Thursday, December 24, 2009
To my Constituents, Colleagues, Friends, Neighbors and Readers: Both Amelia and I would like to wish you and yours a very safe, healthy and happy holiday season. May you enjoy the good company of relatives, friends and neighbors, the beauty and joy of the season, and the plentiful blessings of the almighty Creator who loves you and watches over you. Happy Holidays!
Adrian and Amelia
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Steps to Cut the Budget
The good fortunes that so many Americans have enjoyed during the period of consumer exuberance have taken a tumble from the height of Wall Street's economic precipice to the abyss of recession, putting severe stresses on municipalities requiring them to think creatively and to act frugally. In this post I will share some additional ideas for streamlining the cost of government and cutting the budget:
1. Combine the City Administrator's position with the position of CFO
2. Transfer WIC to the County
3. Transfer the functions of Plainfield Action Services to the County
4. Transfer the 9-1-1 Dispatch function to the County
5. Transfer the Bi-Lingual Daycare Center to the Plainfield Public School system or to a local non-profit organization, i.e., one of the faith base CDCs
6. End health benefits to all part time employees using the State's health benefits model resolution
7. Combine the Purchasing Agent's position with that of the Director of Administration and Finance. When the Director was interviewed for her current position it was revealed either by way of her résumé or discussion that she is a Qualified Purchasing Agent (QPA). Placing the purchasing function in the hands of a QPA and centralizing all purchasing would go a long way in reducing costs
8. Since cabinet members are not allowed to speak to the council, issue Rice Notices to all of them in an effort to solicit their candid input on the City's overall operations
9. Use bail forfeiture funds to offset the Police department's other operating expenses so as to reduce its budget.
10. Reduce Police overtime budget by $100,000 and allow civilian employees to perform non public safety functions now being performed by some senior officers in the PPD at additional cost to tax payers
11. Eliminate the Director of Public Safety position and allow the Police Director and the Fire Chief to run their respective departments
12. Eliminate the Director of Public Works position and increase the responsibilities of the Superintendent of DPW
13. Shrink the table of organization for the Police department to reduce its top heaviness and to minimize the opportunity for political promotions
14. Implement time and attendance systems across all departments to reduce the likelihood of overtime pilferage
Making these hard decisions would enable the city to rise from the valley of despair to the surface where the shallow waters flow, allowing the City to regain its equilibrium thus preventing property owners from drowning in the abyss of rising property taxes.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
In my last blog post, I promised to share with you some of my takeaways from the different seminars I attended while at the 94th Annual League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City. While attending the seminar on Retirement Planning and Employee Benefits and Services, I learned that the IRS is currently cracking down on individuals receiving pension payments while still working for public entities. In some cases, the NJ Division of Pensions has sent bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars to individuals who went back to work after retiring. Every effort is being made to identify retirees who are in violation of the state's pension laws so as to recoup benefits paid. There are also ongoing discussions about preventing law enforcement officials from retiring at such a young age only to go on to lucrative second careers in the private and public sector.
The state's pension plan has over $75 billion in assets and is currently solvent. However, the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) will see a 14.75% increase next year due to unfunded obligations. Those municipalities who opted for the deferral last year will have to begin repaying in 2012 at an interest rate of 8.25%.
When it comes to furloughs, non-civil service municipalities can do whatever they wish; however, the legal and proper way for civil service municipalities to institute furloughs is through the collective bargaining process. If an agreement on furloughs cannot be reached, municipalities can implement temporary layoffs by closing whole departments for a certain number of days, this does not require agreement from the collective bargaining units.
Fraud in government is a hidden tax that gets passed on to tax payers until it is discovered. One of the seminars focused on best practices to prevent and detect fraud and on the technology that can help municipalities in this area. It is important for the Administration, with support from the Council, to explore this technology and to put it in place as an internal control procedure.
Another seminar looked at performance measurement techniques as a way to compare municipalities. There is proposed legislation that includes a mandate to develop benchmarking standards that would be used in distributing certain state aid to municipalities on the basis of comparative data. Municipalities were encouraged to establish benchmarks and to implement a system of performance measurement. However, it is important for municipalities to work with the public when establishing benchmarks so that the established benchmarks would be suitable to them. This is something that we desperately need in Plainfield.
As for the 2010 budget process, presenters focused on the need to significantly increase local revenues and reduce expenses in view of dwindling state aid and the rising costs of municipal services. Municipalities were encouraged to establish significantly new recurring user fees, explore shared services, transfer whole departments to the county, demote employees and reduce working hours.
