Friday, September 29, 2006

Planners Memorialize Redevelopment Items

The Planning Board held a quick meeting Thursday (Sept. 28, 2006) to memorialize resolutions adopting a redevelopment plan for the East Third/Richmond tract and allowing senior centers to be a permitted use in the downtown and mixed use zones.

Barely a quorum showed up and the measures passed on votes of just four members. Asked why the board could not have memorialized the resolutions at next Thursday’s regular Planning Board meeting, Chairman Ken Robertson said he was requested to schedule the special meeting.

Obviously the fast-track pace of recent land use actions is meant to benefit somebody, but so far there has been no developer named for the East Third/Richmond tract. Dornoch Holdings has been showcased as the developer of the senior center site, with 63 condos above the center, but no site plan has been filed. Residents will have to stay tuned to see what the game plan really is.

The East Third/Richmond proposal originally called for up to 100 units per acre, but the board scaled it down to 84, with some consideration given for environmentally-friendly development. The proposal far exceeds the current density limits for townhouse or condo development, which is 10-12 units per acre, according to the resolution. Although not supported by the current zoning ordinance, the density is deemed necessary for “sound planning reasons,” the resolution states.

The resolution also glossed over the fact that the “in need of redevelopment “ study and the resultant plan were both on the Planning Board’s table on Sept. 7, in advance of the governing body’s review and approval. After a hectic week with two closed-door sessions, the City Council held a special emergency meeting Saturday to approve the plan and the senior center resolution.

The senior center resolution referenced the East Third/Richmond proposal in a way that Plaintalker could not follow. The resolution referred to senior “housing opportunities” while saying ”It is highly beneficial to their welfare to have all senior citizen activities consolidated in one location.”

However, the condos above the senior center have been described as selling at market rate, which would exclude all but well-to-do senior buyers. Condo prices for proposed developments have been quoted in the $325,000-$350,000 range.

Dornoch has proposed spending $15 million to finance the entire project at no cost to the city.

The resolution for the senior center linked the East Third/Richmond project by saying an “adjacent” block was to be rezoned to permit a senior center. The proposed senior center site spans both East Front Street and East Second Street.

While the public may not be privy to redevelopment plans, a posting on the city’s web site talks about four unspecified redevelopment proposals that may get consideration for “payment in lieu of taxes.” Obviously redevelopment negotiations are sensitive, but when will the public learn what the insiders already know?

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Busy Week Starts Tonight

The Planning Board will hold a special meeting tonight (Sept. 28, 2006)to memorialize two resolutions passed at its Sept. 21 meeting.

Tonight’s meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The resolutions are one recommending that the City Council adopt the East Third/Richmond redevelopment plan and one that amends the land use ordinance to make a senior center a permitted use in both the central business district and mixed use zones.

The East Third/Richmond plan calls for multi-family, high-density residential redevelopment with a small commercial portion on adjacent Cottage Place. The City Council held an emergency meeting without legal notice on Saturday to approve a redevelopment study and the plan. Initially, the council had been asked on Sept. 20 to approve both the plan and the study. But after a caucus behind closed doors, the council declined to act on either one, deferring action until Saturday.

Residents have questioned the need for such haste as well as how the Planning Board came to have the finished plan in hand at a Sept. 7 meeting to vote on the study alone. The Saturday meeting also fell on Rosh Hashanah, which some considered disrespectful

The senior center decision came Sept. 21 after about 50 seniors and mayoral mentor Assemblyman Jerry Green showed up, with the proposed developer and his team in tow. The only issue on the agenda was making a senior center a permitted use in the CBD and MU zones, but the discussion and comments drifted into site plan issues.

Next week, the council will change its schedule to meet on Tuesday (Oct. 3, 2006) and and Thursday (Oct. 5, 2006), because Yom Kippur falls on Monday. The council has scheduled its first budget meeting on Wednesday, which is also the date of the regular Board of Adjustment meeting. Thursday’s council meeting will also clash with the regular Planning Board meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Heed Maraziti on Redevelopment

Memo to City Council members: Check your April 2005 files for a handout on the redevelopment process.

All except Councilman Elliott Simmons, who took office Jan.1, 2006, should have the document that was presented by the prestigious attorney Joseph J. Maraziti Jr., an expert on redevelopment issues. The presentation fully covered all the steps and rationale for redevelopment decisions as allowed by state statutes.

In describing “Keys to Successful Redevelopment,” Maraziti cited the need for community involvement, sound planning, cooperation between council and Planning Board with a call to “raise the bar high” and exercise “leadership, vision and consistent message.”

Maraziti outlined three steps: Designation of a redevelopment area, adoption of a redevelopment plan and execution of a redevelopment agreement. The document includes several charts that define the process.

Now that Plainfield is faced with several fast-track developments, it is imperative that all – council, land use boards, citizens, property owners and politicians – know and adhere to the state redevelopment law. The council needs to consider its role and not exceed it. The same goes for the Planning Board and Board of Adjustment. Citizens need to know the underpinnings of city decisions and to make sure they meet the law. Property owners need to know their rights in the redevelopment process. Politicians must keep in mind the consequences of skipping steps.

In 2005, Plainfield had many various redevelopment projects in the works. The list included the former Macy’s block, the Marino’s tract, North Avenue between Park and Watchung avenues, the Downtown Station South project, the East Second Street study area, the East Second Street Neighborhood Commercial area, the Tepper’s Tract Plan, Block 612, Arlington Heights, Block 247, Block 316, 600 block of South Second Street, the 197 Properties plan and more.

For 2006, the highlights have shifted to “transit-oriented” development near train stations. North Avenue between Park and Watchung is now a prime target. Planners have also talked about combining the Downtown Station South study with the Block 316 area (behind Bill’s Luncheonette). Another target is the new East Third Street/Richmond Avenue section for an unspecified number of condos. The proposed senior center will now have 63 condos above.

A rejected proposal would have placed 64 condos on South Avenue, replacing an auto collision shop.

The city is now advertising on its web site for a redevelopment project coordinator. Candidates are expected to have at least four years’ experience in various redevelopment activities. For good measure, Plaintalker will gladly give the successful candidate a copy of Maraziti’s presentation.
Many Plainfielders seem to be ready for a gamble on change. The city needs more tax revenues, especially if legislators who oppose Abbott district school aid are able to curtail it. But many who have watched the process in recent weeks are worried that errors could trigger costly lawsuits or other unintended consequences.

As Maraziti states in outlining the sequential steps before making a redevelopment agreement – making a study, designating an area “in need of redevelopment and adopting a redevelopment plan – “These documents make or break the process.”

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, September 24, 2006

East Third/Richmond: The Project

A redevelopment plan for the East Third/Richmond Street site calls for high-density, multi-family development to encourage home ownership, with some open space and a commercial portion to serve the residents’ daily needs.

The next step is to seek proposals from redevelopers.

The Planning Board voted Thursday (Sept. 21, 2006) to approve as many as 84 units per acre. Developers could be allowed more if they show they will adhere to new environmental standards. The current maximum is 50 dwelling units per acre.

The proposed residential buildings could be as high as five stories, but the commercial buildings could only be two stories high.

The plan allows for no setback on the front of the residential project and only five feet to the rear and side.

All of the three blocks in question, bordered by the Raritan Valley Line track to the south, Richmond Street to the east and East Third Street to the north, would be deemed “potential targets for acquisition” by the city through eminent domain or “negotiated settlement.” Current owners would receive relocation assistance as required by state law.

The site is a bit outside of the optimum transit-friendly quarter-mile radius to a train station, but officials said a shuttle bus could help commuters catch the train.

The plan only pinpoints the east portions of two blocks slated for residential development, but last week planners asked for future studies to assess the rest of the blocks for redevelopment.

