Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Citizens Budget Advisory Committee: Hits and misses

As in archery, not every arrow hits the bullseye.

Plainfield's Citizens Budget Advisory Committee is an all-volunteer group of residents who review each year's proposed budget, participate in the budget deliberations and deliver their recommendations to the governing body.

This year's CBAC scored some hits and some misses, which is to be expected from a group that has varying kinds of experience and points of view but often little or no experience of how government actually works.

This year's CBAC chair, Richard Stewart, made a lengthy comment to my brief remarks about the CBAC in yesterday's post and you can read it here.

Mr. Stewart opened his report by remarking on the rush with which the process happened and poor communications with the CBAC about timing and roles. His complaint is justified.

As a creature of the City Council, whose members are supposed to nominate one person each to the CBAC, it is the Council's responsibility (ultimately the Council President's) to see that the process is addressed in a timely fashion, with clarity and transparency. Furthermore, the Council should make available to the CBAC the resources to do its job properly.

This would include access to any records or persons the CBAC needed as well as providing access to copying equipment as needed in the performance of their duties and the preparation of their final report. The CBAC should not have to rely on its members using personal resources to get the committee's job done. (By the way, it is Wednesday and I still do not find the documentation -- including the CBAC report -- on the city's website as promised.)


The CBAC hit the mark on several items.

For instance, the finding that the Police and Fire Divisions are top-heavy with senior staff (I am less inclined to think this is as severe an issue with the DPW), and finds some top-level staff doing entry-level work. The issue of the police was addressed a decade ago when Mayor Al McWilliams asked the state's Department of Community Affairs to investigate the structure of Plainfield's Police Division and make recommendations. The DCA outlined a structure which reduced and streamlined senior officer slots. Though the Council would not ratify the changes through an ordinance, McWilliams implemented the plan by restricting senior appointments during his term. His successor undid all this -- including creating the position of Police Director in order to eliminate the Police Chief title. (It is ironic that now we are hearing that the Police Director's position should not be funded!)

Another hit concerns the lack of weekend availability of inspectors. As Stewart correctly pointed out, a lot of illegal activity takes place over the weekends, specifically because violators know they can get away with work being done between Friday evening and Sunday night. The CBAC is correct in suggesting that this should be taken up with the unions in order to correct the situation through mutually agreed arrangements.

The suggestion that the Recreation Division might revise its fee structure to be able to better underwrite and expand its activities is a welcome idea. As well as the thought of expanding the Recreation Division's reach to underserved age populations as well as geographically throughout the city.


There are some misses.

For instance, the notion that overtime and comp time should be 'reduced and eventually eliminated', as Stewart stated.

This is an area of continual complaint, but also one that is easy for those who work in the private sector to misunderstand. Budgets are attempts to plan for upcoming events. Overtime as a budgetary device is an attempt to cope with unforeseen future circumstances. These include snowstorms, hurricanes, flooding and other items down to the lowly pothole, with all associated personnel costs (police, fire, DPW and other).

All we have to do is recall the damage, power outages and blocked streets of Superstorm Sandy to understand that money must be planned for (budgeted) though we cannot know in advance exactly how much will be needed. This past winter, every NJ community was plagued by a shortage of salt for icy streets -- a result of budgeting that was overridden by events.

While every Administration must be mindful of the potential for abuse and the CBAC is right to be watchful, the idea that overtime can be eliminated completely is fallacious.

Comp time (or compensatory time) is a separate issue. Employees whose contractual obligations are to perform their jobs between specified hours may sometimes be called upon to work outside their contractual terms. What to do? Give them 'comp time' -- hours off from their regular time to cover hours worked outside their contractual obligations.

Two examples illustrate the issue. An inspector cites a homeowner for a code violation. The homeowner chooses to contest the citation in court. The inspector must appear to pursue the city's complaint. The court meets in the evening, after work hours. The Inspector must show up at the time court begins session and wait until the case is heard and their testimony given. How are they to be compensated for their time?

