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Treasury Loses Slew of Longtime Administrators, Aides – and Valued Expertise

Retirements and job moves add up to loss of decades of experience in state budget matters

NEW Sidamon-Eristoff
Former State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff

The $33.8 billion state budget that went into effect last week was the last one for Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, who stepped down after ushering through the last six state budgets, all under Gov. Chris Christie.

But the treasurer’s departure is not the only high-level vacancy in a department that has over 3,100 employees, 10 divisions and a $200 million annual budget.

Charlene Holzbaur, the longtime director of Treasury’s Office of Management and Budget, also stepped down when the fiscal year ended on June 30 after serving in that capacity for the last 16 years. Also leaving was Robert Peden, the office’s longtime deputy director.

On the legislative side of the State House, two other notable figures who played key roles when it came to crafting the annual state budget in recent years also stepped aside at the end of the last month.

David Rosen, a longtime employee of the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, retired from state government after serving as the agency’s budget and finance officer since 2004. And George LeBlanc, who spent more than a decade as the budget director for the Senate Democrats’ Office, left on June 30 for a job at Rutgers University.

Taken together, those departures will cost the state decades of budget experience on both the executive and legislative levels, leaving key lawmakers and administration officials without trusted aides and behind-the-scenes officials.

David Rousseau, who served as state treasurer under former Gov. Jon Corzine from 2008 to 2010, said that beyond losing a treasurer, what state government will miss is “a group of people who understand the process and understand when things need to be done.”

“The change that will actually have the least impact is the treasurer,” said Rousseau, who now serves as vice president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey. “The overall loss is a group of people who normally are behind-the-scenes.”

Holzbaur leaves a tremendous void, Rousseau said. In all, she worked for six different governors from both political parties, a rarity for the position.

Rousseau said Holzbaur had the confidence to “tell a treasurer or to tell a governor, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” And the respect was mutual, he said.

“The confidence was there among treasurers and administrations to listen to her,” Rousseau said.

But if there’s any silver lining to all the turnover, it comes at a time when the budget is starting to recover after several years of unsteady performance coming out of the last recession.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that started July 1 opened with a $700 million surplus, roughly double the amount that was originally projected when Christie put forward his proposed budget back in February. The Christie administration in late June was also able to contribute an additional $212 million into the pension system than was originally planned, thanks to tax collections that outperformed revenue projections.

And after several years of falling well short of the state pension contributions that were promised as a result of a landmark 2011 public-employee benefits reform effort, the current budget calls for a $1.3 billion state payment, which is less than required under state law but would still be a record for the state in one fiscal year.

Sidamon-Eristoff could not be reached for comment for this story, but in a statement provided by Christie’s office he cited work on the public-employee benefits issue as one of the highlights of his tenure, which started in early 2010 shortly after Christie took office.

“I am deeply grateful to Gov. Christie for giving me the opportunity to serve the people of this great state as part of his administration,” he said in the statement.

Other highlights noted by Sidamon-Eristoff included drafting a more than $2 billion business-tax cut initiative and working on privatization initiatives affecting the state lottery system and the public-television network. The statement did not say what he planned to do next.

But Sidamon-Eristoff’s tenure also coincided with a period of volatility that saw several years of missed revenue projections, including during the 2014 fiscal year, when the state overshot its tax-collection estimates by more than $1 billion. That forced the Christie administration to delay property tax relief payments and reduce the payments into the pension system – which was a key component of the 2011 reform effort.

And it was also during Sidamon-Eristoff’s tenure that the state saw its credit-rating reduced on three different occasions by all three major Wall Street credit-rating agencies, leaving New Jersey with one of the lowest ratings of any U.S. state.

For now, Department of Treasury officials say the agency will be led by acting Treasurer Robert Romano, a deputy state treasurer who had been advising Sidamon-Eristoff on issues related to procurement, employee benefits, property management, public finance, and the lottery.

An attorney, Romano previously spent 20 years working for the state Attorney General’s Office, supervising the work of four different divisions of the office, including Treasury. He also served as the state’s deputy attorney general on matters related to the Department of Treasury.

When asked if Treasury is seeking a long-term replacement for Sidamon-Eristoff, a spokesman for the department said Romano would fill the role “for the foreseeable future.”

Leading the Office of Management and Budget as its acting director will be David Ridolfino, who has served as associate deputy treasurer since 2012. After starting his career with Treasury in 1985, Ridolfino has served as budget manager, chief fiscal officer, deputy director and director of the Division of Administration, Treasury officials said.

Rosen, meanwhile, will be replaced by Frank Haines, who had been serving as the assistant budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services. The Senate Democrats have yet to say who will fill LeBlanc’s position.

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