Gov. Chris Christie yesterday defended the high pay of executives at the Schools Development Authority (SDA) at a time when it has suspended much of it construction. He said the agency is going through a reorganization that would lead to a leaner more efficient outfit.
NJ Spotlight.com reported yesterday that the SDA continues to review outstanding school projects, essentially halting any new work for the past eight months, while still paying relatively high wages to top executives.
Nearly 50 out of 308 employees are paid $100,000 or more, with the average salary coming in at $74,000. The list is topped by chief executive officer Marc Larkins, a former assistant federal prosecutor under Christie, at a salary of $195,000.
Christie in a press conference said the SDA is “in the midst of reorganization,” and he looked forward to a full report by the end of the year.
He pointed out that Larkins has already reduced staff by about 10 percent, with more reductions coming. And he said he expected there also would be some reductions in individual salaries.
“I’ve asked Marc to take a look from top to bottom at that place,” he said. “We have to take a look in the end at what are the bottom line numbers in what they are spending in salaries."
“You want to pay well to manage these projects that run in the tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “But also we have to get the overall census, and that is what Marc will do. People shouldn’t prejudge his plan.”
Democratic leaders in the Assembly yesterday ripped into the salary report, saying that Christie should push for the SDA to restart its work immediately.
After years of the agency coming under fire for waste and mismanagement, Larkins’ staff is currently reviewing a list of 52 priority projects to ensure they are the most needed and cost-effective. A recent state auditor report found many of the projects had not been properly vetted.
“It’s inexcusable,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) in an interview. “The whole circumstance is just inexcusable. Three-hundred-and-ten people sitting around doing who knows what while kids sit around in dangerous, unhealthy schools.”
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver added in a press release: “This agency should be playing an important role in the future of our state, but has instead become mired in a bureaucratic morass.”
The governor’s office released a subsequent statement that the agency and its projects required a full review after their history of mismanagement. A critical audit report in 2006 cited widespread mismanagement and lack of accountability in the agency.
"I don't think you'll find many taxpayers who would fault a careful management approach with the SDA building program in light of the well-documented, deplorable history of waste and abuse in the schools construction program,” said the statement from Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman.
“Governor Christie refuses to allow a repeat of that kind of abject failure of accountability with taxpayer money,” he said. “I'm sure the history of the schools construction program concerns Assemblywoman Oliver and Assemblyman Diegnan, and they don't want to repeat the abysmal failure they witnessed in their earlier years in office.”