Or what if the Administration thinks that a certain employee should represent the City at an evening or weekend community meeting to answer questions, explain the city's position or participate in a forum? Is the employee expected to do this as a voluntary activity?

Though comp time can be abused and every Administration should be watchful, it is not likely to ever go away completely.

A second miss, in my humble opinion, is the suggestion that the city should look into employing a full-time grant writer.

Back in the day, I sat on the interview committee which hired the previous Director of Community Development. This person came with a background in grant writing and the job description was that they were supposed to be the city's grant writer. What ever happened? Did the CBAC not get to interview the person in this slot? Did the Council skip over the Division?

On the other hand, grants is an area where government differs markedly from the private sector. My experience with several nonprofits as a board member is that one is always scratching the ground, looking for new and different sources of funding for the agency's programs -- often because grants are short-term or project-specific, and an agency's needs are long-term and mission-driven.

With government, on the other hand, most grants are consistently repeated year in and year out. In fact, things are so routine that grant opportunities are published in handy resource guides. In truth, it is less a matter of turning up new sources of grant funding than it is of remembering to follow through each year on the endless round of grant cycles from federal and state sources.

Lastly, the suggestion that Plainfield's public access cable TV station (PCTV) should be 'monetized' (Stewart's term) strikes me as seriously off-base.

In the first place, Plainfield receives annual franchise fees from both Comcast and Verizon. My guesstimate is that these may total in the range of $300-400,000 per year -- the exact figures have not been published. Plainfield, like some other communities, counts these receipts in the general fund and not as set aside for the station in particular.

The very nature of public access television is to NOT be commercialized. It is supposed to be a vehicle for the community's self-expression of its own interests through citizen-empowered programming.

The promise of community access has yet to be fulfilled through PCTV, though it appears to be less a matter of funding than of the implementation of correct policies and procedures. A complete analysis was undertaken by Mayor Mapp's Transition Team, whose full report is online here. (Full disclosure: I chaired the subcommittee which prepared the report.)

If there is a concern to be addressed to 'monetize' the station, perhaps the CBAC should ask why the Council does not designate the franchise fees directly to PCTV.

With regard to discussing staff positions, it is not permissible to discuss the persons themselves only the positions or the Civil Service titles. Civil Service was devised to, among other things, do away with 'government by intimidation' (as Assemblyman Wisniewski so aptly remarked at yesterday's Bridgegate hearing).

Mentioning the gender of the current holder of a position comes mighty close -- in my mind -- to crossing the line. Various Council members have also recently taken to going down this road. The potential is to open the City to the possibility of lawsuits. It would not be amusing for the taxpayers to have to subsidize anyone's loose lips by paying for a settlement in a perfectly avoidable lawsuit.

Let's hope the hastiness with which this year's CBAC was empaneled and the poor communications about expectations and procedures are an aberration and that next year things will go better.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

Unrelated to budget concerns, I think that the lack of inspectors during normal business hours should be addressed first. It's no wonder that homeowners resort to doing work on the weekends when the inspection division is an absolute joke.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Damon had much to say about CBAC hits and misses. What is your view about the Consultants hits and musses?

Anonymous said...

I attended the meeting Monday and from my observation, CBAC and the Financial Consultants had the same concerns. However, the Financial Consultants gave the actual facts regarding the budget.

Anonymous said...

The Police Department is mid management heavy. That's because The OUT GOING MAYOR MADE BULLSHIT PROMOTIONS TO GET TO HER BUDDIES.

Anonymous said...

Dan, it would be a funny conversation to hear if all positions were referred to by titles and never by pronouns lest it implicate the person in the position by way of his or her gender coinciding with the gender of the pronoun.

Jeff said...

We first need to clarify what type of inspector we are referring to; health, fire and safety, electrical, plumbing? A homeowner is going to do the work with or without an inspector being hired. It is up to the department to follow up on tips supplied by neighbors, personnel, etc. If roll off is in the yard filled with construction debris and there are no permits on display, then a stop work order and violation notice is issued. For a City this size, there should be a full time inspections dept covering all areas.