PATERSON, NJ – The city council’s last-minute attempt to continue using the Father English Community Center to provide senior citizen transportation failed when time literally ran out on its deliberations.
At about 11:58 pm on December 21, with council members deep in deliberations on how to block Mayor Jeffrey Jones’ administration’s plan for the city to take over the senior transit system, Council President Aslon Goow warned his colleagues they risked losing the $282,000 grant that pays for the program. “We’ve got two more minutes to make a decision, or we’re going to lose the money,’’ Goow said.
Why the rush? The Paterson council has a policy precluding votes from being cast after midnight. On top of that, the council had to vote to accept the transportation grant from Passaic County before the end of the year and the December 21 meeting was, at that moment, the last one scheduled for 2010.
In hurried fashion that bordered on the farcical, council members withdrew time-consuming, thought-provoking proposals that were designed to steer the money to the Father English Center. After all, the clock was ticking. Instead, they rushed their vote to beat the deadline.
By a 6-2 margin, the council agreed to accept the grant without restrictions – a move that will allow the Jones administration to create its own transportation system for senior citizens and people with disabilities, dumping the Father English center which had provided the transit for 31 years without significant public complaints.
City Business Administrator Charles Thomas said Paterson would save $51,000 by taking over the senior transit system. The city, he said, is hiring about eight new employees for the senior transit program and would be ready to roll in January, when the Father English contract is terminated. He promised there would be no disruption or reduction in the services, which provide rides several hundred residents with rises to doctors, grocery stores, nutrition centers and other places.
But critics questioned the wisdom of taking on a new program at time when the city is weighing layoffs, especially when many other local governments have determined that privatization is the most cost-effective way to provide non-essential services.
“This is the wrong decision and it’s going to be a detriment to the city,’’ said Councilman Julio Tavarez, chairman of health and human services, the department that will run the city’s new transit system.
“I don’t see a figure here that’s significant enough to justify fixing something that isn’t broken,’’ said Councilman Kenneth Morris, of the projection of $51,000 in savings.
Senior citizens have said they don’t care who provides the rides, as long as there are no cuts in the services.
After the vote, council members asked Thomas whether new employees hired for the senior busing would be in danger of losing their jobs soon if layoffs are imposed. But Thomas said the new workers, who would make slightly more money than some veteran drivers already on the city payroll in other divisions, would be protected from possible layoffs because their salaries would be paid by the county grant.
“You realize the message that sends?’’ Morris said.
The new workers, however, would be affected by the 10-day non-paid furlough program the city is imposing to help with its budget crisis, Thomas said. So on furlough days, when city government pretty much will shut down except for police and firefighters, there will be no senior transit, he said.
The first furlough day is scheduled for January 4.
Shortly after midnight on December 22, with several items unresolved on its meeting agenda, the city council decided to hold a special meeting on December 29. So, as it turned out, the council had more time for the senior transit vote than it had realized.