Dear Editor and Citizens of Plainfield:
In this trying and dangerous time, I wish health and safety to all of the citizens of Plainfield and all of our elected and other government officials. I hope that everyone will abide by social distancing and the other restrictions that the City has put into place.
Unfortunately, running the City and life itself cannot come to a complete halt during times like this, and it is budget season for Plainfield and the other municipalities in New Jersey.
In the Mayor’s robocall that I received on March 31, 2020, he warned us of the potential for an $18 million revenue shortfall, driven by the estimated tax collection rate dropping to 70% compared to 97.3% in 2019.
The Mayor announced that the budget would be discussed at a special meeting of City Council on April 13th. Through no fault of the Administration and City Council, this will likely need to be a virtual electronic meeting. It must not, however, be a “rushed” budget process handled only at that meeting. Public Hearings are legally required and important.
Following is Article V, section 5.3 of the Plainfield Charter:
“The business administrator shall annually require each department head to submit requests for appropriations for the ensuing budget year, and to appear before the administrator at a scheduled public hearing to justify such request. ... ...”
The Plainfield Charter is the law of the City on this matter. In a strained revenue environment like this, it is important for taxpayers to have the opportunity to hear from each of the Department Heads. The Plainfield Charter requires it, despite talk at a recent City Council Meeting that the Finance Committee of the Council would decide which Department Heads they will choose to hear from.
Any Department Head who is unwilling or unable to defend his or her budget should not be a Department Head at all, in my opinion. Taxpayers will bear the brunt of this projected revenue decline. They should hear from each Department Head, as should City Council. Citizens Budget Advisory Committee should proceed as well, as it is important to hear from these citizens.
In the March 31, 2020 robocall, the Mayor stated that he intends to ask the state and the county for aid for the City. He did not say that he is carefully looking at paring back spending. He should do that as well. In my opinion, there should be no spending in the City under these circumstances that is not contractually or legally obligated. Only spending that is a “best practice” should be allowed, with each Department Head acknowledging that fact. This is especially important given the expected revenue shortfall, and the fact that much of the City budget is for fixed expenses that cannot be cut.
Following is a list of expenditures that I think that the City should carefully examine. For those of you who dismiss some of these items as too small to care about, consider that every ten random $100,000 expenditures equals $1,000,000. that taxpayers have to shoulder.
1. North Avenue Pedestrian Mall Project. At the February 10, 2020 City Council meeting, Council (5-2 vote) approved a $2,200,000 loan to build a North Avenue pedestrian mall which will close all vehicular traffic from Watchung Ave. to Park Ave. and on Gavett Place. This unnecessary project should not proceed under these economic conditions. The City does not need this project at this time.
It is puzzling why the project was rushed through City Council. The City should repay or cancel the loan if it has been drawn. At a time in the future, if and when the project makes sense, the City could build it without borrowing money with the proceeds of developer contributions to public improvements. The Department of Economic Development should address this issue at a public hearing.
2. Developer Contributions to City. The City is awash in development and zoning changes to accommodate developers who want to build almost exclusively housing in Plainfield, almost anywhere they want to build it.
Some of these developers are likely making contributions to public improvements when they are not providing green or outdoor recreation space and for other reasons. The Department of Economic Development should give the taxpayers a list of all contributions made by developers. She should address where those contributions are currently held in the City accounts. If the contributions have been spent or used, taxpayers should be told when and for what purpose. The City should address best practices or legal limits on use of these contributions and whether they could be used to alleviate the expected revenue shortfall.
3. Cisco Certification Training. At the City Council meetings in February, there was discussion about the Cisco Certification Training program that the City is sponsoring. Citizens can go the City Government section of the City website to listen to the discussion that took place at Council meetings. It appears that the City has spent $100,000 on that program and only one person has successfully completed it, and there have been issues with the instruction. The Department of Communications & Technology should explain why this program is necessary and why it should not be stopped after making arrangements with current participants.
4. City Comcast TV Commercials. At the City Council meeting in January, there was discussion of appropriations of $125,000 for City Comcast Commercials as part of the Temporary Budget Appropriation Resolution. Six or seven years ago, this may have been a novel and effective approach. The Department of Communications & Technology should address whether this expenditure is a best practice in advertising in light of the “cord cutting” trend. The Department should give hard evidence of the success of TV commercials and whether they are merely a luxury in an extreme revenue decline environment.
