PLAINFIELD, NJ — Council members heard from three Plainfield division heads at Wednesday's budget deliberation session. Fire Director Kenneth Childress reviewed his department's finances and goals, and Oren Dabney, Director of Public Works, broke down the divisions that fall under his purview. Director of Finance Ron West talked tax collections and appeals, and of his own $10K raise.
A disagreement between Council President Steve Hockaday and Second Ward Councilman Sean McKenna took center stage when councilors were questioning Chief Childress, resulting in rebukes from residents during public comment.
According to Director Childress, who assumed leadership of the Fire Division in June 2019, there are "111 brave men and women protecting the city" in three divisions under his watch: Fire Suppression; Fire Prevention Bureau; and Office of Emergency Management, or OEM.
In 2019, Childress said, the department responded to 3,525 alarms; this year, to date, there have been 1,268 alarms answered.
Childress said there was $765,000 appropriated in overtime funding for 2019, of which $549,972.21 was consumed, leaving a savings of over $224K, or a 29.3 percent reduction.
The Director said the department is understaffed by ten firefighters.
Director West chimed in, providing 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.
Police and fire together account for 30 percent, or almost $27 million.
Councilwoman Ashley Davis asked Childress how COVID-19 has affected the hiring of the six cadet firefighters noted in his goals.
The Director said the academy is closed. He noted part of the training is hands-on, but was hopeful the classroom part could resume, being taught online.
Davis also questioned travel expenses, but Childress said they were charged before his start date last year; the previous Director had used those budget dollars to attend a convention.
On overtime, the Director said they use acting, or interim, pay for civil service to keep costs down instead of having to pay time and a half.
When Councilman McKenna's turn came, he asked Childress to revisit the increase in overtime pay, up 30 percent over last year. "In fact, why don't you take that overtime one, and then we'll go to the next one."
But Council President Hockaday interrupted, reminding McKenna to ask all of his questions upfront.
McKenna said, "Actually, Council President, you don't have the authority in your title to adjust how I ask questions. You just don't."
Hockaday countered, saying, "I do have the authority to tell the Director how he'll answer."
McKenna said, "Then he can answer the question that was asked, and then I'll ask him another one. That's how this is going to work. You don't have the authority to adjust how the questions are asked, you don't have the authority to limit the time," under neither municipal code nor under Robert's Rules.
Hockaday said, "If you don't want to follow the rules, you'll be out of order, and then you won't have questions at all."
It was easy to see on the Zoom call that the Council President pressed the mute button more than once while McKenna was speaking.
McKenna yielded his time, and chose not to ask any more questions over the course of the night because he disagreed with the format.
Next, Vice President Elton Armady brought up a drone program outlined in the budget, and a 2020 initiative. The Director said it is moving ahead, that the department has the drones in its possession, and they are gathering the rules and regulations in line with FAA laws; however, the program to receive the 107 license is also shut down due to the pandemic.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS
Director Dabney said he oversees Signal, Engineering, Division of Public Works, Recreation, Inspections, and the Senior Center.
He noted the overall 2020 operating budget request of almost $7.3 million, with $6.1 million for salaries, and $1.2 million for other operating expenses. He said the budget predates COVID-19 and will be reviewed for further cuts, and the divisions' goals are to continue to enhance quality of life, and to ensure health and safety for employees through social distancing, wearing masks, and more.
"To date, we have milled and paved 111 streets, totaling approximately 41 miles," adding the milling, paving and reconstruction of Prospect and St. Mary's avenues will commence over the next two months.
He said the Signal Division will continue servicing and providing routine maintenance to the 224 city-owned traffic lights and 107 decorative street light poles, and will work with PSE&G to process and repair any outages of the 3,255 light poles owned by the utility.
Signal will assist Division of Public Works to replace stop signs as needed; to date, there are 708 stop signs across Plainfield.
Councilwoman Davis asked the Director why a Signal Tech-2 employee's salary increased by $16,740 in just one year, not on par with the 1.5 percent contractual raises, and was told he is doing an excellent job, and will eventually become the superintendent.
Dabney said his divisions will continue to apply for grants, one of which was received for the new multi-purpose Rushmore Field. He also said the flood plain manager is mandated by FEMA, USACE, and NJDEP to review all structures in flood zones, and adhere to the city's adopted flood prevention ordinance. He noted it will cost "quite a bit of money" to update the flood maps.
(A snapshot of Rushmore Field from the recent Planning Board meeting.)
Some tough decisions, Dabney said, will be made for the Department of Recreation and the Senior Center. All parks will continue to be monitored under the guidance of the Superintendent of Recreation.
Councilwoman Davis, a former Recreation employee, pressed the Director, asking if city pools will open. Typically, Hannah Atkins pool opens Memorial Day weekend. "For it to be May 13, and still not have an answer on whether or not the pools are going to be open is a little problematic because we don't open up pools overnight."
