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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

PMUA: Weather and hearing messy, but Commissioners vote on rates

The weather outside was frightful, but inside, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority's rate hearing Tuesday night was somewhat less than delightful.

Mark Spivey, the Courier's Plainfield beat reporter, sat behind me -- you will want to read his story as soon as it is up; I am going to focus on some issues with the PMUA's argument and the hearing process itself. [12:50 PM: Courier story is up, see here.]

What started out as a seemingly tightly organized presentation became messier as the evening wore on, not entirely because many of the residents in attendance were angry in varying degrees.

The evening got under way with video depicting ILLEGAL DUMPING, evidently from a security camera on a PMUA building and pointed down Cottage Place toward Roosevelt Avenue. It was a vivid visual underscoring the problem the PMUA argued was at the heart of the proposed changes in SHARED SERVICES RATES, which cover (among other things) cleaning up behind illegally dumped items throughout the community.

Unfortunately, the video's impact was mostly lost because it was not well integrated into the meat-and-potatoes of the evening, the presentation on the budget and the proposed adjustments to the schedule of solid waste service charges and fees.

The PowerPoint presentation, honchoed by three PMUA consultants, covered the proposed budget (including both revenues and expenses) and allocations between 'shared services' and 'solid waste services' to billable entities (households, businesses, etc.), as well as testimony that the whole was developed in a way that was both 'necessary and reasonable'.

PMUA counsel Leslie London then opened the hearing for public cross-examination of the testimony from the consultants.

Ratepayer attendees, between 15 and 20, palpably unhappy and with inchoate criticisms, peppered the consultants and senior staff with questions, including --

  • How were the changes supposed to curb illegal dumping? (We hope it will encourage ratepayers to use the two free bulk pickups per year instead of illegal dumping.)
  • What percentage of illegal dumping is attributed to non-residents vs. residents? (Because the picture is fragmented -- PMUA, police and Publlic Works are separately involved -- there is no complete answer.)
  • Was Plainfield compared to other communities with utilities authorities to give some perspective? (No.)
  • Would overall costs be lowered if the PMUA got out of its contract with the Union County Utilities Authority? (Yes, but we can't break the long-term contract.)
  • Please explain individual expense items such as 'water', 'training', 'employee events', 'wireless services', etc. (Each was explained.)
There were questions for which no ready answers were available, such as explaining the difference (approximately 1,000 units) between billable households last year vs. the proposed budget, and why sewerage units were approximately 3,000 more numerous than solid waste units.

At length, ratepayer questions were exhausted and Counsel signaled the Commissioners were going  into executive session.

This created something of a tumult, with audience members believing the Commissioners meant to vote on the resolution out of public view.

Ms. London quickly retreated and announced the vote on the resolution would proceed.

Before it did, Commission chairperson Harold Mitchell invited commissioners to comment.

This turned out to be unfortunate.

Commissioner Tracey Brown, after getting some clarifications from the consultants, then turned to criticizing the audience, saying that she didn't think they understood the severity of the problem in the 4th Ward as she did, that she felt the audience reaction to the video of illegal dumping was inappropriately lighthearted, and that she had welcomed the opportunity to become a commissioner just because illegal dumping in the 4th Ward was so rampant (including in front of her church on South Second Street).

Then Commissioner Alex Toliver began his comments, which were shortly interrupted by an outburst from ratepayer Bob Chanda. The two got into a shouting match which Mitchell and London finally quelled after threatening to eject Chanda -- but not before he got the last word in.

No other commissioners offered comments and the resolution was read by Ms. London and went to a vote.

The commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the rate change. No surprise to this observer.

If I were a Commissioner or a member of the PMUA's executive staff, I would have expected that the only people who would turn out on such a nasty evening would be those who have an issue with the proposed rate increase. No surprise there.

But the hearing could have benefited from better organization by those who were running it.

