Friday, January 26, 2007

More from the victims' families

"Sixteen months for three lives is not justice," said Michael Giunta, brother John Giunta, one of the victims of the fire set by Joseph LePore and Sean Ryan in Seton Hall University's Boland Hall on January 19, 2000. Ryan and LePore were sentences to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty to arson. They will be eligible for parole after just 16 months.

Frank Caltabilota, Jr.'s dad, shaking with anger as he spoke about his son who also died in the frie: "The two of you will have to live with what your stupid prank did for the rest of your lives." "Eventually your judgement day will come," he said, adding both defendants should rot in hell.

As for the injured, some badly, Alvaro Llanos was in the courtroom and a letter he wrote was read out loud:

He talked of waking up three months after the fire. The burns over 50 percent of his body. Of seeing his severaly scarred face for the first time. Of the more than 30 surgeries he has endured.

And finally, he told of the one question he's always wanted answered.

"Why? What was the reason for this fire?"

Alvaro, we hope you get your questioned answered someday.

Ad we agree that 16 months isn't enough. LePore and Ryan deserved a longer sentence for the crimes they committed, the lives they took and the people they injured.

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Aaron Karol's parents speak

Aaron Karol's parents spoke today at the sentencing of Joseph LePore and Sean Ryan, the two men who started the fire in Seton Hall University's Boland Hall on January 19, 2001 that killed 3 (including Aaron) and injured 58 others.

From the Star-Ledger, Aaron's mother:
“I can’t begin to tell you the devastation his death brought us. I have never been able to relive that day or talk about it. It’s too painful. We no longer have a son."

“I will never again see his smiling face come through the door. I will never again see him sleeping in his bed. I will never again hear him listen to his music. I will never again hold him. I will never again kiss him and tell him good night. I will never again buy him Christmas presents. I will never again hear him and his sister tell us the secrets of things they did growing up together. I will never again hear Aaron and Melissa laughing under some shared joke. I will never again see him holding hands with Melissa and kissing. There are so many never agains.”
Also from the Star-Ledger, Aaron's dad:
"Aaron was fun-loving but also a serious student. He didn't get all As but he made the honor roll most of the time . . . AK was not one-dimensional. He loved music . . . He enjoyed snow-boardng ... He was taking up tennis and he also loved video games."

"My son had a wisdom about him that transcended his age . . . I admired how he had the ablity to look at the big picture and yet he could write about something as small as a bead of sweat. . . ."

"For someone who was only 18 years and three months when he was killed, AK left a remarkable legacy."

He discussed the circumstances of the starting of the fire after the Joseph LePore and Sean Ryan were chased from the lounge by dorm counselor: "By their own admission, they both returned to the lounge and ignited the paper. This was an indication to me that this was a premeditated act."

"These two never regretted what they did . . . they were only worried about their own hides . . . Those are not the actions of pranksters. They are the actions of criminals.''

He said his son had to be identied from dental records, he was burned so badly. "We never had the chance to see him one last time. We had to have a closed casket.'' He said many of his son's friends had to go through therapy after his death.

He said he wanted to see the defenahts serve the full five years. "I promise them both I will muster up an army of victims to appear before the parole board every time they are eligible.''

He said justice will be served when the defenants face the "ultimate judge" after death. "They won't be able to have fancy lawyers represent them."

"They have displayed a total callousness and complete disregard for their victims ... The perpetrators of this hoocaust deserve no mercy whatsoever.''

"No sentence will ever bring us closure. The holes in our hearts will never heal. We will never have Aaron back."

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Lame apologies; No forgiveness; Off to jail they go

Joseph LePore and Sean Ryan walked into a Newark, New Jersey courtroom shortly after 10 a.m. today wearing jeans and casual clothes. They were there for their sentencing, having pleaded guilty to arson (and some smaller charges) for their roles in setting the January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University that killed 3 freshmen and injured more than 50 others. Why jeans and casual clothing? Well, after each were sentenced to 5 years in state prison -- eligible for parole after just 16-months -- the two men left the courtroom in handcuffs and were to be processed and turned over to the Department of Corrections.

