Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Council Weighs Budget Requests

City Council members reviewed budget requests for the Police Division, Public Works and Inspections Tuesday (Oct. 31, 2006) and set four more dates for budget talks.

Some other division heads waited for more than an hour to be heard, only to be sent home for lack of time. Planning, Engineering, Recreation and other divisions will be rescheduled. Tentative dates are Nov. 8, 13, 27 and Dec. 5.

The administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2007 reflects an 8.2 percent increase in municipal taxes. The council can amend the budget, but so far is still gathering information on departmental requests and has made no recommendations for cuts.

Even so, the discussions Tuesday emphasized council concern for justifying the budget requests.

On Police Division costs, overtime and administrative costs were issues.

Police Chief Edward Santiago said the administration cut the police budget by $1.3 million, but he hoped the council would reinstate at least $327,000 for salaries including overtime as well as operational costs and funding the Narcotics Bureau.

Behind the numbers, the main issue was dividing tasks between civilian staff and sworn officers. Santiago said 30 percent of detectives had to type up their own reports due to lack of secretarial staff.

The cost of radio and phone services also emerged as a concern, but police officials said they get a special public safety rate that is much lower than regular charges for cell phones.

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said he is studying a restructuring of police administration to reduce the ratio of superiors to rank-and-file officers.

The council thanked Santiago for a set of handouts backing the issues, but asked for a return visit after the council has a chance to review the information thoroughly.

Public Works Superintendent John Louise gave a forthright presentation, reminding the council that recent purchase of specialized equipment for proactive road maintenance implied hiring of workers to carry it out. Louise asked for restoration of funds for four laborers and a tree climber, saying road and tree problems were two main concerns his division receives from residents.

In public comment, resident Tony Rucker asked the council to back Louise’s requests.

“I completely agree with what John says,” Rucker said.

Inspections issues included the $1.2 million cost of services versus a much lesser amount of revenues from fees. Assistant Public Works Director Nagy Sileem said only a portion of services generate fees, the rest of the cost being related to making sure city homes are habitable and safe.

But Councilman Harold Gibson said he was concerned about the operation paying for itself and not passing costs along to citizens.

Councilman Rashid Burney said the inspections process in other towns is easier, a view echoed by city real estate dealer John Campbell in public comment.

Campbell said most homeowners order professional inspections that make city inspections redundant. Campbell said waiting for city inspections under the Plainfield Certificate of Compliance law can add 15 to 30 days to closings.

“Make your sale easy,” he said.

A lobby of real estate representatives already managed to effect a repeal of a safe housing and anti-crowding ordinance earlier this year. In addition, an increase in fees for inspections and building permits was withdrawn recently. But with little industrial or commercial taxable property, the city’s main tax revenue comes from its housing stock.

--Bernice Paglia

Officials Seek City Probe

Mayoral mentor and Assemblyman Jerry Green said Monday the city will ask the state Department of Community Affairs to review municipal departments and will ask the Union County Prosecutor’s office to look into how some contracts were awarded.

Green, also head of the local Democratic City Committee, said it seems some work was done without council or mayoral approval. He could not say exactly how much money or which employees may have been involved. Green said Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has felt “since day one” that the city was mismanaged. The mayor took office Jan. 1.

Officials met all afternoon behind closed doors at City Hall, but made no statement. Hours later, Green made his comments by phone, adding “The days of political and no-show jobs are over.”

Meanwhile, the city faces an unprecedented dilemma on Wednesday (Nov. 1, 2006), when City Administrator and acting Finance Director Carlton McGee will be gone.

McGee took a job as the Atlanta school district’s chief financial officer and his protégé, Tyshammie Cooper, is not going to take the position of director of Administration & Finance after all.

Cooper had been appointed to the post in acting capacity by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs last month. Previously, McGee was acting Administration & Finance director in addition to being city administrator since the March departure of former acting Finance Director Norton Bonaparte. McGee’s dual role exceeded the city’s 90-day limit for acting terms.

Bonaparte had been city administrator under Mayor Albert T. McWilliams. McWilliams failed to gain a third four-year term in 2005.

The loss of McGee today will leave the four-member cabinet of city administrator and three department heads down by half.

In past times where the administrator in charge of day-to-day operations has been absent, the city has hired an interim administrator with municipal experience.

Green said Monday the city may seek an interim administrator. Green said the mayor has a new finance director in mind as well, and a nominee may be announced within days.

With McGee leaving and no finance director in place, the City Council holds its third budget meeting tonight (Oct. 31, 2006) at 6 p.m. in City Hall Library.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 30, 2006

Senior Center On Track

Site plans for the new senior center and condo complex are expected to be submitted this month.

The developer, Dornoch Plainfield LLC, described the project to seniors in July and has since received permission investigate conditions on the city-owned land at 400 East Front Street. The City Council approved addition of another parcel from the 197 Properties redevelopment plan in August and this month gave initial approval for a zoning change to make the senior center a permitted use downtown.

The zoning change will be up for final approval Nov. 22.

The proposed project includes a 14,670-square-foot senior center at street level and three floors of condos above. All 63 condos will have two bedrooms and will be sold at market rate. The parent company, Dornoch Holdings LLC of Lakewood, will finance the $15 million project at no cost to the city, owner Glen A. Fishman said in July.

The center’s design is based on a wish list devised by the seniors themselves. Seniors have held talks about a new building for several years and have had plenty of time to refine their vision as various other plans for a center have fallen through. The Dornoch plan includes a stage, a large kitchen and enough space to hold gatherings of up to 200 people. Rooms for billiards, art, television computer use, a library and meetings will be built along a corridor from the center’s own entrance and lobby.

The developer proposed fewer parking spaces for 63 two-bedroom units than are required, but at a Sept. 21 Planning Board meeting seniors packed City Hall Library and demanded approval of the plan. The proposal itself was not on the agenda that night, just the zoning change that the board subsequently recommended to the City Council.

Seniors are still meeting in leased space at 305 East Front Street seven years after a 10-year lease expired. Meanwhile, the rent has increased as plans for a new center have failed.

Fishman told the seniors in July that once he gets building permits, he will have the building occupied within 12 months. He said his firm has done projects in 22 locations, ranging in size from 36 to 3,000 units. Once the building is up, it is expected to produce $400,000 annually in tax revenues.

The residential portion will offset the tax-exempt center. Earlier this year, city officials talked about the site being too valuable to be kept off the tax rolls. But seniors who fought hard to keep the center downtown protested the thought of an alternate site. Officials backed off and then showcased the condo project as a means of getting a new center while bringing in tax revenues.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ballot Question No. 2

As a member of Plainfield’s Ten Cities Tree Committee, I attended the 81st annual meeting of the New Jersey Shade Tree Federation in Cherry Hill Friday. Among the many things I learned was that every voter has a chance this year to decide on helping the future of the state's outdoor treasures.

