Friday, October 31, 2008

Board Faults Capital Plan

Finance Director Douglas Peck took a bit of a drubbing from the Planning Board Thursday over his capital improvement plan presentation.

The first thing the board did was to discard Peck’s color-coded document on the six-year plan for major expenditures such as purchase of heavy equipment, road repairs and building improvements. But his spread-sheet on a “functional” version of the capital budget drew sharp criticism for being indecipherable and the board asked him to come back with a document that showed proposed expenditures by department and division to accompany the one based on categories of needs.

Board chairman Ken Robertson began the discussion by asking for figures on the 2008 capital budget. The board was working on figures for a six-year span starting with the 2009 fiscal year that began July 1. But Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said nothing was expended in 2008.

Councilman William Reid then called the document before the board “sort of mixed up” and most of the ensuing discussion was on how the plan needed to be explained in a more intelligible way.

“This document we have now is useless,” board member Gordon Fuller said.

Robertson said the board had been promised to have the plan in January. At present, the City Council is finalizing talks on the FY 2009 operating budget with the goal of budget passage by December, and the capital budget is supposed to accompany the operating budget.

Peck only was hired in April and came from Ohio, where had had his own management firm. He is the fifth person in charge of the city’s largest department, Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, since January 2006. He came in pledging a new way of budgeting based on the services most desired by taxpayers, but his presentations to the City Council have been rife with glitches, most notably a $1.7 million typo that required major adjustments in the operating budget.

Among the top priorities in the capital budget are road repairs that were deferred during the present administration, leaving the city in only the second year of a multi-year plan that was launched in 2005. Fire Chief Cecil Allen told the council the city needs a new $7 million firehouse on South Avenue, as modern equipment is too heavy for the floor of the historic building next to the Netherwood train station. But the details on expenses took a back seat to the board’s dismay over Peck’s presentation Thursday.

“I just think this is a poor document presented to us with a lot of areas where we can’t say it’s a good document,” Reid told Peck, calling the plan “high school stuff.”

At one point, Police Captain Siddeeq El-Amin was called on to speak about capital expenses in the police division, but he said he had not seen the document until it was handed to him at the meeting.

The board’s role with the capital improvement plan is to review it for recommendation to the City Council. Peck answered a number of questions the board submitted at a previous session, but the meeting concluded with the board looking forward to receiving a more concrete explanation of proposed capital projects.

“I hope the second budget we get is not as confusing as this one,” Reid said.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Park Project Requires Haste

A Planning Board presentation Thursday perhaps inadvertently revealed yet another “catch-up” situation in city government.

It seems the city had an $85,000 NJDEP grant in 2005 to fix up the Bryant Park playground, but nothing was done. Now that the December 2008 expiration date looms, the Planning Board was asked to speed approvals so that the council could also push the project through before the deadline.

The project overall includes a $100,000 Community Development Block Grant, but the key factor is getting the state grant approved.

The grant would cover a $124,000 new restroom, described by Remington & Vernick representative Randolph Laks as a pre-fabricated unit that would only need plumbing and electrical hookups to be operational.

In all, the capital projection for improvements at the park between East Fifth and Sixth streets on the site of a former school was $272,432, but the immediate need was to get the restroom project approvals passed.

--Bernice Paglia

A Dudley House Alumni Shares His Views

Reader John Busby shares his thoughts on Dudley House:

"Dudley House has saved the lives of thousands of men, many of whom, including myself, live in Plainfield with their families. I would not be alive if it were not for the help I received there. I am proud to be in recovery ten years and credit Dudley House and its staff with my recovery.

"While it is true that things might not have been properly done by the former executive director to obtain licensure, Mayor Briggs has fully supported the program since she found out what was really happening.

"The facility discharged its last clients in May 2008 in an effort to save the costs for food, etc. and has not admitted clients since that time. It was planned that clients would be admitted again once the facility was ADA compliant and licensed by the state, and that work has begun. In fact, some of the Dudley House staff have been assisting in the rehab work at the facility over the past few months.

"All clients at Dudley House pay rent for room and board - services are not free of charge to anyone. Additionally, the house was funded by Union and Middlesex Counties, whose funding went toward the admission of clients who were not from Plainfield. Plainfield was not giving a free ride to anyone outside of their city and both Union and Middlesex counties want Dudley House to reopen.

"Many of the Dudley graduates remain in Plainfield upon graduation with their families, paying taxes - they would not have moved to Plainfield otherwise. This program has been in existence for over 34 years and is the oldest halfway house in the state.

"Originally, back in early 2008, the city council supported the program. Now, all of a sudden, some of the members of the council have decided this program is not worth saving. Has anyone contacted Union and Middlesex counties to see when their funding would be returned to Dudley House? Even if the city has to cough up the $178,000 projected for this year, what does that amount to - about $6 per taxpayer to keep addicts off their streets and in treatment???? The mayor should be commended for trying to keep social service programs like Dudley House open and not just close them down because there is a budget crunch. How can the city council turn their backs on us????"

Note from Plaintalker: Nov. 30 is the stated deadline for achieving licensure, although some close to the issue dispute the timetable, given the bureaucracies involved. The larger issue of whether the city should be in the business of operating such an agency is unresolved. A recent legal notice was posted seeking an agency to take over the management of Dudley House, but no agency has been approved. Such are the unresolved issues.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Clarifying the "Cams"

Dear readers, these traffic cameras at Park & Seventh are in no way "spy cams," as the Needler in the Haystack would have it. I never described them as such and frankly felt the characterization on CLIPS was misleading.

These cameras are solely for the purpose of monitoring traffic flow to improve mobility, as I understand it. Call me naive, but I am buying the stated purpose as described on the NJDOT web site.

Click here for an explanation of the new system.

As for the other kind of cameras - those used for crime surveillance - city officials now say the CCTV cameras will be monitored from the basement of the Tepper's building, in yet another flip-flop on use of that space. The casual mention of the plan in a recent budget session strains the credibility of the administration, because so many other possibilities have been floated previously.

First of all, do we have the cameras? Where will they be placed? Will police or civilians monitor them? How will results be conveyed to those who can take official action?

This issue goes back many years. Officials of the Special Improvement District weighed in with a perspective that the best practice was to have the surveillance separate from the police station, but others disagreed.

The most egregious issue to some (including Plaintalker) was the half-million expenditure to fix up the basement to beat a deadline for grant expiration. The result was "a shell," as some officials put it, with no defined purpose. Our state legislator has alluded to leaks in the space that make it virtually unusable. The space was rejected as a potential senior center, its original proposed use, and plans to relocate the City Council there fell by the wayside.

So despite the concept, the details remain unstated.

Anyway, meanwhile, a spin through the traffic cams is kind of fun. Now that I am no longer a driver, I enjoy seeing what kind of aggravation I am missing. Black ice, traffic jams, roads closed - I am so out of here!

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

City Crossroads Awaits Turn-On

All four corners of Park & Seventh now have the latest technology for traffic control.

As Plaintalker reported previously, the new installation will make this busy intersection into an exemplary site to keep traffic moving. Click here for details.

A worker told me last week the only thing lacking now is for the power company to turn on the new signals.

Maybe I am easily astonished, but I really think this is a big thing!

--Bernice Paglia

Trick or Treat


The date is Oct. 31, but school district events are billed as a Harvest Festival and Character Parade, Trunk or Treat, Character Parade, K-1 Costume Parade, Harvest Celebration, Character Parade and 25 Book Campaign Kickoff. Only one school is having Halloween Class Parties.

A combination of concern for safety and political correctness has changed the holiday dramatically in recent decades. Trunk or Treat does away with the need to walk up to the doors of strangers to get treats. Decorated cars park with their open trunks full of candy and kiddies go from car to car under plenty of adult supervision. The “harvest” aspect of the holiday takes away the witch-and-goblin emphasis that still prevails in front yard displays.

