Thursday, November 30, 2006

AIDS Forum Today

A free luncheon today (Friday, Dec. 1, 2006) will feature education on the ongoing AIDs problem in Plainfield, which is among the 10 most affected communities in New Jersey.

The luncheon is from noon to 2:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. and is sponsored by the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, the mayor’s office, the Plainfield Health Division and Gilead, a pharmaceutical company.

Prevention Case Manager Lola Taiwo said the event will include presentations on AIDS and HIV prevention as well as statistics on local AIDS cases.

According to state statistics, the estimated number of people living with AIDS or HIV in Union County is 2,473. The total number, living or deceased, is 4,955 as of June 2006.

In 1997, the number of people in Union County living with HIV or AIDs was 1,722.

Click here to see a detailed state report on HIV/AIDS in Plainfield.

Minorities currently account for 75 percent of HIV/AIDS cases and 31 percent of all cases are women, according to state statistics.

The event marks World AIDS Day and is aimed at increasing awareness of the problem.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Daniels: Track City Assets

At his first budget session, acting Finance Director Ray Daniels promised to put in place an “assets management” program for everything from police cars to computers.

Daniels was named acting director of the city’s largest department last week. He made his comment after council members questioned a capital request for 10 police vehicles. Recalling prior requests, Councilwoman Linda Carter said at some point they should “level out.” Councilman Harold Gibson, who also heads the Union County public safety program, said vehicles should be retired as new ones are purchased. Councilman Rashid Burney called for better “fleet management” and tracking of major equipment, prompting Daniels’ response.

On Monday, the council reviewed budget requests for Municipal Court, Plainfield Action Services, Bilingual Day Care, the Comptroller’s office and capital projects. At the next session on Tuesday, Dec. 5, the council will revisit police and inspections and review budget requests for other finance divisions, including the tax collector, tax assessor, purchasing and personnel.

Judge Joan Robinson Gross presented the budget for the Municipal Court and asked for proposed cuts to be restored. Gross said in contrast to other courts that have a high volume of traffic cases, Plainfield has a heavy criminal calendar with assessments that go to other jurisdictions, such as a $500 state fee and $75 county fee.

“Most of the money does not come to the city,” she said.

But the court must still maintain records on site, send out its own mail for timeliness, pay for video-conferencing with prisoners, keep the court complex secure and provide translations in a variety of languages.

Burney questioned a decline in revenues, but Gross said the court can only deal with “what comes in” in the way of cases. She said if the Police Division goes back to being fully staffed, the numbers might go up. But she said court staff should not be cut.

Gibson said the revenues are down because “our crime rate is down.”

“That doesn’t mean you need less staff to do the work,” he said.

“Let’s focus somewhere else if crime is down,” Carter said, suggesting a focus on traffic.

Rick Smiley, director of the city’s anti-poverty agency, said “Crime is down, but poverty is definitely up.”

Smiley said Plainfield Action Services helped 6,200 people last year. Noting that 22 percent of city schoolchildren “live in poverty,” as indicated by eligibility for the federal school lunch program, Smiley said, “We’re still in bisiness. We’re an anti-pverty agency and business is good.”

The agency helps people with utility bills, housing, nutrition, emergency food, employment services and tenant advocacy. Disputing a $15,000 cut in staff costs, Smiley said the agency deals with walk-ins all day and can’t cut staff.

“We’re hopping all the time,” he said.

Burney questioned how the agency’s salary costs went from $8,190 several years ago to $85,000 today. Smiley said salary costs increased, despite most of the funding coming from outside sources. He said the agency’s main funding grant has stayed flat, while salaries have risen. Councilman Cory Storch suggested that grants are available and should be sought to reduce municipal costs for the agency.

Smiley said he has sought foundation grants as governmental grants have waned.

The Bilingual Day Care program also gets mostly outside funding, but would be hurt by a proposed $18,000 reduction in city funds, Smiley said.

“They need to cover janitorial costs,” he said.

At best, the program may be able to come up with about half that amount in additional grants, Smiley said.

In his report, Comptroller Peter Sepelya said investments increased from $191,000 to $821,000 and “payment in lieu of taxes” or PILOT revenues were projected at $679,484 but came in at $844,363. His division processed 8,100 purchase orders and paid 500 city employees with 13,000 bi-weekly checks.

The division also monitors and prepares federal, state and county grants and is currently managing 75 active grants, he said. The budget surplus will increase in 2007 to $3.6 million, he said.

The council moved on to the capital budget, which was in two parts, one for information technology and one for all other capital projects. The information technology budget was $8 million over six years.

The session continued with a discussion of how $900,000 in recently announced state aid will affect the budget. Sepelya said the budget increase will be reduced from 8.7 percent to 6.2 percent. The council’s goal is to get it down to 3.2 percent or less, requiring further cuts.

Storch asked about this year’s budget process, noting some staffing changes.

While he did not spell it out, the city actually had no finance director in place since March. Former City Administrator Carlton McGee was in charge of day-to-day city operations as well as its largest department, Administration and Finance, Health and Social Services. McGee’s departure in October left both positions vacant.

According to the City Charter, the mayor, with the assistance of the city administrator, reviews departmental budget proposals and prepares the executive budget.

As Storch probed the process this year, Sepelya said, “I put the budget together.”

“Just you?” Storch asked.

Daniels said from now on, there will be an ongoing budget process, including feedback from all the current budget sessions on what was proposed and what was spent. The documentation and data will be used for next year, he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Shop Plainfield!

About 50 vendors set up tables Tuesday (Nov. 28, 2006) to display their wares or services in the “Shop Plainfield” expo at the Black United Fund Center.

The range of offerings included gifts, city services, professional support, real estate and longtime businesses such as Dairy Queen. Donna Albanese and her father were on hand to promote the event, which is intended to launch the holiday season.

The Albanese family owns Dairy Queen on South Avenue and formed the Plainwood Square Merchants Association. Donna is also president of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce.

The event was jointly sponsored by the city, the Chamber and the Special Improvement District, which encompasses both the downtown and South Avenue businesses.