We still wish that these two men had taken responsibility for what they did. They still blame the University for the deaths of their victims. But even if Seton Hall should have had sprinklers to combat fires, the facts remains that LePore and Ryan started the fire. End of story.

We wish they had offered something more than a lame apology to the victims and their families. Instead Sean Ryan merely repeated himself: "I am very, very, very sorry for your losses. I'm very, very sorry." And LePore didn't offer much more: "I wish I could do something to take away your pain. I'm sorry." To be forgiven, you need to admit what you did. They still have admitted nothing more than pulling a "prank that got out of hand."

Speaking of forgiveness, there wasn't much of that to go around.

Frank Caltabilota Jr.'s father told LePore and Ryan: "I can't forgive you both for what you have done." He called the pair cowards, and told how they set a banner on fire and ran from the dormitory - not bothering to warn others of the danger. Frank's mom also said that she would never forgive the two.

More to come.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The reform bill that wasn't

Have you ever wanted to reform a broken pension system by passing a bill that doesn't reform anything? You're in great company then, since the reform bill being pushed (or maybe its being pulled now) through the Legislature essentially does nothing. Or, as Senator William Gormley said, "this is like a slow death to reform. Every day something else comes out. There's not much else left."

He's right. First it was Governor Jon S. Corzine telling the Legislature to scrap all pension reforms that related to state workers under union contract. Then went the ban on dual officeholders and any meat in the office of comptroller. Now the Democrats in Trenton have scrapped "efforts to curb the hefty public pensions that some municipal assessors, building inspectors and other professionals build up by working part-time for multiple towns."
The new version of the bill would stop lawyers and engineers from tacking together taxpayer-funded retirement benefits from various local governments. But it carves out an exception for other professionals including health officers, tax collectors and municipal clerks.

It marks the latest of a host of reforms recommended by a special legislative panel last year to fall by the wayside as lawmakers attempt to reach consensus on pension reform.

* * *

Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, sponsor of the reform bill introduced Tuesday, said the professionals affected by the new provisions are distinct from lawyers and engineers, in that they generally are direct municipal employees without income from private firms.

But a list compiled last year by state pension officials showed that assessors and other professionals can rack up hefty combined salaries and retirement benefits from multiple public jobs.

When told that six of the 20 highest total paychecks on the list went to people who would be exempted from the new legislation, Codey said that provision might have to be reviewed.

The most highly paid assessor on that list, Edward L. Kerwin, collected a total of $243,124 in salaries from eight communities in Somerset and Hunterdon counties last year.

This is reform? It sounds like business as usual to us.

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Elected, but not really liked

Another interesting tid-bit in today's Quinnipiac Universtiy poll (discussed here) is that the recently elected Senator Robert Menendez isn't particularly liked by his constituents. In fact, only 36% of New Jersey voters approve of his job performance. And that isn't something new. Since he became a senator in January 2006, his highest job approval rating was a mere 39%.

Amazing that someone who is liked by, at most, 39% of the electorate was able to get 58% of the vote.

Our other U.S. Senator, the 83-year old Frank Lautenberg, isn't exactly burning up the popularity polls. He has a 44% job approval rating.

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Toxic squirrels

We're not sure what bothers us more about this strory -- the toxic contamination of the ground or the facts that people in New Jersey hunt and eat squirrels:
New Jersey has warned squirrel hunters near a toxic waste dump about consuming the critters because they could be contaminated with lead.

It is the first time the state has cautioned Ringwood residents — many who are members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe who hunt and fish in the area — about their squirrel intake, said Tom Slater, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Senior Services.

A lead-contaminated squirrel was found in the area two months ago, prompting the agency, along with the state Department of Environmental Protection, to send out letters advising that adults eat squirrel no more than twice a week and even less for children and pregnant women.

Please don't eat Jersey squirrels.

Red Jersey?

Our pals at Quinnipiac University have been busy polling New Jersey voters over the last week. Yesterday they released poll results, including approve/disapprove numbers for Governor Corzine and the State Legislature. Today -- in its release entitled New Jersey Voters Don't Adore The Senator Next Door, Quinnipiac University Poll Finds; Clinton Trails Giuliani, Ties McCain In Garden State -- the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute tells us that former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leads New York Senator Hillary Clinton 48 - 41 percent. That's not all. Arizona Senator John McCain gets 44 percent to Sen. Clinton's 43 percent (a polling tie).