The Harvest Festivals are often referred to as the Christian response to what is essentially a Pagan holiday, indeed called by some the Witches’ New Year, Samhain. Funny, the term “pagan” originally just meant peasant or country-dweller – you know, those folks who grow stuff and then harvest it.

On the city side, there will be an 8 p.m. curfew and a police presence in both marked and unmarked cars to ensure safety. See the city web site at http://www.plainfield.com/ for more details.

Whatever your take on Halloween, have fun and don’t eat too much candy!
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 27, 2008

City Short on Spanish-Speaking Staff?

Among questions from the budget advisory committee: Are there enough Spanish speaking staff members in key departments?

The answer wasn't "yes" or "no," but instead a chart that showed a total of 54 bilingual staff members. If the city workforce is around 500, that's about 10 percent. But the Latino population of Plainfield was 25 percent in 2000 and many think it is closer to 30 or 50 percent nowadays. So it appears the proportion is low.

The chart shows just one Spanish-speaking person each in the offices of the mayor, city administrator, city clerk, tax collector, purchasing/administrative services, personnel and health. Community Relations and Social Services, Inspections, Economic Development and Fire Division each have two. Municipal Court and the Women, Infants and Children Program each have four. There are seven in Public Works, 11 in the Bilingual Day Care program and13 in the Police Division.

For offices where people stop in and find at least one person who speaks Spanish, there may not be a problem. Municipal Court has a service whereby a non-English speaker can receive translations in Spanish as well as many other languages. The scary thought to this writer is how communication takes place in emergencies such as fires, crimes and accidents.

It has been interesting over the past 25 years to see who is picking up specialized Spanish in order to conduct transactions as mundane as ordering Chinese food, for example. Not only are menus posted in two languages at a nearby restaurant, the Asian counter people can take orders and converse with customers in Spanish. Next door to me, Connolly's maintenance workers are largely Latino, with a Jamaican in charge, and I often catch an exchange that is rudimentary but sufficient to get the work assigned. Thus it seems that los bomberos might develop a vocabulary of key phrases to use at fires and police officers could pick up enough words to facilitate effective interaction in emergencies or, for that matter, even traffic stops.

Maybe this already happens. A chart with numbers does not cover the nuances of verbal communication. For example, several years ago a Guatemalan couple moved into my building and when it became apparent they had a severe roach infestation in their apartment, I tried to get roach control information in Spanish from the Health Division, but there was nothing available. I found something from a source in Texas, but then it turned out that the family spoke only one of the more than 20 indigenous languages of their homeland. Multiply that situation by the number of Central and South American countries that also have indigenous languages and the problem is evident.

Of course, many will say the answer is that all who come here to live must learn English immediately. Given the proliferation of ESL schools and classes around the city, folks are trying to do just that. But I remember feeling really sorry for one person who came to police headquarters several years ago with an emergency situation, only to be told to "come back when you speak English."

So the question of whether there are enough Spanish-speaking staff members remains up for interpretation, so to speak. Any thoughts?

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 25, 2008

How Will Foreclosures Affect Tax Collection?

Boarded-up houses are being seen more often around the city and officials are discussing the effects, ranging from an increase in squatters to how it will affect the city's new high tax collection rate.
Since this picture was taken last week, somebody had to board up the broken second-story windows over the porch.

Squatters have been seen entering the rear of the building by climbing on the two low roofs to get in through a window. Note the clothes strewn on the higher of the two roofs.

Here's where people sit to drink, as evidenced by the bottles and cans strewn about.

A cache of bottles and cans is stuck behind a fence.
Meanwhile, at the Oct. 23 budget meeting, officials said an aggressive pursuit of taxes owed will go far to keep up the collection rate of 96.08, up from 95.48 last year. A tax lien sale is scheduled for Dec. 1 and the city will receive the amount of delinquent taxes from the lien buyers, who will then be owed the debt and can charge up to 18 percent interest.
Banks that foreclose on properties will most likely keep up loans to protect their investment. Between the banks and lienholders, taxes should be paid, auditor Bob Swisher said.
A member of the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee asked whether the city was able to track the type of loans sold in recent years, but officials could not answer Thursday. Swisher did say that the most recent audit found that the city was not maintaining a list of foreclosures. A corrective action plan has been approved by the council to remedy all the audit findings.
Before a tax lien sale takes place, a list of delinquent property owners, the addresses of the properties and amounts owed are published several times in newspapers. Debtors can come to City Hall and pay up before the sale, otherwise they will owe the lien buyer and have to pay interest.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 24, 2008

Budget Talks Continue Thursday

A wide-ranging budget session Thursday (Oct. 23, 2008) included ways to make up for a $1.7 million typo in the official budget statement, some questions on anticipated revenues, the fate of Dudley House and plans for a technology update for the city.

To fix the typo that overstated revenues, the city can definitely dip into surplus, auditor Bob Swisher of Supplee, Clooney & Co. said.

“The state will allow you to use whatever you have,” Swisher said.

The administration proposed using $831,000 from the surplus to meet about half the needed amount. In the introduced budget, the surplus amount was $2.3 million, but it was adjusted to $3,131,000 after the glitch was found, leaving the difference.

The other half would come from the reserve for uncollected taxes, which the administration proposes reducing by $832,000 from $3.3 million in the introduced budget to $3.1 million. Swisher was not as assured on that number, even though Councilman Rashid Burney began the talk by stating, “We just want you to tell us the numbers are good.”

The city achieved a tax collection rate of 96.08 percent for the 2008 fiscal year that ended June 30, but several factors may affect the rate for the current fiscal year that began July 1. Swisher did say that keeping up the collection rate could involve measures “as simple as calling people” to remind them to keep tax payments current.

New Tax Collector Marie Glavan has instituted just such an aggressive approach to getting all possible tax revenues. The city will also hold a tax lien sale Dec. 1 to help recoup back taxes.

While the revenue mistake may have been simple human error on the part of the auditing firm, the document was counter-signed by several city officials who apparently missed it as well. And even though the city must now contend with making up the $1.7 million, City Administrator Marc Dashield said Thursday, “There is no deficit.”

Among anticipated revenues, the city received $401,378 in Uniform Construction Code fees last year and expects $589,399 this year, despite the downturn on development. Officials explained that the past year’s income reflected fees for the Dornoch Plainfield project on East Front Street that includes 63 condos and a new senior center. The new income is expected from a West Front Street project on the Tepper’s block, officials said. As understood by Plaintalker, that project hinges on approvals from Chase Manhattan Bank for New Markets Tax Credit funding.

Whether all this financial juggling will work out, remains to be seen.

On Dudley House, perhaps the reason why the council is not seeing the turnout of fervent clients in support of the program is that are currently no clients. All were phased out as their terms ended.

The city currently does not actually pay for client expenses. It seems there are state and county grants that pay for services. A future projection called for the clients themselves to pay for the program through payroll from mandated employment as well as eligibility for food stamps and other benefits.

The halfway house on Putnam Avenue is mostly grant-supported and only got $28,000 in city funds last year, but due to new state licensing demands that require handicapped accessibility, the facility apparently lost grants. Budget figures given last week reflected an increase to $178,168, but this week the amount was reduced to $36,645 based on pending grants and other factors..

Here the issues seem to be whether the city should find an entity to run the program in the rehabilitated city-owned property or just to bag the program and somehow get the building back on the tax rolls.

On technology, a plan last week to reduce the Public Information staff was reversed this week even though council members have stated flatly that the current staff is not doing what is needed. A combined Communications/Technology staff might require a director commanding a salary as high as $147,000. According to what Plaintalker knows of City Hall salaries, that amount would trump the compensation of top current municipal officials.