Specifically, Public Question No. 2 asks voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that would provide “a dedicated source of funding for maintenance and capital improvements at the state’s parks, historic sites and wildlife areas,” according to information from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A lack of reliable funding has caused a backlog of deferred maintenance and improvements with a tab of up to $250 million. The proposed source of funding is a shift in revenues from the existing Corporate Business Tax Fund to allow more money for development of lands for recreation and conservation.

Everyone in this densely populated state probably has a special getaway destination within the state system. The handout on the ballot question cites sunsets at Island Beach State Park, fall foliage spectacles at High Point, fireworks at Liberty State Park and birding at Cape May Point as examples. To put this kind of enjoyment in perspective, NJDEP Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson included these numbers in an article for the New Jersey Conference of Mayors:

“With the recent proposal to create three new urban state parks in Trenton, Paterson and River Edge, New Jersey’s state park system has grown to 42 parks, 11 forests, three recreation areas, 43 natural areas and more than 50 historic sites and districts. It also includes several marinas and a golf course. These lands, which contain some of the most significant natural landscapes and historic sites in the state, account for more than 397,000 acres.
In the last 15 years, annual visitation to the state’s parks, forests and historic sites has increased by nearly 50 percent. Over the past five years, an average of 15 million visitors per year used the state park system's sites and facilities. In 2005, that number climbed to more than 18 million people. Just this Fourth of July, more than 70,000 people visited Liberty State Park to celebrate our nation’s independence.”

The question and an interpretive statement appear at the top of the sample ballot that each registered voter should have just received. Uses for the 4 percent of revenue currently allocated for environmental purposes would be expanded to include upkeep of the state sites and facilities. No new taxes would result from a “yes” vote on the public question.

If it passes, at least 15 percent of the dedicated funds would be authorized for the proposed use, with an additional 17 percent in 2016. Currently, the 4 percent of CBT funds for environmental purposes is split among hazardous discharge cleanup, air pollution control, water quality and underground storage tank programs.

If it does not pass, the funding for the repairs and improvements at state parks, historic sites and wildlife areas would have to come directly from the state budget.

The state’s beaches, highlands and rich roster of historic places provide families and individuals with unique recreational choices. Both current and former residents can easily evoke a sense of life in New Jersey by thinking of favorite state sites. The ballot question deserves attention on Nov. 7. Polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Sidewalk Mystery Solved

Along the east side of Crescent Avenue just north of East Seventh Street, there is a missing patch of sidewalk that is by turns dusty, muddy or icy.

It’s been that way for years, even though it’s just across from City Hall. The mystery of its neglect became clear at a recent Planning Board meeting.

Schoor De Palma representative Jeff Marsden described a plan to repair Watchung Avenue from Front Street south to Sixth Street, among other road projects. But after resident Sandy Gurshman asked what would happen to the “big hole” on the other side of Sixth Street, it came out that recent repairs to Crescent Avenue did not include that one block north of East Seventh Street. Watchung Avenue stopped short of it.

Board chairman Ken Robertson, who has to pick his way over the dirt, mud or ice on his daily walk to the train station, and the other board members agreed that the block should not be left in limbo. They asked Marsden to include it in the proposed project.

Because the orphan block is in the Civic Historic District that includes the War Memorial and City Hall, the plans will have to be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission. But the time is coming when pedestrians won’t have to detour into the street to avoid the unsightly and dangerous gap in the sidewalk.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Royal Visitor

A little king of the bird world can be seen these days flitting about the Queen City.

It was a pleasant surprise this morning to see one in my yard. Lacking any fellow birders to share the news, Plaintalker invites everyone to take a look at the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

Next time you see a quick-moving olive-drab avian visitor in your garden, see whether it's Regulus Calendula.

--Bernice Paglia

NAACP Hosts Candidates' Forum

The NAACP Candidates’ Forum Sunday (Oct. 22, 2006) revealed a selection of bright, capable and enthusiastic individuals who want to serve the city.

The seats up in the Nov. 7 general election are Citywide At-large, 1st Ward and 2nd & 3rd Ward At-large.

Incumbent Democratic 1st Ward Councilman Rayland Van Blake and Democratic 2nd & 3rd At-Large Councilman Rashid Burney are seeking re-election to four-year terms. Republican opponents are Arlington Johnson in the 1st Ward and former Assemblywoman Angela Perun in the 2nd & 3rd Wards.

The Citywide At-Large seat must be filled for the unexpired term of City Council President Ray Blanco, who died tragically at age 50 on July 28 of an apparent heart attack. City Council appointee Harold Gibson, a Democrat, was named to serve until the general election. His challengers Nov. 7 are Republican Deborah Dowe and Independent Robert F. Edwards. The winner will serve the balance of Blanco’s term, ending Dec. 31, 2008.

All but Van Blake took part in the NAACP forum, which was moderated by Peter Briggs, husband of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Candidates made opening statements and fielded questions before summing up.

Edwards cited 15 years of community activism, highlighted by development of the Civic Responsibilities Act, which is meant to open public service opportunities to more citizens. He said he was recently asked to share his expertise with Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Gibson, a former city administrator with 55 years’ experience in law enforcement and government, said he is the most qualified candidate. To improve public safety, he recently arranged a city gun buy-back program that netted 42 firearms. His church, Fountain Baptist Church of Summit, provided the funding.

“I’m a doer, not a joiner,” Gibson said.

Johnson said he is a lifelong city resident who has devoted himself to helping young people statewide. He wants to reduce crime and cut down on “smoke and mirrors” in government.

Dowe said she is running to uphold the two-party system. If elected, she will seek more information on city organization and how employees do their jobs.

Perun said as a former councilwoman, she worked to bring new businesses into the city to broaden its economic base. She also spoke out against “bossism” and said she would explore how every part of city government functions.

Burney said he was raised in Africa and worked for AT&T in Chicago before moving to Plainfield. The woman who helped him find a home became his wife and the couple had a baby girl last year. Burney said he has invested a lot of money and time in the city, serving on the Historic Preservation Commission and the Board of Adjustment before taking office. His web site contains information on city government and he supports development, he said.

Some of the questions from the audience addressed issues the governing body does not control, such as public education or the addition of a White Castle restaurant to South Avenue’s fast food lineup. The Planning Board approved the White castle’s application.

Asked what each would do differently if elected, Edwards said he would empower citizens, while Gibson said he would visit residents in their homes to hear their concerns. Johnson said he would walk the 1st Ward to ensure inclusion. Dowe said she would seek “innovative funding” to improve the city. Perun said residents who ask questions at City Council meetings should get answers in public. Burney said council meetings should be videotaped for broadcast on the city’s local cable channel.

In specific questions, Burney was asked to explain his position on the Union County Improvement Authority’s role in city development. Burney cited the authority’s resources and expertise, but said development must be managed. He said he asked for a “sunset clause” on the senior center proposal so that if it is not done after two years, the land will revert to the city.

