Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mayor's Visit Leaves Seniors Frustrated

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs did not deliver definitive news Tuesday (March 7, 2006) on the location of a new senior center, but did tell members the new owner of the present leased quarters wants to raise the rent.

Robinson-Briggs appeared before a capacity crowd of seniors for her second scheduled monthly visit. Last month, she upset seniors by saying there was no money bonded for a new building, but later said she was informed that funding was part of a note, not a bond issue. The $11.7 million note was sold Nov. 4, with proceeds going to the city on Nov. 10. Meanwhile, seniors have demanded to know what became of plans for a brand-new building on East Front Street near the leased space.

On Tuesday, Robinson-Briggs said she knew most of the seniors wanted a new center across the street, but she said her administration is looking citywide in a “balancing act” that will result in “what’s best for everybody,” citing the need for ratables to boost taxes.

If the city erects a new center downtown as seniors have demanded and been promised, the building would be tax-exempt. In one plan, a commercial strip was to be added to the building to bring in some taxes. But Robinson-Briggs and her cabinet members have insisted the past administration of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams left behind no documentation on center plans. Acting Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier met with the seniors’ building committee on Feb. 24 and is supposed to suggest an action plan Friday.

Meanwhile, the building at 305 East Front Street has been sold and the new owner wants a 5 percent rent increase and wants the city to pay for utilities, the mayor said.. The city sought a six-month or month-to-month lease, but the owner wants a one-year lease, she said.

The city’s 10-year lease for the center at 305 East Front Street expired in 1999, and the rent has increased to $100,000 annually. center president Charles Nelson said. Robinson-Briggs said the city is analyzing the possible costs for utilities.

Past president George Smith questioned how much the city has already spent readying the site where a sign proclaims the future center. The city acquired and demolished properties and spent money on surveys, he said.

“And now you’re going to build a bank?“ he said, echoing comments of others who said they heard Commerce Bank wanted the site.

Robinson-Briggs said she had no information about any such plans.

“No decisions have been made on anything,” she said.

Some members veered off the topic of the new senior center to fire off other questions about the new administration that took over Jan. 1.

--Member Jean Black asked about a new confidential aide to the mayor. Robinson-Briggs said her administration took one $90,000 position and split it up into two aides and costs of an information booth proposed for City Hall, which would be staffed by African-American youth and seniors.

When Black asked what the eliminated position was, the mayor said it was “something in Economic Development.”

--Rev. Robert Dixon said seniors were frustrated and felt disrespected when they expected to see the mayor at a center meeting and someone else showed up. Robinson-Briggs said on the day of the building committee meeting, she had been called to the Union County Prosecutors Office and could not attend.

--Rasheed Abdul-Haqq asked why police officers were on hand.

“Nobody down here wants to hurt you,” he said. “We don’t need police down here - they could be on the street.”

The meeting had one officer on hand when it started, later expanding to three. Robinson-Briggs said she didn’t request police presence and suggested they were just there “to hear what is going on.”

Robinson-Briggs also reacted to comments that she is being guided by Assemblyman Jerry Green, who is also the Plainfield Democratic Party chairman.

“I’m the mayor of Plainfield,” she said. “I have my own mouth.”

Robinson-Briggs asserted that such questions did not arise when men were supported by Green, but only when a female is in the mayoral position.

“I’m a strong black African woman,” she said, “I speak for myself.”

Regarding the transition between her administration and the past one, she reminded seniors that McWilliams had eight years and she only had two months. She also said she had been requesting a meeting since July (after winning the June primary) and only got “30 minutes in December.”

McWilliams recalled that Robinson-Briggs canceled at the last minute.

When quizzed about how one of her department heads can also be a Rahway City Council official, Robinson-Briggs said curtly, “ It’s legal. Have a good afternoon.“

Robinson-Briggs earlier stated she had canceled all her appointments due to the hospitalization of her mother and told the seniors she had to leave to be with her mother.

The mayor’s next scheduled visit with the seniors will be on April 4.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: seniors