Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Statement of Bill Nierstedt concerning outsourcing of the Planning Division

Among its other duties, the Planning Division oversaw
the City Hall preservation project of 2001.
Here, a lightning rod is being installed atop the cupola.

Below is the statement read at Monday's Plainfield City Council meeting by Planning Division Director Bill Nierstedt concerning the value of the division and its proposed outsourcing.

Because of its length and detail, I asked for permission to reprint it in its entirety, rather than rely on my notes. -- Dan


Good evening Council members.  For anyone who does not know, I am Bill Nierstedt; I have been the Planning Director for the City of Plainfield for 17 years.    As you are aware, Planning Division employees were recently advised that our jobs might be outsourced to consultants.  We strongly believe that the work of the Planning Division cannot be outsourced without loss of service to our city residents, nor will any significant savings be realized.  In making the recommendation to outsource, the functions of the division have been significantly underestimated.  Numerous successes have not been acknowledged.  The ability to generate ‘economy and efficiency’ as a result of outsourcing is not adequately substantiated.  Risks and erosion of services to Plainfield residents have not been considered in detail sufficient to propose such action.  Finally, there are other actions that can be taken to address issues within the Division without jeopardizing service.   I submit to you that this proposal is ill advised, badly timed, not well thought out, and insensitive to the needs of our community.  The goal of my presentation tonight is to convince you that taking this action is not in the best interests of Plainfield, and to give you reasons why having an internal Planning Division is by far the best option. 

Let’s dismiss the ‘economy’ argument immediately, and put faces on this nebulous proposal.  This proposal would affect the jobs and lives of four real people.  They are licensed professional planner Scott Bauman who has given Plainfield 16 years of his experience, April Stefel, a licensed landscape architect who has given 10 years, Ron Johnson who has worked for the city three years and me.  46 years of experience for the city; over 80 years of professional experience.  Together we work 6,697 hours/ year.  Including salary and benefits, our services cost the city $356,949, or roughly $50.00/hour. What will a consultant charge for those same hours? Based on the most recent response to an RFP issued by the Planning Division, a consultant would charge a minimum of $140/hour.  Calculations show that that comes to a total of $937,580/year. That’s almost 2.6 times what the city pays the Planning Division for the same services.  Thus a consultant would limit Plainfield to 38% of the hours the Planning Division currently provides.  A review of recent RFP responses shows that all of the consultants charge more per hour than the city pays the Planning Division, so the only way they can submit a competitive proposal is by using less qualified and experienced junior planners and reducing the hours they will serve the city to 8/week.   There will be no savings for the city unless the number of consulting hours is less than 38% of the Planning Division hours, and the city cost will increase when the consultant exceeds 38%.  So consultants will charge more per hour and provide fewer hours of service to city residents.  There is no economy savings here.

So why do consultants submit a proposal when their basic numbers are so much greater than the city’s current costs?  Because their goal is not to provide the day-day services that Scott, April, Ron and I provide.  They are after the escrow dollars that don’t show up in any RFP response.  Let me explain.  The law allows Scott, April and I to charge for our professional services.  When we review site plans, attend board meetings and prepare planning reports, we charge the applicant, and the applicant pays the city for these services. So far this year we have billed over $50,000.  A consultant wants these escrow dollars. They will charge every developer and resident who submits a board application more than we do, and they will charge for every minute.  So, not only would this proposal cost the city more money, it would also cost developers and residents more money. At a time that we are encouraging development, this does not make economic sense.

Any efficiency argument must start with an understanding of what the Planning Division does.  The RFP the city recently issued is sorely lacking in this regard.  While it contains bullet points outlining responsibilities, they are so vague that they are open to individual and legal interpretation.  Consultants had to make their own assumptions as to their level of effort required.  The easy way to submit a low proposal was to reduce the number of hours proposed to work, reach the hourly limit of their contract and then return to the city for change orders.  The only way to save money is to cut services.  That is what they all propose to do.

So what does the Planning Division do? Planning has been an in-house Plainfield service since the 1960s.  Through urban renewal, Model Cities, CDBG programs, the MLUL adoption, from Directors Elliot Weinstein, Gunthil Sondhi, John Szabo and me, the planning division has provided professional, unbiased, recommendations on housing, transportation, and land use to 12 administrations.  Since my tenure began, the Planning Division has prepared the complex and innovative ‘197 Scattered Site’, Park Madison, Teppers, North Avenue, Marino’s, Elmwood Gardens, and South Avenue redevelopment plans, completed the 2009 Master plan reexamination, reviewed on average 40 Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment applications a year, coordinated the annual Six Year Capital Improvement Plan, prepared over 20 resolutions and ordinances for Council review annually, updated the land use ordinance on a bi-annual basis, maintained the city tax maps, updated and maintained the City Recreation and Open Space Plan, provided administrative services for the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, Historic Preservation Commission, and Shade Tree Commission, and administered the Brownfield cleanups city wide.  We drafted regulations- which city council adopted- that preserved residential properties and values by reducing permitted densities and increasing minimum lot sizes, prevented over crowding, the destruction of historic structures, and the introduction of non- residential uses in residential zones, kept rooming houses, Bayonne boxes, illegal residential conversions, juice bars, outdoor commercial storage operations, and cell towers in residential zones out of the city. We submitted and received grants for brownfield cleanups, shade tree plantings, historic preservation, trail, and city hall restoration grants. We wrote and advanced the transit oriented development standards for the Plainfield and Netherwood train stations, and are advancing the West End TOD.  We submitted and received the NJDOT Transit Village designation. We conducted over 500 annual zoning reviews and advanced municipal court enforcement actions.