What's worse for the Democratic front runner is that New Jersey's independent voters back Giuliani 47 - 37 percent over Clinton; Giuliani also gets 86 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats. In a McCain-Clinton matchup, independents back the Republican 48 - 36 percent; McCain also gets 86 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats.

We know its early. There hasn't even been a campaign yet. Election day 2008 is almost two full years away.

But this isn't exactly good news for Hillary. She should be running in the lead in New Jersey -- given that it has become a Democrat stronghold over the past few years and she's a pseudo-New York liberal. And the fact that 19% of New Jersey Democrats would vote for Rudy over Hillary isn't great news. If that number was even close to 19% in some other states (i.e., Ohio, Florida, etc.) Hillary could be facing a landslide loss in the Elecoral College:
"It looks like problems with Sen. Hillary Clinton's new presidential campaign are cropping up close to home," said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"She has established her front-runner status among Democrats and she enjoys positive favorability ratings, but a big chunk of New Jersey voters have negative feelings about the Senator next door - enough to show two Republicans giving her a run for her money in this traditionally Democratic state," Richards added.

"It's easy to explain why she trails 9/11 hero Rudolph Giuliani; less clear why Sen. John McCain from faraway Arizona is so close. Looking more deeply into the numbers, Sen. Clinton is losing Democratic voters to GOP rivals and she trails among the state's large bloc of independent voters. While it's very early, one has to wonder how Sen. Clinton will play in the rest of the country when she has these numbers right next door."
But it's still very early.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why the Democrats' property tax "reform" won't work

We have said many times already that to achieve true property tax reform, the state must first reform the entities that survive on property taxes (counties, municipalities and school districts). Rebates and credits are not reform.

Case in point: As the Democrats in control in the state Legislature and the Governor's office attempt to create a property tax rebate of up to 20%, Union County is, for the seventh year in a row, raising their tax rate. This year the rate is going up 5.7%, with the average homeowner's bill climbing to $1,367, from $1,298. If this proposed increase is approved, the county portion of Union County residents' property tax bills will have jumped 56%, or roughly $490, since 2000.


NJ Transit: The more expensive way to go

Facing a $60 million shortfall in its $1.5 billion budget, NJ Transit has proposed hiking its bus and train fares by 10%, to take effect on June 1, 2007. The last fare increase, of about 9.9%, went into effect two years ago.

Although we've supported some of NJ Transit's fare increases in years past -- they too need to keep up with inflation -- two 10% increases just two years apart doesn't seem quite right.

Its time for NJ Transit's management to go back to the cutting board and look at what fat they can trim from their budget. And a better plan on collecting ticket revenue -- especially on the weekends when conductors just give up checking and selling tickets when the train is full -- will surely bring more money into its coffers.

In the end, an increase may be necessary. But 10% seems too high.

Frank is 83

Senator Frank Lautenberg celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday. He had a little party in his office, where Senator Robert Menendez serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" while eating an extra large piece of cake.

Happy birthday Frank. Watch those calories Bob.


New NJ Quinnipiac poll

Some interesting bits from a Quinnipiac University poll released today:

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has an evenly split 42 - 42 percent overall approval and a negative 30 - 51 percent approval on his handling of the property tax issue. The State Legislature gets a negative 27 - 54 percent overall approval and an even bigger negative 16 - 62 percent approval for its handling of the property tax issue.
"New Jersey voters are clearly skeptical that Gov. Corzine and the State Legislature will provide meaningful property tax relief this year. Despite apparent agreement on a plan, only about a third of voters say property tax reform is likely this year and a majority disapprove of the way both the Governor and Legislature are handling the issue," said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

There is a 46 - 46 percent split among voters on whether public employees should be required to pay more into their health insurance plans and to accept a reduction in retirement benefits.

Most people asked -- by a 53 - 34 percent margin -- oppose the Governor's proposal to sell or lease the New Jersey Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway as a way to reduce state debt and provide money for property tax relief.

Civil unions for same sex couples are ok, by a 54 - 41 percent margin. But most voters (49 - 45 percent), don't think mayors, county clerks and judges should be legally required to perform civil union ceremonies.