Holiday enticements include free horse and wagon rides downtown and free parking.

Some of the vendors were introducing new businesses, such as Ms. Shanya Flowers & Gifts that just opened up in the Park-Madison complex.

City residents are invited to see what’s new downtown or on South Avenue before going out of town to spend holiday dollars.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 27, 2006

North Avenue Developer Expects Extension

A developer whose 90-day conditional designation is up for the North Avenue tract said Monday (Nov. 27, 2006) he expects it will be extended.

Frank Cretella, president of Landmark Developers in Jersey City, said he is in the process of working out a written agreement with the city and the Union County Improvement Authority. The conditional designation, approved Aug. 23 by the City Council, called for an agreement within 90 days among the three parties, but did allow for an extension. The council met last week but took no action on the Landmark matter or AST Development Corp., which had a conditional designation for the Marino’s property that was also up in 90 days.

Asked about a newspaper report that seven- and 10-story buildings were part of the redevelopment plan for the tract by the main train station, Cretella said development will be phased and he expects the taller buildings to follow renovation of existing buildings.

North Avenue between Park and Watchung avenues was the city’s original business district and has many handsome Victorian facades facing the train station.

“The cost would be much greater if we were to start out of the box with a 10-story,” he said.

In a presentation Aug. 21, Cretella projected 415 residential units and 130,000 square feet of retail space in the project. He also envisioned an entertainment center that would draw visitors to the site.

Besides the historic architecture, the district contains some modern buildings that could be altered or replaced without taking away the 1880s character of the site. Cretella said he is trying to acquire two of those buildings. He also recognized the fact that the district has seen an influx of new businesses, mostly Latino-owned, which have flourished.

“My intent is not to target those stores that are doing well,” he said.

But he will offer written contracts to those that are not doing well, he said.

“Our development will have a big, big impact on Plainfield,” Cretella said Monday, calling the city “a diamond that has lost its luster.”

Plans to expand the North Avenue redevelopment area have not yet been backed up by the necessary changes in the redevelopment plan, but the City Council has authorized a study of the proposed expansion.

Cretella owns the Liberty House Restaurant in Jersey City and is also the designated developer for a $25 million residential and commercial project approved there in January 2005, according to press reports.

Cretella said things are “going good” with the Jersey City project. All the legal work has been done and an amendment to the redevelopment plan has been passed. After the first of the year, he said, architectural and engineering work will begin for the project.

--Bernice Paglia

Two Reminders

The City Council will resume budget hearings Monday (Nov. 27, 2006) from 6 to 9 p.m. at City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Since the last session, the city has received news of $900,000 in extraordinary state aid to offset the budget. Another session is scheduled for Dec. 5.

At 6 p.m. Friday (Dec. 1, 2006), the city will hold its annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony at City Hall

Halloween Incident Report Issued

A police report on Halloween 2006 included criminal mischief, assaults and confiscation of paintball equipment.

The official crime analysis report follows citizen outcry over one assault that left a city resident hospitalized with a broken jaw and many other residents taken aback by the behavior of people who came to their doors on the traditional trick-or-treating night.

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig released data last week that showed three reported incidents of criminal mischief, three reported assaults and two reports labeled “confiscated/found property.”

Hellwig said it is important that all incidents are reported and that next year he will publicize the city’s juvenile curfew at the schools, especially the high school.

Among the incidents:

At 6:30 p.m. Oct. 30, also known as Mischief Night, three juveniles were arrested for disorderly conduct after they threw eggs at a van and a NJ Transit bus at Plainfield Avenue and West Fourth Street.

Several school bus windows were broken overnight Oct. 30 in the parking lot at 920 Park Avenue.

Police found paintballs and four paintball guns in two incidents Oct. 30 in the 500 block of West Third Street. Police responded at 2:46 p.m. and 8:09 p.m. to reports that paintball shootings were taking place. On Halloween, police again confiscated a gun at 9:56 p.m. from a car in the 500 block of West Second Street after a call that someone was shooting paintballs at passing vehicles.

Paintballs were shot from a car on Halloween at 8:48 p.m. near Putnam Aveneue and Franklin Place. A man, 58, told police he was struck several times by paintballs while riding his bicycle there.

A group of males wearing no costumes pushed their way into a house in the 1400 block of Prospect Avenue at 6:30 p.m. on Halloween, leaving after the victim’s son yelled at them. As they left, they broke lights and ceramic lanterns and tampered with other lights in front of the house.

A woman, 66, told police about 15 youths came to her door at 8:25 p.m. in the 900 block of Kensington Avenue and began throwing medium-sized pumpkins at her after she told them she might not have enough candy for all of them. They left when the victim’s son arrived home.

The worst Halloween incident was at 8:37 p.m. in the 700 block of Leland Avenue, where a man, 21, stopped his car after two men jumped in front of his car. The two men pulled the victim from his car and assaulted him, causing a broken jaw. The attackers said nothing and took nothing from the victim.

Other incidents may not have been reported to police and did not show up on the crime analysis report prepared after residents called for an accounting.

In recent years, parents of younger children have curtailed door-to-door trick-or-treating in favor of organized events in a safe place. The city held a Halloween party at Washington Community School for children and some schools held costume parades. The Salvation Army offered a “Trunk-or-Treat” event in which volunteers opened their car trunks on the parking lot to display treats for children to choose.

Halloween 2007 is a long way off, but here is a web site with safety tips.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 24, 2006

Time Up For Development Deals?

A development deadline for two major projects appears to be up this week.

On Aug. 23, the City Council agreed to give conditional designation to Landmark Development Corp. of Jersey City for the North Avenue Historic District and to AST Development Corp. of Lavallette for the Marino’s tract. Each developer was to work out a redeveloper’s agreement with the city and the Union County Improvement Authority within 90 days or the designation would expire. Unless the city and the UCIA extend the time period, the resolutions adopted Aug. 23 states there will be no further obligation to the developers.

Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez raised the question Wednesday of whether the deadline was up for North Avenue, but no one from the council or administration answered her. Gonzalez has been working with Latino merchants who have successful businesses on North Avenue that might be displaced through eminent domain. She has led two rallies on North Avenue in support of the merchants and a building owner whose own redevelopment plans have bogged down in the uncertainty of the district’s future.

The North Avenue Historic District is adjacent to the city’s main train station and was its original commercial district, serving the Wall Street commuters who took the train in the late 1880s. It also includes the 1788 Quaker Meeting House.

Landmark representatives made a brief presentation to the council in August, proposing a new entertainment plaza and 415 residential units while retaining the Victorian building facades. In a June agreement to put the UCIA in charge of redevelopment projects, an attached map showed an expansion of the North Avenue Historic District, but no action has yet been taken to make the changes.

AST developed the downtown Park-Madison site, where a four-story office building, parking deck and retail strip arose on a block that had been vacant for about 30 years. AST proposed a 70,000-square-foot supermarket on the Marino’s tract, a former car dealership on West Front Street.

Last month, a planning report noted that AST had not yet met all the conditions of Planning Board approval for the Park-Madison project in 2001.

Besides the North Avenue and Marino sites, the new administration has backed a plan for condo development on the newly-designated East Third/Richmond tract and supports a proposal for a new senior center on East Front Street with 63 condos above it. The council just gave approval for Dornoch Plainfield LLC to apply for the senior center project and it will be up for a Planning Board hearing at 8 p.m. Dec. 7 in City Hall Library.

The council approved an “in need of redevelopment” plan for the East Third/Richmond site, but withdrew a resolution last month that would have given conditional designation to Capodagli Property Company of Pompton Plains as the developer. Capodagli proposes 352 condos in five structures.

Another plan to demolish a South Avenue auto repair business and put up 64 condos was rejected by the Board of Adjustment in September.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Acting Finance Director Named

The rumored new acting Finance Director showed up on the job this week.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has appointed A. Raiford Daniels acting director of the Department of Administration and Finance, Health and Social Services. As acting director, Daniels can serve 90 days in charge of the largest of three city departments before the mayor must seek City Council advice and consent for a permanent appointment.

Talk of Daniels being the nominee circulated at the end of October, but could not be confirmed by either City Council President Rayland Van Blake or mayoral mentor Assemblyman Jerry Green. Green did confirm that Daniels was a state NAACP official.

Daniels attended both the agenda session Monday and the regular meeting Wednesday, where he sat in the place usually reserved for the city administrator. As of Monday, the City Clerk’s office had no public information on his qualifications.

Currently, there is no city administrator in charge of day-to-day city operations since Carlton McGee left Oct. 30 to become chief financial officer in the Atlanta school district. McGee had also been serving as acting finance director, so his departure left two of the administration’s top four posts vacant.

The Finance department includes the tax assessor, tax collector, audit and control, purchasing and administrative services. A reorganization of divisions among the three departments under former Mayor Mark Fury added health, inspections, senior center and community programs to the roster.

--Bernice Paglia

Fee Increases Draw Fire Again

Realtors again turned out Wednesday (Nov. 22, 2006) to call for more discussion of two ordinances that would increase inspection and building code fees.

The City Council had already put off for the third time an ordinance that would increase Certificate of Compliance inspection fees by 350 percent. The issue was to have been taken up again on Dec. 6, but real estate agent Wilma Campbell told the council a real estate convention was taking place that day and asked for the matter to be dealt with later.

The Certificate of Compliance inspections assure that either the buyer or seller will bring a property up to code at the time of sale. Rental units are also supposed to be brought up to code before new tenants move in. The city’s position is that current fees are outdated, but the real estate community is questioning the steep increase all at once.

The building code fee increases are necessary because the state Department of Community Affairs wants such operations to be self-supporting, Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier told the council. But speakers questioned the increases, even though the administration has already backed off a bit on the proposed amounts.

Wenson Maier said the administration’s construction code costs are $380,000 a year, but income is only $270,000 annually. Speakers said the division might seek hiring inspectors who are able to perform several kinds of inspections instead of just one, and might review other office costs to make the formula more viable.

Among missteps in the discussion, Wenson Maier said the “committee” spoke with the administration, but it turned out she was referring to new Councilman Harold Gibson, not the three members of the Inspections Committee, who are council members Don Davis, Rashid Burney and Cory Storch.

Davis called for a meeting with Wenson Maier and real estate agents within the next few weeks to discuss the issues.

It may well be that calendar issues will push the matter over into the New Year, due to publication schedules for legal notices. City Clerk Laddie Wyatt said the seven-page building code ordinance will require a long lead time for publication according to newspaper rules.

Among the speakers, John Campbell was both articulate and entertaining in his remarks.

“I don’t know why there’s such a rush to judgment without doing due diligence on something that’s going on to impact the whole city,” he said.

Campbell said, “What you’re doing is discouraging people from doing business in the city.”

Campbell disputed comparative costs that the administration cited from other municipalities.

“Let’s take another look and have some dialogue,” he said.

Campbell said the real estate interests were not going away. He recalled how a scratchy old 45 RPM record would repeat part of a song over and over.

“I’m gonna be like an old 45,” Campbell said, to characterize his ongoing opposition to the fee changes.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hearing On SID Budget Tonight

The Special Improvement District’s third budget is up for a public hearing at tonight’s City Council meeting.

The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Half of the budget comes from a special tax assessed on commercial and industrial property within the district, which includes both downtown and South Avenue business zones. The other half comes from the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone funds, which come from taxes on retail sales within the UEZ.

The proposed budget for 2006-07 includes $125,607 from the UEZ and $129,607 from the SID, the extra $4,000 coming from sale of ads in its quarterly magazine. Since last year, the City Council approved an expansion of the SID, which will bring in more revenue than last year.

SID consultant David Biagini said the main thrust of the budget is improving cleanliness and safety in the business districts. The program also includes support of cultural activities and entertainment to draw shoppers, as well as sidewalk sales and other promotions.

This year, the budget provides $42,250 for 102 dusk-to-dawn floodlights and a new 30-hour weekly assistant position to help manage the district. Other expenses include print ads, television commercials, and a quarterly magazine that is mailed to every resident.

