Council Presses for Budget Concessions
Budget talks began Tuesday with representatives of Municipal Court operations and Police and Fire Divisions pleading their cases to the City Council , which has introduced the administration's proposed budget for FY 2010 and may now make modifications before final passage. Despite the details of the requests, members of the governing body appeared united in asking for givebacks in the face of a possible 9.6 percent tax increase.
At present, the only sector targeted for layoffs is the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association, one of about half a dozen bargaining units in the city. Some unions have multi-year contracts that included raises of up to 3.75 percent, even while the global economic collapse was causing layoffs, furloughs, wage freezes and concessions among municipal employees elsewhere.
The three-hour session in City Hall Library was attended by members of the new Citizens Budget Adisory Committee as well as a handful of residents. City Council President Rashid Burney set the tone with a call for union concessions, reductions in "brass," or upper management and a handoff of city-sponsored social service functions to agencies in the non-profit sector.
As each presenter came forward, Burney and other council members reiterated the need to take into account the dire circumstances that are causing families to lose homes and make choices between food and medicine or other necessities. Burney asked each to name additional efficiencies that could be enacted.
Municipal Court Judge Joan Robinson-Gross described local operations that are intricately tied to other judicial entities and asked the City Council to approve the court's full budget request. She cited the need for court staff to take ongoing training to keep up with latest practices and for postage costs needed for timely receipt of court orders.
Police Director Martin Hellwig called for vacancies in the Police Division to be filled, saying, "Leaving five or six vacancies unfilled will have a detrimental effect on crime."
But council members resisted, noting that a reduction in the major crime rate in recent years occurred despite having a lower number of police officers than is optimal.
Overtime pay was another bone of contention. Hellwig described a scramble to keep dispatcher posts filled when staff took vacations or sick time. Civilian dispatchers were getting burned out from working multiple shifts, he said, and when there were not enough on hand, police officers had to fill in.
Still, Burney asked where the Police Division could find "additional efficiencies" and what the division was doing to assure "the right behavior." Hellwig answered the latter by saying training was a big component, but it started with "getting the right candidate to be a police officer." A very active Internal Affairs unit also helped, Hellwig said.
As Councilman William Reid also questioned overtime pay, Hellwig said even with one or two new hires there would still be a need for overtime. The officers' "four on, four off" workday schedule causes a "great management problem," Hellwig said.
Councilmembers also asked whether the Police Division was "top-heavy" and cited the need for cuts in light of the high cost of living in New Jersey.
" 'Share the pain' has to be the rallying cry for everybody," Councilman Cory Storch said.
Fire Chief Cecil Allen met with similar questions from the council and Storch said, "The only tool we have is layoffs."
But both police and fire forces are being impacted by retirements, officials said. State mandates on the number of firefighters aboard trucks and engines drive the need for more hires, Allen said.
The three-hour session elapsed without the Inspections Division facing the council. The next budget session is Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m. at the old senior center, 305 East Front Street.
Just as Tuesday's meeting was adjourned, Councilman Adrian Mapp asked City Administrator Marc Dashield point-blank , "Is it true that you changed the budget that we introduced?"
The budget was introduced at a Nov. 23 meeting after much contention over layoffs and the council voted to remove three Planning Division employees from the layoff list. The administration had insisted an outside consultant could do the 90 hours' work of the three employees in 10 hours a week, but the council disagreed. While acknowledging the council's action, Dashield said Tuesday, "Our position is that it still makes sense to outsource."
"We do not have to pass a resolution to outsource the contract," Burney snapped back.
The exchange was just the latest show of testiness between the governing body and the administration over the budget, which was given to the council after the state deadline for introduction. The council and members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee will hold four three-hour budget sessions in all this month, in addition to one on the capital budget.