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Friday, October 31, 2008

Guidelines for a Happy (and safe) Plainfield Halloween tonight

Throughout Plainfield early this evening, homeowners will welcome children celebrating this favorite holiday.

Representatives of neighborhood groups citywide met recently in a meeting set up by Councilor Rashid Burney and attended by Police Director Martin Hellwig to outline some steps to ensure a good time for the kids and a hassle-free evening for the householders who hand out the treats.

Here are the recommendations, as outlined by both the Netherwood Heights Neighbors (NHN) and FOSH. In addition, NHN has posted a flyer on its website (see here) which you may want to print out and tape to your front door.

Two weeks ago, Councilor Rashid Burney invited neighborhood organizations citywide to join the Netherwood Neighbors general meeting, to which Police Director Martin Hellwig was also invited.

The meeting was an opportunity for the public to have input into the 2008 Halloween safety preparations.
As many know there have been some some incidents of vandalism, homeowner intimidation, and stealing of candy in recent years. Director Hellwig assured attendees there would be an extra police presence Halloween evening.

Following are the safety procedures outlined for this year's Halloween celebration --

1. Curfew is 8:00... plan to stop handing out candy by 8:00 that night. It is also recommended porch lights be turned off at this time (though use judgment if your porch light is the only outdoor lighting at your home).

2. Report any/all incidents! Director Hellwig provided direct numbers to police dispatch: (908)753-3107 and (908) 753-3108. Use these numbers for reporting suspicious activities and/or incidents that night (of course use 911 in an emergency).

3. If you see any van-type vehicles dropping off groups of teenagers/adults, get the license number and alert the police using the above numbers.

Halloween is meant to be a fun time for kids and adults alike and this should not spoil the fun for most. Just follow the recommended guidelines and report any incidents as necessary...most of all HAVE FUN!

In addition, FOSH is having an early celebration for neighborhood young ones (ten and under) at Leland Avenue Park --
Just a reminder that FOSH is celebrating Halloween and we are inviting all our Little FOSH neighbors to come join us at Leland Avenue Park on Friday the 31st from 4:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m., before or after they trick-or-treat.
  • It will be an informal trick-or-treat gathering for children ages ten and under, along with a supervising adult(s).

  • We'll have apples, cider, and some other treats to share and we'll have a little fun parading around the park together.

  • If there is anyone who wishes for more information or to contribute please contact me at
Homeowners are asked to help the effort by observing the 8:00 PM voluntary curfew for the end of trick-and-treating by turning out their porch lights.

Finally, the Recreation Division is hosting its annual Community Halloween Party and Haunted House event this evening also, at Washington Community School, beginning at 6 PM. See the notice below --
Today- October 31. 6 PM. Community Halloween Party & Haunted House. The Recreation Division's annual family party includes a haunted house, a costume contest, prizes, snacks and lots of fun for all. A safe and fun alternative for children ages 5 - 10. Parents MUST accompany children. At Washington Community School, 427 Darrow Avenue (parking in Spooner Avenue lot). Info: (908) 753-3097.

Illustrations courtesy Netherwood Heights Neighbors.

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

News from the Courier: It ain't good.

Plainfielders who still cherish their daily dead-tree version of the Courier News have two more pieces of bad news today, neither of which you are likely to read in the pages of our local Gannett paper.

Two more?

The first two are the reduction in size of the paper to something approaching weekly competitors like the Suburban News, and the announcement that those getting home delivery will now be paying more for less.

The further two?

Editor & Publisher is reporting that Gannett will make a further cut of 10% of its workforce by year's end (see here). This will be by way of layoffs. Nice holiday gift to its workers.

And Gannett Blog (see here), the source of news and gossip about the nation's largest media company, reports that a Deutsche Bank study shows the Courier News is one of the two top circulation losers for Gannett companywide (the other is also a Jersey paper -- Morristown's Daily Record) --
"Biggest daily loser: the Courier News in Bridgewater: 26,805, down 14.7% from 31,414 a year before."
It's even sadder when you realize that in 1972, when Gannett moved the re-christened Plainfield Courier out to its shiny new building on Route 22 in Bridgewater, the daily circulation was over 40,000.

There has been much buzz about whether the Courier would be outright folded into the Home News Tribune. Most recently, word has been that a move is afoot to a 3,000 square foot space across from the Courthouse in Somerville. That would be equal to a modest 30' x 100' storefront. But this news may put even that move in jeopardy.

