PLAINFIELD, NJ — The League of Women Voters of Plainfield Area New Jersey held a Candidate Forum in advance of the July 7 Primary Election to help voters make informed decisions. Three candidates vying for the At-Large council seat, and two candidates seeking the Third Ward seat participated. Wednesday's forum was moderated by Secretary of the LWV of the United States Toni Zimmer.
Bios and more are available in the LWV booklet. Following are the questions posed by Zimmer, with candidates' responses.
How do you feel about defunding the police department? Do you think we pour too much money into our police department currently?
Rutherford said when the discussion begins by talking about money and budgets, it misses the mark. "It's about the role of police," citing situations where police respond to a homeless person, a domestic dispute, or a mental health situation, and said it might be more beneficial to have other professionals respond to these types of cases. That would be an example of taking money away from police departments, he said, adding that this is not just a Plainfield issue, but rather a national conversation.
(At the May 13 budget hearing, Director Ron West provided a breakdown of the size of the fire department's budget in relation to others in the city: it makes up 12 percent, or almost $11 million, and police and fire together account for 30 percent, or almost $27 million.)
Morgan said one of the first steps to help police help residents more efficiently is to develop a police review board with community members to review outcomes of incidents, and to oversee the process of how police serve citizens.
Defunding the police, Hockaday said, purposely has a sound that gets your attention versus what it actually means. "But I do agree the city needs to be intelligent on how it allocates its resources." He added that every city isn't the same, and defunding may mean something different from city to city. He said programs like the Queen City Mentoring Academy are not typically a police function, but something they are doing for the next generation. He said there are plenty of opportunities for the council and the police to play a role in low risk situations, and without guns.
McRae said the police department has gone through an extensive certification process to review the way they operate. Given that, he said, there are opportunities for the council to interact with the department to ensure they uphold the standards and are interacting with the community in a positive way.
Hockaday added that Plainfield is about one of five departments in the state who are accredited.
Graham responded he would not defund the police department, saying when people ask him that question, he turns it around to ask them, "When was the last time an unarmed black man was shot by a Plainfield police officer?" He said young, black youth are not racially profiled in Plainfield like they are in other municipalities, and added there should be more programs, like the Police Athletic League, run by police for the community.
Rutherford said, "I just hope we don’t get into the habit of not recognizing when things do go wrong in Plainfield," referencing a recent 'use of force' incident under investigation.
Explain in detail how the municipal budget went from an $18 million deficit to a zero percent tax increase, and what areas of the city budget should be looked at next year to sustain a zero percent tax increase.
Morgan said the only way the mayor and city council were able to achieve a zero percent tax increase was to take away services from children. "We will not have our summer youth program this year, we will not have recreational programs this year, and some may say it's because of the COVID, but we know that in the board of education we had to provide virtual learning for students."
Hockaday noted, "I’m really proud of the way that we took a deep look at the budget to get it to a zero percent tax increase." He said the question assumes some things: "The $18 million and the zero percent, you know those don't necessarily work together," adding the zero percent increase was because the council reduced expenses enough for additional municipal assessment over last year. "There's still the school board out there, as well as the county, that has to decide what their increase is."
"Emily is correct," Hockaday continued, "we did have to, we are canceling things, but COVID has had a very disproportionate effect on communities like Plainfield, and so we know we're going to have to cut those things, but the way that we move forward and reduce taxes in the future is through our aggressive development projects, bringing in taxes for them to stabilize the tax base."
McRae said, "To get to zero, we had to aggressively go in and look at the budget for all areas to make adjustments." He added being fiscally responsible, and by bringing developers into the city will offset any tax increases in the foreseeable future.
Graham said if he was on the council, "I would certainly look at every line item," and said it is unfortunate there is a pandemic that led to program cuts. He said he gives credit where credit is due, "to pass a budget of that magnitude, and not increase my taxes, and not compromise the safety of my community."
Rutherford said he can understand certain cuts to an extent due to COVID-19, but noted it is not a long-term tax solution. "We still have cabinet members, for example, driving around in big, expensive gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoes, seven of them, that's what's happening right now. And the city council still wants to go out for bid for a pedestrian mall that costs $2.3 million," saying a parking study has not even been done, and 86 percent of pedestrian malls fail.