The budget session was an informal meeting Thursday, as only three City Council members showed up. The council waited for a while and then declared the meeting adjourned for lack of a quorum. For the record, council members in attendance were Linda Carter, William Reid and Rashid Burney. Absent were Cory Storch, Don Davis, Elliott Simmons and Harold Gibson.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How to ... Live in your Car?

One of my favorite web places, WikiHow, currently features an article on "How to Live in Your Car."

This might be considered extreme, except that a recent advisory from AARP addressed the same issue.

In Seattle, the land of my dreams, there is an ongoing issue about tent cities for homeless. (No, that is not part of my dream, which is just about the wonderful Northwest milieu and pioneer values.)

Maybe we here in the Northeast should think about a possibly impending problem of homelessness as income plummets and housing costs increase. Block 832, where I live, already has a population of homeless who survive somehow through church assistance and other strategies.

Plainfield can be assured that squatters will be found more and more often in foreclosed homes around the city. On the next block over to the north from Block 832, squatters this summer used other folks' water supplies to wash up and found shelter in churchyards and wherever else they could.

This new development deserves attention and analysis if governmental help may be needed. At tonight's budget meeting, one person cited a very high percentage of sub-prime mortgages in the city whose failure will lead to distress.

--Bernice Paglia

Hard Times? Take Up Mending

My ripped black pointelle thermals were headed for the ragbag when I reconsidered and decided to mend them.

With hard times on my mind and everyone else’s nowadays, several other household items got repaired or mended instead of being tossed out. The old adage, “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” is worthy of being posted on the refrigerator door or wherever else a family puts reminders.

It’s a good time to go “shopping” in closets and drawers for useful garments and other items that have been overlooked for a while. The heady days of impulse-driven acquisition seem to be over for the time being.

So get out the needle and thimble and sew on that shirt button or mend that hem. Get in touch with your inner New Englander and bring back thrift!

--Bernice Paglia

Council Candidates Speak at LWV Forum

City Council candidates met the public Wednesday at the annual forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Plainfield.
(Disclaimer: I joined the League after I retired.)

Questions from the audience centered more on improving the workings of city government than on the perennial three topics of crime, economic development and taxes.

New Democrat Annie McWilliams thanked voters for her June primary win, in which she bested the Regular Democratic Organization’s choice, City Council President Harold Gibson. Based on what she heard on the campaign trail, McWilliams said, “Are citizens happy with the direction of the city? No. Could a change in leadership make a difference? Yes.”

McWilliams, daughter of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, is running unopposed for the Citywide At-large council seat. Her running mate and fellow winner in the Democratic primary, Adrian Mapp, is seeking the Third Ward seat and defeated incumbent Don Davis in June. The former councilman and Union County freeholder is opposed by city resident Brenda Gilbert, who announced months ago that she will mount a write-in campaign. Her name will not be on the Nov. 4. ballot.

Gilbert said she was running because she feels the people of the Third Ward need a choice.

“Change will not come from within the council,” she said.

Mapp said he seeks to return to the council at a “very tumultuous time” and will work to restore transparency to government and deal with the city’s “crumbling infrastructure.”

Councilman William Reid, unopposed for the unexpired First Ward term vacated last December by Rayland Van Blake, for a freeholder seat, made no promises other than to continue the service he has given since being appointed to the seat last December.

“It’s been a great year for me,” said the 41-year city resident, who called his council stint the “cherry on the cake” of a lifetime in politics and public service.

Though not large, the audience in the Anne Louise Davis Room of the Plainfield Public Library had plenty of questions, ranging from how to better enforce the city’s property maintenance code to meeting the need for technology in government, with road conditions a major concern as well. League Moderator Louise Ballard of Hillside read the questions and each candidate responded.

One query stated that the city’s many property code violations could be a source of revenue and asked how candidates would hold landlords accountable for keeping property up to code. Reid said the council’s role was to make laws and see that they are followed. He said landlords should be encouraged through talks with real estate agents to obey codes and that liens are placed on property when the city has to order cleanups.

Mapp said the focus should not be to get revenues, but to make sure codes are met. He suggested “safe homes” initiative by the council. But Gilbert said, “We already have enough codes on the book” and said those laws should be “aggressively enforced.”

For the record, the city did have a safe housing ordinance that was repealed under the current administration after pressure from real estate leaders. Correction: It was repealed because it did not work, Councilman Rashid Burney says. "We didn't see any movement at all," Burney said, adding expected billing never took place and inspectors' laptops were not compatible with city systems.

“The problem is enforcement,” McWilliams said, advocating the use of handheld devices by which inspectors could issues summonses on the spot.

Responding to a question on how to improve the city web site and other technology, Gilbert said there has not been an assessment of how City Hall is run and technology is now far behind. Reid said the city web site should be modeled on the school district’s new one and part of the problem is “hiring the right people.” McWilliams agreedwith both, saying, “How money is spent is the key to success.”

Mapp agreed also that one of the big mistakes of the current administration was hiring “people who are not competent” and called for interactive features such as a “citizen’s assistance request” on the web site.

A five-year road repair plan is now three years late on the second phase and the city has sought a review of the original road condition assessment that was done in 2004. McWilliams disputed the need for another round of engineering, but Reid said a $1 million bond ordinance covered not just a review of the earlier findings, but also other costs.

“Our roads are not as bad as people think,” Gilbert said, drawing a murmur from the audience.

“Anyone who drives through the city knows our roads are in horrible shape,” Mapp retorted, adding recent work by New Jersey American Water has further damaged the roads.

Mapp said the city needs to pursue grants, partner with Union County and make an annual ordinance to rebuild the “crumbling infrastructure.”

In closing, Mapp gave a long list of priorities for the governing body, including working “to hold the administration accountable on every level.” Gilbert said, “We have suffered in the community from recycled politicians” and called for a “new broom.”

McWilliams noted all four candidates had talked about a lack of leadership and pledged to work with the council and administration as well as to listen to the citizens and make sure they have “true representation.” Reid said he would draw on his 50 years of public service to make the best decisions and called council service “a real job” that he would do to the best of his ability.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on November 4. Residents should receive sample ballots soon that show their polling place. Absentee ballots may also be filed by Oct. 28. For more election information, see the County Clerk’s section of the Union County web site at http://www.ucnj.org/

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Plaintalker Flops at BOE Reporting

Tuesday's school board meeting began with an hour of student performances dedicated to Hispanic Heritage Month and a recognition ceremony for students who achieved a perfect score on a recent test. The auditorium was crowded with parents, mainly Spanish-speaking, who all left after the board retreated into executive session for an hour.

When the board returned, PEP President Renata Hernandez and Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III continued their ongoing hassle over whether the citywide group has a place in fostering parental involvement. Hernandez stated her view that it does and Gallon repeated his stance as Chief School Administrator that PTOs at each school should spearhead the cause. There is a lot more to this story that I am not inclined to go into here.

Later, there was some discussion of whether new travel policies for board members were mandated by the state or were guidelines pending state adoption. The bottom line seemed to be that they were to be treated as policy pending adoption.

Before the board got around to the actual business of the business meeting, there were two more presentations scheduled, but this writer could not stay on.

The evening's events, which included being overcharged for a taxi ride home after a very long wait outside, reinforced my feeling that the new location and other factors will force a halt to my attempts to cover these meetings. Last night I pondered the situation for quite a while without being able to come up with a blog post. This post is inadequate as a report, I admit. Maybe later I will be able to refine one or two points for a better report.

One thing I had to look up when I got home was "Nickleby," as uttered by Gallon. I never heard the term before, but apparently it is educatorese for NCLB, the federal "No Child Left Behind" program. Who knew?

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 20, 2008

Quote of the Week

Regarding the insertion of a numeral that made the city budget go off by $1.66 million, an observer said Monday, "I thought 7 was a lucky number."