Does the future hold a solution like that of the Christian Science Monitor, which this week announced that after 100 years of publication it is abandoning its daily print edition in favor of a weekend 'magazine' print edition and their excellent online website. Always noted for its international and national coverage, the CSM says this move will allow it to keep its foreign bureaus in operation.

The Courier, whose strength always was its in-depth coverage of the local communities it serviced, does not look to be able to use its force reductions as wisely as the CSM, since there is scarcely a reporter there who has a single community for a beat.

Which reminds me that nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum.

At a recent forum on the future of the media at Rutgers, I piped up after quite a bit of blog-bashing that one of the reasons for the proliferation of blogs was the hole left in local news coverage by the stretching thin of mainstream media (read: Courier, Ledger) resources.

And that the hunger for news in Plainfield was exemplified by the fact the no fewer than a dozen people are blogging on a variety of topics of local interest on a regular basis.

'Really? Wow!', was the reaction.

Wow, indeed.

But I still like reading me dead-tree papers over coffee.

A further circulation note: "The Top 25 Dailies, 1998 and 2008" -- The Ledger ranked 17 in 1998 (
407,026) and 16 in 2008 (316,280) -- but look at that circulation drop, nearly 25%!

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(Real) foreclosure help on the way for Plainfielders?

Will the federal government act to REALLY forestall foreclosures?

Whether or not Plainfield Assemblyman Jerry Green's 'Home Ownership Preservation Act', which languished in committee from its March 15th introduction until a couple of weeks ago (while thousands of New Jerseyans lost their homes through foreclosure), gets to be of real assistance to Jerseyans -- and Plainfielders in particular -- who are in trouble with their mortgages may soon become a moot point.

Both the Washington Post (see here) and the Los Angeles Times (see here) report today that a deal is near for the Federal government to encourage banks to rewrite the troubled loans (selection below from the WashPost) --
Under the program being discussed, banks or other lenders would agree to reduce the monthly payments of borrowers to a level they could afford. The payments could be reduced by lowering the interest rate, cutting the amount owed or extending the repayment period. The goal would be to help homeowners avert foreclosure.

In exchange, lenders who agree to do this would get a government guarantee that they would be compensated for a portion of any losses should borrowers default on the reconfigured loans.
But one rough patch is deciding who should qualify for the help --
One of the toughest issues facing negotiators is how to define which struggling homeowners should get a bailout. If the government guarantees relatively risky loans, it is more likely to face a steeper tab. So if the gap between a household's income and what it owes on a mortgage is large, for example, the government may shy away from guaranteeing the loan.

Aware that how they define homeowner eligibility could cause a political furor, negotiators have struggled to come up with parameters that would be considered fair, a banking industry source said.
The model being looked at closely is that devised by the FDIC's Sheila Bair for the IndyMac situation --
One model could be the program the FDIC created after it took over IndyMac, a bank that failed after having made billions of dollars in risky mortgage loans.

IndyMac works with any borrowers who are delinquent or in default on their loans or at risk of becoming delinquent. The goal is to change mortgage terms so borrowers must pay no more than 38 percent of their income to cover their mortgage costs, including principal, interest, taxes and insurance.

Under the IndyMac program, a homeowner is excluded if the costs of reducing the loan payments exceed the costs of simply foreclosing on the home.
Bair, a lifelong Republican and Bush appointee, is well-respected on by both Democrats and Republicans for her straightforward, no-nonsense, and decidedly non-ideological pragmatic approach.

I have seen and heard her in interviews and in Congressional testimony. She is a marvel -- informed, informative, unflappable, and...tough.

The buzz is that she is the motive force behind the deal, even though she is not taking any public credit. Just another reason she is so successful.

Wouldn't it be odd if a Bush Republican upstaged the Assemblyman's home ownership rescue effort?

Truth is truly stranger than fiction.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dudley House Flim-Flam: Robinson-Briggs playing Council for fools?

As Plainfield's City Council struggles with Mayor Robinson-Briggs' flawed budget proposal amid an economic downturn being likened to the 1930s, one has to ask whether the Mayor's $178,000 Dudley House proposal has been a flim-flam -- an attempt to play the Council for fools -- from the beginning.

From the start, the Council was not happy about the $178,000 proposal by Robinson-Briggs, but only after persistent questioning by Council members and others have more -- and more embarrassing -- facts emerged.

