Friday, December 26, 2008

Finance Main Issue in City Government

City Administrator Marc Dashield, who is in charge of day-to-day operations of Plainfield municipal government, finds himself at the end of 2008 in approximately the same position as when the year began: Wearing two hats and wrestling with budget issues.

In January, the former director of the largest of three city departments had left Plainfield with the 2007-08 budget still unresolved. No reason was made public for the departure of A. Raiford Daniels, who served less than a year. Dashield had to fill in as acting director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services for several months, monitoring the department’s 13 divisions. The City Council finally approved the budget in February, with a tax rate of $3.43 per $100 of assessed valuation.

By December, Douglas Peck, the new AFH&SS director hired in April, had also departed and this time it was more than a muddle. A $1.7 million typo in the budget had to be made up and a Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee found both the budget process and city government to be in disarray. Dashield was again on the spot. A search is on for a new director, for the seventh handoff of responsibilities for the job in four years.

The city has also been without a permanent chief financial officer all year, since Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007. This is a statutory post with many fiscal responsibilities to the state. Sepelya had also been a key figure in budget preparation. The administration is still searching for a replacement.

Meanwhile, the administration won City Council approval to abolish the title of police chief in favor of a police director. In March, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs named Public Affairs and Safety Director Martin Hellwig to a yearlong temporary stint as police director in addition to being a department head over the city’s two largest divisions, Police and Fire. Hellwig expanded the five-captain table of organization to add Traffic and Information Technology as bureaus in addition to Criminal Investigation, Narcotics, Uniform, Service and Administrative bureaus. Hellwig reported an 85 percent increase in traffic tickets after the reorganization.

Former Police Chief Edward Santiago accepted a demotion to captain after his job was abolished and is pursuing several legal actions against the city.

Besides dealing with the organizational changes and challenges, the administration continued to struggle with communicating to the public. The city web site improved briefly under an information technology shared services agreement with the school district, but the deal lapsed over the summer. In budget talks, officials said the city needs a fulltime IT director at a salary of perhaps $149,000, but the budget has not been finalized and there is no indication that such a post will be created.

Municipal Channel 74 added a few new segments such as “Hello Plainfield” and “Plainfield at Work” with the help of consultant Parris Z. Moore, but has not yet been able to offer consistent City Council coverage. A Cable Television Advisory Board that is supposed to oversee the local channel’s operations and also manage the franchise renewal process with Comcast of the Plainfields is lacking members and has had an erratic meeting schedule in 2008. The mayor’s husband, Peter Briggs, recently stepped down as chairman after discovering he was ineligible to serve. So far, attempts to set up a second channel dedicated to the school district have not come to fruition.

In July, the city set a preliminary tax rate of $3.58 per $100 of assessed valuation for the first two quarters of the fiscal year that began July 1. In its Nov. 24 report, the 16-member budget advisory committee recommended a zero tax increase after declaring city services insufficient. The report drew sharp rebuttals from both Dashield and City Council President Harold Gibson. Officials are still awaiting word on the amount of extraordinary state aid that will be received to offset property taxes and expect to see budget passage in January.

On the legislative side, the City Council changed its calendar back to the traditional Mondays-only schedule that had been in effect until it was changed to a Monday-Wednesday cycle in 2006. But except for activists demanding council involvement to save or restore Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, citizen attendance has been sparse. Council members now propose meeting only once a month in 2009, and want to hold four of meetings in schools instead of at City Hall or Municipal Court.

The fate of Dudley House, a city-operated substance abuse recovery program funded mainly by state and county grants, remains unresolved. The program lost its license because the residence on Putnam Avenue is not handicapped-accessible and at present has no clients while repairs are being made. Council members want the city to place the program in the hands of a suitable agency. Former clients and supporters of the program have urged the council not to let the program close, but council members object to the fact that most clients are not from Plainfield.

The council approved a 4 percent salary increase for the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association as part of a negotiated five-year agreement that ends in 2009. In light of the global economic collapse at the end of 2008, citizens called on the council to seek union givebacks and take other measures to cut salary and wage costs that make up the largest part of the city budget.

Plaintalker plans to file separate articles on politics and redevelopment in 2008. The council approved several changes in redevelopment plans and saw the defeat of two incumbents in the June primary, all of which will be covered in other year-end reviews.

--Bernice Paglia


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