Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria said he is tightening the process that determines how local governments get a share of special aid to financially struggling cities — a program that has generated criticism this year from Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Doria told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee that he has not yet doled out $153 million in “distressed cities” aid that is part of the state budget that passed last June. He said he has created an application process that cities must complete before getting that money — the first time that has happened since the program was created a decade ago. (JUST CREATED AN APPLICATION PROCESS??? GEE – YOU THINK THAT”S A GOOD IDEA AFTER 10 YEARS?)
Doria, who has been commissioner for six months, said he has not asked aides why there was never a written application process before. He said the information needed to determine whether a municipality deserved the aid was always available within the department and that use of the funding has always been monitored by the Division of Local Government Services and the Local Finance Board.
Doria also said the program was audited as part of an overall state review of the DCA in 2006 and no problems were found. Gov. Jon Corzine has set aside $145.3 million in the proposed state budget.
Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the committee chairwoman, said she has asked for a state audit of the distressed cities program.
“There are concerns about special municipal aid with respect to the documentation the department keeps,” Buono said.
Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex), a committee member, said the panel should use subpoena power to investigate the program, a request that Buono turned down yesterday.
“This program has spent an incredible $642 million without any public accounting to the taxpayers,” he said. “It appears to have been used and almost certainly was used as a slush fund for politically connected officials to send money to other politically connected officials.”
Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), a committee member and mayor of Union City, said that when his government received aid annually for the past six years, the city always had to prove the need and the use of the funding was closely monitored.
The distressed cities program has come under criticism by legislators who question the awarding and supervision of the funding at a time when Corzine wants to cut $169 million in aid to all cities and towns, including $37 million to municipalities with populations under 10,000.
“There is a lot of unrest being heard in municipalities big and small,” Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Ber gen), a committee member, told Doria. “It is an unintended consequence of pitting large and small towns against each other.”
In the 2006-07 budget, the aid totaled a record $191.1 million and was shared by Camden, Paterson, Trenton, Union City, Harrison, Ewing, Asbury Park and Bridgeton.