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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Will Solaris try to make a killing on Muhlenberg real estate?

Latest rumor is that parking lot West of Park Avenue is for sale.

While Muhlenberg supporters plan strategies in the face of the August 13 closing of the hospital, 'Save Muhlenberg' activists are calling attention to what they believe is a similar struggle -- at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn -- with implications for Muhlenberg and Plainfield.

While real estate values in the Cobble Hill neighborhood in which LICH is situated have appreciated dramatically in recent years (I know the neighborhood well, having lived a few blocks away and with a friend who owns a rowhouse literally around the corner), Plainfield has not seen such dramatic increases -- despite the runup of recent years.

Nevertheless, the story brings up an important issue: What now will Solaris do with the Muhlenberg property?

Rumors have been flying for months about plans to sell off or develop parts of the campus, including various buildings, as condos, offices, a conference center, etc., and what local players might benefit from finder's fees in 'brokering' such transactions.

The latest rumor to surface, though I have not been able to confirm it, is that the large parking lot on the west side of Park Avenue at Randolph Road is on the market.

Meanwhile, you can read up on the Brooklyn experience and lessons it may have for Plainfield and Muhlenberg here: "Doctors Say Hospital Is Falling Victim to Its Own Real Estate Value".

P.S. -- As fate would have it, today's New York Times brings news of yet further property sales by LICH's parent corporation -- this time of properties housing its obstetrics programs -- though prices are not mentioned. Supporters of LICH contend it is being cannibalized to aid the parent corporation.

Read about it here: "Community Hospital in Brooklyn Is Closing Maternity Ward and Selling the Space".

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Assemblyman Green launched into the blogosphere

Plainfield's Assemblyman Jerry Green has finally started a blog. About time.

Bernice called me Tuesday afternoon with the news, saying she had spoken with the Assemblyman on the phone (got that part garbled, sorry). I didn't expect a phone call from the Assemblyman. (The last time he called me was ten years ago this past March, a phone call that I shall never forget, though he may totally have forgotten it.)

With 1,360 posts to Plainfield Today since November 2005, I have been wondering for the longest time when 'the King' would take up the mightiest weapon of all, the pen.

After all, blogging is free -- all that one needs is a little time and something of interest to say. Being a good typist isn't even part of the deal. So, why not?

The Assemblyman promises 'plain truths' and 'real solutions'. Let's hope.

I hope you will check out the Assemblyman's blog (here), maybe even bookmark it.

It's not clear what Jerry's 'own views and decisions' will include. Will it be in his role as chair of the Dem city committee? As Assemblyman? As community mover and shaker? Will it be a blog or a bloviathon?
We'll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, a suggestion to the Assemblyman that I have made to other bloggers who have been interested in being linked to on CLIPS and Plainfield Today --
  • Blogging, to be successful, needs to be viewed more as a marriage than as an occasional date.

  • Posting infrequently and on an irregular basis guarantees people will not remember to come back and see what's going on.

  • Not having anything interesting to say and not saying it in an interesting way will drive readers away. And if one doesn't get readers, what's the point?
Getting a link in the main section of CLIPS hinges on evidence that a blog is being posted to on some sort of regular basis. Barring that, it's the 'Siberia' of a link on the sidebar.

Lastly, blogging is the ultimate PERSONAL way of getting one's views out there.

In the shallow end of the pool, where Bernice, Dan, Maria, Olddoc and the other locals splash, blogs are written and managed by the person whose name is attached as the 'blogger'. Should it ever come to light that the Assemblyman's blog is
NOT by the Assemblyman, but by a paid-for hack or a staff member -- to Siberia it goes.

Now, when is Mayor Robinson-Briggs going to take pen in hand?

-- Dan Damon

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Sticking it to Green, Howard pulls plug on Muhlenberg

Commissioner Heather Howard officially pulled the plug on Plainfield's Muhlenberg Hospital Tuesday afternoon.

Her letter to Solaris CEO John McGee is almost anticlimactic given that she tipped her hand months ago in pubic comments about 'saving JFK'. (I will post the letter when I get a working copy, the one received yesterday was unopenable.)

McGee wasted no time in announcing that MRMC would admit no patients after August 13 (was the press release already prepared, or am I too cynical?). This gives Solaris a two-week window for laying off employees, transferring equipment in broad daylight, and shutting down the physical facility.

In a final insult, Howard sticks it to Assemblyman Jerry Green, saying she is powerless to grant the only fig leaf that the Assemblyman was able to find in the whole business -- keeping the Muhlenberg license active for a period of time in order to search for a buyer.

So, without a serious and impartial examination of the alternatives by the State (one of which would have been to consider closing JFK as a more 'rational' and 'fair' move), 131 years of service to the greater Plainfield area is wiped out with a penstroke.

With the likelihood of an Obama presidency and a Democratic surge in both houses of Congress, one would hope that help is on the way. But it will be too late for Muhlenberg, if and when it comes.

With the help of Assemblyman Green's 'Plan B' task force, Solaris has done what it could to guard against being overwhelmed by Muhlenberg clients by attempting to disperse them far and wide.

The state, with its county-centric mindset, bureaucratically disregards the true geography of need and service, de facto making Trinitas (literally at the opposite end of the county) THE hospital for Union County's poor and uninsured.

