The needler in the haystack.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dirty little secret about the PMUA and why nothing is ever resolved

 
The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority (PMUA) got folks lathered up at Monday's Council meeting.

Again.

Why does every discussion around the PMUA generate so much heat and so little light?

I have some ideas.

REAL ISSUES vs. RED HERRINGS

Though conversations are as tangled as my 50-foot power cords when I go to trim the hedges, patience helps in sorting them out.

That is not helped much by inanities such as Mayor Robinson-Briggs lecturing the audience Monday evening about 'free services' offered jointly by the PMUA and the City's DPW -- she cited cleaning up the cemeteries on Plainfield Avenue (which, to my knowledge, are NOT owned by the City as the Mayor asserted). As any taxpayer can tell you, there are no 'free' services.


There do seem to be two big items: issues with the Authority (management, rates, service) and the true nature of the PMUA's costs (on which rates are based).

Like the scandal-ridden Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC), which is now coming apart under scrutiny, the PMUA has both a proud mission (managing Plainfield's solid waste collection and disposal, recycling, and its sanitary sewer system) and a less attractive 'shadow' side -- it was and is a patronage pit, providing jobs for pols to dispense.

As for patronage, getting a job through a 'connection' is an age-old American tradition -- across the political spectrum and going back to the Founding Fathers. The questions for the ratepayers ought to be: Are the jobs necessary? Are they performed adequately and for fair wages? Are the jobholders free from illegal pressures such as donating to, or working on, political campaigns of their patrons?

These are the questions the PVSC is now facing. No one has yet mustered an in-depth investigation of them in relation to the PMUA.

At the top of the heap are questions about management: its diligence, expertise, and ethicality. While there have been lapses at the PMUA (travel boondoggles, conventions not focused on the Authority's mission, executive perks), the worst of PMUA offenses can't hold a candle to the PVSC.

Councilor Williams reported last night that a meeting she and Councilor Rivers had with the PMUA's Executive Director took place over a two-hour lunch at a Scotch Plains restaurant, a meeting she felt could just as well have been held at the PMUA headquarters in less time. Minor, perhaps, but telling nevertheless.


No one has complained about the PMUA's expertise in handling the Authority's responsibilities. The sentiment expressed Monday (which I suspect is accurate) is that a survey would show residents and ratepayers don't have a problem with the service performance of the PMUA.

But there are plenty of challenges about costs.
APPLES & ORANGES: WHO WILL DO THE HARD WORK?
Having attended the January rate-setting hearing, I can report my impression is that the PMUA was at pains to throw up a screen of 'facts' that yet did little to shed light on its real costs, on which the rates are set.

Those dissatisfied with the PMUA have tended to focus narrowly on two points: How much cheaper a private hauler is to take away household garbage, and the mounting cost of the 'shared services' expenses billed by the PMUA and the perceived unjustness of being forced to pay toward these.

I hold with the English common law tradition that the entire community can be held responsible for certain concerns being addressed, including by taxation as necessary. This has been the justification for everything from roads to public schools to sewers to bonding public works projects.

Keeping the community's common areas free of garbage qualifies, as the courts have ruled.

But, because no one has done the requisite homework, we are left with a battle of apples and oranges.

To be able to shed some light on the situation, we need apples-to-apples answers to the questions around costs, upon which rates are set.

In order to fairly compare the true costs to Plainfield and any other community of the services rendered, we need to be able to filter out the individual segments, for example --
  • What are the true costs per household for RECYCLING in Plainfield vs. any other community;
  • What are the costs per household  of operating and maintaining the municipal SANITARY SEWER services?
  • What are the actual costs per household of COLLECTING and TRANSFERRING SOLID WASTE? (For instance, if a private hauler charges LESS than the PMUA, and that INCLUDES tipping fees at a transfer station, why is the PMUA more expensive?)
This last question leads me to my next point.
THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET ABOUT THE PMUA
There was an awkward but illuminating moment at the December 28 rate setting hearing (see my report here). A ratepayer has asked whether overall costs would be lowered if the PMUA got out of its contract to use the incinerator in Linden.

Knowing glances were exchanged between the Commissioners, the executive staff and counsel Leslie London. Finally, someone said 'well, yes, but we can't break the long-term contract we have'.

That is the DIRTY LITTLE SECRET ABOUT THE PMUA. I have been told for years that the ratepayers would benefit APPRECIABLY if the PMUA were able to haul its solid waste to the cheapest tipping point, but that it has been bound by a contract forced on it by county political considerations to keep the Covanta-run Linden facility afloat. In recent days, Union County officials have argued that a FORTY-FIVE YEAR EXTENSION of the lease on the Covanta-run county facility would 'save' the 21 towns an estimated $2.1M yearly. First, be wary of that word 'estimate', it's the word the serpent used when offering Eve the apple. Secondly, the savings would not be equally shared, so the PMUA wouldn't even see the 'average' $100,000.