The reference was to a typo that converted $184,266.20 in a "payment in lieu of taxes" arrangement into a $1,847,266.20 bigtime error in the budget math.

It would be funny if it wasn't so awful.

--Bernice Paglia

Solution Proposed for Budget Error

City officials came up with a plan Monday to address the inadvertent $1.7 million budget shortfall caused by a typo in the official FY 2009 budget document that auditors submitted to the state.

As explained by City Administrator Marc Dashield, the anticipated payment in lieu of taxes from the Allen Young Apartments was supposed to be $184,266.20, but the insertion of an extra number erroneously stated it as $1,847,266.20 in anticipated revenues.

The recommended adjustments are to increase the $2.3 million anticipated surplus in the introduced budget to $3,131,000, for a difference of $831,000. In addition, the amount held in reserve for uncollected taxes would go from $3,929,000 in the introduced budget to a new recommended amount of $3,097,000, a decrease of $832,000.

Together, the modified amounts would produce the needed $1,663,000 to avoid a tax increase to cover the deficit.

The proposal was made at a council budget session with a citizen advisory committee following the regular City Council meeting in Municipal Court Monday.

The administration, council and committee members went over details of the proposal several times to make sure all understood it. However, there were still some caveats.

The plan must pass muster with the state Division of Local Government Services, for one thing. Former City Councilman and Union County Freeholder Adrian Mapp, now running for the Third Ward seat in the November general election, reminded the council that there is a formula by which the city must set aside a reserve for uncollected taxes. And Councilman Rashid Burney, who heads the governing body’s Finance Committee, said, “This is a proposal from the administration,” one that the governing body could accept or not.

To gain further understanding of the implications and possible solutions, the council asked the administration to have the city’s auditing firm on hand for Thursday’s budget session. That meeting is expected to be from 7:30 to 10 p.m. in City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

Burney has posted a budget schedule on his web site with the goal of budget adoption by Dec. 1. He also has a perspective on the error that is instructive. Click here to see it.

The gross error is not unprecedented. A while back, the school district managed to forget the $1.8 million cost of a charter school, which of course then had to be made up. There was consternation all around, but the district survived. And so might the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Views of "The Monarch"

Most of my photos of the condo/senior center project at 400 East Front Street have been taken from a vantage point near the existing Senior Center at 305 East Front Street. On Sunday, I took a walk to East Second Street for the rear view. I wanted to see how the roof garden space was shaping up, among other things.

The building is sort of U-shaped, with the roof garden planned to be over a parking area. There will be more parking on a lot on the East Second Street side. Here you can see balconies on the east side of the building.

The west side is at the left in this photo. On both East Front and East Second, fencing extends over the sidewalk to the street. I had to shoot the pictures through the chain links.

From either side, one can look straight through the ground floor where the senior center will be. So far, the space does not appear to be divided into the many rooms that are planned for the center.

Each of the 63 condos will have its own "Magic-pak" heating/cooling unit. I only saw one closed-off space and could not tell whether a unit was actually installed in it.

This structure in the shadow of the new building is one of about 15 free-standing historic buildings around the city. It had been an architect's office, but no sign was in front on Sunday.
Construction at the new building is behind stated schedules and representatives of Dornoch Plainfield LLC were to be meeting with the mayor this month to discuss progress. According to the city's construction official, the building permit was issued last October. Terms of the developer's agreement allow two years for completion, placing the deadline at October 2009.
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fall Back? When?

We remembered to spring ahead, but when to fall back?

Here's a link to know when. It seems the rules changed a couple of years ago.
As a retiree, I really don't need to know all these rules, because I have few reasons to be anywhere at some certain time. But for the rest of you who must show up on time, take heed and good luck.
--Bernice Paglia

A Bit of a Stretch

It's hard to believe that nobody in the administration took a close enough look at the official budget statement to uncover the flaw that now presents a $1.7 million dilemma for the city.

The auditors apparently didn't proofread the document either, before sending it to the state Division of Local Government Services. It took a lowly citizen journalist to bring the matter to light, to the consternation of authorities who now have to deal with it.

The newly-formed budget advisory committee has now become witness to the debacle, on top of trying to deal with numerous glitches in the five sessions held so far with the City Council. The administration revealed the problem to the committee and council on Thursday.

The committee is dealing with the big budget binder and most likely was not provided with the 11- by 17-inch official budget statement document that is much less bulky, but of greater importance to the process, as it is subject to state review and acceptance. The state can disallow items, such as unfounded revenue claims, or reject the budget for other reasons. What state officials will do about an egregious typo remains to be seen.

However, the members of the budget committee are a sharp, bright group and no doubt would have also spotted the error, had they been given the official document in addition to the big binder.

The budget sessions that began two weeks ago were all supposed to run two and a half hours, but two were cut to an hour each, so people could go home and watch the presidential debates. Due to the curtailed schedule, some presenters such as the Fire Division have yet to be heard. The council plans to hold another budget session Monday, after what is projected to be a very short City Council meeting at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court. There will be another budget session on Thursday.

So far, the sessions have been devoted to hearing presentations and asking questions. There have been no actual "deliberations," or discussions of how to amend the budget. And now there will have to be some major amendments to make up for the deficit.

The council's Finance Committee had hoped to wrap the budget up in November. For various reasons, the process usually straggles on until sometime in the third quarter of the fiscal year, meaning more than half of the salaries and wages and other expenses have been paid out and can't be subjected to cuts. The council may want to stick to the original timetable, but at this point diligence may trump speed.

On Thursday, the committee and council also saw the projected capital budget that covers costly items with a useful life of five years or more, such as vehicles, roads, equipment, technology and so on. The chart shows capital expenditures of well under $2 million in 2008 zooming up to more than $8 million in FY2009 and over $12 million in 2010. This chart alone needs a lot more explanation and discussion than the few minutes given Thursday, as all the expenses represented will be paid for through bonding, or debt. A new focus on technology that will subsume much of the current Public Information operation especially needs more explanation.

The public is welcome to all budget sessions, but so far few people have attended. Plaintalker gave an overview of the budget process a few weeks ago and it does deserve the taxpayers' attention, especially in these increasing hard times. New Finance Director Douglas Peck wants to correlate expenses with what the public desires in terms of services, but so far the public isn't talking. Have your say before it's too late!

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Better Traffic Flow Coming

Traffic control improvements at Park & Seventh have advanced with installation of new lights and cameras. As described here in a previous post, the upgrade was deemed important because the intersection has been the site of 12 crashes.
Thanks to all the officials and staff who brought this project into being. Thousands of daily commuters will benefit from the improvements.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 17, 2008

State of the ...What?

Due to a conflict, Plaintalker could not be present for the State of the District Address. A request later for the text of the address revealed that there was none. It had been a slide presentation.

Hmmm. And didn't our mayor offer 79 slides as her State of the City Address?

This new tradition is a bit disconcerting. Where are the memorable quotes, the sonorous rhetoric, the calls to action?

At least Chairman Angel Estrada of the Union County Freeholder Board Freeholder is keeping up the old tradition. Here's a rousing quote:

"The secret to this Democratic Freeholder Board’s success is really no secret at all. It’s about three elements—teamwork, synergy, and results.

It all starts with Charlotte DeFilippo, the architect of the Democratic Freeholder team. Charlotte has always preached teamwork first. Charlotte, we thank you for your efforts in putting—and keeping together our County Democratic team."

Click here to read the full address and here to read the 2008 State of the Union Address.

So not all leaders have gone over to PowerPoint. The ability to write a sentence, or to get a flack to write one, still lives. In keeping with that spirit and to urge that "State of the (Whatever) Addresses" always be given in speech format, Plaintalker is offering an example for your consideration. Imagine being in a gathering in an oak grove or a nice meadow and feel free to applaud at the end.

