NJ towns grading themselves, hoping not to lose any state aid
Beginning this month, every municipality in New Jersey is being tested by the state, and a bad score can result in fewer state dollars.
The yearly Best Practices Inventory, which began in 2010 under the Christie administration, is meant to help the Division of Local Government Services better target resources and identify areas of potential need, the state says.
Municipalities are tasked with answering honestly — responses are certified by municipal officers and acknowledged by the entity's governing body — about how they do business, from maintaining their website to budgeting.
Towns and cities that fail to submit answers to the 80 or so questions, or do not meet the minimum score based on their responses, stand to lose a portion or all of their final state aid payment, which represents 5% of a municipality's total state aid.
No municipalities experienced aid withholding as a result of last year's survey, the first under Gov. Phil Murphy, the state said. In 2017, however, the state withheld roughly $315,000 total from 17 municipalities based on their answers.
The Inventory has gone through a number of tweaks over the past decade. What was once a yes/no checklist has evolved into a form that can be filled out extensively on an Excel spreadsheet. This year for the first time, municipalities can submit answers through an online portal.
"It's no one's idea of a good time, but the process has been improving over the years. It's something we're required to do," said Lori Buckelew, senior legislative analyst for the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
According to the state, this year's survey includes additional questions on cybersecurity, planning, budgeting and statutory compliance. Answers are due to the state in mid-fall.
Odds of coming out of the survey unscathed are likely better for municipalities this year, as the Inventory has been adjusted to include survey questions that do not affect a town's score. "Core competency" questions are worth more than "best practices" questions. Last year, all questions were valued the same.
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