Thursday, October 23, 2008

Plainfield Budget 2009: Information Technology

Our city is far behind when it comes to the efficiencies created by information technology (IT). We have yet to enter the tail end of the 20th century, to put it kindly. The current administration acknowledges this and has spoken about the need for an IT plan and a major investment to bring us up to speed.

The problem has been hearing the words but seeing little action. There was cause for hope last year when the city announced a shared services agreement with the Plainfield Board of Education. This was a contract valued at $125,000 for a year of services including help desk and system maintenance. There was also an IT grant in our 2007 budget to help us move ahead. Then, just last week, the City Council heard that the agreement will not be renewed and that the Mayors team wants to go ahead without the help of our school district. We also heard that the grant hadn't come through. Unfortunately, the Council, including it's IT Committee, hadn't heard that news before. And the shared services agreement expired in June 2008. Left in the dark until the last meeting, I could only look on in amazement as the administration asked for a last minute budget change to let the city go it's own way for IT development. No plan was offered to get us on track.

At last weeks budget meeting, City Administrator Mark Dashield did not give a clear reason why the agreement was not renewed or why the grant was lost. I was left with the impression that the shared services agreement fell apart on the Board of Education's end. I decided to do my own research.

My sources at the Board of Ed tell me that there is interest in continuing the shared services agreement. Our Mayor even corresponded with the Board of Ed regarding a contract renewal. So what happened? We deserve answers, on the grant too. I hope they come at tonight's (Thursday) Council meeting. Unfortunately I am out of town and will have to catch up with this tomorrow.

We need a major investment in information technology for Plainfield. Speaking for myself, I will need to see a plan, not just for spending, but for a multi year roll out of hardware, software, staff development and technical assistance. I will also need to feel more confident in the ability of city government to spend our money effectively.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Plainfield Budget 2009: Dudley House

Dudley House is one of only two half way houses in Union County for people recovering from chemical dependency. The other one, Flynn House in Elizabeth, is privately funded and uses no government monies. They are both much needed.

Dudley House is disadvantaged in that it is run by a city. The kind of mission driven leadership, volunteers and private donations that are needed for an operation like Dudley House are most likely found within not for profit organizations. Dudley House, in the hands of Plainfield municipal government, has been able to tread water at best. This year Dudley House is experiencing city management at its worst. I feel strongly that Dudley House needs to either transition into a not for profit corporation or be taken over by an existing one.

Dudley House is facing a $150,000 operating deficit because it has lost two Union County grants that have sustained it for many years. Mayor Robinson Briggs and her team are proposing that Plainfield taxpayers take on this burden, even though not all of the half way house residents are from Plainfield. They propose this as bridge funding until we can get our county grants back. City Administrator Dashield recently assured the Council that "it looked very positive" to get the grants again. I decided to do my own research. My sources tell me that getting county grant funds back for 2008 will not happen. 2009 funds will only be available from the time of ADA compliance - so not anytime soon.

There are 15 organizations in Union County that receive alcohol-drug abuse services funding through the county. All were informed over 5 years ago that continued funding was contingent on obtaining a state license from the Division of Alcohol. Each was given until 2007 to comply. All the other grant recipients were able to get their licenses. Plainfield did not comply because Dudley House did not meet the handicapped access requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plainfield asked for an extension but was refused because no steps had been taken in the direction of compliance.

This problem came to light at a Council meeting in early 2008 when the Mayors team said the future of Dudley House was uncertain. This led to a groundswell of community support from half way house graduates who explained it's positive impact on their lives. At that time the Mayor made a promise to address the problem at hand. That was the last the City Council heard until last weeks budget presentation when the administration asked for $150,000 on top of the traditional city contribution of $28,000.

What is the future of Dudley House? How can we bring it from it's current budget crisis back to financial health. In the long term, the city must act quickly to engineer a take-over. I know some qualified organizations that are capable of running Dudley House. Failing that, a new not for profit can be formed. There are many people in the community who feel passionately about it.

Meanwhile, Dudley House needs to be sustained in the short run. Perhaps our state legislators can come up with emergency funds. Think of all the charity care dollars that are no longer available to Plainfield residents due to the closing of Muhlenberg Hospital. This is a cause worth fighting for but should Plainfield taxpayers shoulder the whole burden?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plainfield's Money: Who's In Charge

Saturday's Courier News lead story was about the $1.66 million dollar mistake in the Plainfield 2009 proposed budget. This mistake is disturbing for two reasons. One is the potential tax increase, an additional 3% added on to the already high 9.5% proposed increase. The second problem is that our city administration's official position is that this is the fault of the audit firm that does Plainfield's municipal annual audit. Just when we all want to take responsibility for a serious problem, we get finger pointing. Who was checking the numbers? The Mayor and her team obviously did not.

Is she saying that our audit firm created the budget that the administration introduced to the City Council. Whatever she was thinking, this incorrect budget has been submitted to the Council. It is now our mess to deal with.

To make matters worse, our City Administrator stated that we will use surplus to address this mistake. That may well be but only the Council can decide that, not the Mayor or her staff. And the Council has not even been consulted, let alone requested by the Mayor, to use surplus to fix this huge budget hole.

When there are performance problems in city government, the first reaction should be to be constructive and not just critical. Some will want to close ranks around the underperforming city officials and do patch work. That may be fine for minor potholes but not when the road is in need of total reconstruction. That is where we are right now with the city's fiscal operations and budget.

This $1.66 million mistake is, unfortunately, indicative of the Mayor's budgeting process and more. I will provide details in my blog later this week to explain some of our problems and possible solutions.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dear Anonymous

Thanks to Maria Pellum for her response to my blog on the Mayors security detail. Not only for her thoughts but for her name. Most responses have been signed "anonymous". Actually I have received some really good comments from anonymous. So I say to you mystery people: don't be afraid - give us your names. There is too much fear in Plainfield but it evaporates quickly when you stand up to it. Bullying is a shell game when you dig beneath the surface, if you know what I mean.

I am considering posting only signed comments in the future. What are your thoughts, reader?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mayors Security Detail

Thank you Mayor. Its never too late to do the right thing. Your opponents were salivating over this issue and now you beat them to the punch. I was astonished when you arrived at the Hillside Avenue Neighborhood Watch block party last weekend with one of your officers in tow. Now I am thinking more of you as a politician.

The Star Ledger reporter had it right when he wrote that local elected officials were reluctant to criticize the security detail, even though it has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. The only public challenges I am aware of are when Annie McWilliams brought it up during a debate at the library and when I asked for a risk assessment at a council meeting. What we got today was a political assessment from the Mayor in preparation for the contested June primary election.