PLAINFIELD, NJ - The second budget deliberation session was held on Monday, with the Communications/IT and Finance department heads giving their presentations to city councilors and Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) members. The meetings are also open to the public.
Director of Communications & Technology, and Chief of Staff Jazz Clayton-Hunt kicked off the two-hour meeting by outlining the goals and objectives for her departments.
Clayton-Hunt said the major 2019 goal for Media is “to create a more satisfying experience for all PCTV viewers, and increase viewership” through several projects, including:
- Improving the quality of content shown on PCTV and sharing the content on the city’s website to allow viewing on mobile devices, which in turn would increase viewership.
- Facilitate live streaming of council meetings within the next three months.
- Increase staff participation in industry events to learn best practices and see what other municipalities have implemented.
Another project is the creation of specific media space dedicated to developing programming in partnership with local organizations that highlight the city. The Queen City Mentoring Academy was cited as the first project to be created in this vein. Partnerships will also include outside groups like Jersey Access Group and PBS to develop four new shows in 2019.
In terms of Communications, Clayton-Hunt stated that the overall objective is to create content that is reflective of the Plainfield community and its diversity, and to maintain a consistent level of quality in the information disseminated throughout town.
There are several projects contributing to the department's budget requests, including the creation of a historical record of the anniversary celebration of the city, digital signage for the two stations to provide information to residents, and marketing materials to be placed at the train stations.
The website is also slated for upgrades, as well as a redesign and relaunch of the mobile app to improve user friendliness, and create a more satisfying end user process.
Increased outreach to the Latino community is lined up for 2019. Marketing materials will be translated into Spanish, and the outreach will be done through advertising and participation at major events.
One of the accomplishments touted was social media, with Clayton-Hunt saying, “We have built a robust social media presence over the last few years and increased our presence by 650 percent, and want to continue to build on that success.”
Plans call for a 25 percent increase in social media content through live feeds and coverage of events. The city's social pages currently include 2,606 Facebook likes, 265 Twitter followers, and 244 Instagram followers.
Under Information Technology, budget requests include funds for the continued evaluation of implementing a virtual desktop migration for all employees to reduce desktop administration. Currently access has been provided to ten staff members.
A detailed assessment of current IT infrastructure is needed, and will be performed to identify potential future hazards that could be more costly to the city. In 2016, Plainfield had been the victim of hackers who had infiltrated computer systems and demanded a ransom.
Software replacement due to end of life and unsupported systems (Windows 7 and Office 2000) accounts for a large amount of the budget request, and it's estimated it will take three months to implement on a department by department basis to minimize disruptions. Approximately 218 terminals will be upgraded, not including the police department.
Councilman Steve Hockaday suggested that if the city wants to be cutting edge, it should be more proactive versus waiting until the end of life stage to replace.
The CBAC questioned the increase in consultant fees over 2018; there is a $15,000 line item for 2019, as well as publication budget requests. Clayton-Hunt explained that the newly combined divisions provide overall support of specialized projects for the ongoing branding for Plainfield, including the State of the City address, a 150th commemorative journal, and census promotions.
Outside consultants have been utilized for activities that the city is not equipped to handle, according to Clayton-Hunt.
The Tara Dowdell Group was awarded a contract in 2018 not to exceed $30,000 from the UEZ fund to "provide marketing and strategic communications support to continue marketing, rebranding and promoting the city."
Finance Director Ron West provided an overview of his department's overall goals, objectives and accomplishments. He said that the most significant impact to the budget was the tax collections, indicating that a tax collection rate of 97% or better by year end 2019 has major budget impacts. In 2018, the city did not reach its goal.
West also touched on offering educational programs to residents, working with companies like Boston Community Capital to assist those facing foreclosure.
A key accomplishment, West noted, was just one audit finding last year. He hopes to reduce the number of findings to zero this year, saying it, “Speaks to how well we are handling the finances of the city.”
He mentioned the pending $3.5 million requested for infrastructure programs spread across all city departments that is currently before the council for final approval.
On property tax increases, the plan is to limit the increase to 1.5% for this year, with the goal of trying to stabilize the tax rates. The tax impact on the average home is $181.60. West said there's an increase of 3.55 percent year over year.
West hopes that the ongoing promotion of the city will entice more commercial and industrial taxpayers to come into town. There has also been a renewed focus on abandoned properties.
Overall, the Finance Department budget has been reduced by 20.53% ($119,000) due to the creation of two other departments to which funds have been allocated.
The 2019 budget does include a $75,000 request for grant writing services to be provided by two consulting groups with contracts that will run into 2020. One will focus on the arts, and another is for grant support across all departments.
CBAC members asked about several small budgeted line items that were referred to as “just in case funds” to cover unanticipated expenses and requests from other departments. Councilwoman Ashley Davis requested a complete summary of these budgeted amounts, specifically for publications that appeared in several separate department budgets.
A major increase in expense was in Purchasing. West noted that the lack of a purchasing agent, someone who establishes best practices, and acquires goods and services that meet city ordinances and policies, resulted in a number of audit findings.
One of the goals is to finalize the creation of a purchasing manual, provide staff training on internal finance systems to minimize issues, reduce hardcopy mailings and ultimately reduce postal costs. Computerized forms and documents will create efficiencies and improve customer service so vendors will want to work with the city, West said.
Resident Nancy Piwowar suggested the USPS® Every Door Direct Mail® (EDDM®) program that might result in lowering mailing costs.
West said that the largest undefined project in terms of the budget will be the 2020 Census. The city will seek to partner with all agencies in town that have access to people, and will utilize county and state resources. Database updates are a critical step in the process, he added.
According to Reuters, "State governments, foundations and local governments are committing hundreds of millions of dollars to convince people to fill out their census forms, in what is likely to be the most expensive grassroots census campaign ever" for 2020.
The CBAC questioned why the city was handling PMUA collections. Per West, the city is the only entity statutorily able to make tax collections and attach liens to a property. The city is the chartered institution to send out the delinquent notices. To date, the city has auctioned 11 properties, adding $485,000 in revenues.
CBAC members asked, “Are we trying to avoid having a full blown city assessment?”
West said that one will not be conducted at this time, and the administration is waiting to hear what the state will mandate. “Historically, one-third will go up, one-third will remain the same and the remainder will go down. An assessment will adjust everything so that in the near term there will be no need for appeals.” West added that there have been a significantly lower number of tax appeals - only 278 this year, 200 less than the past few years.
A handful of residents present at the deliberations offered public comment: Alan Goldstein provided background on the PMUA which he referred to as an agency of the city, and stated that the PMUA is required to provide annual reports on revenue sharing, tonnage and solid waste lease information. He urged the CBAC to not approve the budget given the absence of this information and lack of transparency.
Timothy Priano proposed that the city provided a side-by-side comparison of figures given the departmental changes and movement of funds.
Piwowar suggested finance programs be offered to residents to help understand recent tax implications.
The next scheduled public budget session will be on Monday, April 22 when both Economic Development and Health & Human Services will be on the agenda.