PLAINFIELD, NJ — Members of Plainfield’s City Council held their first municipal operating budget deliberation session Wednesday, hearing from Police Director Lisa Burgess, and Director Valerie Jackson of the Department of Economic Development. The Zoom platform that was used gave residents an up-close look at interactions between council, department heads, and the Mayor, and their reactions to questions posed by the public.
Council President Steve Hockaday initially yielded the floor to Mayor Adrian O. Mapp to give an overview of the 2020 budget that was approved by the council on April 13. Mapp said, “I just want to give an introduction to my different cabinet members who will be presenting to you over the course of the coming weeks."
The Mayor thanked those who supported the tax anticipation notes (TAN) resolution that was passed Monday night. "Through that support, we will be able to pay our police officers, firefighters, DPW employees, all of the other members of the city’s workforce, our utility companies. and all of the vendors who provide critical goods and services every day as we continue to deal with the pandemic.”
He added, "We can now do that without having to worry about cash flow. I give you the assurance that the short-term loan is not a capital item, and it will not affect the city’s long-term debt. It will be paid off in a few months as revenues begin to stabilize, and within the timeframe permitted by statute. A TAN is a very elementary method provided to municipalities and counties to assist with cash flow any time cash receipts may be delayed."
The Mayor said given the very grave financial situation that property owners are facing, and the strict measures he's imposed at all levels of local government, the administration will go through the budget that was presented. He said he will present a number of proposed reductions to the finance committee that will result in a significant reduction to the arduous taxes per household.
He also said, "I must warn you services will be impacted out of sheer financial necessity, and as a result of the social distancing and other COVID-19 emergency protocol,” that has been put in place.
Hockaday noted the budget that has been approved by the council is very unlikely to be adopted in its current form, saying the deliberations are designed to hear about each department’s priorities, goals and objectives. He acknowledged this budget was created before the pandemic began, and appropriate adjustments should be expected.
The Council President then outlined the format of the session, a departure from years past; it was dictated to his colleagues only hours before the meeting. He said each councilperson would be allotted five minutes to ask questions after each department head’s presentation. Upon request, they may be granted an extra minute to ask follow-up questions; if a councilperson doesn’t use all his or her time, they may elect to yield the balance of time to another councilperson.
Robin Bright, the Chair of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, would be the only CBAC member to speak, and would be allowed ten minutes to ask questions of directors, with two minutes of follow-up questions if necessary.
Councilman Sean McKenna questioned the process of limiting time to ask questions; he asked the City Clerk to identify where in the charter this particular process is laid out. He was told it is in the code, allowing the Council President to limit the debate on all matters during the meetings.
The first presentation began, with Director Burgess giving an overview of the Plainfield Police Department’s budget that makes up 18 percent of the entire city budget.
"The Police Department continues to strive for excellence as an accredited agency. The department is dedicated to providing quality service to the City of Plainfield. In our efforts to reduce crime, we take pride in improving the quality of life for our residents."
According to Director Burgess, there were 64,140 calls of service in 2019, up +7.5% year over year. From 2015 to date, overall crime is down 21 percent, attributed to “proactive policing, with the assistance of technology, like our camera systems and ShotSpotter.”
She said traffic enforcement continues to be one of the department’s priorities throughout the city. Enforcement efforts include the Drive Sober campaign, DUI checkpoints, and seat belt inspections. Overall, the city’s accidents are on the decline from 2018.
Burgess said goals for the department include hiring additional officers to meet the needs of the city; 136 were budgeted for 2019/2020. Currently, there are 124, with 4 in the police academy, 2 who are on terminal leave for anticipated retirement, 1 on maternity leave, and 1 out on disability, leaving 117 officers actively working.
Another goal is to rebuild the 911 communications center. The department will be promoting a department-wide community policing concept, partnering with residents for safer neighborhoods, and there will be an increase in city-wide parking enforcement.