McRae countered, saying, "To just clarify, the pedestrian mall was taken off of the table, and that it was not to be brought back as a tax initiative. So when people start to talk about the SUVs and things of that nature, those are part of the ways people get to provide services to our Plainfield residents, and that's an old story."
Plainfield has a rich culture based on many ethnic groups. What will you do to encourage engagement by, for example, the Latinx population in our city governance? Would you name qualified Latinos and Latinas to head city committees? And how can we build unity across the city?
Hockaday said he does not see Latinos any different from himself, and said he is proud of the culture in Plainfield. Much like Newark's Ironbound section, he said, "I think we need to develop our downtown as well so that, you know, if you want Peruvian or Colombian food, you know exactly where to go." He said in terms of unity, "it really is through culture and through the arts," adding the city needs to create an arts district, and mentioned the success of the new Plainfield Arts Center.
McRae said, "We are a very diverse, cultural city here." He mentioned a Hispanic Heritage Commission, flag raisings, and Restaurant Week. "By interacting with the different cultures here, that's how we start to bring people into the city government."
Graham said, "Culture is already here, it's rich, it's undeniable."
Rutherford said he would like to see the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs (PACHA) activated more. He wants to see a full-time bi-lingual liaison to the Hispanic community, saying he realizes it's an expense, but would consider it money well spent. He noted he has heard from people that the translations put out by the city are poorly done.
Morgan said she believes there is a missed opportunity with respect to the YMCA that has been closed for a few years, and said it would be a good location to bring different cultures together.
McRae said, "The Y here in Plainfield was a private entity, and the Y was not closed by the city, but by individuals who are backing candidates right now, and they're trying to put the closing of the Y on the city, and they should go and ask their backers why they closed the Y."
Morgan said, "I just can’t understand why we would decide to spend, or propose to spend" $2 million on a pedestrian mall instead of making a decision as a council to purchase the YMCA. She said it doesn't make sense.
Rutherford added, "According to the administration, I heard at a council meeting, the pedestrian mall is still the plan. I believe I heard the council president say so. The pedestrian mall is still planning to go forward. "Now if you’re announcing now that it’s not in the plans, feel free to do so."
Hockaday responded that it is still in the plans and said he thinks it's a good idea. He said what has changed is how it’s financed so that it's not a burden to taxpayers, adding, "it's going out to bid for developers."
Rutherford said, "I don’t think that’s a change in how it’s financed, going back out to bid is maybe getting a better price, but it's still a taxpayer financed infrastructure loan." He said the mall should not be a priority for the city right now.
The City's Boards (Zoning, Planning, Shade Tree, HPC etc) are an opportunity for citizens to become involved in the decisions of the City. What would you do to improve the diversity of the Boards to ensure that all demographics are equally represented and seats are filled with the best expertise that Plainfield has to offer?
Graham, a member of the Zoning Board, said there already is diversity, and is also the case with the Planning Board, Historic Preservation Commission, and Shade Tree Commission.
Rutherford said marketing the importance of the boards needs to be better, saying if the opportunities were promoted more, you might get more volunteers.
Morgan added that people know of the boards' existence, but are not always clear of their missions. She said term limits should also be considered to get new input and facilitate more diversity.
Hockaday said it takes a year or two for volunteers to understand what’s going on, unlike the attorneys and planners who are paid. He said every attempt is made to make sure all cross-sections of the community are represented.
(There are still three open seats on the Shade Tree Commission, one regular seat and two alternates. The same is true for HPC, according to the city website, as of publication date. Residents interested in applying for a position can fill out the application and return it to the City Clerk's office.)
Name an economic development strategy for which you would advocate during your term, if elected. How would you uphold the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches, and what do you see as the council's role in the redevelopment process?
Morgan said economic development is key to the success of Plainfield, and she said it has to be determined if PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) programs should continue. She said a PILOT does not increase the tax revenue for the city. She said PILOT programs could be a negative program. Morgan noted there should be increased scrutiny on the types of development that should come to town, saying, "We need a Grade A supermarket in Plainfield. We don't have one, so we spend our revenue for food and other things in Watchung, North Plainfield, etc." She said development should be needs driven.