The Planning Board also agreed to ask the city to talk with Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority officials, who had plans to centralize administrative and operational functions on Cottage Place. The authority is the city’s designated solid waste and recycling agency and needs space to consolidate offices in addition to storage and repair of equipment. However, Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said last week having utilities at that location was not the best use of the land. Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said truck repair was not a permitted use anywhere in the city. The authority’s offices and equipment are currently scattered at several locations around the city.

Until a developer offers a proposal, the public won’t know exactly what is intended for the site. It will then be up to the city’s land use officials to make sure the proposal meets Plainfield’s goals for redevelopment.

--Bernice Paglia

RX for Development

COMMENTARY: I don't know anyone in Plainfield who opposes development in the city. Judging from the gaggle of developers hovering inside and outside meetings at City Hall lately, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that development will happen, and soon.

From the meetings I've attended over the past few months, not to mention the flurry that have been held in the past two weeks, it's clear that the city administration has been in talks with developers for quite some time. What's cookin'? To date we have only seen fleeting glimpses of the construction projects the Robinson-Briggs administration would like to realize.

What is missing from the public's view is The Plan. Call it the "vision thing." Residents I've been talking to want to know the administration's vision for the city and they are entitled to it. Unfortunately what manages to pop to the surface are several spot projects, yet no concrete overview has been presented to show how all the proposed new construction will come together to make a better city.

The absence of solid proposals publicly displayed makes it difficult for residents to form an opinion about the development direction the administration is taking. This week many decisions and votes were ram-jammed through council and boards -- often at overlong meetings with last minute additions to the agenda that pushed scheduled discussions into the wee hours. Given all that I've witnessed, it's my reluctant conclusion that obfuscation IS the plan.

At yesterday morning's (Sept. 23, 2006) "emergency" city council meeting one resident said, "Where's the fire?" The administration gave a justification for the lack of legal public notice for the 9:00am meeting -- forward progress needs to be made -- but to my mind that was hardly convincing. Over the past week it has become clear that members of the City Council, the Planning Board and the Board of Adjustment (Zoning) - are also concerned about the truncated process.

Thoughtful development is good and necessary for Plainfield, nevertheless the manner in which various projects are being pushed into the city without decent public review is, in my opinion, an appalling insult to all residents.

Thursday night's orchestrated presence of dozens of seniors in support of a new senior center felt a lot like bullying. The Planning Board had a full and important agenda of Master Plan review and decision-making but that work had to wait while grandstanding ensued about the supposed lack of respect for seniors.

In several different meetings one very active senior has urged "haste" in getting the senior center built. That falls in line with the interests of Dornoch Plainfield, the developer, who is giving the city the center for free in exchange for being able to build 64 condo units above it. Their stated intention is to break ground this winter. That may be good for Dornoch's business imperatives, but what does it mean for the public good?

Thursday night looked like a 'gotcha game.' After all, who wants to deny our seniors, especially when the city is now paying increased rental costs to the new owner of the current East Front street space? Furthermore, when Planning Board members raised serious questions about infrastructure issues like parking and traffic, several seniors bluntly pooh-poohed them. "Start (building) tomorrow." "You can work out the parking problems later," was typical of the comments. For development in any town, anywhere, that's a prescription for disaster.

Clearly the administration had been working hard to bring developers into town, but the result of those efforts so far have not been good. The mayor must be smarting over the Carfaro condominium project on South Avenue that went down in flames at the Zoning Board hearing on September 13. It was embarrassing to witness the developer's slip-shod presentation. The lawyer for Maxim Development fought to present additional information to follow-up questions raised in an earlier meeting only to have the new data prove to be riddled with bad math. It was a sorry showing with the hired planner continually apologizing to the board as he and his team yanked out calculators on the spot to figure out the accurate numbers.

Enough about the machinations in City Hall. Since we don't have an understandable city vision, let me offer some ideas for the administration, elected and appointed officials, and residents alike to keep in mind:

  • Demand excellence from all parties. That includes the Union County Improvement Authority (UCIA), individual developers, builders, architects, planners and any other key players brought into each project. City board and council members, too, should continually demand excellence within their own process.
  • The Robinson-Briggs administration should immediately release a detailed timeline on the city web site so that residents can see for themselves the Big Picture of development. Given everything in the pipeline I cannot imagine that such a calendar does not exist. Make the private public. This action will also help to explain the rare necessity for "emergency" meetings.
  • Residents and city representatives should reject initiatives that are merely "suitable," "adequate," "an improvement," or "good enough."
  • Mandate exceptional design and architecture that will ADD to the outstanding architectural character of the city. That's what brings new residents to the city's single family homes despite the school system and our reputation, deserved or not, for crime.
  • Council and boards should be vigilant for shortcuts in concept, design, construction methods, and building materials.
  • Pay attention to all the details: features like set-backs, garden areas within complexes, and the necessity for mixed use support businesses within or adjacent to new housing.
  • Do not short-change future residents by short-cutting state-mandated parking requirements.
  • Remember that deal sweeteners can have a downside and that "free" has always has a price.
  • Be wary of buzz words that may be employed to justify substandard or inappropriate use requests. The most abused term of late is "transit village."
  • Be sensitive about the impact of redevelopment on existing, thriving businesses whether they be retail or industrial. Involve them in planning. Work to avoid condemnation and forced seizure of property through eminent domain.
  • Do not be pressured to make hasty decisions. Poor judgment in development matters now will haunt the city for generations.
  • Anticipate the future of each piece of the development plan. Will the building become an asset or an albatross? Poorly thought out projects can quickly become a public blight.
  • Be extra vigilant when it comes to condominium proposals targeted for the urban heart of Plainfield. They won't be an easy sell, especially in a down-turning real estate market.
  • Require developers to provide a professional real estate analysis to understand specific local market forces.
  • Where is the green space? Make sure there is adequate parkland adjacent to new residences. "Peripheral green areas" and narrow side yards along property borders are not an adequate substitute for humans beings to enjoy the outside environment.
  • For large buildings, require private outdoor space in the form of balconies or terraces, for each residential unit.

    Council and boards have a difficult job to do in weighing the right course of action for Plainfield. We can't afford any shoddy projects. As my grandmother would say: Haste makes waste. Free has it's costs. Measure twice, cut once.

    Do we want the development work done right, or right now?

    Barbara Todd Kerr
  • Saturday, September 23, 2006

    East Third/Richmond: The Process

    In a special emergency meeting Saturday (Sept. 23, 2006), the City Council approved both the East Third/Richmond Street “in need of redevelopment” study and a redevelopment plan that calls for high-density, multi-family construction.

    There was no prior notice of the 9 a.m. meeting except a verbal announcement by Council President Rayland Van Blake at the end of the Sept. 20 meeting that it would take place. The council is relying on a Sunshine Law provision that allows for an emergency meeting with notice to follow.

    Before the council discussed the redevelopment study and plan, Councilman Cory Storch asked, “What would be the harm to the city if we didn’t have this meeting?”

    Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson cited the need to keep redevelopment moving in order the help the city’s fiscal position.

    Storch, who serves as City Council liaison to the Planning Board, said he voted “no” at Thursday’s Planning Board meeting on the study and plan and pressed for more information Saturday.

    Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said the goal was to avoid “unnecessary delay” and council members Rashid Burney, Linda Carter and Harold Gibson all said the issue had been discussed earlier this week. Storch then expressed a higher “comfort level” with the process, but ultimately voted “no” on the plan Saturday as well.

    Several residents spoke out on the process.

    Maria Pellum asked whether residents of the proposed redevelopment site were consulted and whether any playgrounds were included in the plan. A recent home buyer herself, she said, “I’m fed up with not having a place to take kids.”

    Pellum said the city doesn’t have good schools and playgrounds that taxpayers want.

    Dahlia Forbes agreed with Pellum’s comment and said prospective condo owners in new transit-oriented development will expect to have conveniences nearby.

    “I understand dollars and cents and the need to bring money here, but please think the process out. Think about the services they need,” she said.