Councilor Burney was surprised to learn from the budget duo at last Thursday's informal hearing that 'there were no patients currently at Dudley House' (see original here).

City Administrator Marc Dashield also stated at that meeting that the Dudley House employees had been laid off, and that looking for a nonprofit to operate the program 'might be part of an RFP' later' (all of which I reported here).

What have we really learned thus far?

First and foremost, that Mayor Robinson-Briggs has not done one thing since the issue of Dudley House's future came up a year and a half ago, despite promising to find funding.

Secondly, the ADA-compliance issue goes back to the beginning of the Robinson-Briggs administration and she did nothing to address it in previous years.

In the course of the Mayor's plan to tiptoe past the fact that she is asking Plainfield taxpayers to foot the bill for a program that is primarily used by non-Plainfielders, some other facts are coming to light --
  • Those 'laid-off' Dudley House workers? They're not really laid off, I learned yesterday, but have been quietly taken out of sight, though kept on the payroll. Doing what? No one seems to know for sure, though Public Works is mentioned.

  • The 'expected' grant? Robinson-Briggs is asking the Council to believe that all but $36,000 of the $178,000 will be funded by an expected grant as Dashield averred (Burney cites here). We're supposed to rely on an 'expectation' -- like the expectation she promised when the Dudley House issue first blew up that she would find funding for it.

  • The program is 'closed' but it's 'running'? Writing in Wednesday's Courier, Mark Spivey reports Dashield as saying that 'outpatient' services are offered at the site. Confused yet? The program failed to get its license, we have been told, because of its failure to comply with ADA requirements. So, WITHOUT A LICENSE, how is it that ANYONE is offering ANY services? And AT THE SITE, which is still NON-COMPLIANT. And OUTPATIENT SERVICES for a RESIDENTIAL program? What about the LIABILITY ISSUES? The questions just never stop coming.

  • So, let's hire a consultant? Not only did Robinson-Briggs do NOTHING for the first year she had to get the program back on track, now the Mayor wants Plainfield taxpayers to foot the bill for a consulting boondoggle 'to work with us and come up with a plan' as Dashield told the Courier News (see here). How much will that cost? And where is the cost spelled out in the budget proposal? And why not use in-house expertise? Unless, of course, there IS no in-house expertise.
Lurking in the background of this whole scheme is the unanswered question of why Robinson-Briggs is so obsessed with the City running the drug rehab program.

Effective drug rehab programs are run SUCCESSFULLY EVERYWHERE by nonprofit organizations. And it is hardly news that nonprofits can often do a better job than government agencies.

One has to look no further than the thoughtful appraisal of the Dudley House issue by Councilor Cory Storch (see here). Storch, the Executive Director of Bridgeway House, an internationally-acclaimed mental health- and social-services nonprofit headquartered in Elizabeth, knows whereof he speaks. His agency not only operates a drug rehab program like Dudley House, but met the same state requirements for licensing that Robinson-Briggs has failed to do, and met them in a timely fashion.

Plainfield's City Council should be praised for raising questions and showing their willingness to defend the public purse on this issue.

I think it's time to tell Mayor Robinson-Briggs the City is out of the rehab business, and to find -- without wasting taxpayer dollars on a consultant boondoggle -- a nonprofit that fills the bill and sell them the City's facility and hand off the program to someone who knows what they're doing.

Then, I think, we need to turn our attention to how to get Robinson-Briggs' hands off the public purse.

2009 is coming.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Foreclosure Forum Tonight: 'Buster' Soaries Featured

Chart: 239 properties foreclosed in Plainfield in May 2008 alone.

As Plainfielders struggle with the foreclosure crisis, word comes that Assemblyman Jerry Green and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs are hosting a forum on same tonight, featuring the acclaimed preacher and former GOP cabinet member 'Buster' Soaries.

Never mind that Plainfield Today has been calling attention to the rising crisis in Plainfield for nearly a year and a half.

Never mind that 1,300 homeowners were in pre-foreclosure in Plainfield this past June
(see here).

Never mind that there were 239 NEW foreclosure in Plainfield in May 2008 alone (see here).

Never mind that Assemblyman Green's foreclosure assistance legislation was introduced in March but never got moving until October (see here), during which time about one thousand families per week lost their homes.

Never mind that Assemblyman Green has never had a kind word to say about Republicans, and certainly has never invited a Republican to present a program of any kind in Plainfield.

Never mind that you are finding out about the meeting ON THE DAY ITSELF (unless you read the Courier online last night).

