Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009: Ratepayers Revolt

In late January 2009, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority hiked solid waste rates by 20 percent and sewer rates by 14 percent, retroactive to Jan. 1. A group of outraged citizens not only showed up at the authority's annual February reorganization to protest, but also launched an educational web site for ratepayers, began probing the authority's budget and eventually took several of their issues to court.

So far, the group has achieved rollbacks of certain fines and rules imposed by the authority, encouraged "opt-outs" of authority service and this month saw legal notices that reflected concessions on some of its main concerns. Unlike last year, the PMUA has this month published advance notice of its proposed rate changes and noted they will not take effect until April 1, 2010. A controversial sewer charge for vacant lots may be eliminated altogether.

In its investigations, the group recently uncovered expenditures for conferences and travel that stood in contrast to the authority's claim that it had been forced to trim costs by imposing furloughs and other measures.

Plaintalker posed some questions to Philip Charles, originator of the ongoing lawsuit and a member of the DumpPMUA group.

1. In early 2009, PMUA officials were somewhat dismissive of your new organization. How seriously is it taken now and what do you see as proof of a change in PMUA's attitude?

Our concerns are being taken somewhat more seriously. Unfortunately, it was only after we initiated litigation that there was a slight shift. There have been several changes to policies and procedures but not necessarily a true change in attitude from the PMUA as a whole. However, they certainly know that the residents of Plainfield are concerned and willing to put in the time and effort it takes to hold them accountable. That is positive.

2. What do you consider your key achievements in 2009 and what are your goals for 2010?

The PMUA's awareness of the community's watchful eye and the community's involvement in this cause are by far the key achievements. This has resulted in more specific changes such as a more active role by the city council when it comes to the PMUA.
The PMUA policies that have changed as a result of our movement include the elimination of the $30 fee for having an open lid, the change of opting out procedures for residents who want to procure an alternate company for their garbage removal, a verbal commitment that there would be a reduction of out of state travel for PMUA executives, more detailed public notices for rate hearings and rate hikes which become effective after the public hearing.

Goals for 2010- Addressing expenses such as in state travel, business lunches, and other expenditures which appear to be excessive and wasteful. Addressing the resistance of the PMUA to be transparent with the public especially as it pertains to the Open Public Records Act.

Providing residents with help in addressing their specific grievances with the PMUA.

Eliminating Sewer Charges to vacant land.

Ensuring that Commissioners are not compensated over $4500 per year as permitted by the city ordinance that created the PMUA.

Eliminating the Shared Service Fee which is charged to all property owners for services provided to the city. It should be noted that (from our perspective) many of the achievements and future goals are what is required by law which simply means that the PMUA is now beginning to follow the law which it has been obligated to follow for years.

3. There are vacancies on the PMUA Board of Commissioners. Do you envision appointment of someone from your group to the board?

It has never been the goal of anyone in our group to become part of the PMUA Board. I cannot speak for the many residents who have become involved with our group, but I can speak for a few of us to say that we are not interested in becoming part of the PMUA. However, we will continue to volunteer the time and effort it takes to bring reform to the PMUA.

4. Your efforts have ranged from organizing protests of PMUA practices and rates to educating the public on the authority's workings to actual litigation. How do things stand in these three areas?

I wouldn't say we ever organized protests, but we have actively encouraged residents to make their concerns known at both PMUA meetings and city council meetings. Many residents who took the time to attend meetings have relayed to us that their cries fell on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, many residents are discouraged by the leadership of the PMUA and the public perception that the PMUA will not change and does not care about the average resident. We will continue to encourage people to attend public meetings and we will make sure that there are representatives from our group at all PMUA meetings. We will continue to educate the public on the PMUA workings. It is our intention to make the PMUA transparent even if we have to do it.

We also hope to assist residents who are having specific problems with the PMUA in resolving those issues. We are still involved in the litigation. We are currently in mediation with the PMUA and are not at liberty to discuss specifics of that discussion. However, if you look at the DumpPMUA.com website you can see the 10 counts of the lawsuit and what progress has been made with each one. All of the changes made thus far by the PMUA have been done voluntarily.

I do not want to speculate as to whether our lawsuit influenced those changes or not. You can draw your own conclusions. The resolution of all ten counts should be accomplished in 2010.

5. Of course, any other comments are welcome.

The coverage this cause has received from local bloggers and the press has been essential. We are grateful to everyone who became involved by either attending public meetings, submitting OPRA requests to the PMUA and giving the information to us, sending us anonymous e-mails with "tips" as to trips, expenses, etc., leaving us voicemails alerting us to PMUA activities, sending us documentation of issues they have had with the PMUA, including photographs, citations, letters, etc. Anything that has been achieved has been a group effort. Every person's contribution led us to look into something, say something and ultimately do something. The community of Plainfield should be very proud, but our work is far from over.

Philip Charles, 37, is a lifelong Plainfielder (born in Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center), married with two children, city homeowner since 1996, a technology director by trade and a grateful member of the Optimist Club, now aka the Plainfield Soccer Club, where he learned to play the sport.

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philip and his wife have been tireless in exposing PMUA and its blatant rogue practices. Thanks is not enough to express appreciation, but they need to know that their efforts do not go unnoticed and that even though people are not at meetings, they are watching and keeping up to date on PMUA activitives. Thank you so much Philip and thank you Bernice for telling the story.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Charles and the Dump PMUA team have done a wonderful service. I am deeply appreciative of the heavy lifting they have done in this regard. Like the small number of committed individuals who have striven to change the political landscape of our town through contesting primaries, this heavy lifting has helped the city.

3:57 PM  

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