The SID encountered some opposition last summer from the late City Council President Ray Blanco, who questioned aspects of its management. Among his concerns, Blanco said the SID should have an on-site manager, not one who lives out of state, as Biagini does.

Biagini said the SID never received its UEZ funding for the second year, a loss that cannot be recouped because those funds do not roll over. Some of last year’s proposed activities had to be curtailed for lack of funds.

But this year, the SID expects to repeat its popular horse-and-wagon rides during the winter holiday season. The graffiti removal program will be expanded and holiday pole ornaments will be added in the expanded parts of the SID.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Biz Registry Doesn't Register

A business registry proposal drew criticism from merchants and City Council members alike Monday (Nov. 20, 2006).

Jacques Howard, assistant director for Community Development, told the council the program was intended to get a profile of all city businesses and to reduce the presence of unlicensed businesses. But officials and merchants said the city already conducts fire and health inspections and merchants are also required to register with the state.

Howard said the new program would involve an intense door-to-door scrutiny of businesses by a task force from Inspections. A fee would be waived for businesses that currently receive fire and health inspections, he said.

Council members struggled with the concept.

“Is this cost-efficient for the city of Plainfield?” Councilman Harold Gibson asked.

Councilman Don Davis said the city couldn’t enforce it, so why do it.

“I am concerned about this because we present ourselves as very business-friendly,” Councilman Rashid Burney said, adding he wanted to hear from the merchants.

Councilman Cory Storch said he is in favor of having a database of businesses integrated with health and fire, but he said, “I’m just not convinced that this ordinance will get us there.”

Storch said the city first needs to get its technology plan in place.

Later in public comment, Special Improvement District president Lisa Cohen said she would like to see a business roundtable for more input. Cohen, whose family owns Suburban Jewelers, said the registration plan seemed directed at “brick and mortar” businesses and did not address home-based businesses.

Cohen said she is a certified appraiser, but her credentials come from a professional organization, not from the state. She questioned how standards could be set for various kinds of businesses.

After Storch said, “I thought I heard the business community was consulted on this,” Cohen said both the Special Improvement District and the Chamber of Commerce voted against it, because they didn’t know what the true intent was.

The city has proposed a business registry before, but it failed due to similar concerns about costs, implementation, enforcement and the need for ongoing updates. In its quarterly magazine, the SID publishes a directory of businesses by category. The previous administration of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams also developed brochures on specific types of businesses, such as restaurants and “home arts.”

Another past concern has been improving the mix of stores, perhaps by limiting dollar stores, nail salons or other proliferating businesses. But no one ever figured out how the city could regulate who comes to Plainfield to do business.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center Approvals Expected

Senior center plans are expected to advance with two City Council votes Wednesday (Nov. 22, 2006).

The council meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

An ordinance permitting a senior center to be built in mixed use and central business district zones is up for a hearing and final passage. In addition, a resolution up for a vote would give the developer, Dornoch Plainfield LLC, approval to submit an application to the city for “implementation of a senior center.”

Dornoch has already submitted plans for the senior center and three stories of condos above it. The Planning Board is expected to review the plans on Dec. 7. If the plans are approved, the next milestone is issuance of a building permit, Dornoch partner Glen Fishman said.

As they have at every juncture since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs showcased the proposal in July, Fishman and his associates and experts came out in force to Monday’s agenda session. As the council’s executive session ran overtime, the development team whiled away an hour in the rotunda along with a large crowd of real estate brokers, merchants, city staffers and even a group of young football players.

“If everything goes well, we hope to be in the ground in late winter or early spring,” Fishman said while waiting.

Fishman plans to finance the $15 million project himself, at no cost to the city.

The project will need various other approvals, from Union County, the state Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies, he said.

But the next big hurdle will be Planning Board approval.

The developer is asking for fewer parking spaces than required for the 63 two-bedroom condos, as well as a variance to have no landscaped parking lot islands where eight are required. At an earlier Planning Board meeting where the zoning change was approved, seniors who have waited years for their own center clamored to have it built, regardless of parking issues.

--Bernice Paglia

Team Gets Impromptu Support

A fervent plea by Head Coach Anthony Graham resulted in citizens and officials reaching for their checkbooks Monday to speed his winning team on to Orlando.

A very busy City Council meeting took an unusual turn after Councilman Elliott Simmons brought Graham to the table to explain the plight. The Plainfield Cardinals Midget Pop Warner team needs $15,000 by Monday for a trip to the national finals. The team is one of just two competing in the Eastern Regional finals and is the only one from New Jersey.

Graham said he was sure the team will win on Friday at the regional competition in Toms River. The national competition, the Pop Warner Super Bowl, will take place at Disney World and will later be televised on ESPN, he said.

“I’m here tonight asking the city to support these 22 gentlemen,” Graham said.

After Councilman Harold Gibson asked what it would take to get the team to Florida, Graham detailed a list of costs that added up to about $15,000. Councilwoman Linda Carter praised the team’s accomplishment, but added, “It’s a big bill.”

Simmons said the team has had “an exceptional season” and is celebrating its second year as New Jersey champions.

As the council pondered how to help without going into city coffers, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs proposed a three-way split. After the community gives its share, she said, city officials and Assemblyman Jerry Green would contribute.

“We have to stand behind our young people,” she said.

People then started pledging. Resident Bill Hetfield promised $1,000 and Crescent Area activist Maria Pellum said she would give $250. Gibson, confidential aide Barbara James, resident Robert Wilson and new acting Finance Director A. Raiford Daniels all said they would give personal donations.

Finally, everyone agreed that checks made out to “Plainfield Pop Warner Cardinals” could be hand-delivered to the mayor’s office by 5 p.m. Wednesday. Robinson-Briggs pledged $3,000 from herself and another $3,000 from Green, who was not present. Percy Fennell, owner of the KFC restaurant, said he would contribute $1,000.

Anyone who wants to help can drop off a check at the mayor’s office in City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

The national championships will be played on Dec. 5 and Dec. 8.