Hockaday said one strategy is the use of PILOTS, and he said he is largely in favor of them, but not blindly. "We've got to look at the terms of each PILOT." He said these programs play a vital role in a town like Plainfield that needs to spur development, and said it's not correct that a PILOT doesn't increase the tax base, providing an example of an undeveloped property that generates $24K per year, but could increase to "a couple million" over 30 years. He finished, saying developers do get a discount on taxes, but do pay more taxes than if there was no development at all.
McRae said a PILOT is a very useful tool to attract developers to a city like Plainfield. He said developers found the area attractive because there are two train stations, and a team that has a vision. He added developers want to go where they know there is strong leadership. He said the use of PILOTS help to stabilize taxes, and said, "We are making a ton of money."
Graham said, "What about our single and two-family developers?" He said the council should make it their business to help the community to educate and understand.
Rutherford said, "If Mr. McRae wants to take credit for market forces that are building at every single train station in New Jersey, and just make it a local thing, that's fine. But let me tell you, as someone who has worked in multi-family, transit-oriented architecture for years, this is going on everywhere. And to be fair, most of these municipalities are using PILOTS, many of them are." He said developers leverage the municipalities against each other, so they can get the best deal.
Rutherford said he wished municipalities would work together like they have to advocate for a one-seat ride on the New Jersey Transit Raritan Valley line. He called the two train stations assets, and said the city should not have to take the first deal.
Hockaday said developers look at how professionally a city council runs to provide predictability, but Morgan countered, saying, "Our Economic Development has included building a Wawa," near a 7-11. "Is that really responsible?" She also questioned why taxes, except for this year, always go up if PILOTS provide so much money.
As a member of the governing body of our city, name one strategy you would support to increase fiscal stability in the city?
Hockaday spoke first, saying, "For me, in terms of money, it always goes back to continue to invest in our city." He said, "We have an industrial area that is outdated. No longer do we live in a world where that major industrial zoning is needed. Now we need technologies in that area to replace it." He added stability isn't achieved strictly by cutting services and the city's workforce.
McRae, up next, said, "One of the things that we could do, and we're now seeing a great interest in developing our city, we now need to go and bring our school system along," saying investors and developers look for a workforce they can tap who can handle vigorous demands of their corporation.
"And right now, our school system," McRae continued, "is lagging behind the rest of the city in its development." He said underperforming schools need to be addressed, leading to a great boom in moving the city forward.
Graham said, "We have a great economy, our real estate is in high demand. It's like we’re selling gold in Plainfield," adding there is an influx of new homeowners who are very diverse.
"We had a Chamber of Commerce," Graham noted. There is no longer one, he said, "but our business community is not suffering, so we need to make sure that we're finding solutions to partner with our business community to help them to become better."
Rutherford said the city needs to be marketed better, referencing television ads that ran in Connecticut. "I think we've got to get to new media." He said marketing is not limited to commercials, and suggested Clinton Avenue should be renamed after George Clinton (of Parliament-Funkadelic).
Rutherford went back to the pedestrian mall, saying, "We can't be spending $2.3 million on things that don't have a parking study. I'm mean, that's just not fiscally responsible." He also said, despite McRae's comment earlier, that the SUVs are not old news, nor was the mayor's big salary increase.
Morgan said there is a need to look at making the city more attractive to people to come into the city, and to frequent local restaurants. She said besides Cedar Brook Park (a county park), there are not a lot of facilities to attract people.
"In reference to the pedestrian mall, that will be paid for by developers," McRae commented, not by city tax payers. He said it was brought up at a city council meeting.
Rutherford responded, saying, "So you're claiming the developers are directly paying for this? This is not coming from the municipal budget? Why did you have to approve the funding then? Why are you going out to bid for it? What do you mean the developers are paying for it, I want to know."
After Zimmer said they would move on, Rutherford said, "Developers are not paying for it. Let's move on."
If developers are now going to pay for the pedestrian mall, one might ask, why weren't they responsible for it from the start? Has the money for loan the city took been returned?
Do you agree or disagree that Plainfield needs an acute care facility? If you agree, how would you push for this kind of service?
All of the candidates agreed the city needs one, with Rutherford saying the city can't do it by themselves, and McRae citing the development happening at and near the former Muhlenberg Hospital location.
Want to see the forum for yourself, and hear the responses to all of the quetions? Watch the LWV Facebook Live presentation.
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