State of the Pedestrian Address

My fellow Pedestrians,

Our cause is a noble and storied one. To begin my address, I will describe both the past and present glories of walking around on foot.

Our dearest ancestors knew no other way than to explore the world one step at a time. By simple footsteps, they crossed from great land masses over narrow bridges to new worlds. From plains to mountains on continent after continent, they made their paths and created civilizations that endure today.

Expeditions on foot brought us knowledge of treasures previously untold in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. Gold, medicines and even our daily fare are all products of the inquisitive peripatetic class.

Today we have machines that convey us about without ever a foot on the ground. But Mother Nature does not want us to forget our earthly connections. We are now faced with the challenge of not enough false energy to foster our slothful habit of driving instead of walking.

Thus our credo is gaining ground among those who would substitute use of mechanical vehicles for the divine powers of locomotion residing in the muscles and sinews of our legs. These lovers of ease have come to see the price of their obsession and are now striving to reduce what they call their “carbon footprint.” They are learning anew to walk to the corner store instead of firing up their behemoth SUVs for door-to-door travel.

Time spent walking frees the mind to think of many things. I commend to you the lives of two heroes of our culture whose missions serve as beacons to us all. One is that icon of agriculture, John Chapman, known also as Johnny Appleseed for his custom of introducing the apple tree to orchards across our emerging nation. Another is Peace Pilgrim, who walked 25,000 miles on a quest for peace. Both wanderers touched the lives of thousands with their example of simple trust in their fellow creatures. As we walk with the sun on our cheek or even with wind, sleet or snow in our face, we can feel kinship with those souls who had no destination, but always knew the joy of a journey.

My fellow pedestrians, our charge is challenging. It is up to us to lead by example, buoyed by the memory of those two dedicated walkers and more whose names are too many to recount here. Since the Model T rolled off an assembly line in 1908, we have been seduced by speed. We have allowed a vast system of highways to replace the fields and forests of our country’s youth. We have come to think that assignment to a parking stall close to the door of our workplace is a signal honor.

But it is not too late to change our ways. Would you believe that the term “walkability” is gaining merit among both planners and residents of our cities and towns? Petition your elected officials to see that your hometown’s walkability score is increased in the next decade. Introduce to our children, who face all the ills of early obesity, the idea of taking a walk to a friend’s house or rediscovering on foot the parks they knew as babes in strollers. Our elders need not sign up for expensive exercise classes to retain their motor skills and improve circulation when a vigorous walk will do just as well.

Our society has come to believe that that which is costly is more valuable than that which is free. But it is a fallacy, my friends. Recent events have made us question why bottled water, merely somebody’s tap water with a fancy label, is any better than water from our own tap. Similarly, to some, a walk around the block is seen as less glamorous than walking on a $1,000 treadmill. We must reclaim, indeed we shall be forced to reclaim, simplicity in our daily lives. America was not built on shopping and driving, and it may collapse if those two false ideals continue to dominate our lives.

So walk, my friends, walk the path of true energy and spirit! It lies within you to recapture the vigor and refreshment of the mind that walking produces. Expunge the notion that a pedestrian life is commonplace or boring! Put your best foot forward! Walk into the future knowing you are the new leaders of a noble cause! WALK!

Thank you my fellow pedestrians, for your attention today.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Typo Creates $1.7 Million Deficit

Of all the revelations at Thursday’s budget session, none was more disconcerting than a typo by the city’s longtime auditors that mistakenly added an extra $1.7 million in revenues on the official budget statement sent to the state.

A “payment in lieu of taxes” figure for the Allen Young Apartments should have been $184,266.20 for the 2009 fiscal year, but an extra numeral pumped it up to $1,847,266.20 in anticipated revenues. The difference over last year then became $1,661,266.20.

At the meeting, City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city is in talks with the auditors, but later Dashield called this writer at home to explain that the difference will not be a deficit in revenues because the city will make adjustments so that there will be no impact on taxpayers.

According to the summary of revenues handed out at the meeting, there is a 13.103 percent drop and a $3.6 shortfall since last year even including the mistaken amount. That would indicate that the amended deficit will be more like in excess of $5 million to be made up.

Thursday’s session also included news of a plan to collapse the city’s troubled Public Information division in favor of having the web site, television channel and other information services placed under a proposed new director of technology. The public information officer’s post will be phased out, leaving just one employee in communications. The transition may begin in January.

Part of the reason for requiring a director of technology is that a shared services agreement with the Board of Education expired in August and talks as recent as the last few weeks did not result in another agreement, Dashield said.

“We’re now at the point that we know it’s not going to work,” he said.

“Do it on your own,” Councilman William Reid advised, citing “turf issues” that often come up with shared service agreements.

Councilman Cory Storch disagreed with Reid on shared services and noted that the school district is now “far ahead” on technology, saying the city has really “misfired” on getting started.

Storch also said it didn’t make him feel confident to find out just that night that the plan didn’t work.

Councilman Rashid Burney echoed Storch’s displeasure and said he felt the same about plans for Dudley House that were just unveiled Thursday.

“I don’t think it’s the right way to do things,” Burney said.

Dudley House, a residential substance abuse treatment center for men, was nearly shut down last year due to lack of compliance with state licensing requirements. Clients crowded several City Council sessions to plead for the program’s continuation, calling it a lifesaver. The issue was the city-owned building’s lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Volunteers offered to construct a needed ramp and to make other improvements. The presentation Thursday included a checklist of violations and timelines for remediation.

But council members objected to having the city run such a program and called for a non-profit entity to take over, with relocation so the city-owned property on Putnam Avenue could be returned to the tax rolls. The council asked the administration to come up with a transition plan for the future.

Only about six of the 16-member budget advisory committee members attended Thursday’s session. On Wednesday, the Police and Fire divisions were to be heard, but because Council President Harold Gibson announced a halt to the meeting at 8:30 due to the presidential debate, Fire Chief Cecil Allen and other Fire Division representatives did not have a chance to speak. The session was supposed to go from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

Anticipating a very short regular City Council meeting at 8 p.m. Monday, the council agreed to tack on a budget session at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. More dates may be added in November.

Citizens may ask in the City Clerk’s office in City Hall, 515 Watchung Avenue, to view both the official budget statement for FY 2009 as well as the big budget binder that lists salaries and wages and other expenses for each department and division within city government.

--Bernice Paglia

CN Design Trims Print

Putting local news up front is something a lot of newspapers are doing nowadays. Maybe it's because national and world news streams towards us all day on radio, television, computers and devices such as Blackberry. By the next day when the paper is delivered, we have heard and digested all the major stories. But what happened locally? That's what we really want to know and the newspaper is where we find stories like the abducted guy who calls the cops on his cell phone from the trunk of a car.

So what else is different about the new design? We put our Pinocchio tape measure on the case.

Aha! The print portion now spans 10 inches instead of 11. The paper is still the same width, but many newspapers are shrinking in physical size because newsprint, the big rolls of paper used for printing, is becoming more and more expensive. Look for more changes as the dailies strategize for survival.
--Bernice Paglia

Fixing Park & Seventh

This crater-pocked section of Park & Seventh has made walking across the street even more of a hazard than usual for the past several weeks. Pedestrians not only had to look both ways for lunging cars, but also had to keep an eye on the crumbling asphalt, pools of water and sprays from leaks in the temporary hoses.

To the rescue! A small front end loader wheeled around the intersection Wednesday with a load of patching material to mend the roadway. Now pedestrians can pay full attention to those careening SUVs with drivers on cell phones!
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Big I.O.U.

What city obligation is equal to one-tenth of the entire municipal budget?

Why, it’s the Compensated Absence Liability, of course. Never heard of it?