Here are some suggestions --

1. Have OUTSIDE EYES Review Everything
  • This could have made the meeting much more effective, with less confusion -- and resulting feelings on the part of attendees that the PMUA is not being forthcoming.
  • For instance --
    • If the video is important, integrate it into the process with a well-scripted voice over.
    • Avoid confusion by reviewing, and correcting, vague words, lingo and shop-talk:
    • 'water': is that bottled water, or water provided by NJ American Water Co.?
    • 'training': for whom? Line workers? Administrative staff? Senior staff? Commissioners?
    • 'lot' and 'household' charges: don't assume the audience will understand, illustrate with examples (this was finally done in the process of answering a question)
2. Anticipate Possible Questions
  • Of course you're going to be asked if you can peg the percentage of dumping from out-of-towners.
  • Of course you're going to be asked to compare the PMUA to other utilities authorities (the PMUA has in the past made such a comparison public).
  • Of course someone is liable to ask for year-to-year comparisons on any number of items.
  • Be prepared.
3. Drown the Audience in Facts
  • Handouts! Handouts! Handouts!
  • Nothing makes an audience more suspicious than giving the sense there is information being withheld.
  • Preparing handouts of a PowerPoint presentation is best practice, common sense, and an appreciated courtesy. Why not make yourself a hero?
  • Put the data on the website just before the meeting and tell the audience how to access it. We are in the digital age, for Pete's sake!
4. Decide Who Is In Charge
  • Put one person in charge and stick with the plan.
  • Who was in charge, Ms. London or Commissioner Mitchell? It wasn't always clear.
  • Control of the meeting should reside in one person, who guides everything along. When he was President of the City Council, Mr. Mitchell would make sure ALL questions were addressed THROUGH HIMSELF to whomever. This way, questioners got the attention they deserved and the proper party was directed to respond, without the meeting devolving into impromptu back-and-forths and becoming unfocused.
5. Train Commissioners to Behave Professionally
  • The PMUA Commissioners have a fiduciary responsibility to the ratepayers.
  • They also have the responsibility to hear out ratepayers -- no matter how angry or ill-informed -- sorting out kernels of fact from the shells of emotion in which they may be wrapped and addressing the facts only.
  • It is not good governance for Commissioners to attack ratepayers or cast aspersions on their motives.
  • The Commissioners should be trained in good governance techniques and held to higher standards than were in evidence last night.
Though there are many questions to be asked of the PMUA, I have always thought it has a well-focused mission that needs better tub-thumping.

Absent proof of real misdeeds, there is a reason for it to stay around.

Angry ratepayers notwithstanding.

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting last night. The experts didn't have one concrete reason why the shared fee was $4.8 million other than it needed to equal the expenses. I'm not sure why no one did a detailed analysis on what other cities pay for the common garbage disposal.

If the costs are really what they state there should be adequate evidence to show the reasonableness of the rate.

Anonymous said...

You totally miss understand the PMUA. It is to make $$ for consultants, engineers, lawyers and bureacrats by attempting to pick up the garbage. Follow the money, how much is spent on work gloves [which we are happy to pay for as that means stuff is moving] and the consultants fees. PMUA was suppose to eliminate illegal dumping, but his has increased therefore eliminate PMUA and illegal dumping will be reduced.

Anonymous said...

Dan, Great summary. Unfortunately, I think in arguing over details at the meeting, the public lost sight of the big issue, which is that the PMUA continues to be run inefficiently. While the amount of the PMUA budget allocated to shared services is arguable, total operating expenses are excessive. As you pointed out, none of the consultants were asked to evaluate the operational efficiency of the PMUA. That's where the real waste is found. For one, there are just too many employees doing non-essential work.

But, if there is any hidden scandal at the PMUA, I think it will be found in those odd unit counts for sewer and solid waste that were inexplicable..."the difference (approximately 1,000 units) between billable households last year vs. the proposed budget, and why sewerage units were approximately 3,000 more numerous than solid waste units". Apart from the accuracy of the count, there was an embarassed dead silence when the question was asked to explain why sewerage units should be more than solid waste units when a consultant had just stated that the count for sewerage units was per building and the count for solid waste was per unit. That would result in more solid waste units than sewerage units. Does the State have an audit division that could follow-up on this?

Query: how easy is it to delete a solid waste account from the billing list and still have that residence get trash pick-up? It would be harder to delete a sewerage account because the billing list can be compared to the water utility's customer list. Something for any auditor to keep in mind.

Anonymous said...

Dan, et al,
While I did not attend the meeting, could it really be as simple as 1000 customers having private garbage pick up vs those still using PMUA? Just a thought. Most business' have private service, but are forced to use the sewer which can not have private service. Just a thought. Wish I was one of the ones getting a free ride so I would not be getting raped by the PMUA at double the amount of private service.

Anonymous said...

To anon @ 5:37pm: Great points.
They are extremely inefficient. To have 18 employees in the purchasing department for shared services is ridiculous. It's an over-bloated,unregulated entity that can do whatever they want. Until the public demand (not just talk) accountability, they will continue to exist and rob Plainfielders.

Blackdog said...

Let us forget about junkets to Las Vegas and the thousands of dollars they cost us!
Let us address just one area of inefficiency!
I live in a condo in town and up until I believe it was 2008, a private company Waste Management did an outstanding job!
We had larger dumpsters and it only took one truck with one man to empty them. Same with the recycleables . . .one truck,one man! They were a little more exspensive than PMUA only because we had to pay an exorbitantly high road use fee to the city.
Now there is no road use fee because we use PMUA but they have given us much smaller dumpsters which overflow onto the ground because of the size and one less pickup per week! There are also 3 or 4 guys on the truck to empty a smaller dumpster than before and any trash that winds up on the ground because of the overflow conditions, is left there! Until the Super picks it up instead of doing his normal duties!
Then there is the Supervisor in the white pickup that cruises through the complex about twice a day . . . I still haven't figured out his job yet!

