Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Liberty Village PILOT: Liar's Poker?

Liar's Poker is a popular bar game based on the serial numbers of
dollar bills, plus skill at bluffing.

A great deal of time was spent wrangling over the proposed amendments to the 50-year PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) on Liberty Village at last night's Council meeting. The proposal ultimately failed even to be put on the agenda, but as the evening progressed, I began to suspect some folks were not being upfront about what they knew and when they knew it.

While details of the PILOT have been discussed previously elsewhere (see my post here, and Bernice's here), my attention is attracted to the question of why the Council has dug its heels in so hard, so quickly and with so little discussion.

On the surface, several Councilors have complained of being rushed. Last night they also expressed concerns that granting the PILOT before the sale would leave no leverage against the new owners to perform the improvements that are being promised.

Council President Rivers also insisted that $1.5 million had supposedly been set aside previously under the current owners for improvements to the property and there is no accounting for what happened to the funds. Both the Mapp administration and the attorney for the purchaser were unaware of any such assertion, but Rivers persisted.

While Councilors and several speakers from the audience were blaming the Mapp administration for time constraints -- 'last minute politics being thrown at you' is the way resident Mustapha Muhammad put it -- my ears caught several references to the PILOT negotiations having gone on for more than a year.

Both the buyer's attorney, William Eaton, and Mapp's economic development director Carlos Sanchez made mention of the time frame, which places the origins of the proposed sale and PILOT amendment firmly in the administration of former mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Sanchez said he couldn't tell the Council why the Robinson-Briggs administration had not followed through on the matter and politely reminded them that he had only come on board on February 1.

But what really caught my attention was Councilor Storch's statement that he recalled getting a phone call from Assemblyman Jerry Green's office over a year ago inviting him to vet the proposal. Storch then went on to add that he and 'two colleagues' went to the Assemblyman's office and went over the proposal, but that that was his only prior participation. He said he never knew anything else until it was brought up at last week's Council agenda-setting session.

If the 'two colleagues' Storch mentioned so discreetly were fellow Council members, then we have the puzzle of how some folks at the Council table could have been surprised at the proposal. Not only that, Councilor Rivers was council president last year> Is it possible she would not have known if members of the governing body had been invited to review the proposal at the Assemblyman's office?

Then there is the matter of the condition of the Liberty Village complex, which many -- Councilors, Mapp administration and residents alike -- deplored. The Housing Authority no longer manages the complex, though it once did. Did conditions deteriorate on its watch? And if they did, why has no public outcry been made before this?

Former councilor Malcolm R. Dunn, a current Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority (PMUA) commissioner offered some historical context. He had been a Housing Authority commissioner along with current PMUA executive director Dan Williamson when the original PILOT agreement was crafted.

If the current Council has questions about why the PILOT was granted a 50-year term and never generated more than 6.28% on the gross shelter rents until the current proposal to raise it to 10%, perhaps they should quiz Mr. Dunn more closely.

From my point of view, it's ironic that Dunn, the man who engineered the $1.2 million giveaway to retiring PMUA executives Watson and Ervin, also managed to help engineer another giveaway from the public purse to the owners of Liberty Village. And how much was that worth over the past 32 years? Councilor Reid has a point in raising the question, though I doubt he will pursue it to its logical conclusion.

Lastly, there is burden that all of this has meant to the rest of Plainfield's property tax payers over the past 32 years.

Hundreds of children, if not more, have been accommodated by the Plainfield Public Schools though the district has never received a dime in school taxes from Liberty Village since its inception. This means that the cost of educating all these children has been shouldered by the remaining taxpayers.

It we take into account all the apartment complexes in the city which are subject to PILOTs and which are open to families (and not age restricted like the Senior residences) and which do not contribute to the support of the public schools, it is not hard to understand why ordinary folks have questions about the value of PILOTs.

The buyer's attorney offered to meet with members of the Council to answer their questions in an effort to reach some agreement to forestall the deal's falling apart. I am hopeful that the buyers, the Mapp administration and the Council can work this out.

Even though that will mean another special Council meeting -- O, the drama! -- which will probably be necessary anyway, since the City will most likely run out of money before the 2014 budget is finally adopted.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

What will happen to this apartment complex if the new owners can not get Council approval? Will the section 8 tenant's have to move elsewhere? Will Liberty Village become 100 vacant because Plainfielder's that live there now can not afford to pay market rent? The citizens of Plainfield should ask why in the world was Jerry Green involved in this? The city Council that is on duty now was on duty during Mayor SRB term. Who knows the real story to all of this?

Anonymous said...

Why is Green involved in all this? I thought the same council that we have now is the same council that we had last year. Did the new owners not put enough $$ in the Democrats pockets? What is going to happen if we do not agree to the new owners agreement? Will we have empty apartments units for people to rob all the copper out of like they have done to the other empty units here in town? The Plainfield City Council needs to have freedom from the Green Team!