Will it be 'genocide lite' as Deborah Dowe suggests? Or merely an inconvenience, alleviated by a free cab plan, as Solaris proposes?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, my mind's eye pictures Howard (as Macbeth, hands bloody after murdering Duncan), calling McGee (as Lady Macbeth, the instigator) on her cellphone, uttering Shakespeare's fateful line --
"I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a sound?" -- Act II, scene ii.
Macbeth at least had the humanity to lose sleep over it.

Lady Macbeth was another matter.

-- Dan Damon

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cohen Resignation: Cattle call for replacements

PolitickerNJ has a laser focus on the Assemblyman Cohen scandal and resignation.

I am gathering the loose ends together for those junkies who never tire of Jersey's most famous crop -- no, it is NOT the Ramapo tomato, nor 'big R', it's political scandal and machinations. (For another view, check out today's Countywatchers post.)

The 9:24 AM resignation by Cohen was effectively a cattle call for all aspiring pols to start warming up their shtick.

Among those mentioned:
  • Freeholder Angel Estrada, a consummate Union County political insider who also happens to be Latino (Sen. Lesniak has vowed a minority person will get the seat). This would allow the use of one of the favorite political gambits -- move politicians up the ladder one rung at a time and fill the slot left behind with a more junior person;

  • Roselle Mayor Garrett Smith is definitely interested and since Cohen is from Roselle, it seems possible that his replacement will be too, though not likely to be Smith, who has crossed swords with Union County Dem boss Charlotte DeFilippo. What is the old saying?... "over my something or other body...";

  • Which brings us to two lesser known names (at least on this end of the county): newcomer Roselle Councilor Cecilia Dallis-Ricks, a Cohen ally, and longtime Elizabeth Councilor Patricia Perkins-Auguste, who is being championed by Mayor Chris Bollwage.
Nature, the law, and Union County Dem chair DeFilippo all agree on one thing: They hate a vacuum.

DeFilippo promises Union County Dems will come up with a replacement within the statutorily required 35 days, which will also fall just days before the state's election calendar deadline for getting a name on the November ballot.

My guess is the decision is already made, it only remains for the Politburo to summon the faithful to a rubber-stamp meeting.

At least, they'll probably get some free munchies.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Muhlenberg: Rescue money for who?

Bennet Zurofsky, Esq., the attorney representing POP in the matter of the closing of Plainfield's Muhlenberg Hospital by Solaris Health System, has written Commissioner Heather Howard asking that the matter be reconsidered.

His letter of July 23 is a followup to one of July 17 to the State Health Planning Board, after which he learned the SHPB had already forwarded its recommendation to the Commissioner and that the SHPB was no longer able to reconsider.

Zurofsky outlines the reasons he believes Commissioner Howard is compelled to re-examine the matter, including that a law passed merely days after the June 6 SHPB hearing in Plainfield established a process for using a $44M emergency fund to stabilize situations just like that of Muhlenberg.

I have posted the documents online (the files are far too large to be emailed) where all can review them.

Here is the 'statement of the sponsors' (with line numbers) which sums up the new law's main points --
10 This bill amends the “New Jersey Health Care Facilities
11 Financing Authority Law” to expand the purposes of the authority’s
12 hospital asset transformation program, which is established
13 pursuant to N.J.S.A.26:2I-7.
14 Specifically, this bill would authorize the authority, subject to
15 the approval of the State Treasurer, to provide, in connection with
16 the hospital asset transformation, any nonprofit health care
17 organization in the State with the funds to:
18 • satisfy the outstanding bonded indebtedness or any other
19 outstanding indebtedness of any hospital in the State;
20 • pay the costs of transitioning a general hospital to a nonprofit,
21 non-acute care health care-related facility, including, but not
22 limited to, construction, renovation, equipment, information
23 technology and working capital;
24 • pay the costs related to transitioning acute care and related
25 services from the hospital at which inpatient acute care
26 services are to be terminated to an existing nonprofit general
27 hospital, including, but not limited to, construction,
28 renovation, equipment, information technology and working
29 capital;
30 • pay the costs associated with the closure of a general hospital;
31 • pay the costs of the acquisition of a general hospital in the
32 State for the purposed of either (i) moving an existing general
33 hospital’s services into the acquired hospital and closing the
34 acquirer’s inpatient acute care services, or (ii) closing its
35 inpatient acute care services;
36 • pay capitalized interest;
37 • fund a debt service reserve fund;
38 • pay the costs associated with the issuance of any bonds for any
39 of the aforementioned purposes; or
40 • pay other costs specifically related to the closure or transition
41 of inpatient acute care services as identified in the contract
42 with the Treasurer.

Reviewing the materials, two items jumped out --
  1. Per Zurofsky's final brief of 6/10/08, he notes that the Reinhardt Commission supplied the software necessary for a rational analysis of closing decisions to HHS; there is no indication I can find anywhere that Commissioner Howard ordered the software be used to analyze the CN application by Solaris to close Muhlenberg.

  2. Sponsors of the bill (S2790/A4349), which passed both the Assembly and the Senate on June 21, were none other than Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assemblymen Neil Cohen and Joe Cryan -- all of Union County.
Would one be off base to infer that the legislation, tailored as it was by Union County legislators, was intended for the Muhlenberg case?