The FIRST AND DECISIVE STEP in getting a handle on PMUA costs is attacking this unfair, unjust and hogtying contract. This is a country founded on free-markets, so why shouldn't the PMUA be able to shop around for the VERY BEST DEAL for its ratepayers?
'STACK' THE COMMISSIONERS?
There was a good deal of back-and-forth last night among the Councilors and between the Council and the Mayor over approving the Mayor's nominees to the PMUA (and, by extension, other agencies).

Council President Annie McWilliams calmly pointed out that the charter says 'advice and consent', and that it is not a simple matter of rubber-stamping the Mayor's nominations.

Councilor Storch pressed both the Mayor and fellow Councilor Bill Reid on the need to have Commissioners who would be 'agents of change' in the management of the Authority. He expressed disappointment that the Mayor's nominees were mostly unable (except for Rev. Tracey Brown) to give thoughtful answers to questions about how to address ratepayers' concerns.

(On the mention of 'change', the Mayor got a dig in, suggesting Storch should be careful talking about 'change' since he is up for election this year. Politics watchers have kibitized for months that two likely contenders for Storch's seat would be Jerry Green protegé Owen Flecther and newly-minted blogger and former Storch challenger Tony Rucker. More on all this later.)

Councilor Rivers repeatedly suggested that Councilors should have to give their reasons for objecting to a candidate. I happen to think that is not good practice, and anyone who follows confirmations at the state or federal level will note that though nominees may be questioned sharply, those who decide more often than not keep their reasons to themselves.

However, if the Councilors were to feel it was IMPERATIVE to break the discriminatory contract with the Linden incinerator, it could be a litmus test in any confirmation votes. And what Mayor in their right mind could oppose saving the ratepayers money? Or nominee either, for that matter?
DUMP THE PMUA?
Learning at the rate-setting hearing that there were fewer than 60 households that have opted out of the PMUA garbage hauling (out of more than 16,000 household units served), it is quite clear there is no tsunami bearing down on the Authority.

If there are valid reasons to 'dump' the PMUA and reabsorb the functions into the City, they would only become clear after an in-depth analysis (see the Apples & Oranges section above). Anyone doing the necessary homework would provide sound basis for further public policy discussion and decision-making.

Barring that, I see no reason to do other than to get the COSTS under control, and the Authority more TRANSPARENT in its operations. (Setting a reasonable time for board meetings would be a start, instead of 6 PM -- when many are still getting home from work, or trying to get the family fed!)
Will we have more light and less heat the next time the subject of the PMUA comes up?

What do you think?


-- Dan Damon [follow]

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18 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Mayor mentioned that the PMUA assisted in the cleaning up of the Cemeteries on Plainfield Ave. She failed to mentioned that a landscaper in town (Joseph Pinnock) billed the PMUA (and ultimately us the rate-payers) for the clean up.

Storch speaks of qualified Commissioners, meanwhile he votes for Brown. Unacceptable!

The only solution at this point is to eliminate the PMUA. Fold it back into the City.

Amy said...

The Bottom Line: There is a lot wrong with the PMUA and its operations. People in Plainfield want to turn a blind eye to it and make excuses (PARSA, Linden facility, not as bad as PVSC, etc.) The only way to bring change is to expose what is really going on. Why don't you interview some employees who are willing to talk about campaign calls they've made from PMUA headquarters, dinners they have attended for politicians, etc? Did you ever consider that the PVSC serves 48 communities for sewer and has a budget of 161 million? Check the stats-it's true. The PMUA serves 1 community with a sewer budget of approx 12 million. Let's do the math PVSC 3.35 million per community. So does the PMUA really pale in comparison to PVSC? NOPE! Will you post this? I doubt it! It wouldn't be the first time you don't post a comment from me about your precious can do no wrong PMUA.

Anonymous said...

It is coveage like yours here, Dan, that makes news reporting relevant. Thanks for the information and for getting readers to think about their position relative to the PMUA (and the city administration) by posing incisive questions.

The fact that only 60 families have opted out is headline news given that the PMUA has been dropping 1000 households per year from their solid waste billings for the last several years. If the commissioners can't question that, thank goodness some on the city council are there to protect the public.

Nat Singleton said...

While the cost of sanitation is important, I wish people would harness that same energy and passion to reform and improve the Plainfield school system.

Anonymous said...

PMUA has been doing wrong for years. It's about time the council questioned them and brought justice to the city. Didn't I just receive a notice from the PMUA which stated that 11,000 households get direct service? Why are you stating 16,000? Is that the correct number?

11:55 please back up your statement with facts.

12:05 please shed more light on the campaign calls and encourage those with such knowledge to contact the authorities

Anonymous said...

Dan - do you know when the PMUA last reported the opt-out households. I know of 5 households that have opted out from my recommendation only.

Anonymous said...

