Monday, May 27, 2013

Budget Hearings

The City Council is moving towards budget adoption.  Budget hearings are in process.  Council members and the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee are hearing department heads and their key people present their budget requests for the new year.  The new year started January 2013.  Why budgets are adopted after the year begins is another story.  Suffice to say that it is considered good form in municipal government to adopt a budget 3 months into the year. Plainfield has been adopting 5-6 months, sometimes longer into the year and this year it looks like 6 months.

A recent hearing included the Municipal Court judge, the Tax Assessor, Tax Collecter and Treasurer.   Fiscal audit findings were discussed.  The administration claims to have fixed most of the findings and is working on the rest.  Since we have had repeat findings throughout the Robinson Briggs administration, I will wait to hear from our independent auditor.

The Tax Collector was the most interesting for me. The previous Tax Collecter left numerous problems and a backlog of work.  I assume that is why when I asked when the city was going to dispose of foreclosed properties that have reverted to Plainfield, I did not get an answer. Just we'll get back to you. The new person sounds capable and is working through them.  Let's hope for quick action on this.

Budget hearings continue Tuesday (Senior services, Plainfield Action Services, Women Infant and Childrens program (WIC), Health services) and Wednesday (taxes).  Hearings start and 7 pm and go to 9 pm.  I believe the location is t he Senior Center on East Front St but check the city website to make sure.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Attention Adrian Mapp Supporters – The Plainfield Primary Election Has Too Much at Stake to Take For Granted

We have suffered 7.5 years under Mayor Robinson Briggs. Her inability to collaborate with other elected officials at local, county and state levels has brought city government to gridlock. Although she has a talent for kissing and hugging her constituents, it only applies to some of her constituents. Many others are completely ignored. Talented city managers refuse to come to Plainfield. The few effective ones who have taken work with her administration have left quickly when they realized the ingredients for success do not exist under Mayor Robinson Briggs.

People who are tuned in to Plainfield government, even those who initially supported Robinson Briggs, know that she cannot under any circumstances be allowed to succeed in the June 4 primary. With her poor track record and run of embarrassing incidents, why would anyone vote for her? The danger is that there are voters who have busy lives who are not tuned in to what is happening to Plainfield. And they see that the Mayor has a talent for kissing and hugging. They may take that to mean she cares about all of Plainfield. They may not know how bad things are at city hall. There are people who will vote for her.

This blog post is expressly for Adrian Mapp supporters. Do not take this election for granted. We know how effective Adrian will be and how disastrous it would be if the Mayor is re-elected. Even if you think Robinson Briggs has only a slim chance, the risk in this election is too great. Get out the vote. Every vote counts. Strange things do happen on election day and we've had all we can take of strange.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New Bond Ordinance - good policy or bad politics?

The Council will be voting on two bond ordinances in May totaling $8 million. The second was introduced this month, the first in April.  Last month I questioned why the first bond ordinance did not include new road paving projects. Administrative officials responded that we have enough road projects funded from our previous ordinances.  End of discussion, I thought.

That is, until the May agenda setting meeting when suddenly we were looking at an additional $5 million in capital improvements including $4 million for roads.  Clearly this was pulled together very quickly. Anytime the public is asked to pay for $5 million for projects, all by property taxes and not from grants, deliberation is required.  I hope the administration is up to the task of explaining and justifying this bond ordinance.  I hope this is not an end of term spending spree by Mayor Robinson Briggs.  She has not hesitated to spend the public's money on self serving things in the past - like the group of police that followed her around at the public's expense for her first two years in office.

Plainfield would not be unique in having an outgoing Mayor, Governor or President burden his/her successor with deferred or future expenses but that does not make it a good practice.  I hope my colleagues will evaluate this bond ordinance carefully.  Speaking for myself, I will not prejudge it.  I fear that one of my Council colleagues already judged me against the paving of West Third St.  Actually, I didn't know it was on the project list as individual roads usually are when a bond ordinance is presented to City Council. 

A good outcome would be to prioritize roads such as West Third and take out enough projects so the total dollar value of the two ordinances comes to $5 million.  The most fiscally astute of Mayor Robinson Briggs many City Administrators, Bibi Taylor, put an upper limit on new debt that came to between $4 and $5 million annually.  It is ironic that she now works as the chief fiscal person for Union County after being made to feel unwelcome by Mayor Sharon.

Some of the projects listed on the new ordinance are ones that, with reasonable time and effort, could be partially or fully grant funded.  That will take a Mayor and administration that are on their game, and a Mayor who cares that the homeowners are struggling with our property tax burden already.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How to Organize City Hall

During the Charter Commission meetings, the question has repeatedly come up of how to organize the work at city hall. More specifically, how many and what departments of city government are needed in Plainfield? 

The current arrangement is not based on current needs but on arrangements of the past, sometimes as a Mayoral workaround when the City Council has been uncooperative and sometimes to create or preserve someones job. Bernice Paglia, our best historian of local government, has made this point effectively. 

I remember when the City Council refused to give consent to Mayor Al McWilliams' senior management nominations.  He juggled a few job titles and positions in an attempt to create a semblance of the the management team he wanted.  That refusal to grant him his team appalled me and was what helped me resolve my ambivalence about running for City Council.

The most recent reorganization at city hall was the elimination of the police chief position and creation of police director.  These initiatives were done without need of charter revision. 

The City Charter should set general parameters for the organization of departments but not be prescriptive.  Conditions change.  We are entering a phase of local government where shared services, consolidation of local government entities and outsourcing of non core services will become more common.  We might not want a lot of departments.  We might want to shift which divisions and offices report to which departments. 

The result of the June Mayoral primary will tell us something about direction.  Our current Mayor has not been responsive to suggestions for shared services and outsourcing.  A new administration may be different. Regardless of who wins this time around, the long term view is that the face of municipal government will change.

Here are some ideas for Plainfield:
  • outsource Plainfield Action Services to Union County Department of Human Services, the United Way and the Urban League, one or a combination of these organizations,
  • outsource the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) to the Neighborhood Health Services Corporation (aka Plainfield Health Center) or another healthcare provider,
  • doing the above would make the Department of Administration and Finance more manageable and its department head would not need such an unrealistically diverse skill set (which is impossible to find),
  • implement Martin Hellwigs idea for civilian Police and Fire Directors reporting to the City Administrator
Any changes will affect city employees and must be done with careful planning and respect for their job security.  Disruption can be minimized by timing changes with retirements, requiring new service providers to have Plainfield offices and setting outsourcing requirements to protect the jobs of current employees.

When we outsourced Dudley House, people in city hall (some suspect the Mayor) spread misinformation that brought concerned advocates to City Council meetings.  However, the deed was done and accommodations were made for some employees.  Most importantly, the people needing Dudley House services now receive better services from a highly regarded, state licensed substance abuse treatment agency, Sunrise House.  They have been more effective than city hall in generating revenues and not just depending on Plainfield taxpayers. Dudley House is a lesson for us about what we can do in the future.

Mayors and City Councils need some flexibility to reorganize government operations to meet the needs of the people.  The Charter should provide just enough structure, checks and balances so there is no free for all silliness with every new Mayor and administration.  But not so much that there is no room to change.