And as for the proposed repeal of the death penalty . . . voters oppose that by a 53 - 41 percent margin.

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Cindy Sheean-esque use of dead soldier names may be banned in NJ

Although there may be some First Amendment implications with such a law, it doesn't sound like such a bad idea. From NJ101.5:
Assemblyman Sean Kean is sponsoring legislation that would make it illegal for someone to use a dead soldiers name or picture for political or commercial purposes without the consent of a family member. Kean says these people have paid the ultimate sacrifice and now someone is using them to make a buck. The Eleventh District Republican's proposal would fine violators up to $10,000 for a first offense and up to $20,000 for any subsequent offense.

Bradley Beach resident Sue Sullivan supports the measure. Her son, Lance Corporal Vincent Sullivan died while fighting in Iraq. She later found out that anti-war t-shirts were being sold on the internet with her son's name on them. She was appalled and angry when she asked the person selling the t-shirts to take her son's name off and he refused. Sullivan then contacted Assemblyman Kean to see if he could help.

The legislation was introduced last month. Kean says two other states have passed similar laws. He says Federal legislation is pending.

But will this ever makes it to a vote in the Assembly?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Corruption and waste safe for another day

"The legislation introduced has been watered down to the point of being useless." Or so says Senator Diane Allen, Republican of Edgewater Park, about a bill pending in the New Jersey Senate that was supposed to bar dual officeholding (i.e., a state senator cannot hold another elected position such as mayor), establish a state comptroller to review government contracts and budgets, and implement the property tax caps and credits the Democrats have been touting as "reform."

Well, the ban on dual officeholding is out "was removed in the face of political opposition late last week." There are currently 18 lawmakers (both Republicans and Democrats) that hold local or county elected positions. I'm betting its the Democrats members of that group of 18 that successfully go the ban removed from the bill. There is still hope. Senate President Richard J. Codey, Democrat of West Orange, and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, Democrat of Camden, both said they expect to bar dual officeholding in the future. We aren't going to hold our breath though.

As for the comptroller, well that isn't out. But it is being watered down.
The comptroller plan now includes language preventing the office from auditing developers' agreements with municipalities. Other changes would eliminate automatic audits of government entities that spend $100 million or more and require the comptroller's office to first review existing local government audits before starting its own investigations.

But some think that's not good enough, including Senator Barbara Buono, Democrat of Metuchen, who has removed herself as a sponsor. "Recalling that the Willingboro school district required a $10 million bailout during the last budget because of poor management, Buono said existing audits aren't doing enough."

We agree with Senator Allen and Senator Buono. The comptroller needs more teeth.

Don't worry though . . . the 20% Property Tax Credits -- the Democrats so-called "property tax reform" -- are going untouched. Once again, rebates and credits are not reform. Does anyone else understand that?

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NJ: For Sale!

About six months ago, in reference to Governor Corzine's party with state workers on the steps of the Statehouse where he said he'd stand and fight for state worker benefits instead of standing up for state taxpayers, we opined that we can't trust the Governor with something as inconsequential as loose change.

Well, its not loose change we're concerned about now. Its New Jersey's assets that aren't safe.

Why aren't they safe, you might ask? Well, it seems that Governor Corzine wants to use New Jersey's assets as a quick fix for his projected budget shortfalls (and likely for tax give backs so that he can assure his re-election in 2009). Sale of the New Jersey Turnpike to a private corporation was the first "asset sale" bandied about (it probably would have been a long term lease deal, but same thing for these purposes). It could fetch a few billion dollars we were told. It didn't turn out to be as popular an idea as some hoped -- one reason is that the private company running the road could raise tolls a lot more often then the Turnpike Authority does. And from what we read, opposition has been growing to the idea.

