The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Of COPS and sugar bowls

Was it Alice Cramden in The Honeymooners who always tried to put a little money away in the sugar bowl, only to find it empty when she turned to use it?

The sugar bowl is a good metaphor for looking at the 'new' community-oriented policing (COPS) program.

The Courier featured the story on Sunday (see "City hopes police patrols draw business") and PT commented on it yesterday (see "Courier whacks Plainfield again?") -- critiquing the newspaper's choice of a photo illustration.

Now, for the program itself.

COPS is a good thing, period. PT has always thought so and still does. But it is not a new idea and it is certainly NOT NEW TO PLAINFIELD. There have probably been half a dozen starts at getting a COPS program up and running over the past dozen or so years. The merchants love it. The citizens love it. Shoppers love it. The cops PT knows who took part thought it was a good program. But each time the program eventually sputtered out. Why?

Money. It costs money to run an operation like this. Either the Administration budgets for it out of the operating budget or it tries to do it with grants.

This time it's being done with grants -- a UEZ grant, to be specific. Eighty percent of the approximately $360,000 annual cost cited by the City is being funded by UEZ monies, according to Jacques Howard, assistant director of economic development.

There are two things to note about such a strategy for funding.

First is that funds for UEZ projects are available for the community on a DECLINING BASIS over the 15-year life of the UEZ designation. So, if kept in place and with an annual increment to the cost based on generally rising costs of government, we will have an INCREASING COST ON A DECLINING RESOURCE. Sooner or later, Peter will have to pay Paul -- that is, either other UEZ expenditures will suffer or the City will have to kick in more out of the general operating budget. So, unless there is a LONG-RANGE PLAN for funding the program, its future is already problematic.

Secondly, using UEZ funds for the payment of salaries or purchasing of equipment, while allowed, runs counter to BEST PRACTICES in the field of Urban Enterprise Zones generally, of which New Jersey's are only one example.

All municipalities are tempted to use the sugar in the bowl to sweeten the daily cup of coffee and Plainfield is certainly not alone in this regard.

However, New Jersey's best-run UEZ has taken another (and in PT's humble opinion, better) path -- devoting UEZ funds to developing a revolving loan fund for business development, including recruiting new businesses, improvements and expansion to existing businesses, and business retention programs. In the case of this UEZ, Vineland, it now has a revolving loan fund in excess of $50M, solely under its control (no Trenton review and approval) and is going gangbusters. They didn't get there overnight, it took years. But, as a once-famous Chinese leader remarked years ago, "a journey of twenty thousand miles begins with the first step."

Plainfield's current tactic will mean the sugar bowl will
eventually be empty, with no more to come, and the City will be faced with funding programs like COPS entirely on its own or abandoning them altogether.

Let's enjoy the improvement COPS will bring while we have it, but unless the Administration offers a viable long-range plan, we should understand COPS is -- again -- destined to garner a few headlines and then quietly slip away. Whether or not the merchants want it. Or the residents. Or shoppers. Or even the cops themselves.

View today's CLIPS here. Not getting your own CLIPS email daily? Click here to subscribe.