Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Progress in Plainfield ?

I recently commented that, in spite of some bumps in the road, Plainfield was making progress. To which a citizen wrote back:

"You state that Plainfield has made much progress. Would you please tell me what progress has been made? I've lived here for 20 years and do not see any. To the contrary, the town has continued to decline. ..something I didn't think was possible."

I stand by my statement. Here's why:
  • in the last 10 years, after decades of neglect, we began to rebuild our infrastructure. We installed storm drains and repaved North Avenue. We have a roads program underway. We have replaced police and fire division equipment. We have new equipment for road maintenance which will save Plainfield millions of dollars into the future.
  • we improved tax collections significantly from 87% to 95% within a 6 year period
  • we removed two of the three biggest obstacles to downtown development with the redevelopment of the Park-Madison and Teppers sites (perception of crime is the major obstacle left). Virtually all downtown stores are open for business, a far cry from 15 or 20 years ago.
  • Many of the abandoned buildings in town are now replaced or fixed up.

I could give more examples but these are the major developments.

But don't accuse me of wearing rose colored glasses. I see significant problems that we need to solve. Most of our roads need fixing. Downtown is still perceived by many as unsafe (even though crime stats reflect a much less negative picture). The tax collection rate should be more like 97%. We have eyesores and overcrowding problems in some residential areas and still no coherent plan to address this. Progress mentioned above is exactly that, positive steps towards outcomes we have yet to achieve.

Why is it so important to recognize progress and put it in a historical context? Because without understanding where we we started, how we got to the present state of affairs and where we are heading , we will never get where we want to be. You have a right to criticize the Park Madison or Teppers projects. I certainly didn't like some of the design features. But it is a big mistake to ignore what they mean to the future of downtown Plainfield. You have a right to be frustrated by the sorry state of certain roads. And our proposed solutions will not satisfy most residents in the near term. It will take many years to fix what took many years to deteriorate.

Criticism is important and we need more of it. There certainly is a reluctance in city hall to speak out on our problems. But criticism is only effective when backed up by facts, by understanding. Without the facts, criticism can be harmful. I got involved in local government because I got sick and tired of giving and hearing criticism that led nowhere.

Our progress has been slow and unsteady at times. But progress it is and it provides hope for Plainfield. That's what keeps me motivated.

I thank the person who posted the comment at the top of this blog. It would be a healthy debate to continue - are we moving forward or not. Successful businesses answer this question by tracking measurable objectives over time. I hope this debate is about that rather than blanket statements for or against the performance of government officials.

Cory Storch

PS - I recognize that the frustration of citizens is, in part, a lack of faith in their government at all levels. I will try to respond to this mistrust in the local levels of government in my next blog.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Police Chief vs Police Director

An ordinance is supposed to have lasting influence, not be a temporary, short term measure. I am asking myself what the impact of this proposed change to Police Director will have not only on this administration but succeeding ones as well. My vote will be based on what is best for Plainfield in the long run.

The advantage of Police Director is in the short run. The disconnect between public safety policy and implementation could be solved this way. The disadvantage is that political influence on the police force, already considerable, will likely increase.

This is a tough decision for me because both sides of the argument are strong. I will be voting against the change to Police Director because the political influence argument is a stronger one in my opinion.

Political influence can be positive or negative. At its best, "political" can mean finding common ground between opposing groups to find a solution that all can live with. Ray Blanco comes to mind when I think of political in this positive way. At its worst, it means finding jobs for friends and supporters even though there are more qualified people available for the job or the commission appointment. This is a real concern for me in Plainfield. We have had a culture of connections over qualifications for a long time. This definitely goes back decades. I think we started to move away from it and I do not want to see us take a step backwards. A Police Chief clearly provides a better shield than a Police Director from elected officials requesting promotions, disciplinary actions and hirings.

A City Council member is from the legislative branch of government. As such, a vote on this ordinance should be about the position and not the people involved. I do not believe my Council colleagues are out to get the Police Chief. If they vote differently from me, I believe they are seeing the issues in a different light. And I expect that, if Plainfield chooses the Police Director position, they will work with me to make sure that political influence in the police department is of the good kind and not the other.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My take on the 2008 Plainfield City Budget

The budget is approved, finally, 8 months into the municipal budget year. Under state budgeting rules, towns cannot do the sensible thing: approve a budget before the year begins. Most towns declare budgeting victory if they can get it done 4 months after the fact. For urban municipalities that depend on the special tax relief called "extraordinary aid", the best we can do is 6 months late. So blame New Jersey for the first 6 months and Plainfield for the last 2 months delay.

By the way, waiting for that extraordinary aid was well worth it for Plainfield. We got $800,000. Credit Assemblyman Jerry Green for that.

Given the time we had to produce a budget, how did we do as a city? I give us a mixed review.

On the positive side the Mayor and her administration made some tough spending decisions to deliver a budget to the Council that had an 8.5% tax increase. It might not sound that good until you understand the mandated salary increases from union contracts and state health and pension costs that are way out of control. Also, the Council was not tempted to dip into surplus to lower taxes. In another blog, I will explain the downside of using surplus as a one time fix for property tax relief.

Area's for improvement:

1. Get the budget approved earlier in the year, certainly no later than early to mid December. This goal is for the administration and is directly related to hiring and retaining qualified financial leadership, a serious problem for this administration.

2. Increase revenues! Money coming in to offset our continual cost increases is a must. We have to get back to the increases in various revenue producing activities that we saw in the last administration.

3. We have cut a lot of fat out of local government in the last 10 years by looking at budget line items. Now we have to take aim at systems to make sure we are getting our money's worth as Plainfield residents. Some of the questions we need to ask are:
  • Do we need 3 fire stations given how Plainfield and surrounding towns share firefighting assignments. Can we do this without sacrificing response time.
  • Are we getting value from the deployment of property code inspectors to closely regulate each and every house that is sold. Instead, should we use them more strategically to address eyesores and serious safety problems.
  • Can we significantly reduce legal and workers compensation costs through a comprehensive risk management program.
  • When will information technology and public relations become more than a hole to pour money into. When will it result in a more efficient government that is more convenient for the people and more cost effective as well.

The 8.5% tax increase was reduced to 6.5% as a result of the extraordinary aid and some cost reductions made by Council. I voted against this budget but I am relieved that it passed. Tax bills need to be sent out. I will vote for a tax increase if residents are guaranteed that every effort was made to keep taxes as low as possible and that they will receive the best quality services.

We are not there yet although I have seen some improvements in recent years. Most important for me is that the potential for significant progress exists in Plainfield. The pace of progress is directly connected to citizen participation in government. Get (or stay!) involved.

Cory Storch , City Councilman, 2nd Ward