But for whose benefit? Muhlenberg's? Or Solaris'?

It all depends on which end of the tube you are looking down, I guess.

Could that be why Assemblyman Green is not listed as a primary sponsor of the bill?

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Traffic Alert: Front and Grant

The traffic light at West Front Street and Grant Avenue has been out since at least Saturday AM, and is still not functioning.

Front Street traffic is being allowed uninterrupted passage through the intersection via a blinking yellow light.

North/South traffic on Grant and West End Avenues is being shunted via South Second Street and Green Brook Park/Myrtle Avenue.

Be forewarned if traveling in the area.

-- Dan Damon

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Arts grants: Union County awards

Following up on the announcement of arts grants earlier this week, here are all the grants made to organizations in Union County.

Note that the Plainfield Symphony and other Plainfield organizations get their grants through the county's Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs.

NJ State Council on the Arts
FY2009 Grants
Union County

Arts Guild of Rahway
General operating support
Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company
General operating support $42,440
Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company Arts ed initiative
Kean U./Premiere Stages
General operating support $21,186
Music for All Seasons
General operating support $37,127
NJ Intergenerational Orchestra
Arts Project support
NJ Youth Symphony
General operating support $38,768
NJ Youth Symphony
Projects serving artists
Union County College
General operating support $8,659
Union County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs
Local arts programs
Union County Performing Arts Center
General operating support $39,186
Visual Arts Center of NJ
Building arts participation
Visual Arts Center of NJ
General operating support $89,928
Westfield Symphony Orchestra
General operating support $39,242
Westfield Young Artists Coop Theatre
General operating support $43,560

-- Dan Damon

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Is the County shredding your money?

Plainfielders may wonder what all the huffing and puffing is about with the County's paper-shredding program.

As usual, after putting up the blogs yesterday, I sat down with my final cup of coffee for the day and read the (physical) papers.

The story on Union County's paper-shredding program piqued my interest. I remember that they previously had a stop in Plainfield, and was curious to find out how it is going.

I am a sucker for these 'green' ideas, but when the taxpayer's dollars at are at work, it pays to cast a baleful eye. Though the project is said to be funded by a DEP grant and not out of the County budget directly, it seems it's only PARTLY funded by the grant.

Ledger reporter Bob Misseck did his duty and pulled some numbers from Union County spokesperson Sebastian D'Elia -- so far this year the program has cost $3,386 and the County has been rebated $735, or about 22% of the cost.

With these miniscule dollar amounts, it sounds like the main beneficiary has been Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski, who champions the program, and is rumored to be headed to Trenton once Linda Stender is safely ensconced in the 7th Congressional District seat.

Sounds like what is needed is more promotion of the benefits of having your documents shredded for free.

Maybe someone should tell the pols that Chris Christie is looking into.

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Something Mayor and Council could do about Muhlenberg

Whatever the outcome of Solaris' plan to close Muhlenberg (and I think the deal has long ago been cut), there is something important that Mayor Robinson-Briggs and the City Council could do that, to my knowledge, has not yet been mentioned.

Two things, actually.

Number One. Since the Plainfield Rescue Squad is going to be doubling (or more) its mileage-per-response in getting a patient to a hospital when the satellite ER will not be appropriate, the City could volunteer to cover the squad's fuel costs in the City's annual budget. For a volunteer operation that is always working on a thin financial edge, this could be enormously helpful and what taxpayer would think the money not well spent?

Number Two. What's this about the Plainfield Rescue Squad having only ONE working ambulance? The need for relying on the 'mutual assistance' of the squads from neighboring towns could be reduced if we got back to having TWO fully functioning ambulances. Why can't the City cover the cost of seeing to that?

It's just a thought.

If Mayor Robinson-Briggs and the Council care about the emergency responder network.

-- Dan Damon

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

State's two sets of books: Close Muhlenberg, reopen Pascack Valley

Westwood, NJ (click on map to enlarge).

As if you didn't suspect it already, it appears the state may be keeping two sets of books about hospitals.

The Bergen Record reports that in 'overbedded' North Jersey, the former Pascack Valley Hospital, which was closed earlier this year, is opening under the new ownership of Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC) in a TWO-STEP plan.

Phase 1 is the opening of a standalone Emergency Room in the former hospital complex. It sounds very similar to the Solaris plan for Muhlenberg -- except better:
The free-standing E.R. will have a laboratory and imaging facilities, with radiology, CT scan and sonography. Food service will be transported from Hackensack, with vending machines on site. The medical-imaging department also will be open for outpatient visits.
To my knowledge, there are no imaging plans for the satellite ER at Muhlenberg.

But here's the kicker, in the second phase, HUMC expects state approval to open a NEW 120-bed community hospital at the former Pascack Valley Hospital campus --
Hackensack will submit an application by month's end for state approval to open a 120-bed community hospital on the site, Ferguson said. Despite anticipated opposition from competing hospitals - and the recommendations of a governor's commission that fewer, rather than more, hospital beds are needed in North Jersey - Ferguson said he was "totally confident" the community hospital would open.
The story says HUMC expects the first beds of the new community hospital to open in February, 2009.

How's that for a 'fair and rational' system?

