Thursday, February 14, 2008

Council Introduces Amendments, Sets Hearing

An infusion of $800,000 in extraordinary state aid and about $100,000 in cuts will reduce the FY 2008 municipal budget impact to about $3.43 per $100 of assessed valuation, officials said after a special meeting Wednesday (Feb. 13, 2008).

The budget as introduced would have increased taxes by 8.2 percent, but after amendments, officials said it is down to about 6.7 percent. The final amendments will be published Feb. 18 in advance of a public hearing Feb. 27 on the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2007. The hearing will be held at 8 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The amendments included a slew of grants that came in after the budget was introduced in September, as well as numerous changes in appropriations to run the city.

The governing body and administration clashed Wednesday over items such as police overtime and expenses for the mayor’s office. Councilman Cory Storch initially challenged the administration, saying, “This is the council’s budget. I’m having a hard time with how the administration is treating it.”

The process involved budget formulation based on initial department requests modified by the administration before submission to the governing body. A council Finance Committee made recommendations and sought administration response after the budget was introduced. Wednesday’s meeting was the refinement of the process.

Storch insisted the council’s job was not merely to put a stamp on the executive budget and said it appeared the council’s requests were not taken as seriously as the governing body wished.

“The council really has to own the budget,” he said.

Among the cuts:

The Recreation Division was spared a $75,000 proposed cut that brought a large group of protesters to a council meting last year, but will have $20,000 taken from salaries and wages. A cut that halved $20,000 for four community sports programs will be restored.

The council cut $10,000 from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ budget, noting it had been increased by that amount over FY 2007.
“I think we all just got to share the pain,” Councilman Rashid Burney said. “I think the mayor and council should set a trend and example to the entire city.”
The administration had already cut the council’s own expense request by $40,000 and the council cut another $3,000 on Wednesday.

A beleaguered substance abuse program that was in danger of being shut down will now continue through a series of management changes. Dudley House, operated mostly through state and county funding, will be headed by the former assistant director of Public Works and Urban Development, who will also manage Plainfield Action Services. Both the former Dudley House director and PAS director have been cut from the budget, City Administrator Marc Dashield said.
The program still faces hurdles of meeting state licensure and certification standards, including making the Putnam Avenue facility accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.
Dozens of past and present clients attended council meetings last year to plead for continuance of what they called a life-changing program. But some council members objected to the fact that it serves both Union and Middlesex county residents and not just Plainfielders in need of treatment.

Dashield strongly defended Police and Fire division budgets against cuts and the council backed off, making only minor reductions. Dashield said the need for police overtime has increased due to staffing a new metal detector at Municipal Court and to investigating city shootings as if each one was a homicide, under the new Operation Ceasefire program. Overtime costs are already exceeding budget anticipation, with four months to go in the FY 2008 budget year, he said.

When it came to an unspecified cut of $350,000 that the council left up to the administration, Dashield said it couldn’t be done, short of cutting out a whole program. Storch said he was disappointed that the administration had not proposed additional cuts and said for next year, “We have to do some major, major planning.”

Dashield said the issue was “what services are you not going to provide,” but Burney said the administration should have proposed cuts and let the council decide whether to make them.

After the two-hour discussion, the council had to hold a voice vote on every single amendment, a process that took nearly another half-hour. Among the many grants included as amendments were six that added up to $209,270 to support Dudley House.

Budget documents are on hand at City Hall and Burney has also posted the introduced budget on his web site. Officials stressed the need to pass the budget as soon as possible, without further amendments, because the city is already eight months into the budget year.

--Bernice Paglia


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