A new audit from the state comptroller's office finds flaws and questionable expenditures at a state-funded program that helps New Jersey families pay their utility bills.

Matt Boxer (Governor's Office)

The audit found that non-profit, NJ SHARES, has been giving out grants to individuals who don't meet eligibility requirements, some falsely claiming married on their application, others not disclosing all of their income.

"We had someone come in and disclose their income but not their spouse's income, other people were claiming they were married when in fact they were not to get a better grant," said State Comptroller Matt Boxer.

Eligibility for an NJ SHARES grant is based on income level, a demonstrated financial crisis and a history of good-faith energy bill payments. NJ SHARES provides grants on a "first-come, first-served" basis and not all eligible applicants receive grants.

For example, the audit found that:

  • Applicants disclosed only some of their income in order to avoid being declared ineligible. For example, one applicant stated her gross monthly income of $3,989 on her application but not her spouse's additional earnings of approximately $5,445 per month.
  • A two-member household reported a gross monthly income of $2,845 on their NJ SHARES application (equating to an annual estimated income of $34,140), yet the same household reported a total income of $146,570 on their tax return for that year.
  • Nine of the grant recipients stated they were married on their NJ SHARES application even though their tax return indicated they were not married, raising questions as to whether the applicants were falsely claiming married status on their application to qualify for the less restrictive income requirements for larger households.
  • Even though applicable guidelines require that successful applicants demonstrate that they are experiencing a financial crisis, such as a crisis brought on by a job loss or medical illness, more than 70 percent of NJ SHARES grant recipients claimed "high energy costs" as the sole reason for their crisis.

In total, the audit identified 114 grant recipients out of 338 who should have been deemed ineligible.

As part of the audit, OSC also surveyed programs from seven other states and the District of Columbia and found that NJ SHARES awards the largest grants and allows the highest income for grant recipients, both by a considerable margin. For example, while NJ SHARES' average grant award was $587, the second-highest average was $363. For a family of five, NJ SHARES allowed a maximum income of $108,400, while the second-highest income limit was $60,552.

Boxer says more qualified homeowners could get help with their heating bills if the agency had stronger oversight and stricter guidelines.

"We found the program turned away approximately 19,000 applicants in 2010 due to limited funds."

The audit also detailed a series of questionable expenditures by NJ SHARES. While NJ SHARES officials stated that those particular funds came from a private company, OSC found that NJ SHARES had comingled state funds with its funding from outside sources, making it impossible to determine the funding source for the expenditures.

"Their accounting books were a mess, everything was mingled together so we had no idea what funds came from private companies and what funds were state funds," Boxer added.

The questionable expenditures included catered affairs at New Jersey Devils hockey games totaling $2,676, as well as eight restaurant charges that each exceeded $1,000 and totaling $32,322. One of those restaurant charges in Atlantic City included $3,339 for alcohol, in apparent violation of NJ SHARES policy that prohibits employees from drinking alcohol while engaged in NJ SHARES business.

"We have outlined a list of 13 recommendations about strengthening the monitoring and oversight of the program, which we hope will be a model for other agencies running similar programs throughout the state," said Boxer.

NJ SHARES officials said they dispute many of the report's findings, but are cooperating with the state.