Asked about city expenses, Edwards said he would get a printout of each department’s expenses and would compare costs with those of other cities.

In response to a question on what city problem she would tackle, Dowe said she would foster youth employment.

“I think the government at least owes people their first jobs,” she said.

Gibson was asked whether the city could get rid of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, which provides solid waste, recycling and sewer services. Gibson said he did not favor its establishment, but it is now in place as an autonomous authority. The PMUA, not the council, sets rates for its services, he said.

Asked what she would do to improve her ward, Perun said roads must be repaired and she wants an end to the “race-track syndrome.” She would station police where they could catch speeders.

Voters will get another chance to review the candidates Nov. 1, when the Plainfield chapter of the League of Women Voters holds its forum. It will take place at 7 p.m. in the Plainfield Public Library’s meeting room. The library is located at 800 Park Avenue.

The Republican slate will have to rely on unaffiliated voters and disgruntled Democrats for extra support on Nov. 7, because the GOP has fewer than 1,500 registered voters out of about 19,000 in the city.

A harsh political season last year included a Democratic primary fight and factionalism, but there was no primary contest in June this year. With two incumbents and a former city administrator on the slate, Democrats have a strong ticket. The Kean-Menendez Senate battle will likely be a big factor in voter turnout this year. Results may show whether Democrats still rule absolutely or whether last year’s “fusion” of New Democrats and Republicans has gained traction.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 21, 2006

PHS Principal Shares Views, Information

Friday was supposed to be a night off for Plaintalker.

This writer cooked up a potluck of campanelle, string beans and red peppers along with a loaf of Allspice Orange Nut Bread to haul across Lot 7 to First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, where the second “Think Globally, Act Locally” lecture was to take place. The featured speaker was Plainfield High School Principal Frank Ingargiola.

Though sparsely attended, the evening was completely worthwhile not only for the glimpse into Ingargiola’s life, but into factors affecting urban schools.

Among the revelations:

-Despite his Italian surname, Ingargiola bases his identity on his Latino heritage and speaks fluent Spanish. He grew up in Spanish Harlem and later in Red Hook, Brooklyn. As a high school student in New York, he was so remiss in attendance that his adviser called him a “drop-in” rather than a drop-out. Well-acquainted with street life, he had a “defining moment” when he was standing next to one of his brothers who was shot four times.

Ingargiola said the experience set him on a path that led to completing studies at Fordham University and subsequently earning two masters’ degrees at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. He is now marking 27 years in education.

His philosophy of education includes not only traditional studies but such things as teaching common sense and compassion, encouraging students to become lifelong readers and making every one of the 180 mandated school days “urgent” for achieving goals.

Ingargiola disputed some urban school statistics, showing how the numbers did not reflect the truth. For example, he said drop-out statistics did not indicate the fact that Latino students have increased through immigration, so the drop-out rates are skewed lower. Another undisclosed factor on drop-outs is the number of African-American school-age males who are incarcerated and are not counted in drop-out surveys.

Ingargiola said success stories at the high school remain untold. Students are learning and structure has improved, he said. Two themed academies have opened within the school, with a third in the works. The smaller learning communities are meant to bring a sharper focus on learning in a more manageable setting than one big mass of 1,900 students.

He said “Rigor, Relevance and Relationships” have replaced the traditional three R’s. Latino and African-American students especially need to feel cared for in the schools, Ingargiola said.

It was an eye-opening meeting for anyone not in close contact with the public schools. The audience included a number of educators and some parents of young children. The teachers knew well the burden of shifting state and federal demands on districts and educators. Ingargiola said he lost several staff members to the new federal qualifications, even though some had many years of experience. The strict new standards, coupled with comparatively low pay for teachers, are contributing to a teacher shortage.

The lecture was part of a series sponsored by the church’s Social Justice Committee. The full schedule is here. Disclaimer: This writer is publicity chair for the church.

It has been Plaintalker’s unfortunate experience that trying to cover both city government and the school district is difficult, if not impossible. Often the meetings overlap. The Board of Education this year has frequently deviated from the traditional schedule posted on the district web site, meaning an interested person has to spot small legal notices to keep track of changes. Controversies over Abbott funding, unsettled contracts, gang presence and even dress codes often obscure the good news.

Frank Ingargiola’s passion for urban education and the lives of his students warrants more attention. It is likely that there are many more individuals among the district’s 1,150 employees and 7,000 students who deserve a spotlight. If the print media and this lone blogger can’t do it, maybe it’s time to gear up the local cable channel. The stories are out there and need to be told.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Roads On Recovery

After all the turbulence of the past week, Thursday’s Planning Board meeting was refreshing in its simple promise of better roads in the future.

Planners endorsed improvements along Netherwood Avenue from the train station north to the city limits. Court Place, the short one-way street next to the Municipal Court/Police Division complex, will be fixed up. West Eighth Street from the South Plainfield border to Park Avenue will be improved, with special considerations such as slate sidewalk replacement for the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District .

Watchung Avenue from Front Street to Sixth Street is on the list for repairs, as is a portion of South Second Street.

Of course, all this will depend on the issuance of bonds for capital improvements.

The Planning Board deferred approval of North Avenue and Gavett Place road improvements, because of proposed development there. A redevelopment plan for the North Avenue Historic District may be amended.

On Aug. 23, Landmark Development Corp. was given conditional designation as the redeveloper for the site, with 90 days to formulate a redeveloper’s agreement. However, maps associated with the resolution reflect a proposed expansion of the redevelopment area that has not yet received governmental approval.

Oops, are we making things more complicated?


--Bernice Paglia

East Third/Richmond Proposal Questioned

Residents, business owners and Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority commissioners spoke out against the East Third/Richmond condo proposal Wednesday (Oct. 18, 2006), telling the City Council it is wrong for the location.

On Monday, Capodagli Property Company LLC showed the council an example of the five Georgian-style buildings that would have 700 parking spaces and utilities at street level, with four stories of condos above, totaling 352 units priced between $300,000 and $350,000.

The site presently has commercial and industrial uses, including the Thul family machinery business that has been there for 93 years. The PMUA had plans to consolidate its operations on the Cottage Place section of the site and has already invested $2 million of taxpayer money, board president Carol Ann Brokaw-Boles said Wednesday.

Commissioners Alex Toliver and Nathaniel M. Singleton Jr. also protested Wednesday.

Larry Thul voiced fears that the developer’s proposed phased construction might end up with the project only half done and the developer walking away in a tough real estate market.

“Then you’re stuck with an abandoned project,” he said.

Thul got a flippant response from City Administrator Carlton McGee, who asked when the business began and said, “Did anyone guarantee your grandfather success?”

Singleton chastised McGee “for insulting this gentleman” and said, “I think your behavior is unconscionable.”

