Service of who’s the Boss?

November 28th, 2011

Categories: Attitude, Boss, Customer Service


A friend who lives in New Jersey sent me this guest post.

It covers several vivid examples of frustrating civil disservice. In a period of high unemployment, with thousands willing to take the place of the rude, inefficient staff she describes, I wonder how these people keep their jobs. They also seem to have no idea of who the boss is.

She writes:

After the freak late-October storm, the debris from our decimated trees was piled so high along both sides of our narrow road that cars could barely navigate.  I called town hall to find out whether the township would be collecting the debris or if we, the homeowners, would need to find a way to dispose of it. I was told that the township would collect it all within three weeks. 

snowstormThe township underestimated how long it would take to collect the mountains of debris in our hard-hit town.  As our yard services collected leaves and put them in the road for collection, it became almost impossible to drive down our one-way road without damaging the car.  We were among the last in our town to have power restored, so I had hoped we would be among the first to get our branches collected.  A dream, as it turned out.  The county and the towns around us began to clean their streets, but we saw the piles get bigger as more deadfall and leaves came down and were added to the piles.

On the day before the three weeks expired, I came home to find my street blocked.  I didn’t mind because it meant the township was finally collecting the debris.  It also meant that all traffic had to go the wrong way up my one-way road.  So anyone leaving home and heading out the correct way was encountering a neighbor trying to get home and coming the wrong way.  With next to no road left to start with, it was a disaster. 

snowdebrisAt the end of the day, the crew had barely cleaned up in front of the first four houses.  Municipal employees are not known for working weekends, so I assumed it would be Monday before they resumed.  And at the rate they were working, it would take a week just to clean our road.  By then, town hall was closed so I called the police station to find out what information they had.

I got a snippy female desk officer who basically told me that the township was doing this out of the goodness of its heart and had no obligation to assume what should’ve been the homeowners’ responsibility.  So I should just be patient.  She repeated that over and over.   So I lost my cool, developed a little attitude of my own and finally hung up on her. 

The more I thought about what she’d said, the madder I became.  The officer’s attitude spoke volumes about the sense of “us” vs. “them” you see so often in local government.  And she clearly felt part of “us” – meaning municipal government — as opposed to “them” – meaning residents.

The municipal government is not some paterfamilias dispensing favors.  It comprises elected officials, who serve at the will of the residents, and municipal workers, who are hired to serve those same residents.  Their salaries and the costs associated with providing services are covered by the taxes we residents pay.  My township is in Essex County, NJ, which means those taxes are pretty hefty.  The township, then, is us – the people who reside there.  

The whole thing recalled a situation several years back.  One of our neighbors (a serial “flipper” who got caught when the economy headed south) tried to get four variances to subdivide an unsubdividable property. At one of the endless hearings, I found myself making a speech to the planning board members about the essence of their job:  to represent the rights of the many against the rights of the few.  Those of us opposed to the subdivision and what it meant for our neighborhood – the majority of households around the property in question – did not have the sense that the planning board understood that.  All too often lately, it seems that elected officials and the civil (too often uncivil) servants they hire forget who the boss really is:  We, the voting, tax-paying people.

Have you had such an experience with local authorities? Any ideas of how taxpayers can get efficient, cordial service from them? How do taxpayers cajole civil servants to do their jobs and represent their interest? Do you think they realize who the bosses are?



8 Responses to “Service of who’s the Boss?”

  1. GBS Said:

    We live in an exurban community that is on the cusp of becoming suburban, and indeed there already are a few stalwart souls who commute two hours each way to the city to work. (I suspect that they must nap easily on trains.)

    Like the blogger, those of us who have not lived in this community all our lives have our concerns as to whether our town government is doing as good a job looking after our interests as do their own.

    Especially annoying was when a few years ago, the town fathers won a close vote authorizing them to build a new school twice the size of what the town needed since many of us who live there, and pay the heaviest taxes to the township, either have no school-age children or children who attend school elsewhere. Our taxes tripled as a consequence.

    About a year ago, to my horror, I came across a county internet reference work, in which a description of our house makes it sound 1,000 square feet larger than it really is. I said to myself, “That must be part of why our taxes have gone up so much! They’ve got the appraisal wrong.”

    Eventually, with considerable trepidation, I went to see the town assessor at our town hall on one of the two days a week that her office is open to the public. Annoyed that she had taken the day off, I complained to our very pleasant town clerk. She suggested that I leave the assessor a handwritten note telling her what my problem was. I did.

    Three months passed. All of a sudden a bundle of incomprehensible papers, including floor and site plans and whatnot arrived in the mail with an also hand written note from the assessor saying, “Sorry I missed you. We’ve been looking for you to come in again. Do let us know where the discrepancy is.”