We also service over 1,500 in-person customer visits every year. That does not include the thousands of phone calls or e-mails. Residents are able to come to our office all day long to get answers.  Where will they go after a consultant is hired?  They will hear a phone message advising them to dial ‘1’ if they need zoning information, ‘2’ for historic preservation information, ‘3’ for master plan questions, etc.  They will be told that they will receive a phone call back, after the consultant turns on their clock, opens up the book and begins to research the question to which April, Scott, Ron and I know the answer off the top of our heads. Someone may be in the office between 10 and 2:00PM on alternate Thursdays, and maybe one night a week.  Efficiency perhaps; I prefer to call it loss of service for Plainfield residents.

Prior to being notified of our impending layoff, no one spoke to me about a sudden budget need.  I ask if this Council is aware of a sudden budget crisis? Is there a larger plan to eliminate or outsource other employees or divisions?  The administration advises they are proposing to eliminate our jobs because Plainfield is the last Union County town with an in-house planning division.  That is not true, Elizabeth has a Planning Director; he performs different tasks than we do.  So our jobs are being outsourced because the 1700 Winfield residents, or the 4,200 Garwood residents, or 7,600 Fanwood residents don’t have one?  18 of the 21 Union County municipalities are less populated than Plainfield, and we have to follow their lead? Plainfield is unique; we are a city; we are not like other Union County suburbs.  The Planning Division has compared Plainfield to towns similar to us – the 53 other Urban Aid Communities.  Towns like Asbury Park, Hackensack, Hoboken, Long Branch, Montclair, New Brunswick, Passaic, Paterson and Trenton.  Communities with which we share socio-economic and population similarities.  Over half of these towns have in-house planning divisions. Plainfield is six square miles, has a population of over 50,000 people.  Only two Union County towns have more residents. We have more historic districts than any Union County town, a state designated Transit Village, two transit oriented development areas, 10 redevelopment areas, two 100 acre county parks, the largest disparity of income, the greatest diversity of ethnic populations, more affordable housing than our fair share, more group homes.  We have suffered the loss of our largest employer. Plainfield is not like other Union County towns.  We have planning issues they have not yet conceived.  There is no reason for us to follow their lead in regards to planning. We are also the only Union County town with two fully operating train stations; should we eliminate one?

Outsourcing government jobs has become standard operating procedure because private consultants say they can do the same job for less money.  Many times it does not work because a consultant cannot cost less when they have to cover higher salaries, overhead, and professional liability insurance. The city currently outsources engineering; why can’t planning be out sourced?  Because outsourcing engineering does not work.  A city our size needs to have a full time in-house engineer.  Our current 1 day/week consultant engineering simply does not provide engineering and infrastructure planning that our city requires.  Updating flood maps and reducing flood insurance rates for our residents are two engineering tasks that have not yet been completed years after consultants started billing for them. Does this Council recall voting on increased engineering contracts for Remington Vernick?  The same situation would exist in planning if this proposal were advanced. 

Our city has a planning staff of dedicated, educated, experienced, certified and licensed individuals with a long institutional memory and vested interest that no consultant will be able to replace. We care about our city.  Two of us live in Plainfield.  With the unpaid hours that I put in, my wife thinks that I do also.  We average over 140 hours/week – more than we get paid for; a consultant is going to charge for every minute.  Four certified/licensed professionals with over 80 years of experience currently serve the people of Plainfield. We have an institutional memory that improves the development process because we have the ability to link and take into account how various projects interrelate.  We are able to meet with developers and provide historical context for their developments.  Outsourcing means that the city will pay a consultant to learn the intellectual property that the current staff already knows.

The Administration wants a streamlined development process; so does the Planning Division.  The Administration wants increased development in our city; so does the Planning Division. Is the Planning Division tough on developers?  We consistently apply the code adopted by this City Council to all developments. We are unbiased, color-blind, and equal opportunity. We do not give away city assets. We fight for and protect neighborhood rights. The Planning Board recently implemented a Technical Review Committee in partnership with the administration.  It is designed to help streamline the review process and save time for all involved by resolving issues before they come to the board.  This process has been somewhat effective, but it has only been in practice for a short time. Nothing works perfectly overnight, and we have had some growing pains that need to be addressed.  We can address them together.  This proposal was sprung on the Planning Division and this Council without any discussion.  I submit that an open discussion is needed to determine if ‘day to day’ Planning Division services should be altered or scaled back.  Process improvement is something that the Planning Division welcomes. Discussion and review should be undertaken before radically seeking to eliminate the Division. 

In closing, I state that this proposal will result in additional city costs, fewer services for our residents, and less work being undertaken or completed.  If revenue needs to be increased, or expenses cut, I ask the administration to discuss the issues with me so that we can explore other solutions. Let’s sit down and discuss what needs to be done proactively and transparently, not antagonistically.  In making your decision tonight, I ask Council members if an adequate plan has been put forth to enable you to confidently decide that the proposal will somehow save the city money, not cut resident’s services, and provide for all the tasks that the Planning Division provides.  As it has not, I ask that you please do not support this proposal.  I close with a quote from Susan Duerksen, director of communications for “In the Public Interest”.  “ Governments at all levels are just desperate to balance their budgets, and they’re grasping at privatization as a panacea.  But there’s evidence that it often is a very bad idea with hidden costs and consequences when you turn over public service to a for-profit company”.  I hope that I have clearly made the case that the city comes out way ahead if it retains our planning division.  Thank you.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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