Maplewood implemented 12 furlough days in the summer for non public safety employees. City Manager Al Greco of Clifton reported eliminating 10 unfunded police positions, police demotions, implementing a wage freeze for non union employees, increasing the co-pay for prescription benefits so as to encourage the use of generics, a 10% cut in Mayoral and Council pay, and the give-back of days to the city by members of his police department. He reported eliminating 102 positions in the last budget year.
What is very clear to me, and should be clear to all, is that in these very tough times elected officials must be willing to make some very hard and painful decisions. This is not an easy task but it is a necessary one. It requires leadership by example and sacrifice on every level, in every department, and from top to bottom. Property owners must also be willing to do with less of the non-essential services. What are these services? The answer to this question can only be decided after input from residents.
Here in Plainfield, what must we, the Administration, the Council, and other employees be willing to do? Here are some suggestions:
1) Implement temporary layoffs by closing entire departments for one day per week, one day per month or two days per month. This should be done if there is no desire on the part of unions to contribute to the cost of health benefits or to give back days by way of furloughs. This might also be a way to prevent layoffs. This does not require consent from the collective bargaining units.
2) Since furloughs won't work for Police and Fire, they should be willing to give up some of their accumulated absences, contribute to their health benefits, and reduce their longevity percentages. These are some of the things our public safety employees should be willing to do in order to avoid layoffs within their units.
3) Health benefits for all future elected and appointed officals within the City of Plainfield should come to an end, by legislation, within the first 100 days of 2010. Plainfield's mayor, city council, and appointed commissioners all serve on a part-time basis and yet receive full benefits. This is a situation that, statewide, has been partly responsible for the huge financial hole we find ourselves in. No It must come to an end. However, elected and appointed officials in office on January 01, 2010 should be given "grandfather" rights in order to ensure support for such legislation. Additionally, elected and appointed officials receiving these health benefits should contribute 1.5% of their salary to their costs.
4) Since early retirement incentives (ERI) are illegal (I don't know how Newark was able to do it a couple years ago), the Council should pass a resolution in early 2010 requesting the state legislature to create the necessary legislation that would make ERI legal. We should solicit early support from our 22nd Legislative District elected officials (Senator Scutari, Assemblyman Jerry Green, and Assemblywoman Linda Stender). This is one sure way to reduce the cost of government.
5) I will be seeking the support of my colleagues to add money to the council's budget for the purpose of conducting a forensic audit of the city's financial operations.
6) I will be seeking support from my colleagues for a resolution to return Route 28, a state highway, back to the state so as to relieve Plainfield's taxpayers of the burden of maintaining this state highway.
7) Finally, it is time to do away with longevity in all union contracts. There is no longer a need to offer longevity as an incentive to attract and retain employees. The time to end longevity has come.
These are some of the ideas that I will champion during the budget deliberation process and in the coming year. I encourage your thoughtful feedback.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Thanksgiving is one of those times during the year when family and friends come together to give thanks for whatever blessings have been bestowed upon them. It is also a time to think of the less fortunate and to do whatever we can to extend a helping hand.
So, as you prepare to feast on your turkey and the other sumptuous dishes that will adorn your dining table, please take a few moments to say a prayer for those in need and those who are going through some very difficult times. And before you sit down to enjoy yourself, spend a few minutes pulling some canned goods or other non-perishables from your pantry to donate to a community food bank. One of the hallmarks of a great community is that its people look out for each other.
I am my brother's (as well as the rest of the family's) keeper, and so are you. If not you, then who? Take the time to brighten another's day; do something that would put a smile on a needy person's face, and let your good deeds bring joy into the heart that knows none. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!
I will return to offer my additional post on the NJ League of Municipalities seminars I attended right after the holiday break.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
The 94th Annual League of Municipalities Convention was, for many, an opportunity to attend parties, but for me it was an opportunity to attend several of the educational seminars to collect information that might be helpful to me as a Plainfield elected official. I attended a total of seven seminars over a three-day period. I arrived in Atlantic City at about 3:15 in the afternoon of Tuesday, November 17th and headed straight to a seminar on "Division of Pensions and Benefits Update on Retirement Planning and Employee Benefits and Services" from 3:45 - 5:15 pm.
On Wednesday, November 18th, day two of the convention, I attended the following four seminars: "Forensic Techniques for Detecting Internal and External Fraud in a Municipal Environment" from 9:00 - 10:40 am; "Local Government and the Non-Profit Sector - Separate Worlds or Effective Partners?" from 10:45 am - 12:00 noon; "Performance Measurement Benchmarking - Do They Work?" from 2:00 - 3:40 pm and "Budgeting in 2010 - Learning from the 2009 Experience - What Works from the Short Term and Long Term Perspective" from 3:45 - 5:15 pm.