Never mind that NO PRESS RELEASE is posted on the City's website, nor an entry for the online calendar (though the regular block associations meeting, at another location is posted).

Never mind that Mayor Robinson-Briggs gives no evidence of a specific plan of action to help those in trouble with their mortgages.

Never mind that Mayor Robinson-Briggs doesn't mention that Faith, Bricks & Mortar has been toiling faithfully in this vineyard for a long time now.

Never mind that Mayor Robinson-Briggs has put forward no plan of action to help neighborhoods deal with the growing number of vacant and boarded properties, which are becoming eyesores as they prompt vandalism.

Never mind that 'foreclosure home tours' like that last Saturday are too little, too late for the families who are losing their homes.

Never mind that the intensive, long-term, one-on-one work of helping families in trouble stay in their homes cannot be done in mass public meetings.

Never mind that it looks like a cynical media ploy by our elected officials in the face of a real catastrophe in people's lives.

Never mind all that.

Come out tonight.

Listen, learn, see if there is any help or if there is a way to help.

And help if you can.

Then pay mind that November is coming -- NEXT November, that is.

NOTE: For a complete listing of all my posts on Plainfield's foreclosure crisis dating back to July 2007, go to the Plainfield Today results page for a search on the term 'foreclosure' (here).

Foreclosure Forum Tonight

Rev. 'Buster' Soaries, Keynoter

7:30 PM

Queen City Academy Auditorium
Grant Avenue & West 7th Street
(Parking in Grant Avenue lot)
All are welcome.

-- Dan Damon

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Hallway patients: The latest hospital fashion?

As Plainfielders face
long waits in the ER for inpatient beds at JFK, word comes that a solution has been found.

Move ER patients to beds in the hallways of inpatient floors.

Overcrowded ERs have put stresses on hospitals' inpatient beds and the hospitals are fighting back.

What to do when life hands you lemons? Make lemonade.

A study at Long Island's Stony Brook University Hospital has found that 'no harm results' to patients who are moved to upper-floor hallways once they are stabilized in the ER and ready for admission.

The study is the focus of a presentation today at a meeting of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) in Chicago, where the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has also studied the problem of ER overcrowding.

If this is such a good idea, maybe Solaris should forgo the construction bonds for new beds at JFK.

Are open-air unheated sleeping porches √° la early 20th century TB sanitoria coming soon? Not to save on heating, of course, but because 'no harm results'.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Drive-by budgeting?

The $1.66M budget blooper by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs isn't the only thing Plainfielders should be keeping in mind as the FY2009 budget process works itself out.

Citizens Budget Advisory Committee members have drawn a bead on plenty of other questionable items:
  • What is Robinson-Briggs' policy on discretionary salary increases? (Those NOT mandated by union contracts.) For instance, with the nation slipping into a deep recession and many Plainfielders struggling to make ends meet, what is the justification for proposing 9%+ increases for Department heads and 5.4% increases for seconds-in-command -- after giving 3.5% as the City's standard?

  • How can a salary go up 417%? As in the Public Information and Media line going from $17,000 to $71,000.

  • How can some salaries go in reverse? Everyone knows government workers' salaries are never reduced. But Committee members spotted a salary cut in Purchasing from$48,000 to $38,000; and another in Administrative Services from $32,000 to 2$7,000. Can a salary cut in the Municipal Court from $74,000 to $16,000 be correct?

  • More salary mysteries. Cutting jobs in the Health Division and giving the Director a hefty increase? Is the work getting done? Why no salaries reported for WIC in the previous year? Why would the Deputy Court Administrator and a Violations Clerk get outsized increases?
There were two others that caught my ear at Thursday's unofficial hearing (no quorum) --
  • Tax foreclosures. A prolonged discussion of tax-foreclosed properties (which Robinson-Briggs' budget duo failed to distinguish from bank foreclosures, a totally separate and mostly unrelated issue), led to the disclosure that the Robinson-Briggs administration now DOES have a list of tax-foreclosed City-owned properties (after being called to account by the auditors for this slip-up).

    BUT, there appears to be NO ORDERLY PROCESS IN PLACE for foreclosing on properties in tax arrears. This is a serious omission, as the tax-foreclosure pool must be constantly replenished. And that takes both time and money. It takes approximately 18 months to move a property from notice of intent to foreclose through actual foreclosure and assumption by the City of title to the property. And that involves legal costs for each and every property. Not to attend to this in an orderly fashion means that the pipeline will eventually run dry -- and so will the potential of income for the City. Question: Is Mayor Robinson-Briggs trying to forestall investing in the tax-foreclosure process in order to shave expenses from this year's budget, only to leave herself -- or her successor -- a problem in future years?

