Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Solar Panels Among Many Council Topics

Agenda items Monday ranged far and wide as the City Council met at Cook K-8 Center for its last neighborhood meeting of 2009.

Besides considering resolutions and ordinances on the prepared agenda, the governing body heard a presentation by a representative of PSE&G on the recent installation of solar panels, some in historic districts. Eileen Leahey, regional public affairs manager for the company, said the panels are part of a program that was approved by the state Board of Public Utilities in July. At issue is whether the city's Historic Preservation Commission has the right to review their placement in historic districts. In answer to whether the company has sought local review before installing the panels, Leahey said, "We really have not."

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said as a result of talks he had with Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson Maier, the comapny will suspend any further action in Plainfield and a representative will go before the HPC for a similar discussion "within the next week or 10 days."

Plaintalker reported on the issue as soon as it emerged. Click here for the story.

Leahey told the council and audience Monday that Plainfield has 6,500 utility and light poles and that PSE&G inspected 2,800 of them, identifying 100 that can be used for the solar panel program. The panels, each measuring 5 by 2 1/2 feet and weighing 60 pounds, collect solar power and put it back in the grid.

While expressing apologies for the local concerns, Leahey said the panels are designed to help New Jersey's renewable energy plan, which calls for use of 30 percent renewable energy.

A South Plainfield company is installing the panels and has hired 100 local residents to do the work, she said. More work is expected in Plainfield within the next four to six weeks.

Leahey said she would provide Wenson Maier with an installation schedule.

Councilman Cory Storch, an advocate environmental causes, said, "I think it's a great idea," but asked whether the company had sought approvals in any local jurisdiction, let alone historic districts.

Leahey said only one out of four poles is viable for the program. For example, if there is more than one transformer on a pole, it can't be used.

"Municipalities have little leeway as far as allowing us not to do it or to do it," she said.

Storch asked about the program's benefits and Leahey said, "All customers will benefit."

The company announced the plan in February and received BPU approval in July. The novel plan was publicized by the company and reported nationally and internationally, but somehow escaped local notice until the fisrt panels went up around Thanksgiving. The next scheduled HPC meeting is 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Among many other topics:

- Council members voiced their support for a volunteer baseball league and said the city should hold off on starting one through the Recreation Division until there was an overflow from the Queen City Baseball League. That group is coached by volunteers, while the city league would have paid coaches. In recent weeks, proponents of the volunteer league have hailed its benefits to city youth, but the Recreation Division has moved forward with its own plans.

- Finance Director Bibi Taylor spoke on a corrective action plan to address findings by city auditors on fiscal procedures. (The annual review and recommendations from the auditors turns up issues such as making purchases without prior authorization, lack of timely deposit of receipts and other lapses. Plaintalker has not reported on specifics of the last review.) Councilman William Reid said the city needs a Certified Purchasing Agent and suggested that each city department be reviewed occasionally to make sure procedures are being followed. He also said anyone lax in their duties should be fired. Taylor said current findings cover 2007 and 2008 and some repeat findings may turn up in the 2009 review that is being completed. Reid said, "We were promised the same thing the last time we had an audit review."

Taylor is the newest of a series of directors of the city's largest department, Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services.

-Wenson Maier gave the governing body a detailed report on flood mitigation, a sore subject since insurance companies have hiked rates. Wenson Maier said the city is aiming for a 15 percent reduction in rates, but said an individual homeowner can hire a surveyor to challenge flood designations. Anyone building a new home can get advice from the city on how to achieve higher elevation, she said. The city has taken measures such as adopting a stormwater management plan to address flood-related issues and is in early stages of working with FEMA to update flood maps.

Council members said residents have not reported flooding problems for some time, but insurance rates have skyrocketed.

- Another item that was not on the printed agenda was Council President Rashid Burney's proposal to put rules in place for the distribution of flyers that are left on lawns and driveways. Burney wants companies to be required to register with City Hall and obtain licenses, with fines for non-compliance. He said residents who have asked companies to stop delivery have been unsuccessful.

"I think the goal is a good one," Councilman Adrian Mapp said, but questioned the need for a new ordinance.

Williamson said litter laws were on the books, but did not cover private property. If the ordiance is enacted, individuals could call police, Inspections or the city clerk's office for enforcement. He said it would take "a marriage of city staff and residents to enforce this."

But Councilman Elliott Simmons questioned the amount of effort it would take to register vehicles and names of those delivering the fyers, and Reid asked whether the city had researched how other municipalities handle the problem of unwanted flyers. Storch also questioned the need for a new law, but Burney insisted companies don't heed residents' calls to desist.

"It just doesn't work," Burney said.

- Storch questioned passage on second reading of a salary increase ordinance for firefighters in the face of a possible 9.6 percent tax increase, but Williamson said holding it up could result in the union filing an unfair labor practice complaint. But Mapp raised an even larger question, noting the ordinance would be up for a vote Dec. 14 and needed 20 days to take effect under the concept of "estoppel" But he said the year would elapse before that, requiring the salary ordinance to be re-introduced on first reading in 2010. In that case, all six ordinances up for second reading and final passage Dec. 14 would be similarly affected. Although Williamson said he would look into it, all the ordinances state they will take effect in 20 days.

- Another new item for Dec. 14 will be a contract with Sunrise House to operate Dudley House. The agency would pay rent to the city for the residence on Putnam Avenue where men needing substance abuse counseling will live. In addition, the agency would pay rent for a site in a municipal building where clients will receive counseling. Storch, an executive with a mental health agency, questioned the latter, saying such a location "may not be conducive." He asked for an escape clause allowing the agency to seek another location.

There were several other issues, including the merits of free downtown parking for the holidays and how to curb unlicensed taxis in the city. Plaintalker will report more later.

--Bernice Paglia

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding unsolicited flyers, by which I assume we're talking about the weekly shoppers that are tossed in driveways and presumably lobbies: either ban them altogether, or just let them be. Trying to regulate them is a total waste of resources.

Allowing them to continue saves somebody's job at a semi-local printing plant, and a part time job or two distributing them. The downside? You have to bend down to pick them up and put in the recycling bin, at zero cost to the taxpayer.

Maybe the real issue is in the homeowner or renter not bothering to pick them up.

9:18 AM  
Blogger MichaelT said...

Regarding the solar panels, any meetings PSE&G has with city officials and/or agencies will be courtesy meetings. The City cannot stop them from installing the solar panels, just as the City cannot stop PSE&G from putting a transformer on a pole.

That's not to say that these meetings should not be held. On the contrary, the Historic Preservation Commission should argue strongly for a voluntary ban on solar panels in the City's historic districts. A thorough explanation of the existing ordinance's controls on non-conforming construction and a comparison of those controls to the installation of solar panels on poles should sufficiently enlighten (no pun intended) the PSE&G reps to the harm that the panels do to an historic district.

With PSE&G's extensive coverage area, much of it in communities with far fewer street trees than Plainfield, it should not be difficult for them to find alternate homes for the few panels now located in Plainfield's (or any other community's) historic districts.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They can put them up on my house. I will take free electric any day. Maybe they can be put on top of the poles instead. They might be less obtrusive that way??

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Retired state, cocunty and municipal employess are not getting a cost of living increase in 2010 so what makes City employees think they are entitled to one? The same formula is used to determine a cost of living allowance.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about the PMUA problem council? They are ready to raise my rates again. When will you tackle that? Please stop wasting our time on fliers and taxis.

11:20 PM  

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