    Tony Rucker called for more diversity in the ratable base, not just residential uses. He also questioned the process of the approvals, saying it was hard for the citizens to follow. Calling the council a “check-and-balance system,” he said, “Deliberation is a necessary part to make sure these ideas are good ones.”

    The Planning Board took up the study and plan late Thursday night and the public comment portion took place after midnight, by which time most people had gone home.

    Flor Gonzalez asked whether the city has made a housing study to determine where proposed high-density projects should go. She also predicted the two-bedroom condos would bring more children into the school district.

    Jamie Flanders asked, “Where’s the fire? What’s the last-minute meeting about?”

    He suggested that developers think Plainfield will just accept “cut-and-paste” redevelopment plans.

    Dottie Gutenkauf commented, “It’s hard to invite the community in helping to train horses, if the horses are already out of the barn.”

    She agreed with Storch that more development should take place west of the main train station than to the east. Saying the “in need of redevelopment” finding was “in fact to call it blighted,” she said the temptation is to apply the designation to broad areas that are not blighted. Families are displaced, she said, and the new project may become rentals instead of owner-occupied.

    “The rush of the process is my primary concern,” she said. “You act as if you are being chased by a herd of greedy werewolves.”

    Gutenkauf urged, “Let all of us look together carefully at what we are doing.”

    After public comment, Burney called for more public information on redevelopment proposals. Councilwoman Linda Carter said, “Many of us are not happy with the process,” and said the council needs time “so we can intelligently deliberate.”

    “Let’s not accept that every time a project has to be rushed, we have to have an emergency meeting.”

    For all that, the council will still not pass the redevelopment plan ordinance on second reading and final passage until Oct. 18. Asked why the council could not have passed it on first reading Oct. 5 and second reading Oct. 18, Williamson said there was a feeling “it needed to be completed.”

    --Bernice Paglia

    Friday, September 22, 2006

    Planners Fret Over Process

    Some Planning Board members were a bit dubious Thursday (Sept. 21, 2006) of the approval process for the East Third/Richmond redevelopment plan.

    “I think we’re stepping into a big hole here,” board member Ron Scott Bey said after confirming that neither the redevelopment study nor the plan had been approved by the governing body.

    The council rejected the redevelopment study because Planning Board recommendations were not included in the resolution. Had the council accepted the study, the next step normally would have been to authorize the Planning Board to make a redevelopment plan. But an ordinance to approve the plan was also on Monday’s agenda. The plan was already prepared when the Planning Board met Sept. 7 to discuss and approve the study.

    Officials justified the speedy process by saying an Aug. 23 resolution authorized the Planning Board to do both the study and the plan.

    On Thursday, Bey asked how the board could move forward when the council has yet to accept the study.

    “I agree this is not the best way,” Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said, but added the board could assume the council was going to accept the study.

    “If they don’t, it’s null and void,” Robertson said.

    The council is meeting at 9 a.m. Saturday (Sept. 23, 2006) in City Hall Library to discuss the issue.

    As the discussion went on past midnight Thursday, longtime Planning Board member Gordon Fuller asked, “Is there something happening that we don’t know about? Is this being sculpted for something?”

    No developer has been named as yet, but a June interlocal services agreement with the Union County Improvement Authority gives the agency the right to craft an agreement with a developer (with city approval, of course). UCIA attorney Ed Boccher looked on Thursday as the board discussed the plan, which allows for high-density, multi-family condo development with a commercial portion.

    Robertson apologized for bringing the matter to the board so late.

    “I don’t know if this is right or not,” he said, “but we’ve got to move forward.”

    Robertson urged the board to recommend that the council should adopt the plan.

    “We’re either doing the right thing or the wrong thing,” he said. “If we are doing the wrong thing, we’ve already done it.”

    --Bernice Paglia

    Planners Endorse East Third, Richmond Plan

    The Planning Board Thursday (Sept. 21, 2006) approved a redevelopment plan for Richmond Street that could place high-rise multi-family development on blocks now mostly dominated by dilapidated commercial properties.

    Officials said the City Council will meet at 9 a.m. Saturday in City Hall Library to consider the plan. On Monday, (Sept. 18, 2006) the council rejected a resolution and ordinance connected with the plan because Planning Board amendments to the “in need of redevelopment“ study were not given to all council members.

    The rationale for the Planning Board vote was that language in the Aug. 23 resolution on the site authorized both the study and the plan.

    In past redevelopment processes, council and Planning Board approvals followed a different plan, with weeks or months between the steps.

    At the Sept. 18 City Council meeting, Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier defended the simultaneous approvals, saying “I don’t want to hold things up. We’re not doing anything wrong.”

    On Sept. 21, the Planning Board made several amendments to the redevelopment plan. The plan will be presented to the council Saturday with the changes.

    It is not clear that the meeting Saturday will meet the 48-hour notice for special meetings, having been announced late Wednesday.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Seniors Rally For Center

    Seniors jammed City Hall Library Thursday (Sept. 21, 2006) to let the Planning Board know they want their new center to be built.

    “This is our coming-out party,” Assemblyman Jerry Green said, promising the seniors would attend every city meeting necessary to press their case.

    Green, also head of the local Democratic Party and mentor to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, met with seniors last week to orchestrate the turnout of more than 50 members, many in orange or green T-shirts with Senior Center logos.

    The center is now in leased space at 305 East Front Street, but members want a brand-new center across the street on city-owned property.

    A new senior center has been a staple of campaign promises for many years. Former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams held a ceremonial ground-breaking in May 2005, before losing the June primary to Robinson-Briggs. Currently, a Lakewood development group is proposing a $15 million project, with the center and a veterans’ meeting place at ground level and three stories of condos above.

    The only thing the Planning Board was considering Thursday was a change in permitted uses downtown to allow for a senior center. The developer will still have to submit a site plan to the board. But after senior Emily Washington reminded the board, “We will be back again,” the crowd broke into a refrain, “Again and again and again …”

    Even though there was no hearing scheduled, the board voiced concerns about the amount of parking proposed for the project. Developer Glen Fishman’s traffic expert, Maurice Rached, said 1.5 parking spaces per unit would be acceptable because of the proximity to mass transit. The city requires two parking spaces per two-bedroom unit.

    Fishman’s group gave a presentation similar to one given weeks ago at the senior center on the proposal. The only official action since then has been a City Council resolution that gave Fishman’s group, Dornoch Plainfield LLC, the right to go on the city-owned tract to make an environmental study of the site.

    The company proposes to put up the $15 million necessary for the project and would also fit out the 15,000-square-foot center, Fishman said Thursday.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Thursday, September 21, 2006

    Council Questions

    Questions abounded at Wednesday’s regular City Council meeting.

    Residents wanted to know why there was so much confusion over vital flood damage legislation that was brought up at the last minute.

    Council members went into an unusual 45-minute executive session to discuss undisclosed “emergent” issues. In open session, council members also asked for explanations of various administration decisions.

    North Avenue Historic District merchants asked why they could not get answers on proposed redevelopment of the blocks in which they had invested so much money.

    Nine months into the new administration, resident Tony Rucker asked why there was such a paucity of information on the city’s local cable channel and web site.

    Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs was not present to hear the concerns of the residents and merchants, but her cabinet members attempted to answer some.

    Public Works and Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said the flood damage information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to the city six months ago, but not in a form that spelled out what action the governing body had to take. The federal agency requested acceptance of flood plain maps, she said, but did not specify other legislation, she said. Neither she nor City Engineer Carl Turner was aware of implications for development in flood zones, she said.

    The issue on Monday was that the Planning Board as well as the council had to approve the flood damage ordinance, but that the Planning Board could only promise to endorse the ordinance, as its schedule called for approval after the Sept. 20 deadline. However, the item is not on the Sept. 21 Planning Board agenda, but may be approved Oct. 4.

    The North Avenue issue involves merchants and investors who took a chance on the troubled block across from the main train station that was marred by decay and neglect. Having created a new and thriving business district, the merchants want to know why they might be replaced by a new redevelopment plan that may call for their removal and relocation.

