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Friday, September 28, 2007

$7M BUF Bond May Leave Plainfield On The Hook

With the County Counsel saying that perhaps the City of Plainfield is on the hook if BUF defaults on the UCIA bonds but that the County certainly wasn't, the Board of Chosen Freeholders voted last night to consent to the offering of $7M in bonds by the UCIA to underwrite BUF's pre-school project.

The only 'no' vote was from Freeholder Mapp, who earlier said that while he was pleased to see funding coming toward Plainfield, this kind of investment deserved buy-in from the City Council, who know nothing about the project or the bond.

Mapp further said that he wanted "to be assured that some study has been done to show a revenue stream that will support the bond" and moved to table the ordinance pending further information.

Freeholder Sullivan, taking issue with Freeholder Mapp, said "we have to approve any and all projects they [the UCIA] put forward ... they have done their due diligence or they would not have presented it to us."

Apparently flummoxed by Mapp's motion to table, the chair
dithered. Finally the Board voted to suspend the rules. Mapp was then allowed to move to table the ordinance. His motion died -- are you ready for this? -- for lack of a second. The ordinance was then quickly passed.

Where are we?


We have a quasi-governmental public authority -- the UCIA -- now authorized to bond $7M for a nonprofit organization, referred to in the ordinance as the 'Black United Fund-Plainfield Project'.

No one knows who is responsible for paying off the bonds should BUF default. But we do know it is NOT Union County, and it may be the City of Plainfield, per the County Counsel.

Question: Does BUF have to put up the 5% up-front money -- that would be $350,000 -- before the bond is issued, as the City does when it bonds?


Freeholder Mapp stated that the "governing body [of Plainfield is] unaware of the project and the bond. He also said he believed there should be "buy-in" from the City Council.

Yet all we have to show the City's support is a letter from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, dated August 7th. I have put in an OPRA request for that letter, which is due today, and will report on the letter later once I have a copy. Suffice it to say, a support letter from the Mayor cannot bind the City to repay the bonds should BUF default on them.


No one -- except for Mayor Robinson-Briggs, the UCIA, and, presumably, Assemblyman Green -- knows about the nature of the BUF project.

Is it new construction or the expansion of the existing facility?

Will it be at the BUF Center at West 7th and Central Avenue or at the former Grant Avenue Community Center site at Grant Avenue and West 6th Street or at another site altogether?

How can a project of this scope -- $7 million -- be envisioned without the knowledge or review of the Planning Division or the Zoning Board (or perhaps the Planning Board)?

How can bonds be issued if there are no plans? If there are plans, why have not the Council and the Planning Division seen them?


Let me say that I'm not necessarily opposed to this project. How can I be, since I -- and everyone else -- know only what we read in the ordinance that has come to light. What DOES concern me is the lack of transparency.

When Assemblyman Green and I chatted at the Friends of the Library's wine-tasting last weekend, I asked him if he had any idea why so many people find this story of interest (it has rated nearly 5 times the normal page views for a 'hot' story). The Assemblyman said he couldn't guess, as hardly anyone would have known about it except for Plainfield Today.

But there are FURTHER questions.

Who is "the Torain Group" cited in the ordinance as having asked the UCIA to bond BUF's project? I have been told they are financial advisors to BUF. But I find it curious that Googling them only turns up one reference --
a PDF of the legal notice of the ordinance, published in the Westfield Leader on September 13, 2007.

By way of contrast, Googling the late Leona Helmsley's dog 'Trouble' nets 265,000 links -- and 'Trouble' only got $12M. Shouldn't the Torain Group get at least a few more hits?

Having been surprised to find the Senior Center project using non-union labor, is it fair to ask if BUF will be required to use union labor?

Lastly, we need to know if BUF will be exempt from the requirement of following the state's Public Bidding Law. If it need not, does that mean that the letting of contracts for the work can be done solely at the discretion of BUF's board? If so, it could provide a wonderful opportunity to reward 'friends'.

Whose friends, you ask?

-- Dan Damon

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