From: Pamphlet, Teaneck Collection at Teaneck Public Library
Published and Distributed by Teaneck Taxpayers League
Chapter 3: TEANECK'S FIRST NON-PARTISAN COUNCIL
The first Council elected under the Municipal Manager Act took office at noon on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1930. They had a Herculean task ahead of them. Their opponents, bitter over their defeat in the referendum election and again in the election for Councilmen, were determined that this new and inexperienced government should fail. The new government was more determined that it should succeed.
The first and most important task of the new Township Council, after organizing, was to complete the formation of the governing body by the selection and appointment of a Township Manager. Under the Municipal Manager Act the governing body of the Township is composed of the Council and Manager, who is the chief executive of the municipality.
The new Council on the day they took office appointed Mr. Paul A. Volcker as Township Manager. Mr. Volcker is by profession a civil engineer, and had five very successful years as City Manager of Cape May before coming to Teaneck. Prior to that five years he had had fifteen years of experience in public service in New York and in Pennsylvania. The officials of the National Municipal League consider him one of the outstanding municipal managers in the nation. His work in Teaneck has attracted nation-wide attention.
Official State Auditor
The new Council's next important step was to select as Township auditor the Department of Municipal Accounts of the State of New Jersey, and for the first time Teaneck had an independent, non-political auditor. The Township accounts were in such a muddled condition that it took the state auditors almost a year to complete the audit for 1930. They had to go back through various Township and County records to the year 1917 before they could strike a balance.In making a report of that first audit, the Department of Municipal Accounts said the financial records of the Township's transactions had been found totally inadequate; that some accounts were not complete and others entirely lacking; that it had been impossible to tell at any time the exact financial position of the Township; that expenditures had been made without appropriations; that the accounts did not balance, and that the tax title lien records amounted to just so many sheets of paper.Under the direction of the Department of Municipal Accounts the new Township officials installed new records and a new accounting system. They had to set up a complete new set of books to keep the records of tax title liens. Ever since, the books of the Township have been kept in excellent condition, and it is now possible to tell at any time the Township's exact financial position.The second important task of the now completely organized new government was the preparation of the budget for the year 1931. Under the law, it is the duty of the Township Manager to prepare a tentative annual budget for submission to the Township Council. For the first time in the history of Teaneck, the proposed 1931 budget was prepared in detail with full explanatory remarks, and printed copies were distributed to every home in Teaneck before adoption of the budget by the Township Council.Every year since then, the taxpayers of Teaneck have had copies of the proposed annual budget laid at their doorsteps in time to study it before its adoption by the Council. The proposed budget sets forth in detail the amounts it is proposed to appropriate for each department of the government for the coming year, and for comparison the amount appropriated the past year for that department. Thus, taxpayers can see at a glance what changes are made in appropriations. No other local government in New Jersey gives to its taxpayers such service.
Copies of the Teaneck Township Manager's proposed budget are on file in the libraries of Princeton, Chicago, Wisconsin, Harvard, Michigan and many other universities, also in many public libraries.
Post Audit Every Year
For the first time the citizens of Teaneck were given a complete check on their government. Since 1930, not only has each year's budget shown the various amounts appropriated for each department of the government, but also an independent post audit has shown how those appropriations were expended.Every business man will appreciate the need of an independent post audit. Every corporation has an independent post audit for the protection of its stockholders. The laws of every state in the union and of the nation provide for an independent state audit of all banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions for the protection of the depositors. But New Jersey does not provide by law for such protection to the people with regard to the finances of their local municipal governments. Thus Teaneck has voluntarily provided all the protection it could for its taxpayers.Despite mandatory increases in various items aggregating more than $40,000.00, the 1931 budget showed a net reduction in the total amount to be raised by taxation of more than $83,000.00 below the 1930 budget. The 1931 tax rate was 62 points below the 1930 rate--a drop from $6.08 in 1930 to $5.46 in 1931. This reduction amounted to $5.00 per capita.In 1931 Teaneck's statutory net debt was reduced by $720,000.00, and the net debt percent- age was reduced from 9.059 to 4.85. Teaneck was now again within the statutory debt limit of 7%.The unjust burden of taxation imposed upon Teaneck home-owners up to 1930 was due not only to extravagance and waste in conducting the government and the profligate expansion of street improvements, of which ten per cent of the total cost was charged to general taxation, but also to gross inequity in the valuations of property for tax purposes. The assessed valuations of income- earning business properties and of large unimproved tracts held by speculators were kept so low that the heavy end of the total tax burden rested on the backs of the home-owners.Members of the first Township Council elected under the Municipal Manager Act were aware of this condition. They immediately sought relief for the home-owners, first by trying to induce the three members of the hold-over Board of Assessors, temporarily continued in office, to revise their valuations in line with fairness and equity. It soon became apparent that these men did not see eye to eye with the Council, and were not willing to undo the political service they had rendered their former masters, who wanted the assessed valuations to favor their political friends rather than the home-owners.
The Council untied this Gordian knot by terminating the existence of a Board of Assessors and appointing instead a single Assessor. He agreed that justice demanded a general equalization of assessed values and was willing to undertake the job. He found large unimproved tracts entirely surrounded by private homes, but still rated as farm acreages and assessed at farm land values; also business streets that were building up steadily, but where the front foot assessed values had not been raised for years.