On day three, Wednesday, November 19th, I attended the following two seminars: "State and Cooperative Purchasing Program - Where Are We Today? - Where Will We Be Tomorrow?" from 9:00 - 10:40 am; and, "The Open Public Records Act In 2009" which ran from 10:45 - 12:00 noon rounded out my educational experience at the convention. After these, off I went to the League luncheon, for all delegates, where Governor-elect Chris Christie and outgoing Governor John Corzine spoke to delegates about the state of the State, the challenges we face and the need for bi-partisan cooperation.All in all, I found the convention to be enormously beneficial. Elected officials and municipal employees who availed themselves of the information presented by the various speakers should be better informed and more aware of the challenges and crises facing their municipalities. We must all be willing to make the hard choices, make the necessary sacrifices and follow the lead of those municipalities that have already put austerity measures in place to cope with the very harsh economic times in an effort to minimize the impact of ever-rising property taxes.
What should be clear to all of us is that we cannot continue do what we have always done. We must change the way government delivers services to the people and we must explore opportunities for driving down the costs for those services. Later this week, I will share with you some of my "takeaways" from the seminars as well as some of the things I intend to champion in the coming year.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Over the past several days, I have received many phone calls and other communications from residents concerning the state of Plainfield's finances and the management thereof. Most of these calls focused on recent revelations concerning the failure of the Robinson-Briggs administration to appoint a CFO, the duties of that office, the illegal useof an expired signature stamp on municipal checks in direct violation of state law, and the letter sent to the mayor and council from Susan Jacobucci, the Director of the Division of Local Government Services, demanding that the administration immediately stop this "improper" use of the signature stamp and appoint a CFO.
Other concerns had to do with the fact that, as of now, a budget for FY2010 has not been presented to the council for approval. The fear of a significant tax increase has been expressed by many property owners, some of whom are struggling to pay their mortgages, food bills, and increased utility (such as PMUA and water) rates.
It is against this backdrop that I have scheduled a Town Hall meeting for this coming Thursday, October 29, 2009 from 6:30 - 8:30 pm at the Plainfield Public Library*. I am offering this opportunity to hear from a broader cross-section of residents and property owners about the many concerns they have.
Although taxes may be the main subject that residents bring up, it may not be the only one. Other matters that residents have contacted me about are the lax manner in which the current road repairs are being handled, lack of progress on the Muhlenberg situation, the Senior Citizens Center and Monarch project, and the disruption of a successful voluntary sports program, the Queen City Baseball League, by unilateral moves by the Robinson-Briggs administration to establish another league under the control of the Division of Recreation.
This is another in a series of Town Hall meetings that I will be hosting to provide residents with a forum to express their views on local municipal matters. All residents are invited to attend and participate by expressing their concerns and what they would like to see the City Council do about them. In addition, elected officials wishing to stop by to hear the people's concerns are invited to do so. Please come out and let your voices be heard.
The Plainfield Library is located at 8th Street and Park Avenue and is a handicap-accessible facility. Kindly park in the 9th Street lot, if possible.
P.S. Look out for Part Three of "The Mayor Dropped the Ball." It will deal more specifically with the illegal conveyance of city-owned property based on the Public Land and Buildings Law.
*This meeting will take the place of my regularly scheduled Thursday office hours.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Regarding my remarks concerning Council President Burney’s behavior at this past Thursday’s special meeting, I stand by what I wrote about the attempted violation of the Sunshine law. I was frustrated by Council President Burney’s lack of knowledge about how many votes are needed for any resolution to pass, especially after he has spent so many years on the council. The meeting was taped and will be transcribed and I believe it will second my statements about the sequence of events. Be that as it may, I do not feel that it will harm our working together on behalf of the residents of Plainfield.
Here are some additional thoughts as to why I say, “The Mayor Dropped the Ball!”
Later in the evening, at the special meeting of Thursday, September 24, I informed my colleagues and the administration that it was my position that the city-owned property upon which the Monarch was constructed was illegally conveyed by to the developer by the city’s redevelopment agency, the Union County Improvement Association (UCIA). I arrived at this conclusion based on two documents in my possession:
1) Resolution 281-06, adopted on June 21, 2006, that required Mayor Robinson-Briggs to execute an agreement with the UCIA; and
2) Resolution 402-06, adopted on August 23, 2006, amending the original resolution and requiring the Mayor to execute another agreement with the UCIA. The following facts are critical to this discussion:
The Inter-local Service Agreement (ILA) between the City and the UCIA, which was part of Resolution 281-06 that was to be executed by the Mayor and attested to by the City Clerk, was never executed.