    Ruth Carrion, owner of a family investment project at 151 North Avenue, claimed her plans for redevelopment were thwarted by city decisions.

    “I feel like I was denied my rights as a citizen of the United States,” she said through an interpreter. The family claimed to have invested $500,000 in their project.

    Before the meeting, Plaintalker asked various merchants what they thought.

    Randy Briggs of XPress Mart said his family’s investment in the convenience store was up in the air.

    Merchants have been courted both by Latino activists and party politicians in days since the controversy broke.

    “People are walking up and down the street talking about it,” he said.

    At the meeting, Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, said “The business community wants to be part of development , but not in a token way.”

    Administration officials claimed that development issues were open to all and that it was a “public process,” apparently meaning citizens could keep track of stuff by checking legal notices.

    On Rucker’s concerns, McGee claimed the city web site was better than what was offered last year, but resident John Campbell noted McGee was not here last year.

    Campbell, a longtime observer of the political scene, said the administration so far has not been able to deal with city problems such as tree debris left over from summer storms.

    “I never saw bosses that can’t get subordinates to do what they were getting paid to do,” Campell said.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Wednesday, September 20, 2006

    Mayor Names Finance Director

    Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has appointed Tyshammie Cooper to serve as acting director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services.

    Cooper was formerly director of the Grants Administration and Compliance division in Jersey City. Her salary there was $65,505, according to the Jersey City personnel office. As one of three city department heads, she will receive about 40 percent more here.

    Cooper may serve 90 days in acting capacity before Robinson-Briggs must get City Council approval for the appointment. In January, the mayor appointed most of her cabinet in acting capacity. After former Administration and Finance Director Norton Bonaparte left in March to become city manager in Topeka, Kan., City Administrator Carlton McGee took on the added role. But his 90-day acting directorship ran out months ago with no new candidate in sight.

    Cooper will be in charge of the largest of the three departments mandated in the city’s special charter. Its divisions include purchasing, personnel, comptroller, municipal court, tax assessor, tax collector, health, social services, the Project Alert substance abuse program and the Senior Citizens Center. The other departments are Public Affairs & Safety, covering police and fire operations; and Public Works & Urban Development, which includes public works, recreation, inspections, engineering and economic development.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Two To Challenge Gibson

    Two people have filed to challenge Democrat Harold Gibson for the unexpired term of the late Citywide At-large Councilman Ray Blanco.

    According to the Elections Division of the Union County Clerk’s Office, Republican Deborah J. Dowe and Independent Robert F. Edwards met a 4 p.m. deadline Wednesday (Sept. 20, 2006) to have their names on the November ballot.

    Plainfield’s Democratic Committee chose Gibson to fill the vacancy shortly after Blanco died on July 28. But he can only serve until the Nov. 7 general election and must be elected to serve the balance of the term, which expires Dec. 31, 2008.

    The filings must be verified and are unofficial until Monday.

    If there are no challenges or glitches, the Democratic slate on the November ballot will be 1st Ward Councilman Rayland Van Blake and 2nd & 3rd at-large Councilman Rashid Burney, seeking re-election for four-year terms, and Gibson to serve out the unexpired term.

    Republicans fielded Arlington Johnson for the 1st Ward and former Assemblywoman Angela Perun for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. Dowe will now round out their slate.

    No independent candidates filed in April. Edwards will appear on the ballot with the slogan, “Open, responsible government.”

    Before the Aug. 4 Democratic Committee meeting, Hispanic activist Flor Gonzalez had called on the party to replace Blanco, the city’s first Latino councilman, with a Latino candidate. Latinos were counted in the 2000 Census as 25 percent of the city’s population and now are estimated to be a third or more. Union activist Christian Estevez and Gibson addressed the committee, but then former Mayor Harold Mitchell proposed a slate that excluded Estevez. Party Chairman Jerry Green told Estevez, “You have a career in the city,” but advised him to do more local political work.

    The City Council chose Gibson Aug. 23 to replace Blanco after being offered his name plus those of Hattie Williams and Sylvester Palin. The Democrats also forwarded Gibson’s name to the county as the party’s choice to be on the November ballot.

    The last day to register to vote in the Nov. 7 general election is Oct. 17.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Tuesday, September 19, 2006

    School Chief Seeks Council Support

    Schools Superintendent Paula Howard called on the City Council Monday (Sept. 18, 2006) to join with the district in backing education in Plainfield and resisting assaults on Abbott district funding.

    Howard got her chance to speak only after several delays and opted to hand out a report instead of subjecting the council to a PowerPoint display.

    Citing Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” Howard said, “It is time to put everything behind human capital.”

    She said many teachers and students are reading the book, which describes the effects of globalization on jobs, society, politics and individual lives. Students and workers now compete not only for success within a nation, but with each other globally, the book posits.

    “It is crucial and there is no time to waste,” she said.

    Plainfield is one of the poorest districts in the state and has struggled to meet state standards in math, literacy and other subjects. It has been decertified since 1988. Despite massive amounts of state aid, progress has been slow.

    “We are not where we want to be, but we are moving ahead,” Howard told the council.

    She said when she came to Plainfield, no elementary schoolchildren had attained proficiency or advanced proficiency in math, but now 90 percent were in those categories. Literacy scores were not as good, she said.

    Science scores moved ahead in the elementary schools, she said.

    Three district schools – Emerson, Cook and Cedarbrook – met “adequate yearly progress” under the “No Child Left Behind” standards. Howard said the district never had three schools meeting those standards.

    Howard also spoke about goals for safety and better attention to studies. A new policy calls for students’ cell phones to be turned off and out of sight during school hours. The district is also encouraging uniforms in all schools so students come to school “ready to work,” she said. Staff members must also dress appropriately, she said.

    The district has also formed “smaller learning communities” within the middle and high schools to improve students’ learning experience.

    Regarding Abbott funding, Howard said it would be an “extreme burden” for city residents if the state aid was reduced. The difference would have to be made up in property taxes.

    Currently, suburban towns pay most of their school costs through property taxes. But in Plainfield, the school tax levy is only a fraction of the cost, the balance coming from state aid.

    Howard called the possible shift “reverse Robin Hood” and said, “We are very concerned about this reverse Robin Hood.”

    Councilman Don Davis, who serves as liaison to the school board along with Councilman Cory Storch, said, “That Abbott money, if it ever stops – we haven’t seen a tax increase.”

    Davis called on the council to look for more ways to share services with the district to reduce costs.

    Howard also said the district has appealed $4.8 million of a $14.2 million deficit to the state. The shortfall came about after the state Supreme Court gave Gov. Jon Corzine permission to impose a “flat budget” on Abbott districts in May. Voters had already approved a budget increase in April, but the state insisted costs could not exceed those of last year, resulting in the deficit. The district has already taken part in the first round of hearings on the appeal, she said.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Council Faults Late, Incomplete Submissions

    More late or flawed submissions from the administration raised City Council anger Monday (Sept. 18, 2006) and once again, City Administrator Carlton McGee promised to do better.

    At Monday’s agenda session, the council was asked to approve a flood damage ordinance without which residents would not be able to get FEMA insurance. But the vote at Wednesday’s regular meeting would be based only on a promise of needed Planning Board approval.

    Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said he only found out Sept. 7 from a resident about the ordinance, which is under land use law a “development regulation” that needs Planning Board review. He was able to alert other officials and secure Planning Board review that same night, but the board will not grant approval until Sept. 21 or Oct. 4.

    Officials said they called FEMA to seek an extension, but were told the Sept. 20 deadline was final.

    Before considering the matter, the council held an unusual caucus for more than half an hour. Upon reopening the meeting, council members expressed shock and dismay at the dilemma and discussed it at length. But after Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson asked the council to rely on his opinion that they could go forward, the council agreed to put the matter up for a vote Wednesday.