  • Street sweeping. One off-the-cuff suggestion by City Administrator Dashield Thursday evening was that money might be saved by reducing the street-sweeping schedule -- which has been every street approximately once-a-month, weather permitting, for the past ten years or so. I heard it, but I didn't process it until over the weekend. So, if Robinson-Briggs is NOT proposing to lay off any DPW workers (specifically the street-sweeper personnel), and we already have a street-sweeping program in place, what will the street-sweepers do if they are not sweeping the streets and not being laid off? And how will it save the taxpayers money?
A former City Administrator who shall remain nameless would have classified this as a 'drive-by thought' -- casual, poorly aimed, and dangerous to innocent bystanders.

Of which you, dear taxpayer, are one.

-- Dan Damon

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The New York Times: A fishy tale.

I have a question for Plainfield readers of the dead-tree version of the New York Times.

Have you noticed anything ... different ... lately?

My friend Billy Gene, a retired pharmaceutical executive (and fervent George W. Bush supporter) who retreated from New York City to his native Texas in retirement, used to refer to the New York Times as 'that odious newspaper'.

By which he meant the editorial section, not the arts and culture sections, which he lapped up avidly.

For my part, I have never ever felt the Times was odious, but something has definitely changed.

Last Sunday, while devouring the Sunday papers, I was driven to distraction by a decidedly fishy odor in the kitchen, where our ample counter gives us room to spread all three papers out as we read.

I couldn't nail it for sure, but finally decided to bundle up the stack of papers in the corner for the next pickup and, presto!, the smell went away.

This morning, the aroma was back -- intensely.

Scandinavians might think lutefisk or surströmming were lurking nearby. A classicist might suspect garum, the fermented fish sauce beloved of Romans high and low and similar, I am told, to the sauce favored in Southeast Asian cookery.

It definitely seems to be coming from the New York Times.

Is anyone else having this same experience? I would like to hear, if only to convince me I am not losing it olfactorily.

For now, though, I am rushing through reading my favorite paper, which has become so malodorous it is now odious to read.

As cats are mewing outside the kitchen door, waiting for the papers to be put out.

-- Dan Damon

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Halloween Ideas: Shakespeare Theater costume sale today

Looking for Halloween costume ideas?

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey offers hundreds of costumes and props today in its Halloween fundraiser.

What look do you want to achieve?

Tavern wench? No problemo.

Swashbuckler. Got that covered too.

From dresses, breeches and capes to masks, swords and other props, you can pick up just what you need to costume yourself or your home for that Elizabethan 'feel'.

The sale is 10 AM - 1 PM today at the Shakespeare Theater's Main Stage, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison.

Info: (973) 408-5600 or visit their website at

-- Dan Damon

Friday, October 24, 2008

'Crayola documents' at the budget hearing

Plainfield City Council took up a number of issues at Thursday evening's budget hearing, including the now-infamous $1.66M PILOTs error, Dudley House, and the 'Information and Technology' proposal.

When the public finally got copies of the spreadsheet with the $1.66M error, it literally -- as Councilman Reid exclaimed -- 'leaped off the page at you'.

Let's be perfectly clear: This mistake should have been caught by Mr. Peck before it even got to the stage of being put in the budget proposal. It is, after all, WHAT HE GETS PAID FOR.

Such an error would be highly unlikely at Eric Watson's PMUA, where spreadsheets are routinely sorted from highest to lowest dollar values FOR EXACTLY THIS REASON -- to spotlight items which might be jarringly wrong or need further investigation.

But it does not seem that ANYTHING submitted to the Council by Mayor Robinson-Briggs' hand-picked budget duo has been scrutinized IN THE LEAST.


On this spreadsheet of SFY2009 Anticipated Revenues, there were numerous errors that a 4th-grader would find embarrassing, as well as misleading and non-descriptive labels for revenue sources.

