Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Protesters Come Out En Masse

Residents protesting a Planning Division staff cut had to share the soapbox Tuesday with a crowd of Dudley House supporters and a passel of people concerned about a proposed budget cut to the Recreation Division.

About 80 people, including a large number of children, jammed City Hall Library for a public hearing on the FY 2008 introduced budget. The $30,000 cut of a principal planner from the Planning Division was in that budget. The $75,000 cut for Recreation was proposed by the City Council but was under study by the administration for its impact. The council discussed cuts last week but has yet to formulate budget amendments.

The Recreation Division reduction was based on a finding that allocations for seasonal workers were unexpended and council members assured people that no program cuts were contemplated.

The issue of funding for Dudley House is far more complex, involving the city, state and two counties and a problem with licensure. The city-owned residential substance abuse recovery facility is not handicapped accessible and under new state law is out of compliance for licensing. The dilemma has left about three dozen men in recovery anxious about where they will land up if the facility must be closed. But City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city is working on solutions and is in communication with other funding agencies. A staff layoff notice that was to take effect this week has been extended, Dashield said.

“Our intention is for the program to continue,” Dashield told the clients and supporters who showed up Monday, echoing concerns from several previous turnouts.

In public comment on the proposed Recreation Division budget cut, a young boy nearly cried as he said, “Why take it from us?”

The boy said city neighborhoods had drug dealers and shootings.

“In the schools you say, no child left behind – what do you want us to do? Sell drugs? Shoot people?”

Others testified with almost religious fervor about how the Recreation Division programs had saved them from the streets, either through athletic training that resulted in sports scholarships and college opportunities or by mentorship that took them away from looking to gangs for acceptance.

Councilman Rashid Burney told the supporters of youth programs that the city has included in its capital budget funding for a new teen center.

“Not enough is being done,” he said. “Kids need love. They are going to get love from us or love from the streets.”

One mother called the physical activity of sports programs vital in a society where young children are plagued by asthma, diabetes and obesity.

A program of placing monitors in city parks has displaced drug dealers who used to be bold enough to sit in lawn chairs at one playground and service drive-up customers, another speaker said.

On the Planning Division issue, speaker Charles Sporn gave three examples about the dangers of outsourcing. First, he cited the role of Blackwater USA in the war on Iraq, calling it a “rent-a-soldier” operation “acting as a rogue operation.”
Next, he cited the outsourcing of automobile inspection several years ago, resulting in long lines. His last example was the outsourcing of garbage collection to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, which can set its own rates.

“And we all know how cost-effective that has been,” he said.

He asked for the Planning Division cut to be tabled and studied.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs thanked everyone for coming out, but said, “We’re in a terrible, horrific tax situation. We are trying to keep taxes down.”

The mayor suggested that school board members who attended the meeting could see to it that the board would make a policy of providing free programs to young people.

--Bernice Paglia


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