It’s the amount owed to employees for all the accumulated time they have not yet taken, such as vacations, personal days and sick days. In 2002, the state Division of Local Government Services began requiring municipalities and counties to declare the total days and dollar amount of the liability. This year’s Sheet 3c of the budget statement that must be sent to the state is an Analysis of Compensated Absence Liability. In Plainfield’s case, the city owes employees 17,661 days for a total of $4,880,872.90. (The proposed municipal tax levy for FY 2009 is $48,198,183.) Municipalities can set aside funds to offset the liability, but Plainfield’s reserve is zero.

It’s not likely that all the employees owed compensation would decide to cash in at the same time, but with a relatively mature work force, a bunch of retirements could cause a crunch.

Plaintalker reached out to Robert Casey, executive director of the New Jersey Municipal Managers Association, for his perspective. Casey, who counts Plainfield as one of nine jurisdictions where he has served as interim city administrator, explained that the liability comes about as a result of negotiated agreements. Most rural and suburban municipalities simply don’t allow such obligations to accrue, he said, but it is in urban cities with strong unions that the liability builds up. Casey said the situation is not unusual for cities and is not normally a problem unless a large number of employees retire simultaneously.

Most private sector employers have limited the number of sick and vacation days that can be rolled over to the next year, the so-called “use it or lose it” policy. But Casey said the liability for cities may go back many years.

There have been instances in Plainfield where a police or fire chief went out on a year of “terminal leave,” meaning the retiring chief was using up accrued compensation while someone else was acting chief. The situation also meant a new permanent chief could not be named until the retirement took effect.

As indicated on the analysis, the FY2009 liability is 8,080 days and $2,135,051.24 for the Police Division, 3,783 days and $1,023,618.13 for the Fire Division, 1,722 days and $408,371.74 for Public Works and 4,076 days and $1,313,831.79 for other employees.

The only strategy Casey could recommend for the future was “purely negotiations at the table.”

Plainfield has six or seven bargaining units that normally negotiate multi-year contracts. Whittling down the Compensated Absence Liability could take a really long time. It would take a combination of retirements by those owed the most and a firm hand at the bargaining table to rein in future liability. As it stands, the liability amounts to nearly 70 years’ worth of workdays.

--Bernice Paglia

Stir Pot, Save Pots of Money

“Stirring the pot” resulted in $1 million in savings on health plan costs, health care presenters told the Plainfield Board of Education Tuesday.

The meeting took place at the new administration complex at 1200 Myrtle Ave. The board’s work-and-study agenda contained resolutions that would have awarded prescription and health care contracts to new providers, but the presenters said the competition spurred existing providers to come up with more favorable terms.

Mark Lawrie and Darcel Moreno of Willis HRH explained to the school board how seeking quotes on the plans resulted in Benecard Rx and Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield giving concessions. Proposed resolutions awarding the prescription plan to CIGNA Insurance and Bollinger Insurance were pulled and will not appear on the board’s agenda at the regular meeting on Oct. 21. The original providers will remain in place.

Lawrie referred to the district’s challenge as “stirring the pot,” a strategy that paid off.

Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann said the district spends almost $14 million per year on health costs. The reduction was finalized only on Tuesday in advance of the board meeting.

Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III described the proposed arrangement as the “same service, less cost.”

School board member Patricia Barksdale proclaimed herself “ecstatic” at the outcome. Member Lisa Logan Leach called for similar action on all professional services contracts, “so cost savings can go back to the classroom.”

Gallon said that could not happen for some very specialized contracts, because no competition exists. But he said as the opportunity comes up, some contracts may be eliminated and others will be subjected to competitive review.

The new scrutiny will counter the expectation of some providers that their contracts will automatically be reviewed, Gallon said. The measures are linked to Goal 3 of Gallon’s strategic plan for the next three years, “to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of business operations.”

Ottman gave a presentation Tuesday on another issue related to the business operations goal, strict state policies on travel by staff and board members. Those traveling to conferences or professional training sessions must do so only with prior board approval and will not get reimbursed until after they return. Ottmann read from sections of the New Jersey Administrative Code that say travel must be “educationally necessary and fiscally prudent” and that prohibit 18 items for reimbursement, including alcohol and car rentals. Travelers must obtain three airfare quotes over the internet before flying and cannot use travel agents, according to the new guidelines.

Ottmann said of the rules, “They’re new, they’re strict.”

The full set of rules was given to each board member prior to the discussion and members had several questions Tuesday.

At the regular board meeting Oct. 21, the board will be asked to approve several resolutions for trips totaling about $15,000 in expenses. The work-and-study agenda is online now at http://www.plainfieldnjk12.org/ and the agenda for the regular meeting, which will also include personnel matters, will be posted there in advance of the meeting, which will be 7 p.m. Tuesday at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Putting the Bite on Gardeners

A call to Union County Mosquito Control confirmed what I suspected: The summer of 2008 has been one of the worst for mosquito infestation.

Fall cleanup is going to be rough. Each foray outside seems to net me a half-dozen bites. They start off as little bumps, then morph to quarter-sized red patches that itch like mad. The villains are both small black mosquitoes and the exotic black-and-white Asian Tiger Mosquito, a recent invader.

Click here to read more about that bad boy. Ooops, sorry, it's the female that bites.

The difference between the newcomers and the mosquitos of my youth seems to be that the Asian Tiger Mosquito is out in the day, not just at dusk. And they need no more than a bottlecap-ful of water to lay hundreds of eggs. Authorities urge property owners to clean up items that hold water, not just old tires and gutters, but even the saucers under outdoor potted plants.

There's still a lot of garden work to be done out there. But this year, I'm just itching for the first frost and a farewell to mosquitoes.

--Bernice Paglia

Last Day to Register!

Today is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 4 presidential election! The City Clerk's office normally stays open late to register voters on the last day.

Click here for information on voting eligibility from the City of Plainfield's web site (second item).

Plainfield also has three City Council seats up for a vote, though only one candidate is opposed, by a write-in challenger who will not appear on the ballot.

The League of Women Voters of Plainfield will hold its annual forum next week. Here is what I sent to the media as secretary of the League, which I joined before starting the blog:

PLAINFIELD- The League of Women Voters of Plainfield invites all city residents to attend its annual Candidates’ Forum.

The forum will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Anne Louise Davis Room of the Plainfield Public Library, 800 Park Ave., Plainfield.

There are three City Council seats on the Nov. 4 ballot. Due to the withdrawal of Republican Deborah Dowe for the Citywide At-large seat, all the candidates on the ballot are Democrats. They are Annie McWilliams, running for the Citywide At-Large seat; Adrian Mapp, seeking the Third Ward seat; and Councilman William Reid, a January appointee who is running for the balance of an unexpired First Ward term through Dec. 31, 2010. Mapp and McWilliams are seeking full four-year terms.

City resident Brenda Gilbert has publicly announced a write-in campaign for the Third Ward seat and has agreed to take part in the forum.

Candidates’ statements will be included in an advertisement paid for by the League, to be published in advance of the forum. The event will follow the LWV format of an opening statement, responses to written questions from the audience and a closing statement. As required by LWV rules, an outside moderator will conduct the forum.

The League of Women Voters of Plainfield was formed in 1920 with the goal of registering and educating voters. A membership drive led by new President Herb Green is underway and all are welcome to join. Call (908) 756-9682 for more information.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 13, 2008

BOE, City Council Meetings Tuesday

Agendas for both the City Council and Board of Education meetings Tuesday are posted online.

Click here for the council agenda. The agenda-fixing meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The board agenda is on the district's web site. All school board meetings are now held at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, the former Jefferson School building that is now the new administration complex. The work and study meeting begins at 7 p.m.