--Bernice Paglia

Realtors Push Fee Rejection

A throng of Realtors turned out Monday (Nov. 20, 2006) at a City Council agenda session to show their displeasure at proposed increases in inspection fees related to house sales. The City Council agreed to drop that ordinance, but late in the meeting a related ordinance for construction fee increases also drew fire.

The city’s Certificate of Compliance ordinance calls for either the buyer or seller to bring homes in compliance with the city’s property maintenance code at the time of sale. Landlords are also expected to make sure apartments are in compliance before new tenants move in. The present inspection fee of $50 was slated to increase to $175, but a postcard and e-mail campaign among Realtors produced enough outcry to cause the council to drop the plan for the third time this year.

Long after most of the Realtors cleared out, the council heard officials say the increases in building sub-code fees were mandated by state policy that such offices should be self-supporting. The council agreed to put the ordinance up for a vote on Wednesday. But real estate brokers Wilma and John Campbell both said in public comment that many of their colleagues thought both ordinances had been set aside.

But Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said with a number of redevelopment projects coming, the cost of building subcode inspections would fall on taxpayers if the city did not increase the fees.

Much of the discussion on fees turned on the issue of whether users of inspection services or taxpayers in general should pay for the operations.

Before the meeting opened, the crowd jammed the rotunda, where city workers were trying to trim a holiday tree. Homeowner Shellece J. Earles minced no words on the fee increases.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t even know that they can justify it, considering the entire office is inefficient.”

Earles said the Inspections Division did not issue summonses equally and even gave out “false” summonses at times. She also said correspondence was mailed late and inspectors’ attitudes were “horrible.”

Frank Anthony, representing the 8,000-member North Central Jersey Association of Realtors, called the fee increase “unreasonable” as he waited for the meeting to begin.

In the meeting, Assistant Public Works Director Nagy Sileem said the city inspections were necessary for safety and the fee increases were needed because fees had not been increased for about a decade.

But Councilman Rashid Burney questioned the city’s role and asked for a review of Inspections operations. A council committee on Inspections will look into it, the governing body agreed.

--Bernice Paglia

Totally RAD

A RAD, not to be confused with a RAB, is a sort of a TIF.

Got it so far?

Tax increment financing is used in 49 states to fund development that otherwise might not happen. It has been in use since 1952. New Jersey’s version of TIF is called Revenue Allocation Districts. Legislation authorizing RADs was passed in 2002, but the rules on how to do it were only passed in February 2005, according to the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. Millville has an approved plan and Somerville is seeking approval from the state Local Finance Board, an arm of the Department of Community Affairs’ Local Government Services Division.

Applicants must demonstrate that “but for” a RAD, development would not take place. But Chicago’s proliferation of more than 100 TIFS has made Chicago Reader writer Ben Joravsky suspicious of its real intent, or the “what for.” See his articles at

Why are we telling you all this?

The powers that be (or that have been since Jan. 1) apparently like the RAD idea. Attorney Thomas Hastie of the firm McManimon & Scotland discussed the RAD law at the City Council meeting Monday (Nov. 20, 2006). The city would have to designate a RAD district and make a plan. With state approval, the city could then incur debt for development in the district. The debt would be offset by future revenues from the development.

In terms of creating interest in the concept, Hastie said, “I’m kind of the Pied Piper.”

Each council member received Hastie’s entire presentation in his or her packet. You can see it online if you Google “Hastie RAD” – it’s titled “Understanding New Jersey’s RAD Statute.” It’s a 22-page PDF file. (Darn acronyms!)

So far it is just a concept for the council to consider, not attached to any project. Jacques Howard, assistant director of the Community Development Program, suggested the council members should visit Millville to see how it works.

Hastie said federal funding programs such as UDAGs (Urban Development Action Grants) have largely dried up, spurring the search for other ways to fund development.

“Fifty percent of a small loaf is better than 100 percent of nothing,” he said.

(FYI, a RAB is a Redevelopment Area Bond.)

--Bernice Paglia

"She Was My Friend"

Jocelyn Pringley served the city of Plainfield for 33 of her 51 years and many, many people mourn her untimely death.

As Zoning Officer and head of the Inspections Division, she dealt with people in every part of the city. This writer always found her to be intelligent and fair in all her dealings.

At Monday’s agenda session, Flor Gonzalez gave a special tribute on behalf of the Hispanic community.

“We feel the Hispanic community has lost a very important friend,” Gonzalez said.

She described Jocelyn as “an open person” who never closed her door to Hispanics, even though others let the language barrier get in their way.

“She always helped with any problem we had,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez related a personal situation where she tried to blockade her basement door after a break-in. Jocelyn took account of her feelings, but also guided her to obeying the property code by unblocking the door.

“She was my friend for 27 years,” Gonzalez said. “When you come to City Hall, you want to have friends, not enemies.”

Services will be 10 a.m. today (Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006) at Mt. Zion AME in Plainfield.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Tip of the Hi-Hat to Kay

Anyone who attended City Council meetings a while back could count on Kay Cotignola to take elected officials to task, but not in a scolding way.

Kay had a sense of comic timing equal to that of Johnny Carson and a flair for drama that surely deserved some kind of statuette. Even before she took the microphone, people started smiling. The words came out less like poison darts than cream pies to the faces of the authorities. Her topics ranged from taxes to people blocking her driveway, but all took on weight as Kay delivered her message in inimitable style.

She didn’t need the standard two snare-drum hits and a cymbal crash when she made her point with humor. After the laughter died down and while people were still wiping their eyes, she would draw herself up to say, “And the other one is …”

And people would start laughing all over again, in anticipation of more potshots worthy of rimshots.

Kay died Nov. 13 at age 86, according to an obituary in the Courier News. Services are 9 a.m. Thursday (Nov. 16, 2006) at Scarpa Funeral Home in North Plainfield. A 10 a.m. Mass at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, Plainfield will be followed by burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Plainfield. Visitation is 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Kay’s most fervent concern was for Albert Bierstadt’s 1892 painting, The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador. The city-owned painting was on display in Municipal Court for many years, except when it was on loan to a museum. Kay didn’t want it ever to leave the city and even dressed up as Columbus in protest at one council meeting, telling people, "I am Christopher Columbus and I just jumped out of that art. You leave me alone."

