Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plainfield's 2010 budget and property taxes - part one

I have a lot to share about the municipal budget, having served as an elected official through 5 city budgets and 6 school board budgets in the last 15 years. This is the first of three blogs concerning the Plainfield 2010 budget and will serve as an introduction to the process.

The budget process starts with with the Mayor and administration drafting and introducing a budget to the Council. At the time of introduction, this budget is sent to the NJ Department of Community Affairs. From that moment, the budget is in the hands of the Council. Its final form and adoption is the responsibility of the Council.

It is mid October and the City Council has yet to see a budget or even get an estimated property tax increase. The final adoption typically takes place in October, November or December. In a particularly difficult year, it might take until January. By the way, the budget year starts in July - the previous July, not the following one. To be fair to local government, the state rules make it impossible to strike a budget before the year begins and almost impossible with the first three months of the year! Still, it is worrisome that the Council hasn't seen or heard anything about the administrations budget.

Once we get the budget, the City Council will hold budget hearings to review each departments requests in depth. In my five years on Council, these hearings have led to the Council making various adjustments, mostly to cut expenditures. Examples include reductions in police and fire overtime pay and many cuts to to non-personnel budget lines that were underspent in the previous year. There were a few areas where Council increased expenditure such as staffing for road repair crews.

One aspect of the budget that often gets overlooked is the capital budget for expenditures having an expected life of at least 5 years. I did get a look at the 2010 proposed capital budget Thursday night at the Planning Board meeting (Planning Board reviews this first and sends its recommendations to the Council). The administration is proposing bare bones capital expenditures, probably a good idea in the current economic climate. Most expenditures are for grant funded projects, with the exception of engineering for next years road paving program which would be bond funded.

The second part of my budget blog will be more exciting - I promise. Something unusual happened at the last Council meeting that went under most people's radar. I will need a little more time to post on that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The City Council and the Mayor

When Plainfield government does something good, the credit is shared by elected officials. Then things are not right, the blame must be shared. More importantly, the solution must be a shared decision.

Those of you who follow local government may see that something has changed with the Council. Concerns about the performance of city hall are increasingly expressed by Council members. Some of these concerns come out at public meetings and others must, by law, be addressed privately.

You will know how well the Council is working together and how well we are working with the Mayor by tracking some current issues between now and early 2010:
  • 2010 budget - how will we rise to the challenge of reducing expenses to stay within the state requirement of a maximum 2.5% increase in expense over 2009. This will require more cooperation between the Council and Mayor than ever.
  • If lay-offs and union contract give backs are part of our budget solution, will the Council speak with one voice. Will the Council and Mayor speak with one voice. When there are differences in strategy, will all parties put their cards on the table respectfully and make compromises to achieve real solutions?
  • Will the Council get straight answers by the next Council meeting to questions regarding the transfer of Dudley House to a private not for profit organization?
  • Will the Council and the Mayor ensure that the Muhlenburg Community Advisory Group has a fully operational complaint procedure so that citizens know where and how to make complaints and that they are resolved within specified time frames?

These are some of the current concerns/issues that our city government is charged to deal with. Get out your score cards to measure the performance of each Council member, the Council as a whole and the Mayor. We all need to be held accountable individually and even more importantly, as a team. It will take a team approach to navigate Plainfield through some very challenging problems and times.