The Director highlighted some of the department’s accomplishments on top of crime reduction, including department-wide training in use of force, search and seizure, and the completion of a hands-on active shooter training earlier this year. A new training program is being developed for the 911 center.
Another successful Queen City Mentoring Academy graduated 80 students; the academy is fully staffed by officers who mentor the youth.
On the budget, the Director said in 2019 the department was appropriated $15.926 million in salaries and wages, and operational expenses for the police department, the parking bureau, and the school crossing guards. “The department came within the budget, and managed a 23 percent savings in our overtime expenses.”
For the 2020 budget, the request is for $16.442 million that also includes salaries and wages, and operational expenses. There is an increase in salaries and wages due to contractual agreements with the unions, and a minimal increase due to the rebuild of the 911 center that currently has five full-time operators, and six part-timers. There is currently one vacant full-time position, and the Director said they are looking to add two part-time positions to allow for adequate coverage. Utilizing a full-time/part-time system will lead to a savings over using an outsourcing center.
The Director then outlined operating expenses, requesting the following increases:
- QED: from $32,208 to $33,168, QED is the software data system, a major function in the department that includes the records management system for report writing, booking, CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch), the 911 system, and fire reporting.
- Software Service: from $36,000 to $38,250, for services that support a function of the department, and are required for the department to meet its accreditation standards, as well as state requirements.
- Maintenance: from $89,435 to $145,000, and includes e-ticketing which was added to the budget line item in 2020, at an annual cost of $22,850, approved by resolution in 2018, with a five-year contract. Radio repairs, firewalls, copiers, print usage, and live scans and photo system used for bookings also fall under maintenance.
- Medical exam and supplies: from $13,500 to $15,000, an increase due to mandatory medical and psychological exams that are required when hiring police officers and dispatch.
- Body-worn cameras: from $93,084 to $110,000, an anticipated cost for services for 2020. The current agreement is set to expire in October after a five-year term. The cost covers 92 cameras with unlimited storage, and the use an asset for liability purposes and a "vital tool" for internal affairs investigations. The cameras were introduced to the department by the Union County Prosecutor's Office, and allows for the sharing of evidence almost immediately "to assist in efficient and effective prosecutions of crimes that have occurred in the City of Plainfield."
Councilwoman Ashley Davis asked a number of questions, beginning with how COVID-19 has affected the goals of hiring new officers and 911 staff.
Director Burgess said this is an area she's looked at with regard to cuts, "because it is a bit of a challenge that we're going to have to face in order to meet that particular goal." She said the plan was to put five officers into the academy in May, but due to the pandemic, Union County's academy was suspended. The next class would begin July 31, and the hope would be to put 12 officers in. She said dispatcher training is also suspended at this time.
Davis said she's glad to see goals include assessing the crossing guards because sometimes it looks like there aren't enough of them in the right places. Burgess said assessments will take place over the summer.
On overtime, Davis asked, "How has COVID-19 replaced the overtime costs for the police department?"
Burgess said overtime during the pandemic has not increased. "We are in a state of emergency right now, and with that state of emergency, that means that every officer has to be available and at work." She said there is no vacation time allowed at this point.
The Councilwoman asked if COVID-19 overtime is reimbursable through the CARES Act or another funding source. Director West said overtime is being tracked across the board in case there is an opportunity.
Davis asked the Director why she is only seeking $15,950 for facility rental when it is normally $37,500.
According to Burgess, for around twenty years, the department has paid for a rental because the Narcotics Bureau has always had a separate building outside the department. The old parking authority building has been renovated in order to have a stand-alone building, and the requested $15K is the remainder on the rental. She said it will be a savings to the city, and next year the line item will be zero dollars.
LanguageLine, Burgess said, is where the department incurs costs when dispatchers have a communications issue. This, to answer Davis' question, is what falls under the communications budget line item.