Resolution 402-06, which made reference to an ILA dated July 05, 2006, in its first paragraph was flawed because no such properly executed ILA exists;
Resolution 402-06 attempted to amend resolution 281-06 to add the Monarch city-owned site to the sites intended to be controlled by the UCIA, but this amendment, which was required to be executed by the Mayor and attested by the City Clerk was never executed.
In summary, none of the agreements between the City and the UCIA in its role as the city’s redevelopment agency were ever executed.
The Mayor dropped the ball. This deserves an explanation and a cure before any further action or discussion on a proposed abatement occurs.
It should be noted that I made a request for signed agreements from the administration, but none were presented. I obtained the documents that formed the basis for my conclusion from the office of the City Clerk, who serves as the Custodian of all city records.
Friday, September 25, 2009
The "on again, off again" Monarch residential tax abatement ordinance was off again last night; it was off because of my refusal to allow the issue to be discussed in closed session in violation of the Sunshine law. I took the position that the abatement ordinance did not meet the test for a closed session discussion and, since 4 votes were needed to go into executive session, and only 4 council members were present at the time, no executive session was held.
This is because I refused to give my consent. I became incensed when, in response to my objection to the closed session, the Corporation Counsel sought to justify what was a clear violation of the Sunshine law by claiming that the abatement discussion was a “continuation of contract negotiations that started in 2006.” If ever there was a "stretch" argument, this was one; it was an obvious attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Council President Burney, as transparent as he claims to be, came down on the side of the “make it work at any cost” argument of the administration, so much so that he still wanted to go into closed session although there were only 3 votes in favor--clearly, this would have been a violation. I informed the council president that 4 votes, a majority of the council, are needed for the passage of any resolution; it was only at this point that the attempt to hold an executive session was abandoned.
Later, I will provide my reasons in detail for why I say, "The Mayor Dropped the Ball!"
Saturday, September 12, 2009
On August 17, 2009, I submitted a list of questions about the city’s controversial tax abatement plan to the administration. Below is a memo containing the official response provided by the City Administrator, Marc Dashield, dated September 3. The original questions (as submitted by me) are italicized and numbered for your convenience in reading this post, and the answers from the administration are in bold type. I have a bit of commentary of my own, which is at the end of the post.
1. What happens if the building goes into foreclosure?
Foreclosure will result in the property reverting to the bank which holds the construction loan. We are currently reviewing the possible outcomes with the legal Department and will forward their determination when available.
2. Shouldn't the deed restrictions outlined in the original agreement prevent the units from being turned into rentals without prior city council approval?
Anti-discrimination law prevents the restriction of specific type of the housing; therefore, no such clause exists in the agreement.
3. Can the senior citizens and veterans sections of the building open in September, as promised, even if all the units are not sold?
The opening of the Senior Center/Veterans Center space is not connected to all the units being sold. There are a number of code issues that must be addressed before full occupancy can occur. The expected move-in time is still September 2009.
4. I keep hearing that the project cannot be allowed to "fail." What is the definition of failure with regard to this project? Also, how do you define success?
The Monarch development is linked to important public policy objectives.
- First, the construction [of] a new senior center will provide increase[d] quality of service to our senior community.
- Second, the public/private partnership facilitated the financing of the senior facility without raising additional tax dollars. The land acquisition was financed through a federal grant and the developer is financing the construction of the center.
- Finally, this project represents the future of condominium development in [the] City. If this project does not succeed, financing institutions and developers will find it difficult to invest in condominiums in the city. Without developer and finance institutions willing to invest in condominium development the City’s efforts to attract transit oriented development will be damaged.
As illustrated above, the failure of this project would affect service delivery to the senior community and future economic development. Failures (sic) for this project means the development is unable [to] sell its units. Success would be a fully sold complex.
5. How many of the units have contracts and when are they supposed to close?
There are approximately 13-15 units with contract for sale. No closing dates have been scheduled because of the pending request for tax abatement.
6. How many of the units have closed as of today (Thursday, August 13, 2009)?
This question was not answered—the answer to the prior question, of course, means that no units have closed. –AM
7. Is the word "abatement" really just a substitution of the word "bailout," meaning the developer is seeking help from the city?