    Not being a surveyor, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to spend money on a professional to fix the problem, but I was sure that, having moved to town only 16 years ago, if I went with the papers to see her myself, I’d get eaten alive, and our taxes would go up still more.

    Finally, I went to see her. A cheerful looking woman, in her mid-forties, she greeted me with a grin and said, “We were about to come after you!”

    I began to explain our problem, and a sentence or two in, she said, “Hold it,” and pulling up our property’s profile on the computer, asked, “What square footage number do you have?” I showed her, and pointing to the screen she went on, “You see. That’s the same one we’ve got!”

    I stuttered, “But what about the county profile? It’s wrong.”

    She answered, “You know what it is like in _____,” naming the county seat, which suffers badly from urban blight, “They never get it right. If you have any problems, just come see me. We’ll get them straightened out.”

    Having dealt more than once with City Hall in New York City about real estate matters, give me a small town any day!

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your taxes also pay for the dummies in the county seat. Perhaps they might be removed or replaced to save you some money. I can send you a list of people who would love the work and do a far better job.

    You may be right about dealing with NYC, but waiting three months is nothing to crow about in what I take it is a tiny, sleepy town. What happened to her finger? Can’t she punch in a phone number? Sounds as though she had an inkling of what was going on from your note to her. In my opinion, she gets an F for timeliness, for printing so much unnecessary stuff that a lay person wouldn’t understand, wasting paper and postage when a call inviting you to her office when she bothered to show up would suffice. I am not impressed and place this person in the same column as those that the writer had problems with.

  3. ME Said:

    I agree with the writer but would like to share that my NJ township did nothing to clean up the debris from the storm. My parents paid over $1,000 to have branches/debris removed. Also, the electrician had to remove a tree from outside our home (at our expense) because Rockland Electric wouldn’t handle the removal of a power line from the tree. The writer is lucky that all of this was handled by the town (but I agree that the officer copped an attitude).

  4. Lucrezia Said:

    Not an easy question here since much depends upon the problem and the entities one deals with. Personally, I have had few problems with authorities, but when they arose, found a respectful and businesslike demeanor usually wins the day. That became highly apparent after representing myself in a local court and getting a speeding ticket dismissed. Other winners are persistence, record taking of events, and knowing where best to lodge a complaint.

    That helped when suddenly dumped by a credit card company for allegedly being the subject of a number of defaults, and credit problems, none of which existed. After threatening law suits (didn’t bother asking a lawyer)for defamation, and getting a credit report to substantiate contemplated action, the company retreated.

    Other sources of help, when appropriate, are elected officials. Nothing pleases them more to feel important and to visualize ensuing good publicity, not to speak of future votes! The main reason the late congressmen Ogden Reid (D-NY) & Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-NY) always won by landslides, was the help they gave to constituents. Fish said that when he was at home, there was always a line at the door by 7:45 a.m. I didn’t know Reid, but was told by a conservative Republican he was cut from the same cloth, and that he (the Republican) wouldn’t dream of voting for anyone else.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    In our town if one of our trees falls in the road we scramble to remove it so cars can get by and so we don’t get a summons. I bet that if the town crews come across the situation, in order to get by, they might shove the tree out of the way as they have the equipment.

    Like your parent’s home, we pay a tree man to do this if we’re first and of course for the removal of the debris. Our house is on a road. However, the main thoroughfare appears to be the responsibility of the town.

    The last year has been very hard on the east coast. Goodness knows what this winter will bring. The landscape around our house is hugely changed due to loss of trees in a late spring ice storm and we lost a huge number of limbs and small trees in the early October snow. If this keeps up we’ll all look as though we live in new developments built in fields. Breaks my heart.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Good advice, Lucrezia.

    It doesn’t sound as though the writer has the kinds of representatives that Reid and Fish were. I wonder if any of us do.

    And record-keeping is crucial, though a challenge when under stress by situations beyond control. The fact that so many homes were without electricity for so long after this surprise snowstorm would make it hard to focus on keeping notes but it’s still a good idea.

  7. Anonymous Said:

    With all due respect, it’s tough to muster sympathy for this problem when each week I have to choose between buying food and medication, or between paying rent and buying food. That’s a reality for me and millions of workers, possibly even the street-clearing workers you describe in your piece.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Yours is a terrible situation and as you point out, you are not alone.

    However I do not sympathize with people being rude or providing poor service because they do not feel they are sufficiently paid. To them I say, join the club, and do your job well and perhaps—though not necessarily—you will be rewarded with a better job with better pay.

    I also suspect that the workers in this New Jersey town are nicely compensated for the cleanup. It’s skilled and difficult work.

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