If Assemblyman Green or Mayor Robinson-Briggs really had any clout, don't you think Muhlenberg's outcome would be different?

Read more here:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bank robbers beware!

When I wrote a few days ago about the snarling of downtown traffic with the water main repairs (the snarls continue), I DIDN'T mention a bit of banter that passed between a cop and myself over the situation.

While talking about how many cop cars were tied up in monitoring the street openings and resultant traffic flow issues, I surmised bank robbers might have an advantage.

Not to worry, I was told, they'd wouldn't get away because they'd get stuck in traffic.

Think not? Read this interesting story of the outcome of a bank robbery in Edison yesterday.

-- Dan Damon

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Putting the blogs up on the lift

After more than two and a half years, it is time to put the blogs into the shop for a tune-up.
Much has changed in blogging and there are tons of new tools available to improve your reading experience -- and make my blogging efforts easier.

Tweaking takes time, so for the next two weeks or so, both Plainfield Today and CLIPS are going into 'lite' mode so I can devote the necessary hours to getting under the hood.

Summer is supposed to be the 'slow news' season anyway, right? Hah!

Stay tuned.
-- Dan

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Damn the scammers!

Every few days, a well-meaning warning is forwarded by a friend or reader about everything from a computer virus to a rape scheme involving elderly co-conspirators.

The most recent virus warning was real -- though the virus was dealt with over a year ago, and most of us should be well-protected. (If you don't have anti-virus software installed -- often offered free by your internet service provider -- you need to get it.)

The rape scheme was less so, though have a senior as an accomplice was at least an anti-ageist twist.

Here's what I do every time I get such a message: Check it out against one of these online rumor and scam monitors. Each has a search box, just type in the keywords and check it out.

And of course, we never divulge personal information to anyone online, right?

Browse safely -- and stay out of the sun today.

-- Dan Damon

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Glock retires from YWCA, Ludlow assumes responsibilities

The YWCA's historic building was opened in 1927.

The YWCA of Central New Jersey's longtime executive director, Jackie Glock, has retired.

In a letter to friends of the YWCA, board president Pat Fleming, Esq., announced that her retirement, which had been planned for some time, was effective immediately.

Cathleen Ludlow will become Acting Executive Director, effective July 21. Ms. Ludlow, who served as director of the YWCA's fitness center for ten years, will focus on developing relationships and programs that serve the community and carry out the mission of the organization.

Under Glock's tenure, the YWCA, which marked its 100th anniversary last year, underwent significant changes, both with regard to programs and the facilities.

One of her first efforts was to conduct a capital campaign which allowed the YWCA to upgrade its facilities with the establishment of the fitness center and the construction of the new early childhood learning center annex.

During Glock's tenure, the board studied its marketing area, and subsequently changed its name from the YWCA of Plainfield and North Plainfield to the YWCA of Central New Jersey, signifying reaching out to serve the needs of women and children throughout a broader geographic area. At the same time, the YWCA also intensified its outreach to youngsters of the community with after-school and summer activities.

Glock, who has a masters degree in planning and administration from Rutgers, is returning to her private consulting practice in organizational management and fund development.

Ludlow, whose family has long associations with the YWCA, is a graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in community health education, and has held positions in marketing and proposal development prior to coming to the YWCA.

For more information about the YWCA of Central New Jersey and its programs, call (908) 756-3500 or visit their website here.

-- Dan Damon

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Restoring City Hall

Mystery solved. Somewhat.

Today's Courier carries a story about the restoration/renovation of Plainfield's City Hall (see more here).

Those who are attentive may have noticed that there has been a very large plywood sign out front declaring same since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs came into office in 2006. Every time I noticed it, I wondered when the project would ever get under way.

Staff members from architectural consultants Page Ayres Cowley took measurements of the windows in preparation for the project in the fall of 2005. Yup.

And the urns atop City Hall graced it until the cupola restoration of 2000-01 (not the early 1990s as stated in the story -- not the reporter's fault, he writes what he's told).

The restoration work to be done now is the second part of a two-part project laid out nearly ten years ago. The first part, completed in November 2001, was the complete replacement and refabrication of the 8-columned terra cotta cupola atop the building.

During that phase, the urns were removed for safekeeping, at which time it was discovered they were deteriorated so badly that they would need to be copied and the copies installed in their place. As there were insufficient funds for this unexpected development in the first round, the urns were put off until the second phase. Who knew it would take so long?

At any rate, the Courier story got me digging up copies of pictures from that first project.

Rendering to scale of the City Hall cupola.

The urns, which will be replaced with copies.

Workers mount the lightning rod atop the rebuilt cupola.

The finished cupola, with netting to foil pigeons.

View of the completed cupola,
urns still in place, November 2001.

The 'halls of ivy' look once considered de rigeur
led to damage to the building's stone and brick exterior.

The text of the inscription on the entablature shown above reads as follows --





Once upon a time we believed buildings could do all that.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Traffic snafus? Get used to it.

Yesterday was a lollapalooza in the ongoing work on the city's water mains.

Drivers at midday found it nearly impossible to navigate northbound or southbound in downtown, faced with the following obstacles --
  • Southbound traffic on Central Avenue was blocked at West 2nd Street;
  • Northbound and southbound traffic on Park Avenue was blocked between 2nd Street and North Avenue; and
  • Northbound traffic on Watchung Avenue was blocked at East 5th Street
Hopefully no expectant mother in labor was waiting for a bus to Trinitas to deliver.