A question about how often the auxiliary police are used was posed, but Burgess said, "We haven't utilized their services at this time." She noted further evaluation needs to be done, and a small amount has been left in the budget in case it's decided the program should be restarted.
Councilman Barry Goode asked about ShotSpotter, and the Director said she is an advocate. "It works well to get us to those calls without having to wait for the residents to call us."
Next up, Councilman McKenna told the Director he would like to see more measurable items behind the department's goals and objectives, rather than a statement of what he considered typical daily job requirements.
He said, "One area I think you could probably look to cut is in the Police Director's budget," adding there is $5,000 that has not been used since 2016. He asked for a further breakdown of the $12K request for miscellaneous.
Director Burgess said this is already an area being reviewed for cuts; however, she said the other funds are used for safety items they may need. This year, the department is evaluating areas with 4-way stop signs, and whether some of them can be removed, one in particular. If any are taken down, some other type of safety measure would need to be purchased and installed.
The Councilman asked what the current crossing guard rate is, what it's been increased to, and if they are being paid now since school has been suspended through the end of the 2019/2020 school year rather than furloughing them, so they can collect federal benefits.
The rate was going to be increased to $15 per hour, but has not yet been done. Based on current circumstances, the wage increase will either take place in September or January 2021. The goal is to be more competitive with surrounding towns that pay upwards of $19 per hour.
Currently, the crossing guards make between $10 and $13 per hour. When someone calls out, police officers have to fill in, costing the city more.
McKenna also asked how many officers have left to go to other municipalities. The Director said there have recently been two.
The Councilman asked for the status of the Safe Routes to Schools project since receiving funding a few years ago. Director West responded, saying the project involves a number of departments throughout the city, and "right now we are still waiting for certification from DOT to be able to move forward on this."
McKenna asked what city road job costs involve, and was told the vendors who use the services are required to pay for the off-duty officers. There is a percent that goes to the city, and that number is rolled up into the police department's budget.
The professional contract services, around $6K, is for tank and rental services, i.e. oxygen tanks, if needed in an emergency situation.
The Councilman asked how many vehicles the department is planning to buy that will go directly to the police department, and not another division in the city. According to Director West, there are no police vehicle purchases projected for 2020.
While a small amount, McKenna recommended removing the budget for the police auxiliary since it is not being utilized. He said parking bureau data is a little vague, and should show what it looks like now versus where the department wants it to be. And, he said, implementing upgrades to parking meters could be put on hold.
In follow-up questioning, McKenna asked if the crossing guards are still being paid since school has been let out for the remainder of the academic year.
The Director countered, saying school is still considered in session, although through remote learning. Similar to other non-essential employees, the guards are still being paid. Until an official date has been announced for the end of the school year, it is only right to keep paying the crossing guards for their services.
McKenna directed another question to Mr. West about a $90K vehicle line item; earlier, West said there are no plans to purchase police vehicles.
But the Director did not answer, instead saying he will follow up in writing.
Some additional questions were asked by the Council President, including a request for further information on accreditation that was obtained under former Director Carl Riley.
FROM THE ARCHIVES:
"We are due to have the re-accreditation in October of 2021," Burgess said. The department is working with The Rodgers Group to make sure all the policies and procedures are up to date, the department is utilizing best practices, and anything else that is needed to meet standards.
CBAC Chair Bright asked the Director to review some points that had already been covered. She also asked how many crossing guards there are in place — the number is 42, and the amount of coverage needed is being evaluated for both public and charter schools.
Director Jackson presented her budget next. Stay tuned for that overview.
The budgets for the Plainfield Fire Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Department of Finance will be introduced on Wednesday, May 13 at 7 p.m.
TAPintoPlainfield.net is Plainfield's free online daily newspaper for Plainfield, NJ news. Sign up for our daily eNews and follow us on Facebook, Twitter @PlainfieldTAP, and on Instagram @tapintoplainfield for all of your Plainfield local news.