PLAINFIELD, NJ - In its Joint Agenda Session on Monday, July 10, the Plainfield City Council pressed Daniel Mejias, Executive Director, and CFO Duane Young of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority for an explanation of its rates for Plainfield residents, and requested a cost analysis between the city and other municipalities it currently services.
President and Councilwoman-at-Large Rebecca Williams asked if the council could get a rate sheet comparing what Plainfield customers pay for recycling services compared to what other municipalities pay.
PMUA executives responded that the borough of Fanwood is the only one they currently service, and it would not be an apples to apples comparison of rates for what Plainfield residents pay versus those in Fanwood. The rates for recycling are bundled into one rate the residents of Plainfield pay for two times a week solid waste collection, every other week pickup for recycling, and any bulk pickups and other services provided, they said.
Williams continued her questioning, asking what the recycling rate Fanwood pays is. The response? PMUA noted that it was one rate that was negotiated with the borough of Fanwood, and since the town allocates the cost per capita, “we don’t know.”
Councilman Cory Storch said he hopes the commissioners hear that response and are not happy with it. He went on to say that while PMUA workers do a terrific job, with senior managers, consultants and auditors, a financial analysis should be able to be done to draw comparisons. “It’s not rocket science. It just takes a little work. I think the fact that we can’t make these comparisons right now indicates it is a problem, and that you don’t want to discuss it in public.”
He referenced a report that had been commissioned by the City Council around six years ago that included comparisons with cities of a similar size. Storch noted that the results showed it was clear that Plainfield rates were much, much higher than those of other cities. "PMUA should respond to the facts, unravel the financial data, and come up with your view on the comparisons. I’m a little disappointed that you haven’t provided that data, because we did ask the questions (in advance).”
Williams circled back, once again asking about the rate that Fanwood residents pay for recycling. The PMUA noted that regardless of other municipalities they may service, Plainfield will still have its fixed rates, and the incremental revenue from other towns would help stabilize the rates here in the city.
Williams continued, saying it would make sense that if the PMUA were going to negotiate with Fanwood, the PMUA would want rates to be competitive with Plainfield, so city residents would not be bearing the brunt of paying those costs for infrastructure and more.
PMUA representatives said that even without other municipalities, Plainfield would still have the same rate. By taking on Fanwood, the authority gets additional revenue; asking Fanwood to pay the same or higher rates than Plainfield could result in a lost contract.
"In effect, what you’re saying is that if we’re paying a higher rate than Fanwood, we’re still getting a benefit?” Williams asked.
Councilman Goode remarked on an old saying about charity starting at home before it spreads abroad, and expressed that he feels like the PMUA should focus on its own residents first.
But the PMUA responded, "If we didn't have that extra money, it would have to come from somewhere to keep our rates fixed.” Representatives continued, noting no additional workers or trucks were needed to service Fanwood, that it fit within their everyday collection schedules. "It’s supplemental income helping to stabilize our rates."
Councilman McRae pressed on, noting if personnel or trucks did not need to be increased, then the money coming from them (Fanwood) should go towards helping to drive the city's costs down. "You allocate your fixed costs across ALL of your customers."
PMUA personnel then focused on how the authority has stabilized rates for eight years. Provided that they stay in line with inflation and other rising costs, an executive said, "I think stabilizing is, in fact, a rate reduction."
Storch added that if the goal is to stabilize rates, he would give the PMUA good grades, but he said when he goes door to door, residents don’t say 'thanks for stabilizing rates,' they ask why rates are so high. "There is a difference in stabilizing rates and reducing the rates to the market value.”
He continued, "Fanwood is not subsidizing Plainfield; we’re subsidizing Fanwood."
The City Council asked the PMUA to provide data on personnel year over year. From 2016 to 2017, the PMUA employs ten less positions, down from 144 to 134. Salaries are down $228K, and benefits are down by $50K.
Storch inquired about the opportunity to allow residents to choose once a week solid waste pickup. He continued, noting Plainfield could reduce costs, make the city more competitive, and give Economic Development Director Mr. Sanchez the opportunity to tell prospective business partners that you don’t have to pay more to do business in Plainfield. He asked the commission to explore this. "Instead of being driven by your budget, I urge you to be sensitive to your ratepayers."
Resident Alan Goldstein provided history on the PMUA in the public comment section, calling them opaque by design. He said that contractually, the utilities authority is required to disclose costs on an annual basis.
The next Joint Agenda Session will take place on Monday, August 14.