    Another last-minute issue was the sale of $12.6 million in bond anticipation notes. The public’s first clue was a posting on the city’s web site dated Sept. 7 about electronic proposals being received on Sept. 14. City political observers wondered how the sale could be posted without council action.

    McGee said Monday he did not realize the notes were due in September. He said the city was lucky enough to secure the services of TKG & Associates on short notice to prepare the sale. Asked how TKG was selected, McGee said he knew them from previous ties to Jersey City.

    Williamson said it would have been catastrophic if the city had defaulted on the $15 million past debt.

    TKG was working without a contract, officials said.

    Councilman Rashid Burney said he wanted McGee to give a “one-page plan” on how to avoid such situations in the future and Councilman Cory Storch called for better communication so the council would not be asked to “do a rush job.”

    The council agreed to vote Wednesday on a resolution that would award $25,000 to TKG for services commencing Sept. 20.

    The third issue of timeliness had to do with a redevelopment study and plan for the Richmond/East Third site. At the Sept. 7 Planning Board meeting, members heard an “in need of redevelopment” study by Remington & Vernick Engineers of Haddonfield. The redevelopment process calls for the board to recommend such a study to the governing body for review. If accepted, the council may then ask the Planning Board to prepare and submit a redevelopment plan.

    However, on Sept. 7, the Planning Board members already had a redevelopment plan on the table. Although the plan was not on the Sept. 7 agenda, Planning Board attorney Michele Donato said the members would vote on the plan Sept. 21.

    At Monday’s council meeting, Storch, the council's Planning Board liaison, said only one of the Planning Board’s three recommendations were included in the resolution before the council. Besides accepting the study, the other two recommendations were to expand the study area and to engage in talks with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, which has major plans for offices and equipment facilities on the proposed redevelopment site.

    Then it came out that some council members had incomplete information.

    Based on the discrepancies, the council decided to pull both the resolution to accept the study and the ordinance to give initial approval to the redevelopment plan.

    The lapses left council members demanding answers about the apparent lack of communication within the administration that took charge Jan. 1.

    “Did you know all this was going on?” Councilman Don Davis asked McGee regarding the flood insurance issue.

    “No, I did not,” McGee answered.

    Over and over, administration and council cited a “lack of communication.”

    Davis said to McGee, “You definitely need more communication with each department head.”

    Noting there is a cabinet meeting every week, Davis asked, “And every week they’re not telling you certain things? You should be madder than us.”

    --Bernice Paglia

    Sunday, September 17, 2006

    Fancy Footwork With Redevelopment?

    When Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs held her 100-day report meeting at Washington Community School in April, developer Sal Carfaro was called to the stage and introduced.

    Plaintalker found it somewhat unusual that a person who was applying to land use boards for approvals would be showcased in this manner. It seemed to imply that Carfaro had an inside track for his proposals, which included one four-story, 64-unit building in the 800 block of South Avenue and possibly another four-story building in the 900 block.

    The plan was described at a July Board of Adjustment hearing as the “pioneer” project in the administration’s push for transit-oriented growth, meaning high-density buildings around train stations or other transit links.

    However, the board unanimously denied approval for a use variance on Sept. 13. Had Carfaro received the use variance to put a residential building in an industrial zone, he then would have gone on to seek site plan approval for that project and presumably would have pursued the second project.

    His options now are to drop the plans or to make a new application.

    If indeed the administration and mayoral mentor Assemblyman Jerry Green thought the board would green-light the project, either board members didn’t get the memo or they took their roles so seriously that they could not in good conscience grant the variance. Plaintalker thinks it was the latter, and board members are to be applauded for honoring the intent of the master plan and the tenets of good land use.

    A similar green-light situation came up inadvertently at the Planning Board, when the board met Sept. 7 to discuss and vote on an “in need of redevelopment” study for the proposed East Third/Richmond site. A slide popped up entitled “Redevelopment Plan” with the goal being high-density, multi-family housing and a commercial portion.

    In the stately minuet that is the redevelopment process, the “in need of redevelopment” plan was supposed to have gone back to the City Council if approved. The council could then accept or reject the board’s findings. If the site was found in need of redevelopment, the council could then direct the Planning Board to prepare and submit a redevelopment plan. The council would then have to accept the redevelopment plan before the site could be developed.

    Well, besides the slide up on the screen, there was a “Redevelopment Plan” dated Aug. 23 at each board member’s place. Attorney Michele Donato fended off questions by saying only the “in need of redevelopment” study was under consideration that night, but that the board would meet again on Sept. 21 to review the redevelopment plan. That presupposes council approval of the study Sept. 20 and council authorization to proceed to the next step, preparation and submission of a redevelopment plan.

    Could it be that instead of a stately minuet, we are looking at a lusty tango?

    As the song goes, it takes two to tango. The Board of Adjustment apparently sat one out in favor of principle and reason.

    The City Council has the next dance.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Saturday, September 16, 2006

    Hispanic Celebration Begins

    The opening night program Thursday (Sept. 14, 2006) for Hispanic Heritage Month featured personal comments and anecdotes by Latino Plainfielders before Union County College Provost Jose Adames gave an overview of immigration.

    “The Latino Presence in Plainfield” was dedicated to the memory of the late City Council President Ray Blanco, the city’s first Latino member of the governing body. Blanco died July 28 at age 50 of an apparent heart attack. Upon being chosen council president for 2006, Blanco had set a demanding standard of performance for both the council and administration. His special concerns were the city’s youth, its cultural life and responsive government.

    The celebration runs through Oct. 14 and includes a screening of Blanco’s film, “Black and White in Exile,” on Oct. 12. The full schedule may be seen at or on fliers available at the Plainfield Public Library.

    Among Latinos who spoke about their personal experiences in Plainfield, Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez had a word of caution for politicians who might want to exploit Latinos. With newcomers here from 23 Spanish-speaking countries now, she said, “It’s important for politicians to understand we are human beings.”

    Ivonne Martinez read a statement prepared by Fanny Jaramillo, who had laryngitis. Jaramillo traced Latino activism back to the 1970s, when the Spanish Community Organization of Plainfield served Latinos’ needs. She said since the closing of SCOP more than 20 years ago due to “external forces,” Latinos have become divided. The original influx, mostly from Puerto Rico, was followed by immigrants from Central and South America.

    “By unity, we will rewrite the history of Hispanics in Plainfield,” she said. “Ask every day, what have I done for the community.”

    Eva Rosas, director of the city’s Bilingual Day Care for the past 28 years, said the agency has kept its word to serve families and children.

    “We have a lot of excellent success stories,” she said.

    Rosas said when the agency reaches 30 years of service, she wants to bring back its graduates, who now number more than 5,000 individuals.

    Christian Estevez said he was born and raised in Plainfield, but said, ”My story begins in the Dominican Republic.”

    His grandparents’ success there was marred by having the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo in charge of everyone’s fate and the family fled to Puerto Rico, then to the Bronx before deciding to move to “the country.”

    “The ‘country’ was Plainfield,” he said.

    Born in Muhlenberg Hospital, he was taken home to nearby Lenox Avenue. Both he and his sister attended the Bilingual Day Care Center.

    Raised in a union family, he grew up participating in strikes, parades and pickets, he said.

    In 1974, most of Plainfield’s 1,500 Latinos were Puerto Rican and schoolmates assumed he was also. Estevez said his mother told him he was Dominican.

    Living mostly among African-American migrants from the South, he said, “We did things as a community.”

    Estevez said in school he learned a lot about African-American heritage and struggles. In college, he took up Latino studies.

    “That’s the way that we come into partnership with each other. We are all proud of our heritage,” he said.

    Now a union organizer, he has his own house and family in Plainfield.

    “My dream has come true,” he said.

    Adames began his remarks by saying, “The history of immigration is a drama repeated over and over again.”

    He said Plainfield is a microcosm of national change that will result in more and more Latinos in the population, both from immigration and from a higher birth rate.

