City employees facing layoffs, merchants worried about fee increases and supporters of the Plainfield Bilingual Day Care Center packed Municipal Court Tuesday, prompting the governing body to hold up the agenda in order to hear some of their concerns.
City Council President Annie McWilliams
asked for groups to choose a spokesperson and first up was Mike Ramos
in defense of the Bilingual Day Care Center, which he called "the only thing we have as Latinos."
The center, a 30-year old city agency, offers not only early childhood education, but serves as a point of entry into American society and a support system for many Spanish-speaking families, other speakers said later.
McWilliams reminded the group that there was nothing on the agenda affecting the day care center and that those concerned would be included in any decision-making process about changes.
In recent budget talks, council members have expressed the desire to hand off city social service agencies to non-profit or other governmental entities and in fact voted Tuesday to do just that to Dudley House, a residence for men in recovery from substance abuse. Its operations will now be conducted by Sunrise House, an agency with headquarters in Lafayette.
At a budget meeting late last year, then-Finance Director Bibi Taylor
gave figures on costs to the city for the day care program as well as the anti-poverty agency Plainfield Action Services and the Women, Infants & Children nutrition program. All receive outside funding, but because program staff members are city employees, there are benefit costs.
The City Council will hold a special meeting this year on the topic of social services, but McWilliams and others assured speakers Tuesday that no changes were on the immediate horizon. A new council committee will also address the issue, and council members spoke in support of activating the Hispanic Affairs Commission, which was established by ordinance in 2005 but never filled.
Speaking for a large number of merchants Tuesday, Special Improvement District President Nimrod Webb
said proposed fee increases up to 500 percent "will chase businesses out." Health Officer Mark Colicchio
presented the fee schedule to the council on Jan. 11, including increases for many existing fees and imposing several new ones. Click here
for Plaintalker's earlier report.
Referring to a new proposed $100 fee and $20 per washer and dryer charge for self-service laundries, Webb said, ""Who's that going to hurt? The poor people in town."
SID Vice President Donna Albanese
said the business community in Plainfield is struggling and some have shut down.
"The businesses you see with the lights on, you don't know the story behind the scene," said Albanese, whose family has been a mainstay of the South Avenue business district for decades. "You literally will knock people out of business."
"I realize it is difficult to swallow large increases all at once," McWilliams said, adding the increases should have been done long ago.
Colicchio said on Jan. 11 no changes had been made for 15 years.
McWilliams said the council was looking at "phasing in" the changes, but Councilman Cory Storch
said merchants "have to share the pain" of the current economic situation.
When the council completed budget talks late last year, a 9.6 tax increase was on the table.
"There is no easy solution to the challenges we face," Councilman Adrian Mapp
said, noting the governing body had to find a way to balance the interests of business owners and homeowners.
Taylor later offered an amended fee schedule, but when the ordinance came up for a vote, it was tabled.
PMEA President Cynthia Smith
agreed to hold her remarks until later in the evening, but when she spoke, she alluded to a City Hall union meeting Tuesday afternoon that members apparently found confusing.
"We were told the information we received was incorrect," she said.
Smith said the union was told there was no state aid, but then some aid was granted. Despite talk about concessions, she said, "People are being laid off as of February 17."
Smith suggested looking at "large cell phone bills" for savings and the use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds to pay police.
"Today we're at square one," she said.
Taylor said she attended the City Hall meeting and mentioned four items, including a longevity giveback and a step and wage freeze, three furlough days and a reduction in pay. But the items hinged on all the units agreeing to give something back, she said. The layoffs could be deferred from February to June, she said, but the process couldn't be done after the budget was adopted.
The governing body went into closed session after the meeting to discuss "contract negotiations," but no outcome was expected Tuesday.
Former City Administrator Marc Dashield
said at the end of 2009 that all bargaining units had settled contracts and the time was right to negotiate future givebacks and concessions. Taylor, formerly the director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, is currently the acting AFH&SS director as well as the acting city administrator, but is expected to leave city employment at the end of the month.
No budget amendments have been formulated since budget talks concluded. The council Tuesday approved temporary appropriations to operate the city in February.
Taylor said Tuesday that "part of negotiating is trust and continuity," but with so much up in the air, the fate of those targeted for layoff is unclear. The council meets next for an agenda-fixing session on Feb. 1 and a regular meeting on Feb. 8.--Bernice Paglia