UNION COUNTY – Two years ago the non-profit Union County Alliance was receiving $322,125 a year from the county and doing little more than producing a 20-page newspaper twice a year that was heavily slanted towards the Democratic party and freeholder accomplishments. Has anything changed since then?
Although the UCA seemed to flounder in 2012, with only temporary leadership in place and basically nothing accomplished, this year that changed and so did the county’s approach to overseeing where those taxpayer dollars were going.
In 2011 when LocalSource reported that UCA president Michael Murray, who once was the county communications director, was earning $115,861 a year to produce two tab-sized newspapers published in the spring and fall but doing little else, it was apparent something was amiss.
Yet every year the county continued to award this 501-C4 independent non-profit organization more than $300,000 in taxpayer dollars without any safeguards in place to ensure the people working for the UCA were actually doing their job. The cry from the county was that the UCA was merely a “vendor” and it was not their responsibility to oversee how the money was spent.
Even after it became apparent Murray had not tackled any economic development projects in five years or embarked on long-range planning for the county, which was the goal of the UCA when it was founded in 1993, the county refused to comment or get involved.
Trying to uncover what was going on, though, was difficult.
Because organizations classified as non-profits are not required through the Open Public Records Act to provide financial or budget information, this made it almost impossible to gauge what the UCA was actually spending money on. Telephone calls and visits to the UCA also resulted in a dead end. In fact, there was little indication anyone was coming in to the UCA offices at 1275 Westfield Avenue in Rahway.
There also were inconsistencies when it came to the UCA’s financial records. LocalSource was able to obtain copies of the UCA’s 2009 tax return showing expenditures tallying close to a half-million dollars, including over $100,000 for conferences, meetings and conventions. Murray, who could not explain the expenditure, merely said the tax form was filed incorrectly and would be corrected.
However, he failed to explain how a “mistake” made in 2009 by an accountant on a tax form filed was just being discovered in 2011. When pressed, Murray also could not explain what economic development projects he undertook since taking on the job several years before. A few months later Murray resigned under pressure after being unable to explain these expenditures and the work he performed for them. Afterwards, the UCA “board,” comprised of members who told LocalSource they had not met in years, appointed a temporary president.
Eventually the county slashed the amount of money going to the UCA by close to a $100,000 when Chairman of the UCA Board, Mauro Checchio, was appointed as acting president.
The UCA had long been a political target for the Republicans, who accused the Democratic freeholders of funneling taxpayer dollars into the UCA. In 2005 the Union County Republicans went as far as to ask state officials to investigate whether the Democrats violated campaign finance law by not reporting several taxpayer-funded publications. It still remains unclear whether the state ever resolved this issue and calls to the state resulted in a dead end.
Last week LocalSource used the Open Public Records Act to obtain any and all documents the county drafted concerning the UCA. This included any contracts or documents sent to the county by the UCA. Although these documents were delayed slightly, when they were received it shed considerable light on how the county is handling the UCA at this point.
However, the UCA contract, which clearly protects the county from any liability, does not actually specifically lay out what the county expects from the UCA president. Confusing is why the contract, usually signed in January, was just signed Monday by county legal counsel Robert Barry and County Manager Al Faella after LocalSource requested a copy of the document. Usually this contract is drafted and signed in January.
According to the documents obtained by this newspaper, in February Checchio sent a letter to the county requesting they the enter into the same professional services contract with the UCA they have over the years. He also asked that the county award the UCA the $232,125 they were expecting to receive in early January.
Checchio maintained this funding would “allow the UCA to provide bi-partisan leadership and support for the continued economic advancement and growth of Union County.” It did not, however, indicate how the UCA expected to facilitate that promise.
Instead, Checchio merely handed over the same photocopied information Murray previously provided to the freeholder board. This included a UCA mission statement, background paragraph on how the UCA was formed and other general information that was not specific. Also provided, as requested by the county, was a proof of liability insurance and the UCA’s New Jersey business registration certificate.
Shortly after that everything changed. According to documentation from the county, not only did Geoffrey Perselay take over as UCA president, which LocalSource reported when it happened in April, but the county quietly changed how the $232,125 would be disbursed. Now this funding is paid out quarterly with the county demanding a detailed accounting of how taxpayer dollars were used before any more money is handed over the following quarter.
In April, Perselay sent the county a project report, requesting that the county provide a first quarter payment of $95,792.05, which is more than they would receive.
“This request is based on actual expenses incurred during the first quarter of 2013 and an advance request of projected expenses for the second quarter,” the UCA president explained.
According to information obtained using OPRA, Perselay is making around the same amount as Murray, or slightly less. Rent for the office is $3,150 a quarter, utilities $1,500 a quarter and “other expenses,” $12,000 for the first quarter, $10,000 for the second. Reports and publications in the first quarter were $6,250, and for the second, just $2,000. In the second quarter Perselay listed his largest expense for “studies,” as $14,850.
In a summary of accomplishments he submitted to the county in his quarterly report, the new president made note that the UCA had “continued to work in cooperation with the county, elected officials and legislators,” which is a direct conflict with what the county said in the past about the connection between the two.
Perselay also pointed out the UCA was working on Union County Means Business, a partnership with the county and county business leaders to develop the 2013 networking series. He said he arranged for four networking breakfasts this year, noting the kickoff event was “extremely well attended.”
He also brought up that Union County Directions, the UCA newspaper previously distributed twice a year, would be published quarterly, with the addition of a web-ready publication. They are also developing an email database to expand this venue.
One of the major projects being tackled by the UCA this year is the Brownfields Resource Guide and Inventory. This updated report includes photos, research and identification of Brownfield sites in the county. Perselay is planning a conference in September on this topic, which will be held at Kean University. The focus will be on how to redevelop Brownfields.
When interviewed last week Perselay was adamant about the focus of the UCA for this year and also about where he wants to take this non-profit.
“I am going to bring the UCA back to where it was,” he said, adding that while there was no accountability for how money was allocated by the UCA, there will be now.
“We changed things at the request of the county,” he said, but seemed unsure of how much the UCA actually would be receiving annually.
“I thought it was more like $357,000 a year,” Perselay said, but did point out the UCA “took a cut this year.”
The new president also said the county expects quarterly reports on what the UCA is accomplishing and he is fully on board with providing those reports. However, presently, the Brownfield’s conference in September is his main focus.
“We are planning on having panels at this conference to discuss recycling of land because there are a lot of small parcels that could be redeveloped,” he said.
Perselay comes with experience, having been the Director of Intergovernmental Relations for the county in the past and the owner of his own consulting business which focuses on governmental relations and management consulting for local governments. But the president is going back to the past for inspiration when it comes to doing his job at the UCA.
“I think the original goals of the UCA were laid out by founders Ann Baron, Democrat Sen. Ray Lesniak and Republican former acting governor Don De Francisco. I would like to move back to that and focus on economic development,” he added.
The UCA was formed in 1993 as a consortium of leaders from business, government, labor, civic, social service and academic organizations committed to revitalizing Union County’s economy and quality of life.
The primary goal, according to information obtained by LocalSource, was to position the county as an “outstanding place to live and work.”
“It is the intention of the alliance to work as a supplement to the efforts of the individual organizations in the county that are focused on its economic recovery and growth. This will be accomplished through the coordination of meetings, seminars and studies that will become the basis for both tactical and strategic action plans designed to realize Union County’s potential as an economic growth center of New Jersey,” the mission statement of the UCA reads.
Perselay believes the UCA is on its way to achieving those goals and he is working to see that it happens.
“I think this year will put us back on track and working to achieve what the UCA was intended to do back in 1993,” he said.