No, this is not a bail out. This request for tax abatement is a reasonable response to the changing market conditions that significantly impact the City’s public private partnership with the developer. During the boom market, the additional cost to build the Senior Center could easily be absorbed by the sales price of the units. However, the current market conditions have slowed sales and decreased sales prices, which makes it difficult for the developer to recover the cost construction of the Senior Center. Therefore, it is reasonable for the City to offer tax abatement to potential property owners in an effort to expand the potential buyer base thereby increasing the likelihood of sales.
8. When the seniors move into the new center, how much of the rent we pay for the old senior center will be put back into the city budget?
The operating cost of the new senior center will be utilities and condominium fees, which cover for the general maintenance of the building. The new facility will save the city an estimated $30,000 annually.
9. Given the stalled projects that this developer has in Rahway and elsewhere, what assurances do we have that he won't abandon the project?
The developer has financed the entire project therefore the issue is not financing of the project. The developer is now attempting to sell the unit to recoup cost and pay off financing.
10. Can the administration and the city council give an update on the financial "health" of this particular developer, given his other projects and in light of the Connolly bankruptcy?
The developer has financed the entire project therefore the issue is not financing of the project. The Connelly (sic) bankruptcy is a completely different set of circumstances.
11. Will the city order an independent appraisal of the units to determine their true worth in the current market?
An appraisal of the property does not deal with the real issue concerning the need for the tax abatement. The need for the abatement is directly related to the cost of construction of the senior center as stated above.
12. What can the city do to make the surrounding area more attractive, i.e., controlling the loitering near the Ben Franklin Liquor Store?
The City has already engaged the tenants/property owners in the surrounding area to entice them to participate in the City’s façade improvement program. In addition, the community policing unit is making special efforts to monitor the area.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me.
The memo was copied to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, as well as to my city council colleagues. This proposal will be brought up again at the next city council meeting. There are still several unresolved questions, and the administration's responses in this memo are incomplete. No specific data has been provided to the city council--it's simply conjecture.
For example, regarding Q. 3, the administration answers that the senior center opening is "...not connected to all the units being sold..." which implies that it may be connected to some portion of units being sold. We need to clarify what "all" means.
In Q. 4, several parts of the administration's answer are simply conjecture. In addition, the terms they use are vague and apparently interchangeable. There is no single profile of what the administration terms as "financing institutions" and "developers." There are many different financing institutions and many different types of developers. Nor does the administration provide any actual data on how the prospects of future development will be affected by this particular project (for better or worse). No administration would put all its eggs in one basket, and no one would proceed without a true cost/benefit analysis fitted for a variety of possible scenarios, given the vagaries of the market.
The response to Q. 9 does not answer the question asked--yes, the developer has financed the project. The question, however, had to do with the possibility of abandoning the project and letting it fall into foreclosure, given the concern over the status of other projects by this developer, one in Rahway in particular. The developer goes into a project knowing that there is a certain amount of risk, and knowing that the return on his investment (if there is indeed a return) may take years. Why should he be expecting to "recoup" his investment so quickly? A new comparative analysis of the prices in the area may lead to a lowering of the price of the condos so that it reflects the true value.
In Q. 10, the request for the administration to provide an update on the "financial health" of the developer is not answered. Instead, the answer simply repeats the previous answer. The questioner has not suggested that the issue is the "financing of the project." The questioner wants to know how much money the developer has in investments in a variety of projects.
Again, in Q. 11, the resident wanted to know if the city would order an independent appraisal of the condo units to determine their true worth, but the administration has avoided this question. They state that the "real issue" is the "need for the tax abatement," which they say is directly related to the cost of the senior center. Now, the senior center is only one part of the cost of construction, so how is it that the abatement is only to offset this cost? How could the cost of just the senior center be so great that the developer needs the abatement to cover just those costs? It doesn't make sense.
And of course, underlying all of this is the same issue: the fairness of a tax abatement, and who will pay.
- Who will pay the cost of a residential tax abatement for a select group of prospective new home buyers?
- How will it affect the tax burden of the rest of Plainfielders?
- How is it fair that ALL Plainfield residents are not able to benefit from a residential tax abatement?
- Why doesn't the developer simply lower the cost of the condos? If he has to take a loss, so be it. It happens all the time, and developers take this into account.
I thank you again for submitting your questions. As I read through the administration's responses again, I am sure that I will have some additional comments and questions. I am sure that you have many as well. I have not been swayed by any of the administration's arguments, and I am greatly concerned about the way the administration has gone about this process. I look forward to seeing you at the city council meeting.