Businesswoman and Hispanic activist Flor Gonzalez also took offense, saying, “I feel highly insulted that the city administrator would talk like this.”

Gonzalez also questioned the viability of a condo project, saying she sees unsold condos all over. She said the city needs a strategic plan and study of housing needs.

McGee later apologized for his remarks.

The flurry of opposition to the project arose in a hearing before final passage of the East Third/Richmond redevelopment plan, which sets out parameters for what can go on the site. The plan recommends high density, residential development. Despite the attempts of officials to keep comments strictly on the plan itself, almost all speakers wanted to be heard on the proposal.

Even before speakers began venting on the proposal, Council President Rayland Van Blake announced Wednesday that a resolution related to the proposal had been withdrawn.

The resolution included conditional designation of Capodagli as the developer and set the stage for the Union County Improvement Authority to begin negotiations on a developer’s agreement.

In recent months, the council seems to have grown wary of perceived haste in pushing redevelopment projects.

The council agreed in June to put the UCIA in charge of redevelopment, with appropriate land use board and City Council approvals at each step. The East Third/Richmond tract, not previously on a list of more than a dozen redevelopment sites, was a target site.

In July the City Council directed the Planning Board to conduct an “in need of redevelopment” study of the site. The study found dilapidated buildings and other problems that led to a recommendation for redevelopment. But at an Aug. 23 meeting to approve the study, Planning Board members also received a redevelopment plan, even though the study should have gone to the council for acceptance, after which the governing body could in turn direct the Planning Board to make a plan.

On Sept. 20, the council declined to accept the study because it did not include Planning Board recommendations to involve the PMUA in talks and to consider possible uses for the west half of the blocks involved. The Planning Board approved the plan on Sept. 21 and the council held an emergency meeting without public notice Sept. 23 to approve both the study and the plan. Several residents came to the 9 a.m. emergency meeting to question the process.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Second Thoughts and Updates

Looking back to the beginning of the month, Plaintalker recalls that there was a City Council legal notice claiming the library for budget meetings on Oct. 3, 4, 17 and 31. Never mind that Oct. 3 was already an agenda session, the council did have dibs on the premises for last night's meeting. The Oct. 4 date was on the Board of Adjustment's regular calendar for 2006, but the Oct. 17 special meeting was only announced at the Oct. 4 meeting - after the council's legal notice. Thus the unfortunate relocation to the second floor landing.

As for tonight, a budget hearing is scheduled for 8 p.m. in Municipal Court. But since the council has just barely begun its scrutiny of the FY 2007 budget, the public can only comment on what departments requested and any modifications made by the administration. At this point, an 8.2 percent tax increase is projected. There will be another hearing after the council amends the budget.

The council will also vote tonight on a resolution to give conditional approval to Capodagli Property Company as developer of the East Third/Richmond site. The company is proposing 352 condos in five buildings, with 700 parking spaces.

Tomorrow night at 8 p.m., the Planning Board meets in City Hall Library. Several road improvement projects are up for review. And on Halloween, the next budget session will take place from 6 to 9 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Council Examines Budget

The City Council’s first major budget session kicked off Tuesday (Oct. 17, 2006) with a presentation by Finance Committee leader Rashid Burney on comparisons of Plainfield costs with other Central Jersey municipalities.

Burney and Dale Rodel, president of the Kenyon Avenue Block Association, prepared a display of comparative costs for various services in six municipalities. The city’s Fire Division came out well compared to Rahway, New Brunswick, Piscataway, Irvington and Edison.

But other comparisons found Plainfield lacking, such as in Inspections revenue versus costs. The study found costs per resident for city services highest in Rahway and second highest in Plainfield.

If Plainfield was able to meet the average of city costs in the study area, the savings might be as high as $2.2 million, presenters said.

City departments and divisions up for review Tuesday included the Fire Division, which has a problem with overtime costs, and Economic Development, which needs more staff. Public Health services are also understaffed, said new Health Officer Boniface Udenta.

Fire officials said looming retirements and a lack of money for training may present problems for the division.

The Health Division needs more staff to cope with health investigations and reporting to state agencies, Udenta said.

The next scheduled budget meeting is 6 p.m. Oct. 31 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Picture This Conflict

On Oct. 4, a City Council budget meeting and a Board of Adjustment meeting were both scheduled for City Hall Library. City Administrator Carlton McGee canceled the budget meeting, usurping the prerogative of City Council President Rayland Van Blake.

But six of seven council members showed up that night anyway and had to meet in a tiny room on the second floor with barely enough room for two citizens to sit in corners.

On Tuesday (Oct. 17, 2006) the tables were turned.

A Board of Adjustment meeting scheduled since January ended up being held on the second floor landing of City Hall and the council held a budget meeting in City Hall Library.

Only two citizens attended the budget meeting, but many more sat on folding chairs and the rotunda steps to follow the Board of Adjustment testimony.

The Zoning Board members sat at folding tables on the landing and presenters had to face them while trying not to fall down the stairs behind them.

Whatever the turfiness involved, would it not have been more gracious to let the Zoning Board applicants and their highly paid experts have the library? The five council members who showed up and the two citizens and the several staffers giving budget testimony barely filled the library.

It came down to the council’s ultimate right to the library, despite the Zoning Board’s stake-out way before the budget talks were set.

Who’s the winner?

--Bernice Paglia

Plan for 352 Condos Unveiled

The public got its first glimpse Monday at what may arise on the East Third/Richmond redevelopment site.

General Counsel Rosario “Sam” Presti Jr. and architect Genaro Salierno, representing Capodagli Property Company LLC of Pompton Plains, presented a conceptual plan that included 352 residential units in five residential structures. The 268 one-bedroom and 84 two-bedroom units would be built on four floors above 700 ground-level parking spaces. The ground floor would also include utilities such as laundry rooms, trash disposal and other service functions. Sale prices for the units would range from $300,000 to $350,000.

Density on the 4.26 acre site would be just under the 84-unit maximum density set out in a redevelopment plan for the site. The redevelopment plan that was passed by the Planning Board is up for second reading and final passage at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The project is a bit shy of the quarter-mile limit for “transit villages” near train stations, but Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said the site was just a bike-ride away from the North Avenue and Netherwood train stations.

Salierno said the rendering of one building in a “renaissance of Georgian style” was the example that would be used for all five buildings. He called it part of a movement toward “roots,” citing the PT Cruiser and the Ford Thunderbird as design examples.

Even though the presentation was the first public indication of the proposal, Salierno told the council it was “the fruits of your efforts as to what your vision is” for the redevelopment site.

On the same agenda, the council was asked to agree to vote Wednesday on a resolution that would give conditional designation to Capodagli as developer, with 90 days for the company to work out a developer’s agreement with the city and the Union County Improvement Authority.