Anonymous said...

The PMUA is a mismanaged agency - just compare its rates and stated costs to any of the surrounding communities. In addition, the Commission is comprised of mayoral cronies with no expertise, and apparently no desire, to properly oversee such an operation. There is no reason for any Plainfield taxpayers to tolerate this level of incompetence - not when we are all struggling to manage our own household budgets responsibly. It's time for the PMUA to go - or get some people on the commission to clean out the management and bring in professionals who understand that their mission is to bring services to Plainfield in cost-effective ways.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe the behavior of some of the PMUA executive board members and commissioners at this meeting. First, Eric Watson, constantly showed by his facial expressions and body language that he was annoyed by the questions being asked by the tax paying citizens of Plainfield. He constantly shook his head in disbelief and mumbled under his breath anytime anyone asked a question he didn't like or had the answer for.
The so called 3 experts seemed uncomfortable with having to provide answers for the information they presented. When questioned further, they appeared to become downright testy and annoyed.
However, the most egregious behavior came from Tracey Brown. First, she seemed to express that she had no clue the rate hike she was about to approve was a 61% increase. I find this most disturbing that she a-had no knowledge of this, b-maybe was never informed of this fact, c-did not participate in any previous discussions/meetings regarding this increase if indeed there were any held, d-received information on this increase, but didn't review it, e-received information, reviewed it, but just didn't care because she was going to vote yes regardless.
Second, her chastising of the audience for their questioning of the who, what, when, where and why's of this increase, which by the way, is their right to do as tax paying residents of this town.
Third, she talked about people taking the video lightly. Maybe it wasn't obvious to her, but I don't think anyone was making light of the silent 5 minute video. People were incorporating the actions on the video with the questions they were asking to try to understand if there was some correlation because there was no explanation of anything from PMUA.
Fourth, I can find no reason why she mentioned the recent shootings over the months and the fact that she eulogized 5 of them when that was neither the place or time for that discussion. Was she trying to infer that the shootings had something to do with the illegal dumping taking place? While some of the shootings may or may not have something to do with illegal activities, I'm sure illegal dumping is not one of them.
Fifth, she also mentioned that people are against giving workers at the PMUA a second chance. Where in the world did that comment come from? It had nothing to do with what was going on and was completely out of left field.
Sixth, she stated that if you don't live on the West End then you don't know anything about what's going on there.
Finally, her actually challenging an audience member that "I bet
I do more in the community than you do!" was unnecessary and uncalled for.
How can we expect the children of the town to conduct themselves better when the so called leaders cannot refrain from verbally attacking citizens because they don't like what is being said. We live in a democracy not a dictatorship and have a right to questions those in authority whether they like it or not. It's no wonder this town can't get it's act together with this behavior from our so called leaders.

John Wilk said...

anon @ 2pm - Ms. Brown is no leader. In fact she is the perfect example of how people were appointed commissioners. She is another good friend of the mayor and has no qualifications whatsoever. For her to act the way she did showed how incompetent and out of touch these commissioners are. She is also one of the commissioners who is in the pension system, gets full health, dental and travel perks. It's unfortunate that the PMUA will continue to exist because while the council has the power to disband them they haven't exercised any serious authority over them for the past 10 years.

Anonymous said...

Do the commissioners make any money from being on the board?

Philip said...

Dear Anon 6:23,

Yes, the commissioners receive $4500. In 2008 and 2009 some received in excess of that amount which was in direct violation of the ordinance that created the PMUA. They also receive approx. $15,000 in health and dental benefits. Some of them have family coverage. They are also in the state pension system. If that weren't enough some of them were getting upwards of $140 a day when they would go on their excursions (I mean trainings). See for complete details of travel with receipts for multiple meals, expensive hotels, and personal items.

Anonymous said...

Re Anon at 10:06PM, the approximately 1000 unit sewerage unit difference is between this year and the budgeted number for next year. Even if your explanation for discrepancies, and it is a valid one, covered all the businesses and residences that opted out in the past, it still wouldn't explain the projected drop for next year. It is about a 9% decrease! Either people aren't being charged who should be, or this is a subterfuge to increase the per unit billing charge and collect extra revenue when the assumed decrease does not occur.

Consultants and lawyers can invoke the magic words "necessary and reasonable," but that does not make it so if, indeed, assumptions are unreasonable and the facts are against them.

Anonymous said...

There is an approx 3000 unit difference in the sewage and solid waste units. There is an approx. 2000 unit difference between 2008 and 2009. This is well before people began opting out. In either case, according to the PMUA, if people opt out they are still billed the shared services so the total units should not have changed. The only way it would decrease is if multi-families became single families. I agree with 2:13 that something fishy is going on. There probably are some users who aren't paying or the PUMA is using the lower denominator to drive up the cost for everyone else.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why no one did a detailed analysis on what other cities pay for the common garbage disposal.