As much as it was a source of pride in Italian heritage to Kay, the painting was anathema to Rasheed Abdul-Haqq and others who objected to its depiction of indigenous people kneeling before the explorer. Kay took them all on, along with officials who permitted the painting to leave the city.

A long-term loan to a museum in Washington was cut short after Kay launched a campaign to get it back, said Jean Licata, who often accompanied her to council meetings.

“Kay made the loudest noise and that painting came back,” Jean said.

Jean recalled another controversy over whether the city should have a “super-chief” who would take the place of separate police and fire chiefs. Kay and friends constructed a two-headed effigy, half in firefighter garb and half in police gear, which they displayed in a July Fourth parade and at a council meeting. Kay fought so hard against the plan that it failed in a public vote, Jean said.

“I’ll never forget the work Kay did,” she said.

Another friend, Jackie Schmitz, said Kay put a coffin in the window of her dry cleaning store and stuck the effigy in it with a sign, “Superchief is dead.”

“I knew her for 86 years,” Jackie said. “I looked forward to her coming to the mike.”

Another incident involved Kay’s frequent comments to a split council about the voting pattern of its five Democrats and two Republicans. Kay was intoning, “Fiive to two, fiiive to two!” one evening when an intoxicated street person walked in the rear door of the council chambers and began dancing up the aisle to Kay’s chant. When he reached her, Kay joined in the dance, Jean said.

Not only did the citizens relish Kay’s appearances, her antics made it hard for some council members to keep a straight face. Jean recalls the late Councilwoman Helen Miller trying to stifle her laughter when Kay did her stints at the microphone.

“She was just fun, that’s all,” Jean said.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Veterans Day Observed

A small group of residents turned out at the War Memorial Saturday (Nov. 11, 2006) to honor veterans.

Speakers included Vietnam War veteran Frank C. Rivers Sr., who named many city families whose members served in past wars. Rivers, Union County District 5 Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Past Union County Commander of American Legion Post 219, said the task ahead is to honor those who served in Iraq.

“We have to open our arms and our organizations to these children when they come home in pieces,” he said.

Charles Coston spoke of his 21 months of deprivation and punishment as a prisoner of war in the Korean Conflict. He said he vowed to himself to survive and go back home. The highly decorated veteran said the medal he treasures the most is New Jersey’s P.O.W. medal, noting the state was the first to recognize Korean prisoners of war.

Tuskegee Airman Odell McLeod recalled discrimination.

“The United States government at that time didn’t think the black man could fly.”

But he said, “Our minds were made up that we could do the job.”

Still, when he got home, he said, early promises of jobs in aeronautics proved false.

World War II veteran Marshall Corsey also spoke before all present observed a moment of silence for those who gave their lives for their country.

The service was led by Homer Harris, Commander of VFW Memorial Post 7474 and Lisa S. Dixon, Past Commander of American Legion Post 219.

Friday, November 10, 2006

League Conference: What For?

Next week, thousands of elected officials and municipal employees will attend the 91st New Jersey State League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City.

The League serves all 566 mayors in the state and about 13,000 elected and appointed municipal officials. Its goal is to “help communities do a better job of self-government” by sharing information on best practices and new laws and issues affecting municipal government. Everything from eminent domain to rising methamphetamine use is covered in the 97-page program for the 2006 conference, which takes place Nov. 14 through 17.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will preside over one session on increasing the number of women in government and will take part in another on the future of affirmative action in local government, with panelists including Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Former Plainfield councilman Jon Bramnick, now a state Assemblyman representing District 21, will be part of a session on “Lessons in Life, Laughter and Local Government.” Bramnick’s Wikipedia page documents not only his extensive governmental career, but also the fact that he is a stand-up comedian who was voted “Funniest Lawyer” four times.

Plainfield Planning Board attorney Michele Donato will be a panelist in an ongoing education session for experienced Board of Adjustment members and another session on land use questions for board members and municipal officials.

Neighboring Mayors Colleen Mahr of Fanwood and Martin Marks of Scotch Plains will lend their expertise to their peers. Mahr will speak on team building in government and Marks will address rising costs of employee benefits, pensions and healthcare.

Robert Casey, who served as interim city administrator for a while in Plainfield, will be on hand as executive director of the New Jersey Municipal Management Association for a consulting period Thursday.

A Wednesday session, “Ethics: Can We Restore the Public Trust?” may bring to mind new Plainfielder and former Gov. James E. McGreevey, who painted another picture of the League conference in his book, “The Confession.”

The best-selling book portrays the conference as a “huge frat party” where attendees pay little attention to municipal issues but instead focus on hooking up for sex. Alienated by his closeted gay identity, McGreevey felt “alone with my secret.”

He ended up in an Irish pub drinking pints of Guinness and emerged at sunrise (what, no closing hour?) to “a feeling of epiphany” about the rules he would have to follow to become politically powerful.

“I knew I would have to lie for the rest of my life – and I knew I was capable of it,” he wrote.

Plaintalker recently did a Google search on John Lynch and found a glowing account of the former senator as PoliticsNJ’s “Politician of the Year” in 2001. The article featured Lynch’s role in molding McGreevey to political success. Presently, McGreevey is enjoying personal authenticity as a gay American and Lynch is headed for jail over corruption that preceded the laudatory article but did not emerge until this year.

Let us hope that the public trust can be restored to some degree and that McGreevey’s perceived dull issues of economic development and storm-water regulations at the League conference will be the real stuff of the gathering, along with property tax reform and other major problems.

Municipal government is a curious thing in that millions of citizens just expect it will work. Few come out to council meetings and only half or less even bother to vote for members of the governing body. This writer had had a special fascination with the fact that seven people in Plainfield make decisions affecting about 47,000 of their neighbors.