    “New immigrants arrive every day,” he said, noting many come not only from the same country with family help, but even from the same neighborhood or block in their native land.

    Adames referred often to statistics complied by the Pew Hispanic Center (see The shifting demographics have caused alarm in some communities. He said there is a need for a “new language and dialogue” to promote understanding.

    After tracing some of the local Latino institutions and leaders over the years, he said, “There is a need for an oral history of Latinos in Plainfield. There is also a need for unity.”

    Assemblyman Jerry Green, who also heads the Democratic Committee in Plainfield, listened attentively to the entire presentation and stayed on for the reception afterwards. After Blanco died, some Latinos urged the Democrats to choose a Latino successor on the council. Estevez applied for the vacancy, but the Democratic City Committee selected former city administrator Harold Gibson.

    Both the politics and the impact of proposed redevelopment on Latino merchants have become issues that Latinos are now organizing around. The 2000 census found that one-quarter of the population in Plainfield is Latino, but observers feel the number is now one-third or more.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Friday, September 15, 2006

    Sex Offender Ban Criticized

    Having chosen the Planning Board over the City Council on Sept. 7, Plaintalker missed an impassioned plea by city resident Joan Van Pelt for the council to reconsider legislation that would effectively ban registered sex offenders from moving into the city.

    The ordinance prohibits registered sex offenders from residing or loitering within 2,500 feet of any park, playground, school, recreation area, day care facility or school bus stop in Plainfield. With 88 such locations listed on a map of the six-square-mile city, the zones cover it entirely.

    The ordinance was introduced last month by Councilmen Rashid Burney and Don Davis and Councilwoman Linda Carter. It was withdrawn to remove language including Tier 1 offenders, who pose the least risk. It was introduced again on first reading Sept. 7 and will be up for second reading and final passage on Sept. 20.

    This week, Plaintalker listened to the tape of the council meeting to catch up.

    Van Pelt said the ordinance not constitutional in any other towns and has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. She asked whether Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson had given thought to the cost of defending challenges to it.

    Van Pelt said when such a law was passed in Iowa, one-third of the registered sex offenders “disappeared off the face of Iowa” by assuming other identities.

    Currently, she said, in Plainfield, authorities “know who they are and know where they are.”

    If the new law passes, she predicted, authorities will not know them and the result could be “a myriad of litigation over a long period of time.”

    Van Pelt questioned the inclusion of Tier 1 offenders, giving the example of young adult male who has sex with an underage girl, a kind of liaison she described as “youthful indiscretions.” Tiers 2 and 3 are considered more at risk of committing more sex offenses. Burney pointed out the ordinance had been revised to exclude Tier 1 offenders.

    In another argument, Van Pelt said the proposed ban was based on “a feeling that all sex offenders are abducting people off the street and doing terrible things to them.”

    “The majority do not fall into that category,” she said.

    She urged the council to make a study of who are considered sex offenders and their rate of recidivism “before you do something that would damage Plainfield’s reputation as a welcoming, understanding community that is not going to bar people for un-rational reasons.”

    She noted the ban would do nothing to prevent people coming neighboring towns to “snatch children from the streets of Plainfield.”

    Burney disagreed with many of her points, saying 40 towns in New Jersey have similar legislation and it has been upheld as a constitutional extension of Megan’s Law. Nationwide, he said, 14 states have enacted such laws.

    “I’m tired of Plainfield being a dumping ground,” he said.

    Burney said the new law makes sense “for the children of Plainfield” and will not cause registered sex offenders who already live in the city to move out.

    The public will have a chance to speak for or against the ordinance before second reading and final passage. The Sept. 20 meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Thursday, September 14, 2006

    Zoning Board Denies South Avenue Condo Project

    Zoners unanimously rejected a 64-unit South Avenue condo proposal Wednesday (Sept. 13, 2006) after board members and residents disputed experts’ testimony on its viability.

    Maxim Development Group sought to demolish an existing auto body shop to build the four-story complex, in what had been hailed as the city’s first major transit-oriented redevelopment project. The site, owned by Maxim principal Sal Carfaro, is within a quarter-mile of the Netherwood train station and has a New York bus stop across the street.

    Based on the theory that purchasers of the condos would only need one car, Maxim sought approval for 107 parking spaces instead of the 148 required. The application also asked for relief from requirements for balcony and back yard space and to allow the residential use in a light industrial zone. The site is bounded by South Avenue in front, the Raritan Valley Line behind, the Plainfield Public Works city yard on the left and a home repair company on the right. One-bedroom units would sell for $325,000 and two-bedroom units would be priced at $375,000.

    Speakers doubted that buyers would pay such amounts for a condo when full-scale homes with yards could be had in the city for about the same price. Some objected to the residential use, saying the city needs more industry, not housing. Others were dismayed by statistics based on formulas that said the project would produce only 16 new schoolchildren.

    After planning expert Michael Jovishoff launched into a report on the project’s fiscal impact on the city, board Chairwoman Sally Hughes pointed out math errors and Jovishoff had to revise the numbers during a break. Once the errors were fixed, the estimated tax revenues less municipal costs to serve a projected 120 new residents dropped from $700,000 to about $200,000.

    “The bottom line is that there is a net fiscal benefit to the community,” Jovishoff said.

    But board member Lee Gallman objected to the calculations, saying, “The sample that you used does not reflect anything about Plainfield.”

    Resident Tony Rucker challenged the formula’s premise that 20 one-bedroom condo owners would have only .099 children and 44 two-bedroom owners would have .314 children.

    “Plainfield has a problem of overcrowding,” he said, saying there was nothing to restrict people from having “two children in half the apartments.”

    Resident Dottie Gutenkauf asked why Jovishoff felt there was a strong market for condo purchases now, when major newspapers reported the opposite. Jovishoff said his answer was based on his experience.

    Jim Jacocks, who has a business next to the site, said, “I’m totally against this project, because what Plainfield needs is more jobs, not more residents.”

    Bill Hetfield, a real estate appraiser, broker and property manager, cited the lack of a marketing study to back up the projected $23 million in sales.

    Others said the residents would lack shopping and personal services near the proposed site and objected to the developer’s outright rejection of a mixed-use project on the site.

    Attorney Donna Jennings summed up for Maxim, saying, “It’s the first step – you’ve got to start somewhere.”

    Jennings said retail development could be brought in later.

    But Hughes led off the board members’ statements by calling Jovishoff’s report “woefully inadequate.”

    "The quality of this report is atrocious," she said.

    She praised residents for raising “excellent questions.”

    “Yeah, you do have to start somewhere,” she said, but added the proposal did not fit the master plan or the zoning ordinance and she was not in favor of it.

    Amelia Mapp, William McNeill, Gallman, Liz Urquhart, Melvin Cody and Claudette Lovely-Brown also gave reasons why they were not in favor and all voted to deny the application.

    Carfaro had no comment on his next move, although some board members suggested he could come back with a new, revised application.

    The new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs is counting on transit-oriented development and has endorsed another plan to put 62 condos on East Front Street on three floors above a new senior center. A Lakewood developer, Glen Fishman, said he will finance the $15 million proposal himself. The City Council agreed in August to let his company, Dornoch Plainfield LLC, make an environmental and geotechnical study of the city-owned site.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Tuesday, September 12, 2006

    Hispanic Heritage Month

    Plaintalker ventured downtown Saturday and encountered Tom Kean Jr. working the 6th Annual Hispanic Festival.

    There was not a large turnout, but those who attended seemed enthusiastic.

    Attendees received free hot dogs and cotton candy.

    At 1 p.m., the program started with a march from Watchung Avenue to Park Avenue, with the American flag at the front and various Central and South American flags carried behind.

    The marchers assembled at a bandstand provided by the Union County Board of Chosen freeholders. The national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance were followed by remarks by Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez. Gonzalez spoke in remembrance of the late City Council President Ray Blanco, who suffered an apparent heart attack on July 28. White doves were released in his memory.