A rdevelopment study found the site to be full of dilapidated properties. But challengers have questioned why only the east end of the industrial and commercial blocks off Richmond Avenue have been targeted.

In public comment, Larry Thul asked the same question. The Thul family has a machine shop on the site and has a network of auto supply stores.

Thul asked what will happen if high-density residential uses are placed at the end of a block that is mainly industrial and commercial.

He also had a personal issue.

“It took my family 93 years to build the business, and in one fell swoop, you may put my family out of business,” he said.

In approving the redevelopment plan, planners had asked for some consideration of uses on the rest of the blocks in question and also wanted the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority to have some say on the project, because the authority had been planning to use the site as a base for its administrative and operational functions.

The PMUA has not responded to Plaintalker’s calls about the Authority’s concerns for the site.

The proposal has many steps yet to go, including approvals by land use boards for specific details of the project. Given that it projects sales of $300,000 to $350,000 per unit, it is in line with other recent redevelopment proposals. But City Council members are becoming more adamant about requesting market studies to prove the economic viability of these projects. Councilman Rashid Burney pointed out Monday that a three-bedroom home off Woodland Avenue is priced to sell at $319,000, but has not attracted a buyer.

"If you build it, will they come?" he asked Presti.

"This project is a vision of the city," Presti replied, saying it would complement the city and introduce people to the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 16, 2006

East Third/Richmond Proposal Up Tonight

Tonight’s City Council agenda session (Monday, Oct. 16, 2006) will include a discussion of Capodagli Property Company’s proposal for the East Third/Richmond redevelopment site. The council also be asked to consider a resolution giving the company conditional designation as the redeveloper and asking the Union County Improvement Authority to develop a “redeveloper’s agreement” with the company.

The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. If moved to the agenda, the resolution will be up for a vote at Wednesday’s regular council meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Coincidentally, a second hearing on the East Third/Richmond redevelopment plan ordinance will be held Wednesday and it will be up for final passage.

The East Third/Richmond site is slated for high-rise, multi-family development with a small commercial portion. Tonight’s discussion will reveal details of the proposal, such as how many units the developer wants to build. Capodagli will have 90 days to work out the redeveloper’s agreement with the city and the UCIA.

--Bernice Paglia

Another Busy Week

This week will definitely be a test for anyone who wants to keep track of city doings.

The City Council agenda session will take place at 7:30 p.m. today (Monday, Oct. 16, 2006) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Check back this afternoon for Plaintalker’s heads-up on agenda items.

On Tuesday, the council will hold a budget session from 6 to 9 p.m. in City Hall Library. An Oct. 4 budget session was somewhat abortive, as there was no one from the administration to discuss budget requests. In fact, City Administrator Carlton McGee canceled the meeting, but six of seven council members showed up anyway, apparently not having been informed of the cancellation. Given that the administration has submitted a Fiscal Year 2007 budget reflecting an 8.2 percent tax increase and that last year’s budget talks started in July, it behooves interested citizens to check out this first substantive budget session late in the process.

However, it will conflict with a Board of Adjustment meeting also scheduled to take place in City Hall Library at 7 p.m., so meeting locations may change.

Meanwhile, across town at Washington Community School, Plainfield Education Association members will stage a rally at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday in advance of the 7 p.m. school board meeting. According to a letter from the union, association members have been working without a contract since July 1, 2005.

On Wednesday, the council will hold its regular meeting in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The meeting includes a hearing on the introduced budget as well as a hearing on the East Third/Richmond redevelopment plan.

The Planning Board will meet 8 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library.

After all that, the dutiful citizen may want to take a break and go to the informative and entertaining exhibit, “Plainfield on the Move: 200 Years of Transportation in New Jersey” at the Plainfield Public Library. The exhibit opening will feature a reception Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Photos, memorabilia and other items will remain on display through mid-December.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 13, 2006

McGee Takes Atlanta Job

City Administrator Carlton McGee said Friday (Oct. 13, 2006) he is leaving office Oct. 31 to become chief financial officer for the Atlanta public school system.

McGee said he received an “unsolicited offer” for the job, which has been vacant since Aug. 30. The opportunity included a 50 percent salary increase over his Plainfield pay and would place him in the city where his 20-year old son is pursuing a double degree at Morehouse College. With a daughter, 21, in college in Illinois and another daughter, 12, being raised in Chicago, McGee said his family obligations led him to take the position.

McGee said he “had the blessing” of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs in accepting the job and even put her down as a reference.

After flying to Atlanta for a couple of interviews, he said he learned he was a finalist in the nationwide search, “much to my pleasant surprise.”

The Atlanta Board of Education appointed McGee by resolution on Oct. 9.

Terms of his contract were not immediately available, but McGee said the package included numerous perks in addition to the higher salary. According to a salary document, his current pay here is $118,154.

Robinson-Briggs appointed McGee in acting capacity Jan. 1 for a 90-day term. He then received council approval for a term concurrent with the mayor, ending Dec. 31, 2009. The city administrator oversees day-to-day municipal operations and all three department heads report to him.

Since March, McGee also served as acting director of Administration & Finance, the city’s largest department. Robinson-Briggs recently appointed Tyshammie Cooper as acting director of Administration & Finance.

Recently McGee and City Council members have clashed over availability of fiscal information. McGee said he could not produce requested reports due to a lack of proper software and staff training. McGee also angered members by canceling the Oct. 4 budget meeting. Only the council president has the right to cancel meetings, members said.

But he said Friday, “I was in for the long haul, I truly was.”

Only the dramatic increase in compensation lured him away.

“I wish him the best,” said Councilman Rashid Burney, who heads the council’s Finance Committee. “I think most people in his situation would certainly go for the more money.”

Burney said of McGee, “His strengths do fall in the financial end of the spectrum. I’m just sorry to see him go. He was highly qualified.”

Councilman Harold Gibson also said he understood how compelling the offer was. Gibson said he heard McGee might be leaving, but didn’t know where he was going.

Gibson formerly served as Plainfield city administrator, but said if asked to take over, he would decline. He is currently Union County’s director of Public Safety and could not add another title with daily responsibilities, he said.

“No one should presume they are an all-seeing eye to everything,” he said.

Council President Rayland Van Blake and other members could not be reached for comment.

Regarding his experience in Plainfield, McGee called it a “world-class city,” but said it also has some world-class problems. They are surmountable, he said, if people are willing to “crack eggs and make omelets.” He said if the mayor is allowed to do what she wants to do, “I think the future is bright.”

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 12, 2006

On Hiatus

In case you're wondering, this writer has been trying to take a break.

But never fear, next week will be overflowing with news and so many meetings that it will be a feat to cover them.

Meanwhile, any suggestions about stories yet untold may be sent to the Yahoo address on the Plaintalker site.

Thanks for all the kind words about Plaintalker since it began in June 2005. Your compliments are the only compensation we get!

