH obligation. In the meantime, let’s see what the courts say about current lawsuits objecting to the new COAH regulations before approving any new COAH developments.

Assessments – This is one of my old ideas that may not be viable. The township has a lot of discretion when to reassess a property. I would allow property owners to schedule their properties assessments so long as they do so once every ten years and the classification of the property hasn’t changed. That way, we’d reduce the tax penalty for improving one’s property and provide a new revenue source by charging a fee for the reassessment. We could also use the service to provide property appraisals for homeowners seeking to re-finance their properties. Since we’d have continuous rolling assessments, we should be able to avoid the costs of town-wide property revaluations.

Merger – I still support merging Aberdeen and Matawan. The opportunities to cut costs, develop Main St. and the transit village, and petition Trenton for increased funding outweigh the risks.

Grants Writer – Share the expense of a full-time grants writer with Matawan and the school district to pursue public and private grants. A one-year trial period would be worthwhile. (This idea was originally proposed by Ken Aitken.)

Newsletter – Have the township newsletter published and promoted by an independent company that can attract paid advertising.

Naming Opportunities – Similar to the highway programs, allow companies and individuals to sponsor public areas and assume the maintenance expenses. We can also lease the naming rights to parks and fields.

Votes – As a school board member, I have abstained from voting on the addition of a friend to the district’s substitute list. Gambino and Delaney recused themselves from appointing someone who worked for the New Jersey Department of Education. Yet, our councilmen brazenly vote to give million dollar appointments to their biggest contributor. I would bar any councilman from participating in any way as regards a person or company with whom he as a strong relationship.

Appointments – All appointments should be made upon the recommendation of the town manager. The town manager should also be tasked with ensuring the township receives at least three qualified applications for each appointment.

Candidate Debates – The school district sponsors a televised debate among the candidates, moderated by the league of women voters. By contrast, immediately following the Republicans announcing a Meet the Candidates Night, the Democrats scheduled a last-minute H1N1 presentation to starve the Republicans of any news coverage. (Hat tip to AberdeenNJlife again) The town council should adopt the school district's policy of sponsoring a televised debate among candidates.

Public Meetings – Public meetings should be televised and their minutes posted in a timely manner.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

School Board Goals

Like a turtle in mad pursuit, the school board has finally settled upon its first three goals. Although the final language won’t be set until the minutes are approved, they go something like this –

  • From 3rd grade through high school graduation, all students will be proficient in reading and writing
  • Each class will have an increasing percentage of students who are proficient and advance proficient on the state exams to the point the graduating classes will be on par with the I-districts (communities with a higher socio-economic status)
  • Future school budgets will not hike taxes beyond 2% a year
As is usually the case with setting goals, each one is better than nothing but not quite perfect.

The first goal was explained by school board member, Dr. Delaney. Prior to 3rd grade, students learn to read. After 3rd grade, students read to learn. Statistics show that students who don’t achieve reading proficiency by 3rd grade are at the highest risk of falling behind in later years. Therefore, we have an imperative to ensure that all kids are reading by the 3rd grade. Then, once they’re reading, we want to make sure they keep reading.

I requested, and the board agreed, that we include writing as well. Writing is one of the components of the state’s Language Arts Literacy exams and one of the most egregious weak points in our students’ educations. We’ve encouraged the administration to begin stressing writing skills across curriculums wherever appropriate but particularly in English, history, and the social sciences.

The problem with the goal is that we’re aligning our metrics with the state exams. I don’t think anybody considers the state exams as the ideal metric but it was one the board could readily agree upon without too much discussion.

Using state exams as a metric for the higher grades creates the additional problem that the exams only test for English, math, and science and the material they test doesn’t necessarily encompass the skills and knowledge we want our children to acquire. However, the state exams and the SATs are the only broad based means by which we can compare ourselves to other districts. Since the SATs are only for high school, the state exams became our only metric for cross-district comparisons.

The budget goal was purely the result of compromise. One view, espoused by board member Ruprecht, was the board should refrain from setting a cap lower than the 4% state mandated cap. He argued that setting a lower cap would distort the superintendent’s priorities, such as education and long-term facility planning.

I argued the board cannot impose a tax increase on the community during a recession. Whatever needs to be cut, however worthwhile it is, will have to be cut.