The idea that thousands of elected and appointed officials would gather for a serious annual examination of municipal issues still seems legitimate. For those who only want to party and hook up, we say, please attend the Wednesday session on ethics.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Council Dems Crush Challengers

Voters heavily favored three incumbent Democrats Tuesday despite their challengers’ call for return to a two-party system.

“We killed them,” said City Council President Rayland Van Blake, who won another four years as 1st Ward councilman.

“We swept the ticket locally,” 2nd & 3rd Ward Councilman Rashid Burney said.

Burney also won a full four-year term. Appointee Harold Gibson won the balance of an unexpired term to Dec. 31, 2008 for the Citywide at-large council seat.

“I think Plainfield has once again shown it can get the vote out for local as well as county and state candidates,” Van Blake said.

“It looks fine,” Burney said, calling the results a vote of confidence that is a mandate for the council to work with the administration.

“The people are saying, ‘We see the results, we like what you’re doing – keep doing what you are doing and move Plainfield forward,’ ” Burney said.

Republicans fielded Arlington Johnson against Van Blake, Angela Perun against Burney and Deborah Dowe for the citywide seat. Independent Robert Edwards also ran for the citywide at-large seat.

Of the city’s 19,327 voters, 37.8 percent came out to vote. Van Blake beat Johnson more than 6 to 1, with 1,134 votes to 177. Burney’s tally of 3,588 votes was more than four times Perun’s 837 total.

Gibson received 5,329 votes, compared to 1,105 for Dowe and 272 for Edwards. Gibson will resume the unexpired seat immediately and Van Blake and Burney will begin their new terms Jan. 1.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Lineup

After dealing with election stuff since April, this writer managed to mix up the City Council candidates last week.

The League of Women Voters forum article has been corrected.

Those who filed in April for the 1st Ward seat are incumbent Democrat Rayland Van Blake and Republican Arlington Johnson.

Incumbent Democrat Rashid Burney and Republican Angela Perun filed in April for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat.

Winners will serve four-year terms.

Due to the sudden death of City Council President Ray Blanco on July 28, the Citywide at-large seat became vacant. The City Council chose Harold Gibson from three Democratic nominees to serve until the general election. Those who filed by a Sept. 20 deadline for the balance of Blanco's term are Gibson, Republican Deborah Dowe and Independent Robert Edwards.

Polls open Tuesday at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Your polling place is printed on your sample ballot. Unofficial results will be given Tuesday night and official results will be released Monday by Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Rally: Bring Troops Home

Veterans, clergy and peace activists joined the Dixon family Saturday (Nov. 4, 2006) in a rally to bring troops home from Iraq.

About 40 people came out to support the rally at the War Memorial on the grounds of City Hall. Rev. Robert Dixon and his daughter Lisa have both served their country, but the family’s feelings are strained over having both of Lisa’s children at risk in current military conflicts.

Rev. Dixon said he spoke to his granddaughter, Jessie Dixon, at 5:30 a.m. from where she is serving in Iraq.

“I would have preferred that the conversation would have taken place over coffee at the breakfast table,” he said.

Lisa Dixon’s son, Malcolm Armstrong, is stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. and is facing deployment to Afghanistan.

Both brother and sister are serving in the U.S. Army. Rev. Dixon is an Air Force veteran of the Korean Conflict and Lisa Dixon served four years as a U.S. Marine. But Rev. Dixon said, “This war has caused much heartbreak not only here but among the people in Iraq.”

Public support for the administration’s military policies has dropped as the situation appears to be more untenable than ever. Rev. Dixon called it an “illegal war” that has cost billions, resulted in more than 3,000 U.S. military deaths and 29,000 returning home injured.

Lisa Dixon said her daughter has already lost four people from her unit.

“She joined the military to protect serve this country. I joined the military to protect and serve,” she said, adding she supports the troops but wants them home.

Members of People’s Organization for Progress handed out anti-war placards and displayed them to cars passing by, getting honks of support.

Speakers included former Mayor and Vietnam veteran Rev. Rick Taylor, who led a chant of “bring the troops home now.” The Rev. Shirley Cathie, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and Joan Hervey of Garden State Equality also spoke.

Vivian Robinson, an Air Force and Army Vietnam vet, wore her American Legion regalia to the rally.

Asked her opinion of the war, Robinson said, “It’s very bad. “They’re killing our soildiers every day. It’s a shame, and nothing is being done.”

She said on Oct. 25. President George Bush said he wanted to send even more troops.
Rev. Dixon called the administration “misguided” and led a prayer for the end of war “against the Iraqi people.”

Robinson-Briggs and Hervey stressed the heavy military expense and said the billions expended in Iraq would have been better spent to stop homelessness, unemployment and other problems at home.

“Quite frankly, this is a war that we don’t have any business being a part of,” the mayor said.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hellwig Orders Halloween Accounting

Citizens’ concerns about incidents on Halloween have fueled an examination of all police reports, deployment of officers and other measures taken on Oct. 31, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said Thursday (Nov. 2, 2006).

One young man was assaulted and suffered a broken jaw. Other residents reported trespassers who refused to leave, extreme requests from so-called “trick-or-treaters” and other intimidating acts.

Hellwig said Police Chief Edward Santiago called the evening “relatively peaceful.”

Some incidents may not have been reported to police, Hellwig said.

“It is very important for citizens to report any suspicious activity,” he said. “Call the police to report not only suspicious activity but also unusual activity. Public safety must be a cooperative effort in order to be successful.”

The non-emergency number for police is 908-753-3131.

Hellwig said after hearing from residents about the Halloween incidents, he has requested a full report on police activity that evening.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Candidates Share Views At League Forum

More than 50 people attended the annual League of Women Voters forum Wednesday to see and hear seven City Council candidates.

Two four-year terms are up for election and one two-year unexpired term. Moderator Dawn Clarke of Westfield posed questions from the audience between the traditional opening and closing statements and Alice Logie of Plainfield served as timekeeper.

Besides the usual topics of crime, economic development and taxes, concerns of the downtown business community emerged in the questions.

