It takes a politician to get a contract in Sussex County
In Sunday's New Jersey Herald, reporter Rob Jennings gives us another example of the network that controls how the taxpayer-financed public pie gets cut up in Sussex County. The network is made up of politicians and former politicians, professional vendors and their PACs, corporations and business owners and it has made it almost impossible to secure anything in the way of a public contract without the say-so of the network.
Jenning's story deals with Sussex Borough's water and sewer utility and the corporation that wants to purchase it. The corporation hired a former Republican State Senator from Southern New Jersey to be its deal maker. According to the Herald, the former Senator, Nick Asselta, has a local face in Debra Nicholson -- a Republican lawyer and one-time candidate for selection as County Prosecutor. The one bright spot is that whether or not Sussex Borough sells to Aqua New Jersey will be impacted by a referendum this November.
It seems like a company just can't be judged anymore based on the work it does or the product it provides. These days companies must hire a politician to make its pitch for government to be interested. How did we get here? We saw it over the summer when it came out that an engineering firm had hired a Trustee of Sussex County Community College (SCCC) who later violated ethics rules by voting on a contract that involved the firm that hired him.
This past summer also saw municipalities jumping at the promise of lower energy rates offered by a third-party energy provider called the Passaic County Energy Pricing Cooperative System (PCEPCS). PCEPCS is managed by Concord Energy Services, a division of Concord Engineering and its local face is local Republican big-wig Wendy Molner, who ran Freeholder Phil Crabb's primary effort. While some officials in Passaic County have expressed reservations, Sussex County hasn't hesitated to sign up. Is this why companies hire county lobbyists?
Unlike those who lobby the state government, county lobbyists are not regulated in New Jersey. They don't fill out disclosure forms, so there is no transparency about what they earn or spend in order to sway county and local governments.
Look at the situation in Newton to see what happens when government can't think clearly for the conflicts of interest. A large for-profit corporation had a cozy relationship with the council, hired a now former Freeholder's wife, and had a posse of county lobbyists in its corner. It got a great tax abatement deal that wipes away its school property tax bill for decades. Now the town is so broke it is asking non-profit organizations to pay property taxes that they are not legally obliged to pay. So if you make money you don't have to pay, but if you are non-profit profit you do?
Ultimately, taxpayers pay twice. First, they pay for the bad decisions made when governments are influenced by "it's who you know" county lobbyists. Second, the actual cost of hiring the county lobbyist and what he or she spends to influence government gets passed on to property taxpayers once the contract is signed.
Why can't businesses be allowed to play it straight? Why can't they let examples of their work speak for itself? County and local governments should refuse to meet with county lobbyists, many of whom have no experience in or academic knowledge of the products or services they are trying to sell. They are not experts, they act more like "goodfellas".