O’Connell believed a 0% percent tax increase would require draconian cuts to school programs and services. He suggested we take the middle road of 2%. For the purpose of reaching a consensus, the board adopted his suggestion.

At the upcoming meetings, the board will discuss additional goals though it’s expected to limit the number of total goals to a half-dozen or so.

On October 27th, the board’s Mission and Vision Committee (open to the public), chaired by Dr. Gambino, will be considering final revisions to its proposed mission and vision statements. The current proposals are –

Possible Mission Statement:
  • The Matawan-Aberdeen School District’s mission is to equip (teach) our students with the knowledge and skills that will empower them to reach their potential and become engaged members of a global society
  • The Matawan-Aberdeen School District’s mission is to equip (teach) students with the knowledge and skills that will empower them to reach their potential and become engaged members of a global society in a respectful manner
  • The Matawan-Aberdeen School District’s mission is to equip (teach) students with the tools and skills to lead productive lives and become engaged members of a global society
  • To empower, inspire and encourage all students to become active learners and reach their fullest potential
Possible Vision Statement:
  • Every student of the Matawan-Aberdeen School District will be afforded the opportunity to become a compassionate, creative and knowledgeable problem solver through a comprehensive and effective education
  • Upon graduating the Matawan-Aberdeen School District, every child will be a critical thinker, problem solver, explorer, creator and informed (knowledgeable) member of society
  • Every graduate of the Matawan-Aberdeen School District will be a compassionate, creative and knowledgeable problem solver
  • All students of the Matawan-Aberdeen School District will be compassionate, creative and knowledgeable problem solvers via a thorough and effective education
My personal preference remains –
Mission: To build scholars and leaders
Vision: Every graduate will make us proud

Perhaps there’s still time for my suggestions to reach the final cut.

(I have refrained from pursuing performance metrics for the superintendent until the board has finalized its goals. However, I have shared my plans with the superintendent and business administrator in private.)

Regarding the budget, there are two more programs that are facing heightened scrutiny. Last year, the state approved $2.6 million (40% share) for specific capital programs on the condition that we match the funding with $3.9 million (60% share). However, we only have $1.3 million in our capital reserve fund and would need to bond for the rest. The cost of putting a bonding referendum to the voters (legal fees and election costs) would be a little under $25,000. Passing a referendum requires 60% of the vote. If we don’t bond, we’ll be walking away from $1.7 million in state funding for capital projects that need to be done (though not right now) and at a time when interest rates are still at historical lows. Given the recession, the board will likely decline hosting a referendum absent a public show of support.

The other item is the district’s Response to Intervention program. For nearly two years, I’ve been asking to see the data justifying this program. Last year, I sharply criticized the board for sponsoring a program that lacked any goals, any objective criteria, and any data that children were being helped. Dr. O’Malley has agreed to present the data next month but this time there are two differences.

I and many board members were under the impression the district was spending $600,000 a year on the program. Actually, that number represented a state grant that only partially funded the program. The true cost is over $2 million including salaries, benefits, and indirect expenses. (Cutting the program would likely only save $1.5 million since senior teachers in the program would displace junior teachers in the regular programs.)

The other change is that the district’s state funding was cut $1.7 million. That money was supplanted by the federal stimulus program. If the money isn’t found next year, just maintaining the program, to the exclusion of all other cost increases, would require a 4% tax increase.

On a final note, the board discussed crafting new policies related to personnel and presenting controversial topics. However, I believe there is a growing consensus that 2,000 pages of policies and regulations is too much and that the board needs to begin reducing, not increasing, that number.

Like the turtle, consistently moving forward will ultimately win the day. Still, I’d rather go fast. Our students don’t have the luxury of time.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Mark Coren, Say It Ain’t So (Again)

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More Politics as Usual

This was to be the year of change. All of Aberdeen’s incumbent representatives, from the school board to town hall, had chosen to not seek re-election. The township had ended the past practice of special land deals and the Democratic Party stopped paying “consulting fees” to a sitting councilman. There was a proposed ordinance to limit pay-to-play. Then the Democratic Party nominated two outstanding gentlemen, Councilman Tagliarini and Public Works Director Jimmy Lauro, both longtime residents with stellar reputations and a deep history of community service.