    Blanco will be remembered again on Thursday when 15 more events will be dedicated in his honor. The events will include films, music and dance, a read-in of banned Latin American authors, food sampling, an art exhibit and storytelling for children.

    Perhaps most significant for the city will be the opening night program, "The Latino Presence in Plainfield."

    It will be from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Plainfield Public Library, 800 Park Ave. Jose Adames, assistant vice president of Union County College's Plainfield Campus, will speak.

    At the time of the 2000 census, the Latino population was reported as 25.2 percent, but some feel it was under-reported. Since then, it has grown to where more than 50 percent of incoming kindergarten children come from Latino homes. Plainfield's early Spanish-speaking presence was mainly from Puerto Rico, but then the city and the nation saw an influx of immigrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central and South America.

    Nowadays, there are many more Mexicans coming to the United States.

    Getting to know the new neighbors and their diverse cultures has been a struggle for many Plainfielders. Issues such as day laborers congregating downtown and business owners hiring only their own kind have caused friction. Blanco succeeded in winning City Council approval to form a Hispanic Affairs Commission, which so far has no appointees.

    Meanwhile, the roster of events is very timely for all Plainfielders who want to know more about this burgeoning segment of the population. Sponsors are the Cultural and Heritage Commission and the Plainfield Latino Coordinating Committee, with Union County Colege's Plainfield Campus and Student Government Association as co-sponsors.

    The sponsors have posted blogs in English and Spanish for more information and updates. See or for the full schedule and updates.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Saturday, September 09, 2006

    Budget Talks Begin Soon

    The administration has presented the City Council with a $65.5 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

    Of that amount, $43 million is to be raised from local property taxes, with the balance coming from various forms of aid and grants. According to city officials, the proposed budget reflects an 8.22 percent tax increase, or $305.10 on an average $113,000 home. To offset the increase, the city has asked for $2.9 million in state aid.

    The tax rate per $100 of assessed valuation would increase from $3.099 to $3.370 under the proposed budget. The council will now begin budget deliberations and the final budget may be lower.

    At the Sept. 5 City Council meeting, Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya said the increase was largely due to a $1.7 million increase in salary and wage costs, another $1 million each in pensions and health benefits and $430,000 in debt service.

    On the other hand, revenues had shortfalls of $500,000 in sales of municipal assets, $66,000 in code enforcement charges and $143,000 in court fines, he said.

    Police and fire costs – the city’s main expenditure - went up from $20,570,267 in FY 2006 to $22,225,674 in FY 2007.

    The City Council set a schedule for budget meetings that was supposed to start July 11, but so far no meetings have been held.

    Last year, the council began meeting in July to discuss the budget. But in late fall, the council decided to put off budget decisions until the incoming administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs was able to give input. The council passed the budget at the end of January 2006.

    In July, the City Council had to set a temporary tax rate by state mandate. The rate was $3.188 per $100 of assessed valuation, a 2.87 increase over the past year’s tax levy and a 5.66 increase over the first and second quarter tax assessment for FY 2006. So taxpayers will now owe only a portion of the proposed increase, because they have already paid $101.70 per $100 toward the increase. February and May tax bills will reflect only a $203.40 increase on the average $113,000 house, if the proposed budget stands.

    These budget stories are notoriously hard to report. There is the discrepancy of the calendar year versus the fiscal year plus the various iterations of the budget during council talks. Plaintalker will try to follow the action and report on the results.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Friday, September 08, 2006

    Planning Board Surprise

    A slide show revealed a bit more than intended at Thursday’s Planning Board meeting.

    The images were meant to lead the board through an “in need of development” study of the proposed Richmond Street and East Third Redevelopment Area. As Plaintalker reported on Aug. 30, the report did find the targeted properties all in need of redevelopment due to dilapidation or other criteria in the state Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.

    But just before planning expert George Stevenson reached the last slide, one titled “Redevelopment Plan” flashed on the screen.

    Board member Donna Vose asked for another look and Stevenson returned to the errant slide, which listed “high density multi-family development” as the goal for most of the target area, with a small commercial section on the remaining portion.

    By coincidence, each Planning Board member had a document entitled “Plan for Redevelopment” at his or her place, even though Stevenson had painstakingly explained that the redevelopment process called for the governing body to authorize a study by the Planning Board, which then returned to the governing body for approval or rejection. If the study was accepted, the governing body could then ask the Planning Board to “prepare and submit” a redevelopment plan.

    Curiously, the redevelopment plan was dated Aug. 23, the same date as when the City Council authorized the “in need of redevelopment” study.

    Although planning officials stressed the many steps in the process, Planning Board attorney Michele Donato said the board would review the redevelopment plan on Sept. 21.

    “The plan itself is not on this evening’s agenda,” she said.

    According to a public notice, the meeting was to include a public hearing on the study alone.

    Before the public spoke, board members questioned the criteria for selecting the properties in the study, saying others could have been included.

    Councilman Cory Storch, the governing body’s representative on the board, also said he had not seen any specific plans “until tonight.”

    After some discussion, the board decided to recommend the study’s findings to the council, but also to add a recommendation to expand the study area because some surrounding properties seemed also to meet the study criteria. The board will also recommend that the council and administration will include the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority in talks on future plans.

    Besides the seeming telescoping of the redevelopment process, the other main issue emerging from the meeting was that the PMUA had major plans to construct corporate offices and to consolidate its equipment and repair facilities in the target area. But after PMUA Chairwoman Carol Brokaw spoke about the authority’s plans to have offices and consolidate equipment and make repairs all in one location, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said truck repair was not permitted anywhere in the city.

    Among interested onlookers were members of the venerable Thul family, whose business in the target area goes back 100 years, according to Larry Thul. Patriarch Frederick Thul, 85, said the family increased its store and machine shop business to seven store locations.

    But he said, “I think there’s something cooking here.”

    Larry Thul said, “It’s very suspicious to me.”

    The family real estate firm rents land to the PMUA and Larry Thul said he wondered whether the city wanted to “pull the rug out” from the PMUA or acquire his property by eminent domain.

    Storch, forced by a conflict Thursday to pick the Planning Board over a council meeting the same night, asked for the council to initiate discussions with the PMUA on their plans.

    In the end, the Planning Board agreed to recommend the study’s findings to the council, to recommend that the study area should be expanded and to have the council and administration enter into talks with PMUA on plans for the properties.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    Inspection, Construction Fees Withdrawn Again

    Proposed ordinances to increase inspection and construction fees were withdrawn for a second time Tuesday (Sept. 5, 2006) and several real estate agents called for them to be dropped altogether.

    Last month, the City Council agreed at the agenda session to vote on the ordinances, only to have them withdrawn at the regular meeting. This time, they were on the printed agenda, but withdrawn at the agenda session. Members of the real estate community called for a meeting with the administration to review the increases, which they said would damage their industry.

    The city’s Certificate of Compliance program calls for an inspection at the time of a home sale or transfer of an apartment to a new tenant. The property owner is responsible for requesting an inspection and either the buyer or seller of a property or a landlord must bring the dwelling unit up to property code standards. The current fee is $50 per unit, but the proposed ordinance would increase it to $175, or 350 percent more.

    Construction fees would see similar increases.

    Wilma Campbell of the John C. Campbell Agency called the ordinance “a very bad piece of legislation” that would also adversely affect seniors trying to sell their homes.

    On the proposed construction fee schedule, she said, “I think it’s going to drive developers away from the city.”

    John Campbell called the fee schedule “off the chart” and said while other cities have amenities such as waterfronts and other attractions, Plainfield’s main draw is its “very rich housing stock.”

    “Don’t shoot a spear through the heart” of the real estate industry, he urged.

    City Administrator Carlton McGee said the ordinances were being withdrawn “not because they’re not needed,” but because “the administration is prepared to talk about this some more.”

    The city has been struggling with how best to improve the Inspections Division and in response to resident Helga Roberts, McGee said the division is understaffed and under-funded.