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 09, 2006

Don't Squander Good Will

The administration that took over Jan. 1 received many concessions in its first several months.

The governing body granted residency waivers to top administrators, approved a new “confidential aide” position for the mayor and changed its historic meeting schedule. After Finance Director and former city administrator Norton Bonaparte left in March, the council permitted City Administrator Carlton McGee also to be acting director of Administration and Finance for more than the allowed 90 days.

By mid-year, the council’s good will seemed to be fraying a bit.

In June, council members probed costs and plans for the annual July 4th celebration but overcame hesitation to put redevelopment in the hands of the Union County Improvement Authority. In July, quibbles arose over last-minute appointments requested by the mayor and then-Council President Ray Blanco used his power to withdraw them, admonishing McGee to “get this administration in order.”

A week after confronting McGee, Blanco died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 50. Many people said Blanco’s intense desire to see the city succeed was his true legacy.

In August meetings, the council agreed to endorse several major redevelopment proposals, but in September appeared to be blindsided by fast-tracking of the process. Both the Planning Board and the council ended up holding special meetings on the plans.

McGee described a quick $12 million bond note issue that took place in September without prior public discussion, prompting council members to ask how it happened without the governing body being informed until after the fact.

A flood damage control ordinance also caused consternation when the council was asked to approve it with assurances that required Planning Board approvals would take place later.

A Sept. 23 emergency council meeting to vote on a redevelopment plan took place without public notice. The notice was published more than a week later.

Last week, Councilman Rashid Burney said the Historic Preservation Commission did not have enough members to make a quorum and asked the administration to submit nominees. Plaintalker notes that many of the previous appointments to new boards and commissions don’t add up to quorums.

Also last week, McGee took it upon himself to cancel a City Council budget meeting, even though only the council president has the right to cancel a meeting.

Surely the city does not need a throwback to the enmity between the council and administration that stalled redevelopment and much other progress in past administrations. But there is a limit to how far this administration can stretch its good will with the governing body. Late submissions, shortcuts and missteps will only force the council to take a stand against such disrespect of the governing body’s powers and responsibilities. It’s not just about personalities. It’s about checks and balances and the letter of the law on fiscal or land use decisions.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 08, 2006

City Presses Developer On Occupancy Issues

Workers stream into the gleaming new downtown office building on weekdays and its commercial portion is nearly all leased out, but the Park-Madison complex has yet to receive final occupancy approvals.

According to an Oct. 4 letter from Planning Director William Nierstedt to the developer, AST Development Corp. of Lavallette, fewer than half of 56 conditions imposed by the Planning Board have been carried out. In order to receive a final certificate of occupancy for the entire project, the developer must meet all the conditions.

Issues range from the kind of trees planted on West Front Street to repair of the polymer sidewalk brick sidewalk system. The developer also agreed to fund street improvements and to fix and install an antique street clock in the building’s plaza. The list of conditions dates back to February 2001 and a fourth inspection in November showed that only 22 have clearly been met.

Councilman Cory Storch, the council liaison to the Planning Board, raised the issue of unmet obligations in August, when the council voted to give AST conditional approval as developer of the Marino’s tract on West Front Street. Storch cited “a number of unresolved issues” at the previous project and said, “I hope they will be resolved before they come back to us.”

His concern, voiced at the Aug. 23 regular meeting, brought a sharp retort from new City Council President Rayland Van Blake, who said, “I do not appreciate the way in which you brought your issue to the council.”

CORRECTION: Van Blake said Oct. 12 he was referring to a comment about interviews for boards and commissions, not to a redevelopment issue.

Van Blake in turn won praise from Assemblyman Jerry Green for exerting his new authority.

“It has taken you less than one meeting to grow up and be a professional,” said Green, who is also the Democratic City Committee’s chairman and mentor to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Robinson-Briggs has been pushing for speedy development of the Marino’s tract as well as several other major sites. Development of the Marino’s tract could bring a supermarket and other commercial development to the West End. The council agreed in June to put the Union County Improvement Authority in charge of numerous redevelopment projects.

The UCIA also has charge of the Park-Madison site. Its executive director is Union County Democratic Committee Chairman Charlotte DeFilippo, who last year dumped former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams from the party ranks just before the April filing date for the June primary. McWilliams sought a third term as mayor, but lost both the primary and general election to Robinson-Briggs.

The Park-Madison building was the first new downtown development in several decades. It houses numerous state and county offices that had been scattered around the city and the county. On its web site, AST describes it as a $28 million project. The governmental office portion is tax-exempt. Under a “payment in lieu of taxes” deal with the city, the city will receive $100,000 in taxes on the commercial portion for the 2007 fiscal year.

Among issues still to be worked out:

-Repair of cracks in the stamped brick streetscape.
-An agreement between the city and the county for public use of the parking deck on weekends.
-Public use of the plaza in front of the building and maintenance provisions.
-Reconstruction of Park Avenue between Front and Second streets.
-Repair of the old Park Jewelers street clock and installation in the plaza.

The letter also details the need for screening waste receptacles and notes various discrepancies in window and door details from what the original plans showed.

Until all the conditions are met, the project will not get a final certificate of occupancy.

According to press reports, the building received the temporary certificate of occupancy in April 2005 and gradually filled up over ensuing months. No ribbon-cutting or other ceremony has yet been held, nor has the county-owned building received any official name other than Park-Madison.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bean Counters Alert

Plainfield’s budget process has varied over the years.

Basically, division and department heads make requests for the amount of money they need to function in the coming year. The administration reviews the requests and can modify them. Then the administration’s requests go to the governing body for final review.

In budget deliberations, the City Council interviews divisions and departments and then decides on final amounts which are then subject to public budget hearings before final passage.

But the process has had its quirks.

For a few years, the seven-member council enlisted a 21-member budget advisory committee to aid the process. In the past, the council has also hired its own budget advisor to guide its decisions.

The city’s fiscal year begins July 1 and end June 30 of the next year.

This year, the council only received the administration’s proposed budget in September and even though budget meetings had been scheduled from July through September, the first meeting was held Oct. 4., and the scheduled department head didn’t even show up.

The next budget meetings are Oct. 17 and Oct. 31.

Anyone who wants to question the budget has time to compare both the 2006 and 2007 budgets in the City Clerk’s office for anomalies such as new confidential aides, two assistant Public Works directors and other quirks before the Oct. 18 public hearing on the introduced budget.

There are two budget documents. One is the budget statement that must be sent to the state (an 11x17 document) and the other is the detailed budget binder that gives all the detail and rationales for expenditures (about three inches thick). Both should be available in the City Clerk’s office.

Interested citizens should scrutinize these documents and be prepared to speak out at the Oct. 18 hearing.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 06, 2006

Forum on Abbott Funding Held at Washington School

It was a full agenda Thursday night (Oct. 5, 2006) at a Town Meeting held to discuss the state of Plainfield's schools.