According to the PMUA's own literature, "The shared service program supports downtown street sweeping and public can service in addition to trash collection
from municipal buildings, public areas,parks and community sites including:
• Rushmore Avenue Park
• Mathison Park
• Library Park
• Rock Avenue Park
• Sloan Blvd. Park
• Siedler Field
• Milton Campbell Field
• Hannah Atkins Park
• Cook School Park
• South Avenue Circle"

When did cemeteries become part of the mix?

Anonymous said...

Nat,

I tried. Repeatedly. I suggest you try volunteering your services (to tutor) and see what kind of response you get.

Anonymous said...

The numbers do not add up.

When the PMUA raised the household shared services fee by 61% or $126, from approximately $205/year to $331/year, the rationale (casus belli) it presented was that it needed to address the "illegal dumping" crisis. The intimation was that those who had opted-out were “illegally dumping”; hence, they had to be “offered” the bulk waste pick-up to dissuade them from desecrating our fair City.

If, according to the numbers you cite, the PMUA services 16,000 households and only 60 have opted out, then are we to believe the following two (preposterous) assertions:

1. .00375 (60/16,000) of the households in Plainfield caused the “illegal dumping” crisis which warranted the increase of 61%;
2. It requires an ADDITIONAL $2,016,000 ($126 x 16,000) for the PMUA to clean up the illegal dumping caused by 60 households or $33,600 ($2,016,000/60) per opted-out household?

You do the math.

Whatever the figures may be, I can assure you of one thing; it does not take a 61% increase in the shared services fee to address a (new) problem that was never substantiated in the first place.

There’s your red-herring.

Anonymous said...

Dan,

From what source are you getting your figures? I was unable to make the meeting, so I am questioning if you arrived at those figures yourself, or were the figures given by someone else at the meeting?

According to PMUA's 2010 Winter Newsletter, "The adjustment [in the shared services fee] that is being proposed will result in “NO” increase in solid waste charges for about 90% of PMUA rate payers.... The other 10% of our rate payers will see only a modest increase in their Shared Services
fee charges. This increase (about $30 per quarter) will cover the cost of their inclusion in the PMUA’s “on-call” bulky waste
program."

I am not sure how you or whomever arrived at the 60 households out of 16,000, when the PMUA itself gives a different ratio.

More interesting, I am not sure how the PMUA describes a 61% increase as "modest" with a straight face.

LBD

Anonymous said...

The question needs to be why was the PMUA created to begin with and which current or past politicans voted for the creation?

Anonymous said...

ANYONE EVER QUESTION THE POINT OF SO MANY "CONVENTIONS"? WHO IS PAYING FOR THAT? WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF GOING TO ATLANTIC CITY, VEGAS & FLORIDA? WHAT ARE THEY LEARNING? HOW DOES IT "HELP" THE CITY OF PLAINFIELD????? JUST LIKE THE TWO HOUR MEETING THAT WAS HELD AT A SCOTCH PLAINS RESTAURANT THAT COULD HAVE BEEN HELD AT THE OFFICE. WHO PAID FOR THAT??

Anonymous said...

Dan,

The fact that only 60 households have opted out is not a surprise because it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to get any other carriers to service Plainfield. I know. I've tried many times. The only households that have succesfully opted out are in the Sleepy Hollow area-their carrier will ONLY service that small neighborhood, a disturbing fact I brought to the attention of the ward councilman (I never received a response). Other carriers won't even DISCUSS coming to Plaiinfield. In addition, the PMUA makes it very difficult to opt out - you have to show them a contract with a new carrier,an in-depth explanation of how and where solid waste will be disposed of, all of your application documents have to be notarized and then the PMUA can take months to respond. We working people simply don't have the time or resources to jump through all these unecessary hoops.Why don't you look into these issues first, before you declare that there is no strong desire among Plainfielders to opt out of PMUA?

Dan said...

@ 8:39 and 5:44 PM and LBD -- the figure was given in answer to a question from the floor at the rate-setting hearing.

@ 8:00 AM - There is no indication on the DumpPMUA site that the hauler they mention by name will only go to certain neighborhoods in Plainfield.

If you put on your businessman's hat and asked yourself if you wanted a few residential customers scattered all over the city, would you wonder if it was a money-making proposition? These people are running businesses, not hobbies.

Anonymous said...

Call Grand Sanitation. They have and will service ALL areas of Plainfield despite what their website states.

908-222-1566

$30 a month for twice weekly garbage and weekly recycling.

Anonymous said...

Amy,

Contact the NJ Attorney General's office regarding your allegations. The number is 609-984-6500.

Anonymous said...

@ February 8, 2011 6:24 PM

Have you seen those parks? A couple have 2-3 cans. Most have been untouched for the past 5 months.

@ 11:55am Lambert & Boone has been doing the cemetary and PMUA has been paying over. $1100 a cut.

Anonymous said...

Any,

You can also contact info@dumppmua.com for assistance.