That was then. This is now.

Bill Shenton, the titular chief of the Aberdeen Democratic Executive Committee is also Aberdeen’s Planning Board Chairman. It should be no surprise then that all four democratic candidates have also served on the planning board, including Cannon and Montone whose recent appointments were likely made to buff their resumes prior to running for the town council.

Shenton has also gone neck deep into pay-to-play. Rather than run as one group, the four democrats are running as separate candidates to circumvent campaign contribution disclosure requirements. Look closely – except for Lauro, who can’t accept CME money directly, they’ve all collected the identical amounts. That means each contributor had to write 3 or 4 checks, each check for either $100, $200, or $300. These are not small contributions from local residents.

Between the individual candidates and the local party, we’re talking about $40,000 for this campaign. We pay CME over a million dollars a year. Ever wonder why none of the other major engineering firms compete for our business? Ever wonder why none of our professional appointments ever face real competition? Now you know.

This week’s Independent quotes Councilman Tagliarini as saying “The 2009 budget is $577,000 less than 2008, a 4 percent decrease in spending.” How Orwellian. Not funding an under funded pension is called a “decrease in spending”. That’s like charging everything to your credit card, making only the minimum payments, and then crowing about a “decrease in spending”. That is, until the bill comes due.

Last week, Greg Cannon, the youngest and web savviest of the candidates, launched AberdeenDemocrats.com. The launch coincided with the township’s newsletter touting the democratic candidates. On the website, the Democrats claim a commitment to “sound financial management”. A two-year tax increase of 16% during a recession and under funding a pension is "sound financial management"?

Then there’s this beauty – “It is paramount that Aberdeen's state-mandated COAH obligations be fairly distributed throughout the municipality, without concentrating them in any one area of town.” Is that what they call 132 COAH units in Cliffwood and 90 COAH units on Church St.?

”Finally, and most importantly, our candidates . . . pledge to keep residents informed and aware of the issues facing them.”

You’ve got to be kidding. Until last week, the township had not posted any town council minutes since January. As for the planning and zoning boards, those minutes have never been posted. As a school board member, whose responsibility includes oversight of Huskievision, our only local television channel, I had no idea the township was negotiating a 10-year contract with Cablevision.

As for the just released minutes, here are a couple of doosies.

2007’s financial audit wasn’t presented until January, 2009. The findings include:
“One item has a significant deficiency – fixed assets. The current fund had a slight decrease in surplus . . . collection rate was 98 ½ %. Water and sewer funds are self liquidating. Both funds need to be monitored. The comments and recommendations of the 2007 Audit are Fixed Assets has not been updated since 2003, Corrective Action Plan states CFO will reconcile by May, 2009. Several bank reconciliations were not in agreement with the general ledger, CFO states she will make changes in the preparation of bank reconciliations and she will be responsible for the monitoring. General capital fund reflects negative cash balances, which means you spent money you haven't raised.”

But not to worry because “Compared to other municipalities the Township does an excellent job.” Hey, you want to be auditor, this is what you gotta say or they’ll find someone who will.

In February, CME recommended “an increase of $382,125.50 for the storm drainage improvements and road reconstruction of Idlewild Lane for a revised Contract amount of $2,325,069.07.” Are these projects ever completed under budget?

In March, we had the following scenario –
Councilman Tagliarini made a motion to adjourn to executive session, seconded by Councilman Drapkin and unanimously concurred by Council.
The meeting reconvened with the same members in attendance except Councilman Drapkin.
Councilman Raymond made a motion to introduce Resolution No. 2009-53, Appointing Silver Oaks as Redeveloper for the Aberdeen Commerce and Transportation Center Development, and move its adoption. Seconded by Deputy Mayor Gumbs.

So, an executive session for the special purpose of reappointing a convicted felon who cost Matawan hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills to be the redeveloper for the transit village.

Then there’s this cute quote from May. – “Councilman Vinci asked are the [library board] members we appoint to the board looking out for Aberdeen.” No comment.

As for the Anchor Glass development – “Mr. Criscuolo stated Anchor Glass is being used as a warehouse. Approximately, 30,000 watermelons were stored in Anchor Glass, and 10,000 began to rot. They were issued notices of violation. We have been watching them very closely.” Yeah, real close.