"There's no way to control social distancing with the pools being open," Dabney said.
She also asked if there will be a 4th of July parade, to which Dabney, "we're in May."
But Davis said planning should already be in the works: "We're really just leaving the public in limbo, which is not fair to the public of this city."
The Mayor jumped in, saying the administration will put out a statement about activities that are affected by COVID-19, and Armady asked that a dollar figure be assigned to the impacted activities so the council is aware of the savings.
The Vice President also asked how things are going with the Quality of Life Task Force in terms of addressing violations; the Director said the task force is addressing violations from an exterior view.
The Division of Inspections has been divided into two units, Dabney said, noting one unit will move to where the Plainfield Police Narcotics Division was housed.
Davis questioned why the Director's budget for the Watchung Avenue property is $50,000 when the Police Department's budget was only $37,500 for the same space. He related it to a percentage increase year over year, and reiterated it will pay for itself.
She also asked for the number of summonses for this year versus last. Director Dabney said he would have to follow up with that information.
Armady asked if any snow removal savings have been realized since it was a mild winter, and was told available funds are kept in a storm trust. Those funds are also used to address hurricane and high wind storm cleanup.
Robin Bright, CBAC Chair, asked if the department has considered hiring a city engineer, but Dabney told her it's more cost-efficient to use an outside consultant to save on salaries, benefits and health insurance.
DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE
The Department of Finance, Ron West said, consists of the Office of the Director, Audit and Control, the Tax Assessor and Tax Collector, and Purchasing.
Some key accomplishments in 2019 were a record tax collection of 97.3 percent; the ability to regenerate $7 million of surplus; the refinancing of the city's bond anticipation notes to bonds that will generate $959,521 in interest savings; a single audit finding; and the city was able to maintain its Moody's Mid 1 and A1 ratings. The department processed 278 tax appeals.
Even in the midst of COVID-19, West said, critical priorities for the city include processing 300 tax appeals; the need for at least a 97 percent tax collection rate; the need to regenerate at least $5.5 million in surplus; the need to maintain the Moody's Mid 1 and A1 ratings; and will host an auction to sell 16 city-owned properties. Zero audit findings is a goal, as is increasing the participation rate in the 2020 U.S. Census, with a goal of 66 percent (it is currently at 48.8 percent). He said the city is making robocalls, there are three billboards in town, a banner will be going up, and lawn signs will be utilized.
The overall finance team budget is down 2.71 percent from 2019; salaries and wages are down .99 percent, with other expenses up 6.06 percent.
- Director of Finance budget is down 14.19 percent, while salaries/wages are up 5.29 percent. Other expenses are down 28.77 percent.
- Audit and Controls overall budget is down .095 percent, with salaries/wages down 6.45 percent.
- Purchasing is up1.64 percent, with salaries/wages up 2.64 percent.
- Tax Assessor is up 3.8 percent, with salaries/wages up 2.83 percent.
- Tax Collector is down 1.29 percent, and salaries/wages .68 percent.
Councilwoman Davis asked what the current tax collection rate is — it's around $17.1 million monthly, and $44 million year-to-date — and questioned a $10,000 raise for the Director of Finance, to which West said, "I guess the best way for me to answer that is to say I think the Director earned it."
Mary Burgwinkle spoke in public comment, reminding council members to "kindly use common sense with your budgets. It is a bad economy, unprecedented for everyone; please tighten your belts like all of us have to, and I know you know that."
She added, "Please do not impose artificial questioning moments to silence city councilors from asking questions. This virtual meeting is an artificial and really awkward way to conduct meetings. Why burden department employees with remembering multiple questions? It would be so much easier if you just let people answer when people ask their questions."
Burgwinkle continued, saying, "Shame on the Mayor — sorry, Adrian — in 2013 he was City Council President. If the then mayor had interrupted city council and engaged in some of the behavior he's engaged in this year, he would have protested loudly, and probably threatened legal action."
"I’m sure that somehow Steve Hockaday didn’t come up with this artificial questioning thing, so I would really appreciate letting people ask their questions, sit down, talk, make a deal. Mr. McKenna was elected Second Ward City Councilperson," Burgwinkle said, "and I supported him, because I wanted an active questioner. More than twenty-five percent of the people in Plainfield live in the Second Ward — a lot of voters."
Samseketha "Sam" Cooper said, "First, I would just like to say as someone who has personally attended these council meetings in the past, I’ve been quite excited that we have gone to an online platform for the continuance of day-to-day business as usual."
But Cooper added, "I just need to remind everyone that we can see you." She said residents are watching, and people are being recorded.
Timothy Priano said, "I want to say that I'm not happy with the way Councilman McKenna was silenced tonight. By silencing him, you silenced my voice, and the other voices of the residents in the Second Ward."
He went on to remind members how former Council President Rebecca Williams knew Roberts Rules of Order, and ran proper meetings. "Everyone needs to read the book, and understand how to run a meeting."
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