Neither agenda appeared to have any earth-shaking items. It is good news that the council is on the verge of appointing a permanent tax collector. If the council approves on Oct. 21, Marie Glavan will receive a four-year term during which she will attain tenure. Glavan recently reported the highest tax collection rate in many years and has described to the council strategies to maintain and increase the rate in coming years.

Chalk it up to meeting fatigue, world-weariness or flagging interest in blogging, this writer may decide which meeting to attend based on the ambiance, not the content. City Hall Library has really dim lighting and hard wooden chairs. The school board meetings are held in the overly bright former gymnasium, which is outfitted with folding chairs for the public. Neither venue is appealing or comfortable, which actually leads to the third possibility, staying home and reading a book or listening to music. Since Mark Spivey began reporting for the Courier News, it is a safe bet that any big news will show up in print.

--Bernice Paglia

Master Plan up for Talks Oct. 23

The Planning Board has been toiling for months on aspects of the city's master plan. According to a legal notice, the master plan will be discussed at a Planning Board meeting 8 p.m. on Oct. 23.
Please note this is a change in the board's schedule, as the meeting was originally posted for Thursday. However, the budget advisory committee and City Council will be holding deliberations Thursday in City Hall Library, where the board normally meets.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Seeds of Hope

This tangle of seeds from my neighbor's Blazing Star plants will be cleaned and packed away for spring along with all the other seeds from the garden. Contemplating a long, cold winter in our building, the promise of spring is about all we can look forward to.

In the larger world, we are reaping what has been sown by unscrupulous real estate agents, mortgage brokers, lax regulators and unrealistic homebuyers who believed in the possibility of something for nothing. Maybe the bailout will keep people from eating the seed corn over the winter, but spring may only be a respite before more troubles.

Radio producers are dusting off those old Depression-era songs about hard times and probably new songs about the 2008 debacle are being composed right now. Whoever wins the election will inherit the folly of past "deciders" whose "strategery" was to believe "A dangerous plan is better than no plan." (This from a GWB photo and quote that my daughter e-mailed me many months ago.)

On the local level, spring promises the possibility of change in the decisionmaking ranks. Outside resources are bound to shrink even as community need increases. Politicians will have to grow their own ability to deal with lean times, to understand the issues and serve the people without relying on earmarks and subsidies such as those which have distorted agriculture and other aspects of the economy.

A simpler life is in store for many of us, even those who have already intentionally scaled down to meet higher food, clothing, shelter and transportation costs. Leadership that sets the tone of prudent stewardship, while offering hope for the future, is needed on all levels.

In spring, Plainfield will see who is willing to help guide the city and the school district through the rough times ahead. Economists are predicting it may take years for all the effects of the current crisis to be known. Elective officeholders will have a larger burden of responsibility than perhaps ever before to envision what is best for the city, without giving in to patronage or other outside political forces.

Let us hope for the best.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Yikes!!!

This spooky tableau on an Evergeen Avenue lawn could reflect the Halloween spirit, reaction to the national and perhaps global financial crisis, the local political scene or even the apparent rejection of PEP by the school disitrict.

Yikes! What next?

Thursday's budget session, wherein Assistant Economic Development Director Jacques Howard described an 8 to 12 percent vacancy rate downtown and a decline in Urban Enterprise Zone participation, did not do much to reduce the "Yikes" factor. Howard promised charts, both "linear and pie," to track the decline of sales tax revenues. The pie seemed to be mainly in the sky when projecting how an upturn might take place.

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, as the old saw goes. So this writer boarded the No. 59 bus and went to Westfield to purchase $100.37 worth of Things You Can't Buy in Plainfield. Call it "Escape from the Dollar Stores" or "Shameless Indulgence in Defiance of Market Collapse," it was worth every penny.

The new budget advisory committee has at least two more sessions of hearing from department and division heads on the proposed FY 2009 budget before the group and council collaborate on recommendations to reduce the projected 7 percent municipal tax increase. The citizen members have certainly already gotten an eyeful and earful on how the city spends taxpayers' money and the apparent lack of wiggle room for cuts.

The meeting Thursday coincided with the State of the District address by Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III. On Tuesday, the City Council meeting and the Board of Education meeting will clash. I have not seen any reports on Gallon's speech, but comments are welcome from anyone who attended. I'm hoping the address will be posted on the district web site.

The council meeting will be the last before a hiatus for the Nov. 4 general election. Council meetings will resume with an agenda session Nov. 10 and a regular meeting on Nov. 17. After that, there is only one more scheduled pair of meetings to close out the year.

Politicians are already foreshadowing what may be a showdown in 2009 between the Regular Democratic Organization and the New Democrats. The mayoralty, Fourth Ward council seat, Assembly seat, Democratic City Committee and chairmanship of the local Democratic City Committee are all up for grabs. On the school side, three incumbents face a rising tide of demand for new faces on the Board of Education.

Yikes.

Maybe that homeowner should leave the scary display up for a few more months.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Main Thing

All of us around my neighborhood are awaiting the completion of water main cleaning and the end of all those hoses that make walking difficult, not to mention the sudden shutoffs. Even our mayor told seniors how she was inconvenienced by turning on tap to get ready for work one recent morning and finding she had no water.

On Saturday while walking over to the block party, I saw an arrray of equipment on Park Avenue that was awesome. Traffic was squeezed into narrow lanes to make room for the trucks. Maybe once the drains are cleaned and the openings sealed, we can all relax a little more.

There was another crew on the other side of Evergreen School. I hope this signals the final stages of the work. No more jackhammers for a while, please!
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Budget Talks Begin

Tuesday's budget session was memorable not for the information presented, but for an element of disarray that did not bode well for future talks.

The meeting was the first for the council and its newly-formed citizen advisory committee. The group had two orientation sessions before last night's meeting. Each committee member had a budget binder and a schedule of presentations by department and division heads had been set. Last night, the council and committee were to hear from Douglas Peck, director of Administration & Finance, Health and Social Services; Audit & Control; Tax Assessor and Tax Collector. Peck gave a knowledgeable overview of the budget process, all the more impressive because he came to the city just weeks ago from Ohio and had to get up to speed on both state and city budget guidelines.

However, slides projected on a screen did not match pages of a handout and included one admittedly meaningless graph. City Administrator Marc Dashield ran off copies of other handouts during the meeting, adding to the stuff committee members were balancing on their laps.

An hour into the scheduled two and a half hour session, the Audit & Control presentation was no sooner completed than City Council President Harold Gibson announced he was ending the meeting so participants could get home to see the presidential debate. He said the group would pick up tonight where it left off Tuesday.

This prompted some agitated hand-waving from Tax Collector Marie Glavan, trying to alert Dashield and Peck to the fact that she could not attend a meeting tonight.

Having one of those why-am-I-doing-all-this attacks, I left before the meeting was adjourned.

It is unclear why Gibson waited until mid-meeting to announce his decision. While not set in stone, the budget session timetable calls for presentations by Purchasing, Administrative Services and Municipal Court tonight, Public Works tomorrow night, Public Safety (Police and Fire) next Wednesday and Social Services next Thursday. Certainly it is important to hear from both the Tax Collector and Tax Assessor's offices, but they will now have to be squeezed in on other days.

Tomorrow night Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III is delivering a State of the District address and holding a community reception. The event is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and will be preceded by tours of the new school starting at 6 p.m. Next Thursday, there is a Planning Board meeting. These conflicts will force meeting mavens to pick and choose, despite Councilman Rashid Burney's urgings for citizens to follow the budget deliberations.

The budget committee appears to be a very dedicated, intelligent bunch of folks who will be assessing not only the budget, but the professionalism of the presenters as well. City staff would do well to display their competencies at the highest level for these citizens.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center Work Continues

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs told seniors Tuesday she expects to meet with Dornoch representatives either today or next Wednesday to discuss progress on the new senior center/condo project at 400 East Front Street.

