HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside seems to be teetering on a slippery slope, as the township is racking up a laundry list that includes unpaid bills, disgruntled vendors, financial problems and badly-needed municipal services and repairs.
The myriad issues plaguing the town include overdue bills in need of payment and roads in need of repairs. In addition, some members of Hillside’s city council and other township officials report that there is little to no communication — or action — on the part of Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson in addressing the many concerns of Hillside residents.
Things came to a head last week when the township found itself without any gas to fill tanks in police cars, fire trucks, DPW and other municipal vehicles.
Several township officials and employees told LocalSource that the gas bills had allegedly not been paid since August, and the vendor allegedly would not provide gas until the bill was paid. Municipal employees were forced to get gas from a gas station across the street from town hall, although fire trucks were allegedly unable to fill up at that location due to the height and size of fire department vehicles. “There was no gas to put in the gas tanks or to fill the fire trucks,” a council member told LocalSource.
According to a township official who requested anonymity, municipal employees had to use an emergency master credit card in order to get gas for municipal vehicles.
Gas was restored the following day, according to township officials, after 24 hours without gas in the township.
An employee at the Hillside Police Department who requested anonymity told LocalSource that he was unable to put gas in his police car on the morning the gas became unavailable. “We can’t put gas in the radio cars because they haven’t paid the bill in months and the vendor won’t deliver until they do,” said the source. “Whomever is supposed to be allocating funds in town and paying the bills is not doing their job. How is a car supposed to go without gas? How are the police officers, firefighters and EMTs supposed to get to their emergency calls? This has gone beyond vindictive and entered into sheer gross negligence. What are the powers that be waiting for? Someone to die?”
Arthur Kobitz, president of the Hillside Board of Health, told LocalSource that he was concerned about the lack of gas. “My only concern is that they had to get gas from a gas station, which means we wasted taxpayer dollars,” Kobitz told LocalSource in a phone call. “We don’t pay retail. We’ve wasted a ton of taxpayers’ money. Instead of paying what we should pay as a government agency, the township paid retail.”
Hillside councilman Sip Whitaker told LocalSource in a phone call that he was concerned about the general issue of unpaid bills in the township. “I’m concerned about the money because I have no idea how Hillside does not pay its bills for gas, supplies for the police and fire departments, and the DPW,” said Whitaker.
But Garretson told LocalSource that the gas debacle did not impede the township in any way. “With respect to your inquiry regarding fuel, there is no cause for alarm,” Garretson said in an email. “The township has access to fuel for all of its public vehicles. By all reports none of our departments were impeded in their duties due to any fueling issues.”
While many are questioning why township bills are not getting paid, Hillside Council Vice President and chair of the council’s finance committee Andrea Hyatt told LocalSource that the issue is not stemming from Hillside’s CFO or finance department. “Based on a discussion with the CFO, the outstanding charges were brought to the attention of the finance department about a week prior,” Hyatt said in an email. “A manual check was cut and specified to be hand-delivered to the vendor by a staff person who is employed by one of the other departments. Unfortunately, the vendor did not receive the check until Monday afternoon, by mail, and could not provide gas to the township of Hillside before the next day. The CFO and Finance Department completed each task exactly as was required.”
Hillside Councilman Gerald Freedman told LocalSource that the fault does not lie with Hillside’s CFO. “The CFO does not hold off on payments on bills unless the mayor doesn’t sign off on it,” said Freedman in a phone call. “If I had to take stab, I wouldn’t blame the CFO.”
According to Freedman, the current CFO is competent. “This CFO is pretty good,” he said. “He doesn’t make independent decisions on how bills are paid. Once bills are signed by the mayor and CFO, then we review them.”
Freedman said that another member of the council informed him that she had been told that the gas bill was on the DPW director’s desk. “I think they are using him as a scapegoat,” Freedman said, referring to James Valentine, Director of the DPW.
Hillside Democratic Chairman Anthony Salters was succinct in his opinion of the situation. “It’s either poor management or incompetence,” Salters told LocalSource. “Take your choice.”