So many police cars were seen tied up at these and various other intersections that I noticed a street opening by the same crews at Madison and Stelle Avenues was being covered by a shiny black unmarked police car.

"Get used to it," I was advised by one officer I stopped to chat with, "looks like it will continue at least through next month."

The ubiquitous crews in the tan trucks of J. Fletcher Creamer & Son are working on contract for New Jersey American Water (formerly the locally-owned Elizabethtown Water, whose foreign ownership is disguised by the new corporate name).

Monday was the first I noticed any kind of a public sign about the work that has been going on for about two months now -- at the selfsame corner of Stelle and Madison, where the sign above was neatly stapled to a utility pole.

What are they doing? Now you know.

-- Dan Damon

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Muhlenberg and the Council: Sue who?

At this point in the struggle to keep Muhlenberg open, it seems inconceivable the Council has no proactive position of its own.

I have written earlier that it has done just as it was allowed to do and no more, by which I mean: Nothing that would more proactively upstage Assemblyman Jerry Green.

That being said, did they actually expect that the townspeople would not at some point come, metaphorical torches in hand, to demand an accounting?

Such a moment has come and the Council -- whether because of its own lack of imagination and thoughtful engagement, or because of a lack of imagination on the part of the City Counsel who advises it -- has muffed it. At least for now.

Whether or not to sign on to POP attorney Zurofsky's appeal -- and accept the attendant longterm costs -- is a valid question. And Councilor Simmons' idea that the voters should have the final say would be a worthy notion were it not for the fact that Solaris plans to have it all over but the weeping well before a referendum could be held in November.

What the Council could do, however, is bring a breath of fresh air to the campaign by suing the State to show why it is not following the recommendations of its own 'fairness and rationalization' study.

This is the line of attack that Annie McWilliams, Democratic candidate for the citywide at-large seat, opened in her testimony before the State Health Advisory Board.

It would be a courageous thing for the Council to do.

Unless, of course, Assemblyman Jerry Green and Mayor Robinson-Briggs object.

  • The City Council meets at 8 PM next Monday at the Courhouse. You may expect they have not heard the last of the Muhlenberg business. The public may comment. All are welcome.
-- Dan Damon

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gallon's K-8 move: Best thing since sliced bread?

My K-8 experience took place in rooms much like this.

Could Plainfield's Board of Ed have hit one out of the park in the selection of Steve Gallon III as schools superintendent?

Only time will tell, but I am impressed by the way he is setting out on his Plainfield tenure.

First off, that he held retreats for the Board and his administrative team right away. Feedback I got from the staff retreat is positive, and the idea of having staffers submit written proposals for how to improve the district -- with bullet points on implementation -- only helps reinforce the sense we are stepping off on the right foot. After all, who better to give input on how to make improvements than those in the trenches?

Secondly, I am impressed that Dr. Gallon intends to develop K-8 schools in the system -- for two reasons.

First, that he is addressing head on a problem that I have been aware of since getting into real estate over twenty years ago: people feel quite comfortable about buying a home in Plainfield and using the elementary schools, but many search for alternatives as their kids approach middle school years.

Secondly, I am the product of a K-8 school, and think the model has a lot of upside benefits -- though perhaps some of what I experienced would not be allowed in these more politically correct days (would it be allowed for a 14-year-old to tend to stoking and removing the ashes of a coal-fired furnace?).

K-8s are a very old idea, and at one time were the norm throughout the country. Middle schools (or, as I knew them, 'Junior highs') were an invention of the 1920s. I may write more on my K-8 experiences some other time, but curious readers can check out my post on life lessons learned from penmanship instruction ("Can u rd this?").

For now, he and Board President Bridget Rivers are on the money as far as I am concerned. I was long ago told by a former school board member that 'people in Trenton' knew how many Plainfield kids attended non-public schools and where they went -- but good luck getting the information.

A quick unscientific glance at the numbers still suggests Gallon is attacking a real problem: with approximately 9,000 kids of school age residing in the city and somewhat around 7,000 enrolled in the public schools, we are looking at upwards of 23% of kids whose parents are making other choices.

Time to address the issue.

  • The Board of Education meets at 7:00 tonight, Washington School Cafetorium, 427 Darrow Avenue. Parking is available in the Spooner Avenue lot. The public may comment. All are welcome.
-- Dan Damon

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Council discusses troublesome South Avenue zoning changes tonight

View Larger Map

Note: Click on a colored area to see some of the proposed changes.
Mapping required giving each segment a unique name (West, Center, East),
which is not part of the zoning proposal language.

Plainfield's City Council will take up proposed zoning changes this evening, designed to designate a 'transit-oriented development' (TOD) area bracketing the Netherwood train station between South Avenue and the railroad. On the west, the zone would start with the property line bounding the City Yard (which is NOT included) and extend eastward to include the KFC property just past the point where Pacific Street enters South Avenue.

The map above is an approximation based on the official documents. Clicking on any one of the colored segments brings up a memo box with SOME of the changes the proposal will make (with the current requirements in parentheses).

Why is it troublesome?

It is troublesome because it gives the game away before it is even played.