Competing for the 1st Ward seat are incumbent Democrat Rayland Van Blake and Republican Arlington Johnson. Incumbent Democrat Rashid Burney and Republican Angela Perun are vying for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. Three candidates are seeking an unexpired term caused by the untimely death of former City Council President Ray Blanco on July 28. They are Democratic appointee Harold Gibson, Republican Deborah Dowe and Independent Robert Edwards.

On crime, Perun, a former councilwoman and state Assemblywoman, called for more police on the street and said there is “denial” at City Hall over the extent of crime. Gibson, who served as city administrator and Public Safety director in the past, said the truth is that crime rates are down. Johnson said crime affects economic development and claimed there are “shootings every night” in Netherwood Village.

Burney said his goal is to get more cops off desks and into the streets, and he also wants downtown surveillance cameras to deter crime. Edwards said he is involved with a group called “Fathers Against Guns” and said part of solving the multi-faceted problem of crime is to have more programs for youth. Dowe said Homeland Security funding should be used to “beef up block associations” and a church network to help people in need should be established. Van Blake said the city needs to call on elected officials for more resources to fight crime and also endorsed the use of cameras downtown and in trouble spots.

On reducing taxes, Van Blake and Burney said the council is now seeking ways to trim fat. Gibson said he does not believe in giving developers tax abatements, a stance Perun also took. Dowe said grant-writing efforts could help. Edwards agreed with Van Blake that economic development could help reduce taxes, but said growth must be guided by the city’s master plan. Johnson spoke against proposed high-density condo development on East Third Street and said he envisions a youth facility on the site.

The business issues were related to the use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds and a surtax on owners in the Special Improvement District to fund programs to make business districts safer and more attractive to shoppers. The program is about two years old and is administered by a board of business owners and a hired manager. The program came under fire earlier this year when Blanco raised objections to the management and called the board’s presentation to the council a “dog and pony show.”

The SID includes over 400 businesses downtown and along South Avenue. Its efforts include sale days, holiday events, graffiti removal and a quarterly publication. The 3 percent SID assessment was to raise $113,000, which was matched with UEZ funds that come from retail sales taxes and are dedicated for improvements in the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone.

Burney noted some friction between the city and the SID, but said he was willing to work with the merchants. Van Blake said the new program is having “growing pains” but that conflicts could be resolved. Johnson said the SID should be self-governing. Dowe and Perun said the city was trying to impose a budget on the board and Dowe added she thinks the UEZ funds “need to be investigated.” Edwards said if elected he would work with the business owners. Gibson said without the UEZ funds, the business districts would not have extra police.

SID manager David Biagini, who attended the forum with several board members, said the latest from City Hall is that the group “at this point” can still have an independent budget. The issue has not come up at any recent City Council meetings.

Election Day is Nov. 7 and polls open at 6 a.m. There are 19,327 registered voters this year, including 9,136 not affiliated with any party, 9,050 Democrats, 1,137 Republicans, three Libertarians and one member of the Constitution Party.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rumors Need Confirmation

If there is a new acting director of Administration & Finance, it’s news to top officials.

A blog rumor that the nominee is A. Raiford Daniels sent Plaintalker scurrying for more information, but there wasn’t any.

Plaintalker asked whether Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs had informed the City Council by letter of the acting appointment and the answer was “no.”

City Council President Rayland Van Blake said he had no knowledge of any such appointment.

“There certainly has not been any official announcement made to myself or any of the council,” Van Blake said.

Mayoral mentor Jerry Green also drew a blank on the nominee, but later confirmed that the proposed individual who also goes by the name of Ray Daniels is the state NAACP’s political action chair. Green said the post is an unpaid volunteer job.

The mayor’s husband, Peter Briggs, is on the executive board of the NJ NAACP. The group held a conference Sept. 22 on increasing the number of voters who go to the polls, dubbed the “Arrive with Five” campaign urging voters to bring five friends to polling places. Daniels was in charge of the effort.

The alleged nominee’s qualifications are not known.

If in fact the new director took over this week as reported by some, there is still the question of who will serve as city administrator since Carlton McGee departed Monday after serving since Jan. 1.

The city administrator is in charge of day-to-day operations of the city and must meet charter qualifications.

4.2 City administrator; qualifications.
The city administrator shall be chosen solely on the basis of his training, experience, and administrative and executive qualifications. Prior to his appointment, he shall have completed and received a master's degree in public or business administration and shall have had at least 2 years of actual executive experience in municipal administration or an equivalent combination of education and experience. At the time of his appointment, he need not be a resident of the city or of the State.

The city administrator is the boss of three department heads who monitor all city divisions.

Green said he is seeking a qualified interim city administrator with help from county officials.

The lack of a city administrator and director of Administration & Finance leaves the city down to half its top cabinet positions.

The City Council does not meet again until Nov. 20 for an agenda session due to an election hiatus.

Under a rule imposed several years ago, individuals may only hold acting posts for 90 days before being required to have City Council advice and consent to their tenure.

Residents will have to sort out all the exigencies in order to know what they are dealing with.

--Bernice Paglia

Halloween Assault

Plaintalker received several messages from outraged citizens over a Halloween assault on the son of a well-known resident.

According to the messages, the young man was dragged from his car and beaten, suffering a broken jaw that required surgery. The alleged assault took place on Leland Avenue Tuesday evening.

Bloggers don’t have the same ability as the print media to follow crime stories, but a call to Police Chief Edward Santiago confirmed that the assault took place after an egg-throwing incident and it is under investigation. Depending on the severity of the injuries, the assailants will face charges of simple assault or aggravated assault.

Another allegation that residents who opened their doors to trick-or-treaters were attacked was not true, Santiago said. He cited one instance in which a large group showed up at one residence on Kensington Avenue and the homeowner expressed concern that she did not have enough treats for all, whereupon the children threw pumpkins at her.

Santiago said the Leland Avenue incident did not involve a carjacking, but the victim was assaulted.

Witnesses called out to the youth to stop the assault, he said.

Anyone with more information may call the police non-emergency number, 908-753-3131.

--Bernice Paglia