Dornoch Plainfield LLC has missed three projected deadlines for completion of the 63 condos, senior center and veterans' center. The final deadline, two years from the date of obtaining a building permit, is October 2009.

While work is apparently progressing on the roof and interior, the mayor said she would like to see more being done on the senior center space at ground level. According to the development agreement, that should also be a prime goal for Dornoch, because no closings on the condo sales can take place until the senior center is complete, as indicated by a temporary or permanent certificate of occupancy.

Veterans will have a longer wait, according to terms of the agreement. All 63 condos must be sold before space used as a sales office will be converted to a veterans' center.

Although both the senior and veterans' centers are being built at no cost to the city, both entities will incur costs for sharing common elements of the building. The senior center will have to pay 13.96 percent and the veterans' center will have to pay 1.02 percent of costs for common elements when they assume ownership.

--Bernice Paglia

Bodyguards Back to the Streets

The suits on the couch - a police officer and a sergeant who accompanied the mayor to the Senior Center and everywhere else - are now boots on the ground in the local war on crime.

Officer Richie and Sgt. Kenny were not sitting in their familiar spot yesterday morning when the mayor informed seniors that she no longer has two bodyguards. I got an informal confirmation later, but Alexi has broken the story in the Star-Ledger today.

While it is true that there will be no budget savings because the two sworn officers will still serve Plainfield, the cost of the mayoral entourage will drop by more than $150,000. And the perception that the two guys on her campaign flier received a cushy assignment can no longer be raised as an issue.

Now about those confidential aides. No sooner had the mayor taken office than the job title of confidential aide was approved by the City Council. Two former legislative aides from Assemblyman Jerry Green's office turned up at City Hall, one as confidential aide to the mayor and one for City Administrator Carlton McGee. McGee left in 2006 and his former aide now works in the City Clerk's office.

Even though the mayor is paid only $35,000, the extra people added about $200,000 in all to support of her office.

Police Director Martin Hellwig in recent weeks has been adamant on the point that all sworn officers, even the higher-ranking ones, must take a turn on basic police work in the streets, no exceptions. It's a stance that citizens surely endorse after reading about home invasions, shootings and drug activity in Plainfield. And if the mayor needs security, she will have it, he says. That's fair.

Budget talks began last night against the backdrop of a national and perhaps global financial crisis. Plainfield will not be exempt from new pressures to conserve resources. As times get tougher, crime will increase. Repurposing the bodyguards to make all of us feel safer is a sensible move.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 06, 2008

Redevelopment Must Be Done Right

Plaintalker's original goal in June 2005 was to help residents keep tabs on redevelopment. Lots of other topics have come up in the meantime, but redevelopment is still a key issue. Therefore Plaintalker's curiosity was piqued when the designated developer of the North Avenue Historic District proposed a totally new project on West Front Street. The idea was floated briefly at the Sept 29 meeting and was not even on the agenda, although officials indicated it had been discussed in closed session that evening. The proposal was for an office building incorporating an existing warehouse and two city-owned lots.

But the resolution available Monday in advance of the meeting only mentioned the two city lots. It was corrected by the time the meeting began at 8 p.m., perhaps due to Plaintalker's Monday afternoon query about the discrepancy.

On to another issue. The two city-owned lots were supposed to be the site of a 12-condo project. In a February 2008 city document, the developer, Heartstone, was named as having a developer's agreement approved by the City Council. But at Monday's meeting, Corporation Council Dan Williamson said the company only received conditional designation. The issue here was that another company with a redevelopment agreement had to get City Council approval to be released from it. So apparently the city document detailing Heartstone's status is wrong and must be corrected.

Next issue: Did the city in fact establish a park on the site and if so, do Green Acres rules prevail?

City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city-owned properties were always slated for redevelopment, implying the park status was irrelevant. However, in public comment, citizens recalled past instances where park designation of various lots caused major complications when the land was put to another use. The Park-Madison lot where a governmental office building now stands was once a temporary park and was mistakenly included on a list of Green Acres sites, leading to litigation that delayed the project for years.

Here's a current view of the park created through the volunteer efforts of Lucent employees.

There is language in the Green Acres part of the state web site that appears to raise issues about how property once named as parkland can be converted to another use.

Speakers Monday noted the vacant space was once the venue of the Stillman Music Hall, where John Philip Sousa performed. Later it was the Oxford Theatre, where Mary Pickford films were shown. Plainfield resident Nancy Piwowar suggested that a plaque noting the site's history should be placed in any building erected there.

The origination of the "pocket park" came under question, as avid councilwatchers said they had no recollection of action by the governing body to name a park.

Here is one of those markers that shows the history of a building. The Appliance-Arama warehouse was apparently once the Jersey Tire Co., Inc. Interesting that a prime downtown property was given over to tire sales.
Part of the plan was to make a link through the proposed office building to the rear city-owned parking lot. Here's a rear view of the warehouse.
And here is a view of a memorial for a man who was murdered in the back lot.
It's difficult to know how to make sure the city does its part according to the land use law, and how to make sure developers get everything right. The city does need new development and investment, but if rules are broken along the way, elected officials will have a lot of explaining to do.
At any rate, the council did approve the conditional designation Monday of Landmark Development LLC as the developer of Block 249, Lots 5, 6 and 7 on the Tepper's block. Developer Frank Cretella must now seek Planning Board approvals and secure funding for the project. Construction is projected for Spring 2009.
--Bernice Paglia

Landmark Up for Conditional Designation

Tonight's City Council meeting may include conditional designation of Landmark Development Corp. as developer of a West Front Street site that includes the Appliance-Arama warehouse and two lots. Although not on the agenda, the project was presented at the Sept. 29 meeting and is apparently up for fast-tracking through the approval process.

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

Landmark already has an agreement with the city to redevelop the North Avenue Historic District, but there has been no recent update on that project or on the North Avenue extension, which includes the PNC Bank building. Landmark received the initial conditional designation for the North Avenue project in August 2006. After some extensions, Landmark was named developer and an agreement was approved in April 2007.

The new project, on the Tepper's block, is outside the boundaries of the prior one. According to Landmark principal Frank Cretella, the parcels involved are Block 249, lots 5, 6,and 7. Lots 5 and 6 were previously supposed to be the site of Heartstone's 12-condo development. Most recently, a pocket park was created on the Heartstone site.

A press release on the new Landmark proposal appeared on the city web site. Click here to read it. The approval mentioned is just the conditional designation. The developer must still apply to the Planning Board for site plan approval.

The change of focus from North Avenue to West Front Street calls to mind the switch by another developer from East Third and Richmond to South Avenue. In that instance, George Capodagli's company was formally released from developer designation at East Third and Richmond before submitting plans for the new project on South Avenue.

These moves bear watching. I missed the Board of Adjustment meeting at which I hear the South Avenue proposal received approval for variances. (Correction: This application was not approved.)The project is for a four-story, 33-unit apartment building.

I still have some church publicity work hanging over my head but will try to update my redevelopment files. Those seeking re-election in 2009 need some redevelopment showpieces to point to, but the public needs more facts.

--Bernice Paglia

Cool Weather Perks Up Gardens

These colorful nasturtiums are flourishing now that the punishing heat of Summer 2008 is over.

Other plants are making one last show before frost, which may be days or weeks away.

This is also the time when spring shrubs may flower out of season.

Another end-of-summer sight is this praying mantis that is ready to lay eggs.


The eggs will overwinter in a nondescript brown case attached to a twig or some other firm base. My neighbor and I found one last spring attached to a chain-link fence. Next spring, hundreds of tiny mantids will emerge. Adults live only one season. We have enjoyed encountering these fascinating creatures in our urban yard this summer.

--Bernice Paglia