The heart and soul of development is the negotiation of the conditions between the parties: the City and the developer.

Proposals like the one that will be discussed tonight do the community a disservice by giving up all the points on which the City could negotiate and setting the stage for developers to make even more intrusive or unpalatable stipulations ... 'or we'll walk'.

I am not opposed to
'transit-oriented development' (TOD) in principle, and this proposal actually makes much more sense than previous ones backed by the Robinson-Briggs administration which didn't meet the minimum specification in terms of distance to a train station. Who says people can't learn from experience?

(The earlier South Avenue project on the Carfaro property was denied by the zoning board; the Capodagli proposal for the currrent PMUA property on the north side of the railroad has since collapsed -- it never met the requirements for distance from a train station.)

In fact, the conditions proposed in the zoning changes might actually be (at least mostly -- I am eternally suspicious of providing insufficient parking) ones that the City would be willing to arrive at AFTER A SUCCESSFUL NEGOTIATION WITH A DEVELOPER.

One also has to ask 'why now'?

Market conditions are not particularly conducive to mixed-use residential/commercial projects at this time. The New York Times yesterday provided an overview of a number of high-profile New Jersey development projects, including the Esperanza at Asbury Park, that have stumbled (see more here). In Cranford, the upscale TOD Cranford Crossing is having difficulty get all its units sold.

Closer to home, Dornoch's project for a combination Senior Center and condos ('they'll be just as nice as Cranford Crossing,' Assemblyman Green once told the Seniors at a meeting I attended) has ground almost to a halt -- as even Mayor Robinson-Briggs admitted. There is no sales trailer on the vacant city-owned lot the Council agreed to let Dornoch use, and all the talk now is of the units being rentals instead of sales. Just what we need, more renters and fewer taxpayers. What a comedown that would be after all the promises made by the Assemblyman and Robinson-Briggs!

If, as rumored, Commerce Bank (and its new owner, Toronto Dominion Bancorp) were to move forward in developing the G.O. Keller property at South and Leland, the question would still remain about whether and when the market for CONDOS as opposed to rentals will recover. Especially after you digest the news about mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac coming out today.

Is the Administration anxious to make the zoning change now because it feels the Council may have more spine after new members take their seats next January?

evelopment has a lot in common with poker -- including bluffing, calling and winning the pot.

A poker player would never show you his hand.

Adopting the proposed zoning changes for a Netherwood TOD would be the equivalent of a poker player laying all their cards face up on the table.

Would you want such a player gambling with YOUR chips?

  • City Council meets for its agenda-setting session at 7:30 tonight, City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Avenue. The public may comment. All are welcome.
-- Dan Damon

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Quick! Where does our leadership team live?

By my fridge calendar, this past Friday would have been the expiration date of Plainfield Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig's acting appointment (if it followed the ordinance put in place by the Council a few years ago).

I wasn't going to write about it, but then the news came through that a three-judge appeals panel gave Trenton's police director, Joe Santiago, 75 days to pack his desk and vacate his job -- because he doesn't live in Trenton as is required.


Come to think of it, none of Mayor Robinson-Briggs' leadership team lives in Plainfield, and we have the same sort of requirement as Trenton -- a waiver would have to be granted by the Council.

What's up with that?

Martin Hellwig told me at one point that he was moving into an apartment on Watchung Avenue, but that seems not to have ever materialized.

Jennifer Wenson-Maier lives in Rahway, where she is on the City Council, but was a waiver ever granted?

Marc Dashield, the City Administrator, has not moved to Plainfield and commutes back and forth to work in a city-issued vehicle.

The newest team member, Douglas Peck, Director of Administration and Finance, has yet to move to Plainfield from Ohio since his April appointment, though he was given a relocation allowance. (Should I mention that some city employees are fuming that he is in line for a cost-of-living increase though he is said not to have worked a full five-day week in Plainfield yet?)

City Hall has buzzed with rumors for weeks that Mr. Peck's situation may be tenuous as it is said he cannot be bonded. Perhaps that's what's behind the discussion of reviving the 'Deputy City Administrator' position?

As the Robinson-Briggs administration moves toward its final year, one has to wonder whether any of the leadership will become Plainfielders.

If not, shouldn't we do the waiver thing?

Unless it's just a quibble.

-- Dan Damon

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ad praising Jerry part of plan to embarrass Council?

Full-page ad thanks the Assemblyman.

The full-page feel-good ad (see image HERE) in this past Tuesday's Ledger thanking Assemblyman Green has raised quite a few eyebrows.

The first question on readers' minds is: Where did the money come from to pay for the ad?

With this size ad running upwards of $7,000, it's a good question indeed -- especially since the signers include Muhlenberg, JFK and the NHSC Plainfield Health Center. So, for all the poormouthing, Solaris can still dredge up money for this kind of ephemeral nonsense? The Neighborhood Health Services Corp. (PHC) is also rumored to be feeling the financial pinch, but they have money for a throwaway piece like this?

Are the city's coffers so flush that Mayor Robinson-Briggs can chip in -- or did she get a free ride? If she did chip in, where did her money come from and who authorized the payment?

Word in the street, however, is that the ad is not a freewill love offering by the signers, but that they were solicited to chip in $1000 or more apiece for the puff piece. The Assemblyman owes it to his constituents to verify the truth or falsity of the rumor -- maybe with another full page ad?