According to Whitaker, the gas is not the only bill that hasn’t been paid. “Because of non-payment, we have not received a delivery of asphalt to repave the streets,” said Whitaker.
A member of the council who requested anonymity told LocalSource that answers are needed. “I don’t know what’s going on, but someone has to know what’s going on,” he said. “But the mayor is the common denominator. It’s unbelievable — no gasoline, and no asphalt. That’s why Franklin Avenue took so long to get fixed. We didn’t have money to pay for the asphalt.”
Councilmembers say that yet another October surprise came in the form of an email sent to members of the council by the owner of a website design company previously employed by the township.
Michael Melham, owner of AlphaDog Solutions Inc., sent a letter last week to all members of the town council, asking them for the two months’ payment owed to him for web services from May and June 2016, as well outlining the situation leading up to the writing of the letter.
This letter has been obtained by LocalSource.
According to Melham, he was hired in December 2014 to provide Hillside with municipal website services, and in February 2015, he was awarded the contract by municipal resolution for the 2015 calendar year.
In December 2015, Melham once again submitted papers for the next calendar year, and in January of this year, the company continued to provide service to Hillside on a month-to-month basis.
At the end of May, Melham received a call from a company called Websignia, a Newark-based marketing company. A member of the company informed Melham that Websignia was Hillside’s new website vendor. Melham expressed shock, according to the letter, as there was allegedly no communication about this from any township officials. It was through this phone call that Melham found out that his contract as Hillside’s website vendor would not be renewed by the township.
According to Melham’s email, the owner of the new website company allegedly demanded access to Melham’s client server, proprietary web files and code, and the domain name, which was purchased by AlphaDog. Melham went on in the letter to say that internal security protocols prevent the company from providing access to an unknown third party, even when there may be data to give.
Melham maintains that former Hillside business administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette informed him during a phone call that the new web company would take over in July, with Bush-Baskette asking Melham to continue providing web services through June. But according to Melham, he has not received payment for May or June, despite receiving a signed purchase order for May. No PO was received by Melham for June, despite the fact that his company was still providing services to the township for that entire month.
According to the letter, when Melham called Hillside’s finance department last week regarding the outstanding invoices, he was told that he needed to speak with the township attorney. “In ten years, I have never had to speak with a township attorney in order to receive payment, and I find this extremely odd,” said Melham in his letter.
According to four council members who were contacted by LocalSource, the council was told nothing about the outstanding bill owed. “She makes us look like idiots,” said one council member of Garretson. “We don’t know anything about this. She does this all the time. I think we need a forensic audit to look at everything. I want to know why we’re not paying the bills. There’s something wrong here.”
Hyatt, who is head of the council’s finance committee, confirmed receipt of Melham’s email. “An email was received on October 27, 2016 that was originally forwarded by AlphaDog detailing their experience,” Hyatt said. “The email also included information about unpaid invoices and purchase orders. That email was forwarded to the CFO for research and finalization.”
Garretson said that she was not aware of Melham’s invoice, but that she would look into the situation and respond to LocalSource’s inquiry.
Township officials are stating that Hillside’s latest issues of nonpayment for goods and services are indicative of a real crisis in the township, and they all seem to be pointing to the person at the helm.
According to Freedman, this is just a few incidents in a long line of many. “Something is not right,” said Freedman. “I know that in the past, a lot of bills sat on the mayor’s desk for a long time. All I know is that we’ve had more web designers in the past three years than I can count and the websites still don’t work.”
Freedman said that situations similar to this have happened before in the township. “It’s not the first time the mayor hasn’t paid the bills,” he said. “She’s a bright woman but she’s not an administrator. People have tried to spend time with her and to give her instruction and guidance, but she doesn’t take instruction very well.”
After looking into LocalSource’s inquiry regarding the unpaid invoices to AlphaDog, council members confirmed that they had not been informed of the extended service agreement between the township and the website company. While the resolution had clearly stated that the company was to be paid through to the end of the service contract, which was for April, 2016, the extended service throughout May and June was never communicated to the council.
Council members informed LocalSource that they had spoken with the township’s attorney about the unpaid invoices and that a resolution to pay
the web company would be passed immediately.