5. Use of Consultants. The Department of Communications & Technology should disclose all consulting agreements in the department budget. Taxpayers should receive a detailed explanation why the consultants need to be hired to do work rather than using staff to do the work. The 2019 Citizen Budget Advisory Committee commented on use of consulting in that Department at the May 6, 2019 Council meeting and suggested focus on that issue. The Department should explain what they did to follow up on that recommendation. In my opinion, there should be a freeze on use of all consultants given the projected revenue shortfall.
6. Use of City owned Vehicles. The Mayor and the Chief of Staff should provide a list of every cabinet member and other city employee who is driving a city vehicle that is not identified as such on the vehicle. This practice appears to exist across departments, so the Mayor and Chief of Staff appear to be the appropriate persons to address this issue. They should explain the cost of this perquisite and what Department budget the vehicles fall under.
They should address use of DPW gas pumps to fuel these vehicles and the cost of maintenance and insurance. This is not the first time that a citizen has raised this question with the Mayor. He should answer it, opine whether it is a best practice and explain why it should not be ended in these economic conditions. The City is 6 square miles and City Hall is centrally located. No one other than Police, Fire, or DPW needs a city vehicle at the expense of the taxpayers.
7. Travel and Clothing Expenditures. The Mayor, City Council and each Department should itemize in their budgets the amount that they spend on a) City Clothing (other than Police, Fire and DPW), b) the Walk to Washington, c) the League of Municipalities convention in November, and d) other travel outside the state for whatever reason. Training opportunities and meetings are offered in a virtual setting more and more and the City should take advantage of that trend.
City clothing should not be paid by taxpayers other than for Police, Fire and DPW. The Walk to Washington, to the extent that it is necessary at all, could be attended by the Mayor and one other official. I recognize that certain continuing education training is offered at the League convention, but I think that the best practice should include the City limiting the number of attendees and contracting for standard rooms at a boardwalk hotel, with upgrades paid for by attendees who want them. Attendees should justify why they are attending and what they hope to accomplish and publicly report on that. No attendees need to stay at the highest end hotels, or in suites anywhere at city expense. Taxpayers should be told the total budget across all Departments for that conference and how much it is being reduced given these revenue projections.
8. The United States Conference of Mayors. In 2019, the City sent a contingent of 7 or 8 people to the American Conference of Mayors in Hawaii. In my opinion, no one needed to travel to Hawaii and the Mayor has been close mouthed about the cost, even when directly asked. If that exercise was a best practice, he should not have been reluctant to disclose the cost. Travel of that kind is arrogant and in complete disregard of taxpayers. It sets a bad example for young people who have an interest in government service.
The Mayor should disclose the cost, across all Department and City Council budgets, of the 2019 trip. In 2020, the conference will be held in June, in Austin, Texas. The Mayor should confirm that the City does not plan to participate, or disclose the budgeted cost across all Departments and City Council budgets.
It is my recollection that the Mayor, having run on a transparency and fiscal responsibility platform, attended the 2014 Conference in Dallas by himself. When you contrast that behavior with the trip last summer, it illustrates the “Entitlement Creep” that has pervaded City Hall in the last several years.
9. Cabinet and Management Salary Increases and Perquisite grants. The Mayor should address whether there have been salary increases or grants of items such as city vehicles to Cabinet members and Management employees of Cabinet members up to now in 2020. He should confirm a freeze on all hiring, increases and such benefits given the projected revenue shortfall.
10. Contracts with Grant Writers. There was discussion at the City Council meeting on March 2, 2020 of two separate contracts to grant writers, totaling $100,000 in the aggregate. From the documents attached to the resolution and the discussion, it appears as though at least one of the contracts is going to a grant writer who has not been successful and does not submit reports. The Department of Administration and Finance should address the need for both of those contracts. For that cost, the City should be hiring an experienced grant writer, or contracting with seasoned and productive grant consultants.
In closing, these are tough times and the projected revenue shortfall will cause real pain for taxpayers. In our homes, we cut spending when our incomes fall, and we stretch what we have. The Administration and City Council are spending the taxpayer’s money. They should behave in the same way. They seem to have forgotten that they work for us.
I hope that citizens who read this letter will reach out to the Mayor and City Council and ask for appropriate responses to my inquiries, and add questions of their own.
Thank you and best of health to all.