Secondly, the ad cites Assemblyman Green's "strong leadership and steadfast advocacy in the fight to preserve access to affordable, quality health care for residents of the greater Plainfield communities". One reader notes that all the Assemblyman ever had was 'a Plan B' (smoothing the closing of Muhlenberg) instead of a 'Plan A' to fight for keeping it open.

Lastly, in an email currently being circulated by Dottie Gutenkauf, she writes
Monday's meeting (6:30 pm at duCret) will be brief ... at 7:30 pm we are going to the Plainfield City Council agenda-fixing meeting in the City Hall Library to demand that they show some leadership in the struggle to save our hospital. It's long past time for them to take action!
Is the full-page ad thanking Jerry Green part of a coordinated effort to paint the Council as unsupportive, with Dottie G. leading the charge?

Readers should understand that the Council has done and said exactly what it has been allowed to do and say -- by Assemblyman Jerry Green. All the growling by the Council President at the State's hearing at PHS on June 6 was strictly per the Assemblyman.

Whether or not the Council could have taken any effective action, the reason they didn't act was they were told not to upstage the Assemblyman by looking more pro-active than he. Not even by passing a resolution of support for the universal health care bill then working its way through the Legislature.

So, Monday night's Council meeting will be, like the full-page ad, just another piece of political theater -- designed, not to save Muhlenberg, but to leave the Assemblyman positioned as the statesman who smoothed the way for the shutdown of Muhlenberg Hospital.

Which is at least half true.

-- Dan Damon

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Plainfield Foreclosures: Maps tell the tale

Pushpin view of SOME of Plainfield's foreclosures.

For those who think I'm just whining (see more about whining here) about Plainfield's foreclosure situation, a little news.

From the real world.

Things in New Jersey are not as bad -- on the whole -- as things in other parts of the country. But that does not mean that things are not bad in parts of New Jersey.

And with more than forty percent of Plainfield mortgages issued from 2004-2006 being subprime, Plainfield is exposed to the dangers in the mortgage meltdown, especially as these subprime mortgages with teaser introductory rates start to reset to higher levels, and many buyers find themselves unable to keep up.

The Ledger posted a foreclosure story on its business blog yesterday, which did not appear in today's online or print editions, but which you can read here. The neat thing is that it includes a link to a map of the county-by-county picture in the state. And if you click on a county in that map, you get a detailed breakdown of the foreclosures by community in that county. Are you sitting down? The numbers are for the month of May ONLY.

Foreclosures by County, May 2008.

Plainfield foreclosures, by ZIP code, for May 2008.

Note that this is a special free peek at a PAY-TO-VIEW site, but you can get an eyeful nonetheless, even with partial functionality.

Check it out.

With 239 new foreclosure items in May and a total, per the Census, of 6,508 owner-occupied homes, the raw figure for Plainfield looks like 37% are in trouble. Or am I whining? [Feedback: "'Anonymous Tom' points out 239/6508 = 3.67% -- still alarming." -- now you know the reason I'm not Secretary of the Treasury -- Dan]

While you are waiting to see if the Robinson-Briggs administration has a clue about what the impact might be, you can ponder what it means for your investment in your own home if foreclosures start peppering your neighborhood.

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Solaris hopes for success of final insult to Muhlenberg today


In what may be a final insult to Muhlenberg, Solaris hopes today to have the state's Health Planning Board recommend that JFK get a license to conduct elective angioplasties at its Edison campus.

Muhlenberg, of course, is nationally-recognized as having operated one of the best programs in the country in a nationwide study being conducted by Johns Hopkins University.

Though Muhlenberg supporters are to be at today's meeting, you can bet your bottom dollar the vote will be to recommend in JFK's favor.

Getting that 'done deal' feeling? I've had it for a while.

-- Dan Damon

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WashPost brings national attention to Muhlenberg

Muhlenberg's plight really was put on the national map with the Washington Post story.

Daniel Schorr, NPR's respected senior correspondent (who began his career as part of the legendary Edward R. Murrow team), used the Muhlenberg situation in his All Things Considered piece on Tuesday to lead into a discussion of healthcare funding issues nationwide. Listen here.

After posting to the blog yesterday, I hopped over to the Washington Post and logged a comment on the story (story is
here, comments section here), where I noticed that the Hall Institute, a NJ think tank, had posted a thoughtful comment next before mine.

I also fired off a letter to the editor and an email to the reporter who wrote the story. Will update on that later.

-- Dan Damon

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Muhlenberg: The Washington Post gets it right...mostly

In making the front page of the Washington Post (see here), Muhlenberg has become the national poster child for the vexed questions of charity care and hospital closures.

There is a reason the Washington Post is considered one of the country's two national newspapers and the story does not disappoint: the writing is crisp, well-researched, and covers much of the breadth of the story. But not all, or -- in my humble opinion -- even the most important point.

But first, the good parts.

All those who have labored mightily in the 'Save Muhlenberg' struggle deserve a tremendous amount of credit for bringing Muhlenberg's crisis -- and the plight of similar hospitals -- to national attention. Without the weekly meetings, the planning, the rallying, the posters in store and home and car windows, the letters to the editor, all the thousands of little details and efforts, this heroic story would have been lost in the buzz.