More than 50 residents heard six panelists give their views on the current status of the Abbott school financing and the impact withdrawing the monies would have on education in Plainfield schools.

The panelists were: David Sciarra, Director, Education Law Center; Angelina Chiaravalloti, Chief of Staff, Plainfield Public Schools; Dr. Lillie Sipp, Chief Academic Officer, Plainfield Public Schools; Agurs Cathcart, President, Plainfield Board of Education; and Richard Shapiro, Esq.

The non-partisan informational event was sponsored by the New Democrats for Plainfield.

Barbara Todd Kerr

White Castle Wins Approval

A new White Castle restaurant will arise on a vacant lot on South Avenue despite residents’ protests that its late hours may bring unwanted traffic to the quiet East End location.

The restaurant will join Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s and some higher-end eateries along the city’s famed Restaurant Row, following Planning Board approval Thursday (Oct. 5, 2006). The stretch between Leland Avenue and Terrill Road contains both fast-food joints and fine restaurants such as Giovanna’s and Café Vivace.

Harry Jensen, the regional director of operations for New Jersey, said the company dates back to 1921, with restaurants in New Jersey since 1930. The company is family-owned and closely controls all aspects of the operations, including deliveries and security by private firms.

The company agreed to compromises on signage and other issues to gain Planning Board approval for the South Avenue site. Instead of a pylon sign, the company will place a smaller street-side sign, even though the larger sign was a permitted use.

Other questions included the hours of delivery and garbage trucks, but the company said it would adjust to community needs.

The site has a car wash to the east and a child care facility to the west.

Resident Lavora Davenport said the project would bring traffic at the same time that the day care opened at 7 a.m. Resident Victor Svelling also protested and tried to present a petition with 50 names, but Planning Board attorney Michele Donato said petitions could not legally be accepted.

Davenport’s argument that residents would suffer brought a retort from Planning Board attorney Michele Donato that in fact apartments were not a permitted use in the zone.

The applicants agreed to drop back from 24-hour service to closing the inside premises from 2 to 6 a.m., while still allowing drive-thru service.

The new restaurant should generate about 35 jobs to cover its 24-hour operation.

In answer to concerns about its late-night hours, Jensen said the restaurant will have 16 surveillance cameras and employees will be able to alert a private security firm by pendants, telephone or a button in case of trouble. The security firm is on call 24 hours, he said.

“We put these measures in places to makes sure the premises are controlled,” Jensen said.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Slyders On The Menu?

Whoppers and Big Macs and Slyders, oh my!

South Avenue’s array of fast food emporiums may gain a White Castle, if planners also turn out to be Cravers.

This is not to suggest that land use officials would shirk their duty if there was a “sack of six, with both” as a reward for looking kindly on the company’s application. It’s just that a quick spin through the White Castle home page shows there is little corporate distance between the company and its consumers.

Other fast food web sites project sophisticated marketing and embrace social causes, while White Castle and its craving public are nose to nose in conversation about where, when and how they consume its products. The web site’s story is sort of a romantic comedy, in which fans gush and blush over their encounters with Slyders and even reveal how they deconstruct the famous meat sandwiches to make hash, chili and hot dish dinners.

Cravers is the official term for these true lovers of onions, meat, buns and a single pickle chip. They know that Slyders are made 30 at a time, that each meat patty has five holes to facilitate steam-grilling and that the best accompaniment for life’s picaresque adventures is a sack of Slyders with “both,” meaning the ketchup and mustard that are never allowed to touch the patty unless directed by the Craver’s hand (see Wikipedia entry for White Castle).

Plaintalker knew none of this until a Google search revealed all. The information lends an air of intrigue to visiting the Planning Office, knowing that the dry documents on file leave the true story untold. A White Castle in the Queen City! Imagine the tales a sack of Slyders could launch here …if only the Planning Board will give in to the Crave.

--Bernice Paglia

McGee Cancels Council Budget Session

Six City Council members showed up at City Hall Wednesday night for their first 2007 budget session, unaware that City Administrator Carlton McGee had canceled the meeting earlier in the afternoon.

As council members arrived, the Board of Adjustment was set up to meet in City Hall Library and applicants and their experts were crowding the rotunda. Both meetings were set for 7 p.m. and discussions of how to proceed delayed them for nearly half an hour.

One issue was that only the council president, currently Rayland Van Blake, had the authority to cancel meetings. Van Blake said he was told that McGee and Finance Committee Chairman Rashid Burney had canceled the meeting because the scheduled department head, Jennifer Wenson Maier, could not attend. But Burney told Plaintalker by phone later that he did not cancel the meeting and he knew that only the council president could do so. Burney did not attend the budget meeting.

Finally, the board began its proceedings in the library while the council members went to a small meeting room on the second floor to begin talks on the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

The administration gave the council a proposed budget last month that reflected an 8.2 percent increase in municipal taxes. Absent the expected department head to discuss specific costs, the council members talked about general aims for the budget process.

The discussion was overshadowed by McGee’s comments Tuesday that the administration had no way to document monthly expenses, due largely to software issues that prevent receiving a comprehensive overview of various departments.

At the budget meeting, council members disputed the inability to produce monthly expense reports while also acknowledging that departments do not share information due to separate computer systems.

Van Blake and Councilman Don Davis initially advocated hiring a council budget consultant, but Councilman Harold Gibson said hiring a consultant would take time and cost money that the city could ill afford.

In past years, the council has had its own budget adviser to provide an objective view of the process.

In the end, the council decided to ask its Finance Committee to frame questions for the administration on budget issues with an aim to get the projected tax increase down to about 3 percent.

Gibson said the budget should be examined for job vacancies, but Councilwoman Linda Carter advocated a hiring freeze until the budget was settled. Gibson also said the council needed to know terms of negotiated contracts, to see what impact settlements would have on the budget.
Last year, the council began budget talks in June, continuing through the summer, Carter said. But following the November general election, the council decided to hold off on a budget decision until after the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took hold on Jan. 1. The budget passed on Jan. 30 with about a 3 percent increase.

The administration gave the council its proposed budget on Sept. 5 and the council introduced it Sept. 7. A hearing on the introduced budget is scheduled for Oct. 18. As introduced, the budget reflects a municipal tax increase of $305.10 on an average home assessed at $113,000.

The next council budget session is from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 17 in City Hall Library and another is set for Oct. 31.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Council Seeks Spending Details

Council members grew testy with City Administrator Carlton McGee Tuesday after he insisted there is no way to track monthly city expenses.

The discussion arose over a resolution to make “emergency temporary appropriations” to run the city in November. Despite the dire tone, it is routine to make such appropriations each month until a budget is passed. The city’s fiscal year began July 1 and the council will hold its first budget deliberations tonight.