    Robertson said she has been reporting code violations for 38 years and sees no improvement.

    “We’re going to have to invest money in code enforcement,” McGee said.

    The cost may be borne either by those who use the system, such as real estate agents and landlords, or by taxpayers in general, he said.

    “It’s a question of who pays for it,” he said.

    Another pitfall in raising the Certificate of Compliance fees is that the property owner or landlord must request the inspection.

    Resident Dottie Gutenkauf said she was glad the fee schedules were pulled, because they were “pretty steep.”

    But in terms of how the fee schedule would kick in, she said, “If the landlord doesn’t tell you, you don’t know.”

    The City Council’s next agenda session is Sept. 18, at which time a revised version of the fee schedules may be brought back. The next regular meeting after that is Sept. 20.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Bulletin: Tonight's Topics

    The City Council will reconsider several ordinances that were withdrawn last month.

    They include one to increase Certificate of Compliance fees by as much as 350 percent; a second one to increase building fees; and another to make virtually the entire city off limits to registered sex offenders.

    Nagy Sileem, assistant director of the Department of Public Works and Urban Development, is scheduled to discuss the proposed new fees.

    The council will consider a request to pay attorney Angelo Genova an additional $22,000 for his work in defending the city against a challenge to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' qualifications. A group of citizens claimed she did not meet the special charter's residency requirements for mayor. But a judge sided with the defense, saying the mayor had lived in the city for four years over a period of time and the charter did not specify that the residency had to be immediately preceding a run for the office. The council previously approved $7,500 for Genova in February and $17,000 more in June for the same case.

    The agenda session is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library and the regular meeting is 8 p.m. Thursday in Municipal Court.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Public Is All Ears Over New Seating

    Tonight's agenda session may feature a new seating system in City Hall Library that has the City Council literally facing the public.

    The council members formerly sat around a long table, with the city administrator at the head, flanked by the city clerk and corporation counsel. The public sat in chairs around the perimeter of the room.

    Last month, after waiting for a lengthy closed session to conclude, the public entered the library to find the council table backed up against the east wall in front of the Jonas Lie mural. A small table for visitors faced the council, with a table for the mayor, city administrator and corporation counsel to the north and one for the city clerk and assistant to the south. Chairs for the public (seemingly fewer than before) ranged mainly around the west wall, where aging air conditioners made enough noise to make hearing difficult.

    Several developers were on hand to make presentations, but their backs were to the public and their displays faced the council. Previously, presenters came to the end of the long table and displays could be seen by both the council and the majority of the public.

    The arrangement is said to be an idea of the late City Council President Ray Blanco, whose goal was to have the council meetings televised. Blanco made other innovations since becoming president on Jan. 1. He won council approval to change the traditional Monday meeting schedule and also developed a 28-page "Rules of Order" guide for the council. Midway through the year, green-shaded brass lamps appeared in front of each council member in another innovation.

    Blanco died on July 28 and did not see the new seating arrangement's debut on Aug. 21. It will be up to his colleagues to see whether it really works.

    "The major problem in the City Hall Library has always been the lack of an adequate sound system," resident Dottie Gutenkauf said. "Until that is dealt with, the public won't be able to hear what is being said no matter what the seating arrangements are."

    Gutenkauf said Blanco acknowledged that problem.

    A frequent attendee at meetings in City Hall Library, Gutenkauf said it is "almost impossible" to hear what is going on not only at council meetings, but also at Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment meetings held there.

    Gutenkauf said public officials need to keep in mind that discussions and proceeedings at a public meeting are supposed to be audible to the public.

    "If they're not, it feeds a cartain kind of paranoia the community doesn't need," she said.

    "If you have a mike, use it! If you don't, speak up!" she said.

    Gutenkauf said getting a proper sound system in City Hall Library should be a priority.

    The new system usurps Plaintalker's favorite seat - on the east side, away from the "white noise" that emanates from the air conditioners and obscures the human voice. Anybody got an ear trumpet?

    --Bernice Paglia

    Saturday, September 02, 2006

    New Youth Commission, Other Boards, Get Members

    A new Youth Commission created in March now has its first members.

    Its goals include fostering communication between city youth and the administration, giving young people experience in working with government and encouraging them to serve on boards and commissions.

    Members Devon Walcott, Chandra Wright, Michael Wright Jr. and the Rev. Shannon Wright were nominated by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and approved by the City Council on Aug. 23. All except Rev. Wright will serve four-year terms concurrent with the mayor. As an adult member, Rev. Wright will serve a two-year term ending Aug. 30, 2008.

    The Wrights are all in the same family.

    The commission is empowered to have 15 members, including 11 city residents between the ages of 15 and 19 and four members of the public at large over the age of 21. The adults are to include two City Council members. The youth members include two direct mayoral appointments and nine recommended to the mayor by the City Council.

    It is unclear whether the commission has enough members to meet as yet.

    The ordinance establishing the commission calls for selection of a chairperson and vice chairperson from among the youth members, a secretary from the adult members and an assistant secretary from the youth members. The commission may request an annual budget of $20,000.

    The appointments are the first since the late City Council President Ray Blanco rejected mayoral nominations because they were not submitted to the council in a timely way. Blanco put his foot down at the July 19 meeting, using his power as president to have proposed appointments withdrawn from the agenda. Blanco died July 28 of an apparent heart attack at age 50.

    Robinson-Briggs did not submit all her previous nominees in August, but in addition to the Youth Commission members the council approved the following:

    --Eugene L. Dudley to succeed Frank D’Aversa as Alternate No. 1 on the Green Brook Flood Commission.

    --Peter R. Briggs Jr. as the mayor’s designee on the Plainfield Cable Advisory Board and Dorothy Gutenkauf for an initial three-year term. Briggs is the mayor’s husband and will serve concurrently with her term. The board was established about two years ago but never filled. Its role is to oversee the operation of the city’s local cable channel. It is supposed to have 11 members.

    --Former City Councilwoman Elizabeth Urquhart, nominated in July for a seat on the Citizens Advisory Committee, was instead approved Aug. 23 for a four-year term on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, replacing Ivan Flores. Also named to the Zoning Board was Claudette Lovely-Brown, succeeding David Graves for an unexpired term ending Jan. 1, 2007.

    Cultural and Heritage Commission members Joseph Da Rold and Ethel Washington were reappointed and Indira Bailey was approved, all for three-year terms.

    The city still has numerous vacancies on boards and commissions. Names offered in July to reconstitute the Human Relations Commission were not presented in August. The council approved formation of an Hispanic Affairs Commission some time ago, but so far no members have been named.

    Residents who want to serve on boards and commissions can pick up a form at the City Clerk’s office or download it from the city’s web site.

    --Bernice Paglia

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    City Still Lacks Finance Director

    Eight months into the new administration and two months into the new fiscal year, there is no permanent finance director.

    Of three department heads mandated by the city’s special charter, the director of Administration & Finance heads the largest number of divisions. Due to a reshuffling by former Mayor Mark Fury more than a decade ago, the department includes social services as well as the tax collector, tax assessor, comptroller, audit and control and others in key financial roles.

    When the administration changed Jan. 1, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs appointed former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte to serve as finance director in acting capacity. Bonaparte left the city in March to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kan. and since then, Carlton McGee has been both city administrator and acting finance director. The city’s 90-day limit on acting positions ran out in June for the finance director post, but officials downplayed the lack of a permanent director.

    The Robinson-Briggs administration must soon unveil the 2006-07 budget, the first one of its own creation since the mayor took office halfway through the past fiscal year. While the city administrator is charged in the charter with helping the mayor put together both current expense and capital budget, budget information flows through the finance department.

    In early July, mayoral mentor and Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green said the city was looking for someone with “multiple talents“ in finance and administration to head the department.

    “We have expanded the search outside the city,“ he said then.

    Green said the administration was hoping to have someone on board within 60 days.

    That’s right about now.

    --Bernice Paglia