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


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