On March 31, Mayor Adrian Mapp sounded alarms in Plainfield, warning that the city’s tax collection rate would plummet from 97.3% to 70% due to COVID-19. I’m not sure how he surmised that tax collection would tumble that far, and why he would spread such alarmist rhetoric just as the coronavirus was unfolding and most financial repercussions were still hard to predict. This message was part of a robocall, not a spur of the moment remark. There was a conscious decision to put this out there.
Looking closer, Mapp's 70% prediction might be virtually impossible. Just last night during the City Council's special meeting, Plainfield's head of finance reported that around 90% of property taxes are paid as part of mortgage payments - and even during foreclosures, the vast majority of lenders (and all the big ones) pay owners' property taxes.
On April 6, resident Mary Burgwinkle sent a letter to Tap Into Plainfield and the City of Plainfield (link here). Reacting to the Mayor's dire prediction, she suggested a myriad of measures the city could take to avoid Mayor Mapp’s alarmist forecast of an $18 million shortfall. Many of her suggestions involved items the administration avoids discussing in any detail.
Two days after Mrs Burgwinkle’s letter, Mayor Mapp hosted a Q & A segment on Facebook Live where he downplayed his own doom and gloom. “I can assure you that the house is not on fire and the sky is not falling,” said the Mayor, regarding the city’s financials. In other words, enough with the pesky suggestions - Mapp has this figured out. A far cry from his own words just one week before.
Either way, Adrian Mapp’s initial alarmism was a calculated move, and it’s reasonable to assume the mayor - a longtime fan of privatization - saw the crisis as an opportunity to use panic as a way to outsource. In 2018, Mapp attempted to outsource emergency dispatchers - a move would have stripped crucial benefits from Plainfield residents. A year before he tried to outsource the planning department during a time when it's needed most.
But pandemic or not, the Mapp administration and the City Council has been poised to raise your taxes for the third year in a row. In February, they voted to accept the mayor's 2.72% tax increase. The writing is on the wall, and Mapp and friends have thus far been unwilling to finally address their own wasteful spending.
Let’s start with the most obvious. Since the day he took office, Adrian Mapp and the City Council have drastically increased the budget for the Mayor’s office. It’s gone from around $75,000 to nearly $300,000.
Part of this increase is the chief of staff, who now makes a shade under $90,000. Back in 2014, the newly elected mayor shrugged off the public’s complaints about the redundancy of employing both a chief of staff and a city administrator, and Mapp has since raised the Mayor’s office budget year after year.
Then of course we have the infamous Chevrolet Tahoes for the Mayor and top staff. Adrian Mapp and the City Council authorized the police division to purchase the seven vehicles, which start at $50,000 each. Even at only $50,000, that's $350,000. As this was a couple of years ago, the resale value would be less now but still over $200,000 minimum. Do cabinet members really need gas guzzling vehicles to parade around town in? These should have never been bought, but can be sold to lessen the blow.
We also have the pedestrian mall that I wrote about in late February (see here). Director of Economic Development Valerie Jackson admitted during the February Council meeting that the city hadn’t even completed a parking study for the portion of North Avenue to be closed to vehicular traffic. Nor did they study the impact on existing businesses. That didn’t stop Mapp’s rubber stamp City Council members - Hockaday, Armady, McRae, Mills-Ransome, and of course Goode - to vote for the project, which will send Plainfield $2.3 million in debt. The loan will have a 1.5% interest rate, so these payments will be north of $90,000 annually for 30 years. I should mention that even with better planning, 86% of pedestrian malls fail.
Then we have the City Council and Mayoral salaries. During the last financial crisis, the Plainfield City Council cut its yearly stipend to $9,000, from $10,000 as a gesture to the public that they, too, were tightening their belt. In late 2017, they raised their salaries up to $15,000. Why can’t they consider a 50% pay cut to $7,500 until the end of fiscal year 2021 as this crisis continues? The same for the mayor, whose rubber stamp council raised his part-time salary from $35,000 to $75,000 (link here). In the midst of the greatest month-and-a-half of job losses ever recorded, his salary can go back to where it was before. These Mayor and City Council stipend cuts would save $92,500 annually. And if the City Council went above and beyond to take zero stipend, it would save $145,000.
You can see how spending adds up. The few items I’ve discussed so far represent over $800,000 in costs. For scale, our taxes would stay relatively flat if the city cut around $1.5 million.
Plainfield's budget deliberations will begin Wednesday, May 6 (zoom link here). We cannot let the City Council and the mayor cut programs (except those made impossible this year by COVID-19) and lay off rank and file workers before they address their own wastefulness - which goes far beyond the items I mentioned here (remember the Hawaii trip?). We certainly can’t let them use the coronavirus as a cover to push their agenda, yet keep their fancy perks.
We have to understand that a third consecutive big tax increase is not inevitable. This year, the Plainfield City Council will vote on the budget a full month before the primary election, which was moved to July 7. This provides us an unprecedented opportunity to put real pressure on our elected officials - as both Steve Hockaday and Charles McRae are up for re-election. That means Adrian Mapp’s control of the seven member City Council hangs in the balance.
David Rutherford, Candidate, Plainfield City Council At-Large