Chiefly by increasing valuations on these two classes of property to a fair level, a total of about $1,900,000.00 was added to the Township's ratables. This gave some measure of relief to the home-owners and eventually helped bring the Township's debt percentage down within the limit set by law.Hundreds of property owners appealed from the increases, formed an organization and engaged legal counsel to represent them, but in 85 per cent of the appeals the Township's new valuations were sustained by the County Board of Taxation first, and later by the State Board of Taxation. In most of the remaining appeals the reductions granted were less than the original increases.Since that first general equalization was made effective, much has been done to perfect it and to improve assessment methods in Teaneck. The Township Assessor for the last few years has kept up to date in his office a detailed card record for each improved property, showing the general type of structure and cubic content of each building, also other details of construction that affect cost and value. These records are open to the public, and from them any taxpayer can find out how the valuation placed on his home compares with that of others. If it appears that an adjustment is in order, an adjustment is made.
It is accepted as a fundamental principle of municipal economics that the assessment of property for tax purposes is the foundation of a municipality's entire financial structure. In Teaneck, up to 1930, that foundation was thoroughly unsound, and the home-owners were the sufferers. Under the non-partisan, businesslike municipal manager government in effect since 1930, property assessment has been established and maintained on a basis fair to all.
"Town Manager" Published
Notwithstanding these important improvements in the Township's financial structure, its political opponents kept up a determined and vicious attack against the new government in the hope of eventually undermining and overthrowing the municipal manager plan in Teaneck. They filled the Council Chamber to capacity at every Council meeting, heckling and abusing the Councilmen and creating such a noisy disturbance that it was almost impossible at times for the Council to conduct the Township's business.However, Teaneck Taxpayers League brought to the government the staunch support of Teaneck's civic-minded citizens. In order to defend the government against the vicious attacks of partisan politicians and to keep the people informed, the League published monthly a paper named the "Town Manager", containing a complete review of the activities of the government for the month. This paper was distributed free of charge to every home in Teaneck.The work involved in its publication and distribution was tremendous, but all the work was done by members of the League free of charge. They also raised funds to defray all printing costs. Their unselfish and loyal support of the principles of the League was simply splendid.
In 1932 the tax rate dropped another 40 points to $5.06, and the statutory net debt was further reduced by $200,000.00. The net debt percentage was now down to 3.7%..
In 1932 Mr. Ben Howe, chairman of New York City's famous Committee of One Thousand, with a group of professors from Dana College, made an investigation of the Township's new government. They highly complimented the government and Teaneck Taxpayers League for the remarkable accomplishments achieved during the first year of the new government.
In 1932 the Director of the Governmental Research Department of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association also made an investigation of the Public Works Department of Teaneck, and reported that it was being conducted economically and efficiently.
In 1932 also the outstanding success of Teaneck's municipal manager government was first accorded national recognition and approbation, when an article appeared in the National Municipal Review telling what the new government had accomplished during its first year in office. Since then the same magazine has carried two more articles on Teaneck's government.
Stories highly commending Teaneck's government have also appeared in the "American City", "Harper's Magazine" and many newspapers in various parts of the United States. On October 19, 1941, the Sunday magazine section of the "Philadelphia Inquirer" contained an article praising the government of Teaneck for its progressiveness and efficiency.
This early success of the new form of non-partisan government greatly alarmed both the local and the county party politicians. As early as the latter part of 1931, partisan political leaders of Bergen County in public speeches began to condemn local taxpayers associations and non-partisan local government as a threat to the two-party system in the county. One of them expressed his disapproval of the non-partisan influence by warning his audience to "leave the new ideas alone, because they might destroy the parties".
An editorial which appeared on November 23, 1931, in a daily newspaper published in Bergen County said:
"Freeholder __________, County Republican campaign manager in the recent election, does not like taxpayers' associations and their growing influence as a determining factor in county politics. He sees in such groups a distinct menace to the two-party system of governmental control, and has urged Republican organization workers to vigorously combat the movement."
Political leaders of both parties mistakenly believed that the ideals of Teaneck Taxpayers League represented only a temporary reform wave which had already spent itself, and decided that the infant non-partisan government, born of this reform stimulant, could and must be kidnapped before it grew up and became too strong. So, in the summer of 1932, local party leaders, with the backing of county party leaders, began circulating petitions for a recall election to oust all five Councilmen. Many signatures of good civic-minded citizens were secured, through misrepresentations and false arguments by politicians, and in September, 1932, the petitions for a recall election were filed with the Township Clerk.
The Clerk refused to call the election, holding that the grounds for removal of the Councilmen set forth in the recall petitions were not sufficient under the law. Leaders of the recall movement applied to the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to compel the Clerk to call the election, and in June, 1933, the Court ordered that the election be held. The recall election accordingly took place on August 8, 1933. Advocates of the recall tried to create a scare by asking the County Prosecutor to investigate the handling of Teaneck Township insurance. The prosecutor investigated but found no wrong-doing.
Teaneck Taxpayers League came to the support of the Councilmen. In 1933 the tax rate had dropped another 42 points to $4.64 -- 144 points below the 1930 rate. Comparing their tax bills for the last three years the people, led by Teaneck Taxpayers League, defeated this attempt by desperate politicians to destroy the new government, and voted against the recall of the Councilmen by a majority of 2 to 1.