McGee first explained that by law, the city can appropriate one-twelfth of last year’s budget amount each month while working on the new budget. The administration has projected an 8.2 percent increase for fiscal year 2007.

Without a budget in place, Councilwoman Linda Carter said, “We have to be mindful and careful of what we’re doing.”

McGee said the current proposed budget “does show some growth, mainly around contractual things.” But he said currently, “We are behind what we should be spending.”

Council President Rayland Van Blake asked for more “transparency” on current expenses and Councilman Cory Storch said,”I know we have talked about getting a monthly report” on actual expenses.

McGee agreed, but said the administration needs to do more work on a software system to make such reports.

“Right now, we don’t have the manpower to give an accurate report,” he said, citing a lag time of two or three weeks.

McGee said the administration wants to offer more transparency, but added, “We don’t even have one person who works on the budget fulltime.”

“So we’re flying blind,” Storch said.

“We’re always flying blind,” McGee said. “We need resources.”

After Councilman Don Davis questioned why department heads are not capable of reporting monthly expenses, Councilman Rashid Burney held up the resolution and said, “I have certification from Pete saying the funds are available.”

Burney referred to Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya, who signs off on fiscal matters. Burney said he could not say “yes” to the measure if the information was wrong.

“What you’re asking for is detail,” McGee said, but Burney persisted, asking how many months it would take.

“At some point the data has to be certified,” he said.

McGee said an audit usually takes place “a year later.”

“I’m not saying it’s right,” said McGee, who also served as head of Administration and Finance from March through September.

Carter offered a compromise.

“We can debate this for hours,” she said, suggesting that the chairman of the council’s finance committee could meet with Sepelya to discuss the issue.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs last month appointed Tyshammie Cooper as acting director of Administration and Finance. Cooper may serve in acting capacity for up to 90 days before the mayor must seek council advice and consent to the appointment. If approved, Cooper would then serve concurrently with the mayor until Dec. 31, 2009.

Tonight’s budget meeting is from 7 to 9 p.m. in City Hall Library.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cleanup Will Benefit Neighborhoods

City neighborhoods may soon be rid of unsightly tall weeds and debris, thanks to a new crackdown on property code violations.

The City Council will vote Thursday to approve 10 property liens totaling more than $8,700 in what officials described as the first of a wave of cleanups on sites where owners failed to obey the property maintenance code despite warnings.

Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said Tuesday all city inspectors have been assigned parts of the city to examine over the next 30 days for code violations. Owners will receive notices and will have time to respond, but if they don’t, the city will perform cleanups and place liens on the property to cover the costs.

The largest lien on Tuesday’s agenda was more than $1,500 and the lowest was about $280.

The city can recoup the cost at the time a property is sold or possibly at an annual tax lien sale.

Councilman Don Davis engaged Wenson Maier in a debate over when the lien process becomes counterproductive, such as when liens exceed the value of the property. Wenson Maier said there was no formula for measuring exactly when the balance tipped, but she said the Inspections Division would be “much more vigilant” in coming months.

Council President Rayland Van Blake also asked about the ratio of liens to value, questioning what steps the city would ultimately take, such as possible foreclosure.

“Basically, we’re throwing money out the window,” he said.

But Councilman Cory Storch praised the effort, saying, “This is real progress.”

Storch said the plan was necessary to clean up the city.

Wenson Maier said she would be asking Union County for half a million in funds for the program, which could include demolitions.

In other council business, Davis came in for scrutiny over costs of attending an out-of-state convention, the National Forum of Black Public Administrators in Wichita Kan., this month. Davis claimed he received information of a kind he could not have received at the annual League of Municipalities convention in New Jersey.

In April, Davis previously attended the forum, which has four annual meetings.

Other council members questioned the need to go so far away and the expense of the trips. Davis said air fare might be about $300 and registration $95. He said he would pay for his hotel stay himself.

Davis said he learned about innovations from other officials such as senior tax relief, neglecting to add that he was told last year that programs in other states were reflected in a New Jersey “senior freeze” tax program that fixes obligations at a certain age for those who apply.

The City Council will meet at 8 p.m. Thursday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave., for its regular meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Green Suffers Pique, Praises Senior Pep

Before Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs made her monthly visit to the Senior Center Tuesday, Assemblyman Jerry Green took the microphone for a half-hour of pep talk and political asides.

Even though the mayor won both the 2005 primary and general elections and Green recaptured the chairmanship of the Democratic City Committee, he is still denouncing the vanquished New Dems and Republicans who attempted a “fusion” campaign against the Regular Democrats.

“People want to make things go backwards,” he said Tuesday.

As an example, he pointed to a “town meeting” Thursday on Abbott District issues, calling it “only a set-up to hurt me.”

Green referred to a community forum at 7 p.m. Thursday at Washington Community School, 427 Darrow Ave. It will feature David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which is litigating on behalf of all 31 Abbott districts. Organizers said Sciarra will give an update on the latest news from the Joint Legislative Committee on Public School Funding Reform, a six-member panel now holding hearings in Trenton.

Schools Superintendent Paula Howard and Board of Education President Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. will also speak.

Given that the City Council and the Planning Board are also meeting the same night, the Abbott event will be competing for an audience. Also on Thursday, the school district’s public information officer, Louis Rivera, will be screening his independent film, “Sin Ti,” as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.

The community forum hardly counts as a cabal, but it seems Green would prefer the New Dems to be forever mute.

On the other hand, Green praised the seniors for turning out in force at the Sept. 21 Planning Board meeting. About 50 seniors crowded City Hall Library and promised to show up at any other city meeting where their long-awaited new senior center was on the agenda. Green said the turnout showed seniors “how the process works.”

The only agenda item related to the center was a zoning change to permit senior centers in the Central Business District and mixed-use zones, which passed. But Robinson-Briggs said there had been some discussion about whether the board could pass “the proposal” because of parking issues. She said senior Emily Washington gave a speech and was “able to convince them to approve it.”

No site plan has been filed with the Planning Division, so there could not have been any decision on parking issues. Resident Frank D’Aversa asked for a clarification that only the zoning change had been approved.

Asked after the meeting whether seniors thought the project had been approved, Senior Center President Charles Nelson said members know only the zoning issue passed.

The parking issue relates to the 63 two-bedroom condos proposed to be built above the new center and how many parking spaces are required. Developer Glen Fishman and his team of experts showed up for the Sept. 21 meeting and answered questions about site issues despite only the zoning change being on the agenda.

Fishman and other condo developers are saying a transit-oriented project does not really need two spaces per two-bedroom unit as currently required, because residents are likely to use nearby public transportation.

So far, one 64-unit condo project application has been denied by the Board of Adjustment. Another high-density, multi-family project for the East Third/Richmond tract is still under wraps. Landmark Development’s North Avenue plans have not yet been filed either, so the parking issue is still out there.

--Bernice Paglia