But that won't stop the asset sales. If the Turnpike sale (or lease) is out, there is still the PNC Bank Art Center. Sell it? Why not. Hell, we already sold the name and spent those millions years ago. Let's see how much more money we can squeeze out of that hut. And while we're at it, why not sell the Turnpike rest stops. We bet Charmin would put their name on one. And maybe Purell (or Dial Soap) on another. Other asset sales being considered are the Atlantic City International Airport, operations of the state Lottery, and approval to construct Class-A office and apartment towers atop Penn Station in Newark, the Secaucus Junction rail hub and the NJ Transit station in downtown New Brunswick. State officials are also looking at selling the rights to build shopping malls on land owned along the Turnpike. Precisely what New Jersey needs . . . more malls and more traffic on the Turnpike.

And this is all to add more money to state coffers so that the state can spend more or offer more tax relief. But once this money runs out, what do we do then? How do we pay for all the new, neat things ten years down the road?

Selling assets is not a meaningful way to achieve tax reform. Period.

Christie says no

District of New Jersey U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie told the Associated Press that he won't run for the U.S. Senate in 2008 against 82 year oldFrank Lautenberg. Christie, who some consider to be the front runner for the GOP nomination for Governor in 2009, intends to continue as federal prosecutor for at least another year.

If he wants to be Governor, its probably a good idea to stick with his current gig for a little while longer.

[Wally Edge]

Monday, January 15, 2007

Miss New Jersey has a bun in the oven

Not to be left out of the recent beauty pageant kerfuffle, Miss New Jersey is giving up her crown because she is pregnant:
Ashley Harder, the current Miss New Jersey USA, has resigned from the pageant post because she is pregnant, The Philadelphia Daily News reported in Monday's newspapers.

Harder, 20, told the newspaper she voluntarily stepped down because it's against pageant rules to compete while pregnant. She could not immediately be reached for comment by The Associated Press.

2007 Runner-up for Miss New Jersey, Erin Abrahamson of Essex Fells, will be assuming the title.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tax caps, reform, rebates and credits

We support Governor Corzine's idea to put a cap on property tax increases, not because its the best solution to New Jersey's property tax problems, but because it is at least a step in the right direction. We would put the cap at no more than 3% (instead of Corzine's 4%) and also put a cap on budget increases in the same amount.

But this still does not reform the property tax system in New Jersey. And the Democrats' proposals of credits and rebates doesn't help either.

We've said it before and we'll say it again now: Rebates are not reform. Raising state taxes to fund property tax rebates is not a property tax reform. If anything, its part of the problem because our counties, towns and school districts don't get the message that they must be fiscally responsible when the state doles out money to take some of the burden off the taxpayer. The only way to achieve true property tax reform is to reform those entities (i.e., municipalities, counties, school districts) who rely on property taxes for their revenue.

Remember: Rebates (or credits) are not reform.

Rabner to Clergy: No worries on the civil union thing

In what one newspaper refers to as a "setback" for civil unions (a description we don't agree with), New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner issued an opinion yesterday in which he concluded that members of the clergy with "sincerely held religious beliefs" could refuse to officiate civil unions and not run afoul of the state's antidiscrimination law. Rabner stated:
"If those beliefs preclude recognition of civil unions, a religious figure's refusal to solemnize civil unions, even if that religious figure is regularly available to solemnize marriages, would not violate [the Law Against Discrimination]."

Rabner's full letter is here.

But vocal civil union opponent, Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, isn't covered. He'll either need to perform a civil union if asked or give up his marriage officiating duties. Sorry Steve.

No payday for corrupt public workers

The Legislature is finally making headway on a bill that would require mandatory jail time and loss of pension for public workers and elected officials convicted of corruption (a bill former Attorney General Zulima Farber was against).

The only way to get rid of corruption is to take a very tough stance with those who commit it.

We fully support this bill.

Connors jumps ship

New Jersey Republican State Senator Leonard Connors announced that he will not run for re-election this year. Why is he retiring from the State Senate?

"To be frank, I just don't have the stomach for it anymore. New Jersey's course
is set straight for the ice fields, and I no longer have any desire to be a crew
member of the Titanic."
Unfortunately, we tend to agree with Senator Connors.

[ "Quote of the Day"]

Friday, January 05, 2007

It's tough to be a Republican in New Jersey

"I need to call the landlord [today] and find out what's going on."

Bergen County GOP Chairman Guy Talarico, after being told by a reporter that an eviction notice has been placed on the door of the party's Hackensack, New Jersey headquarters.

Full story here.

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