And it cannot have hurt that the Courier News, Gannett's local paper, has devoted copious ink to the story -- both by its award-winning writer Brandon Lausch and (before he took early retirement) its health beat reporter Clem Fiorentino, as well as heavy play on the editorial page (I count EIGHT editorials in 2008 alone).
All of which provided invaluable background and context for the Post's reporter if he checked it. [The Courier contrasts sharply with the Ledger (O Ledger! Our Ledger! Where are you?!), where the editorial decision from on high appears to have been to limit coverage (not the fault of Plainfield's beat reporter, Alexi Friedman).]

Keith Richburg, the WashPost reporter, covers the bases: the financial costs to Solaris, the impact on the poor and uninsured, the alarm among the state's hospitals over deteriorating finances, and interviews with hospital users and local activists. Huzzah!

But the story suffers from TWO GLARING WEAKNESSES.

First, the RACISM.

We only have to get as far as the fourth paragraph to find --
The situation has come to a head in this city of 48,000 people -- majority black, largely poor and with many new immigrants moving in. (Emphasis added.)
Here we go again. Majority minority communities must be 'largely poor', right?

This common racist assumption just doesn't stand the light of day. Take a look at the 2000 United States Census and see for yourself --
Median household income: Plainfield - $46,683 | US - $41,994
Median family income: Plainfield - $50,774 | US - $50,046
Families below poverty level: Plainfield - 12.2% | US - 9.2%
Individuals below poverty level: Plainfield - 15.9% | US - 12.4%
Plainfield families making between $50,000 and $99,999 - 33.8%
Plainfield families making over $100,000 - 17.0%

Data are from the Census' American FactFinder pages (more here).

Plainfield does NOT compare shabbily with the rest of the country in either family income or household income. And, while the number of families and individuals below the poverty level is above the national medians, it is hardly by a margin such as to earn the term 'largely poor'. Even the harshest statistic, that nearly one in six residents is below the poverty level hardly means 'largely', and is only 3.5% above the NATIONAL median. Plainfield is NOT Camden, or East St. Louis, or Oakland. Or, may I dare say, Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post's bias only echoes that I once found as the city's public information officer -- ranging everywhere from my contacts with the New York Times and the AP to the cable and TV news channels back in 2005, our annus horribilis with 15 homicides.

Isn't it time the media grew up and moved on? Does a largely white-dominated media STILL need to assert its superiority by defining majority minority communities as 'mostly poor'? Where we are looking at the high probability of having an African American president, I certainly hope not. And the Washington Post is just as good a place to begin as any other.

Second, the

One simply cannot discuss public policy and public policy decisions in New Jersey without putting POLITICS in the picture.

As City Council candidate Annie McWilliams so eloquently put it in her testimony to the Health Advisory Commission in June, Muhlenberg simply does NOT meet the criteria set out by the state's own commission appointed to 'rationalize' hospital closings. To wit, we are not in an area that is 'overbedded' and by every measure, we ARE in an area serving an underserved and indigent population.

The problem, as always, is the spinelessness of our political leaders in the face of difficult decisions that might anger voters. Far safer to close Muhlenberg, in a reliably Democratic stronghold like Plainfield, than to discuss closing other hospitals where voters might go to the GOP if angered. After all, next year will feature both gubernatorial and legislative races.

Having intently followed Muhlenberg's application a number of years ago for a cardiac surgery license, it was illustrative to see that though Muhlenberg's application was deemed masterful, compelling and accurate, the licenses would instead go to hospitals in Hudson and Essex counties and South Jersey. Three years later, the Hudson County hospital had yet to fund the program or build a facility. But they had the license, which is what counts. In New Jersey, compelling can't trump clout.

At the time, that license was projected to be a lifesaver for Muhlenberg, for which the clouds were already on the horizon. Assemblyman Jerry Green proved to be powerless against the mightier pols of Hudson and Essex.

For those of us who were paying attention, it seemed that only a concerted effort on behalf of Muhlenberg by both Solaris and the city could save the day. Mayor McWilliams proposed a 'medical enterprise zone' which would have brought the financial and other advantages of the state's Enterprise Zone program to the Muhlenberg/Park Avenue corridor. Alas, Mayor Robinson-Briggs never picked up on the concept and it was apparently abandoned.

Solaris seems to have calculated that it was better to try and save JFK than to have both hospitals go under (the April 2007 subdivision of the Muhlenberg property should have been a warning).

Of course, this is background that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for a reporter writing on deadline to ferret out -- especially if players like Solaris or political figures were loath to cast themselves in anything but the best light.

Nevertheless, the lack of this angle leaves the promise of this story unfulfilled, making it merely good as opposed to outstanding.

Richburg's closing quote from Jim Colvin, UCC pastor and Muhlenberg activist, that "from a 'survival of the fittest' standpoint, it makes sense" evoked what has been my experience of the politics of health care in New Jersey all along, that it is remarkably evocative of Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous lines --
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine*, shriek'd against his creed

where, in our experience, political expediency trumps all else.

And is it wrong to conclude that what Plainfield is facing is 'genocide lite'?

*'Ravine' is a variant of 'rapine' -- see here.

-- Dan Damon

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