And this little tidbit in July – “Councilman Perry stated for 7 years, 7 months he was under the assumption that anything that came before Council passed through legal review and that is not the case.“

They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. Tagliarini and Lauro are both good men. I fervently hope they remain good men.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Aberdeen’s September

As the self-proclaimed “second-most hated man in Aberdeen”, I have a pretty thick skin. But the one criticism that really goads me is the claim that you can’t believe anything on this blog because it’s all hearsay, fiction, or lies. Considering the vast documentation on this site of egregious improprieties, an incredulous volume that belies the size of our tiny hamlet, one would have hoped for shock, dismay, and a demand for answers. Instead, defenders of the status quo have chosen to denigrate this blog. And, to a large extent, they have succeeded.

(Note: All of the below quotes are taken from Winston Churchill, a great man who was frequently vilified for being right.)

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

During the past several months, I have refrained from investigative reporting to dedicate more time to my position on the school board. However, I never imagined that in just six months people would forget the allegations, the evidence, the pure chicanery that betrays the very premise of clean government.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

So, for everybody who’s forgotten what this upcoming election is all about, I’ve chosen to review last month, September, just a single month, as a sample of what happens in our town.

“The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.”

In September, the township balanced its budget during a recession by increasing taxes, taking “surplus funds” from the library, and suspending payments to the pension fund. The township then postponed discussions of building Section 8 housing on County Rd. until after the election.

Also in September, Councilman Vinci opened a new home equity line of credit for $242,000. That, by itself, is of no consequence but the number itself is peculiar. According to the latest property assessment, his property is worth over $350,000. Why not ask for a line of $245,000 or $25000? Why $242,000? Well, by coincidence, his prior assessment valued his house at $246,000 (using an equalization factor of .37). Why did his assessment increase so dramatically? Because the prior assessment didn’t include the 8,688 sq. feet of property he purchased from the state and township for the grand price of $2.

It could all be a coincidence but, if I was planning to subdivide my property, I would only take a line for the portion that wouldn’t be separated, just like Councilman Vinci did.

It’s too bad the rest of us can’t get those great land deals. On September 15th, Donald McMahon, a resident of Cliffwood Beach, purchased 3,460 sq. feet of land from the township. Like Vinci’s situation, the land was unused, vacant, and adjacent to his property. Unlike Vinci, McMahon had to pay $15,000.

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

John Samaha of Samaha Farms also has to deal with the township on occasion. Earlier this year, he requested permission to join lots so that his property could meet the 5-acre farmland requirement. As part of the resolution, he was asked to sacrifice 2,836 sq. feet for a road improvement program. Last month, the township paid him $1 for the land. (Note: The argument's been made that Samaha voluntarily agreed to the deal, he greatly benefited from the lot consolidation, and it is therefore inappropriate for me to claim he was victimized.)

By contrast, the county needed to buy two small parcels of land at the Lloyd Rd.-Rt.34 intersection to add some turn lanes. The county paid $36,300 in September.

Another interesting real estate purchase in September was from Matawan Borough Councilman Cannon. Looks like he’s moving back to Aberdeen, again, which would explain his decision to not seek re-election. The interesting part, though, is that he was able to purchase the property with only a $5,000 down payment. He probably used the same mortgage broker as his son, Gregory Cannon, democratic candidate for township council, who only made a $4,000 deposit on his property. It’s good to know such loan conditions are still available.

”There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true.”

I don’t print everything I know. Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt. Other times, I trust the source but can’t find supporting documentation. That doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen. When I read anonymous comments, I often pursue the stories and many times I find them to be true but I can’t get the documentation without jeopardizing my sources. There’s so much that can be proven, I don’t need these other stories to justify my case – that we, the community of Aberdeen, have been done dirty by those we elected to represent us.

”Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

I and most of the readers on this blog are so critical, so vehement in our opposition to corruption, because we love this town. We’re angry and we’re loud because we know clean, competent, and limited government is the best hope for our community’s future. I am not always right but, the next time you hear someone criticize this blog, ask yourself this – Is the Aberdeener right at least half the time and isn’t that enough to prove his point?
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