A few examples --
  • A column header entitled 'Relaized in Cash' which should presumably read 'Realized'

  • And these Revenue items with less-than-optimal descriptions --

    • 'Alcoholic Beverages' -- So, the city is selling booze? Or is it alcoholic beverage license renewal fees?
    • 'Other' -- When asked what this meant, the answer was 'permits and fees' to which the questioner replied, 'but you have another line called 'fees and permits'
    • 'Municipal Court' -- with no breakdown as to sources such as 'traffic', 'code enforcement fines', etc.
    • 'Interest and Cost on Taxes' -- How's that again?
    • 'Parking Meter Permits' -- But of course the Division's receipts come from TWO sources: Permits and Meters. When asked, the questioner was told the figure did include meter receipts; shouldn't the Council have a breakdown?
    • 'PILOT's -- There were several errors, the most glaring of which was referring to 'Covenant Manor' on East Front Street as 'Covenant House', the famous NYC program for runaway teens
    • 'Energy Receipts Tax' -- which was finally explained as monies paid by utilities customers in their bills, captured by the state from the utilities and shared with local municipalities. The formula? Don't even ask.
    • 'Municipal Homeland Security' and 'Life Hazard Use Payments' escaped my attention. What do YOU think they mean?
Such sloppy, sloppy, sloppy presentation would NEVER have been tolerated by previous City Administrators or Directors of Finance and Administration.

But wait! There's more.


Next up was the Dudley House discussion.

A two-page handout was intended to clarify what the City is spending to maintain the program in FY2009.

It was more than a year ago that the continuation of the program was put in danger because of a failure to get a license after ADA-required changes to the building had not been made. At this late date, this is what is being presented.

In the hearing, Councilor Burney made the point that the majority of clients are NOT from Plainfield but instead from other communities in Union and Middlesex counties. The administration replied that no other governmental entities were willing to pitch in, leaving the funding to Plainfield. It was also stated that Plainfield was looking to certify and maintain ownership of the building and was looking for a nonprofit to operate the program (no doubt a paid consultant would be used?).

An extended back-and-forth revealed that there have not been any clients in residence for some time as the premises do not meet the state's requirements.

When I asked why the City didn't look instead to sell the building to a nonprofit and get out of the rehab business, Mr. Dashield said that would be considered 'maybe as part of an RFP'.

With no current clients, with the staff laid off previously, and with the building out of compliance, I am having a hard time understanding why the Administration is proceeding down this path when it is facing other budget pressures and a difficult economic forecast.

During the course of the discussions, Mr. Peck referred to the color-coded calendar which broke the project of getting Dudley House certified down into four phases, each with a start- and end-date indicated in boxes next to the colored bars identifying the phases.

The right-hand side of the page was taken up by a calendar marked 'FY2009', which showed (via colored blocks) the dates on which various aspects of the project were to be done.

Unlike Mr. Peck, several people noticed immediately that there were discrepancies between the calendar and the dates in the boxes in the accompanying table.

When I asked why Phase 2 was shown on the calendar as begining on August 1st and in the table as having a start-date of September 15th, Mr. Peck said that it was a 'Crayola' document.

With apologies to 'Oops'.

How apt.

The other item to be discussed was the 'Information and Technology' handout.

I gagged on the opening statement --

The Information Technology Department (IT) will provide the tools for an efficient and productive government through innovative information technologies, while improving access to government information and services.

Plainfield Information Technology will create and deliver innovative technological solutions and support in order to provide citizens, businesses and government staff with access to information and services.

Perhaps we should refer to 'Plainfield Information Technology' as the PITs?

I'll take this up later.

Even faithful readers have their endurance limits.

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tonight's Budget Hearing: $1.6M gaffe, Public Information, Dudley House, more

The Plainfield City Council will continue its hearings on Mayor Robinson-Briggs' proposed FY2009 budget tonight, 7:30 PM in the City Hall Library.

The city's auditors will be on hand, per the Council's request to the administration on Monday evening, and are expected to be asked their opinion on the administration's proposal to make up the $1.66M shortfall in part by reducing the amount projected to be collected in FY2009 as a reserve against uncollected taxes for the year.

Whether or not the question of who made the mistake that threw off the PILOT calculations for the Allen Homes comes up, the bottom line is that Mayor Robinson-Briggs and her hand-picked team of City Administrator Marc Dashield and Finance and Administration Director Doug Peck are firmly on the hook as responsible for submitting the wrong figure to the state and to the Council.

Adding insult to injury, Dashield informed the Council on Monday that it would be their responsibility to clean up the Mayor's mess.

Also on tap for tonight are discussions of Mayor Robinson-Briggs' proposal to have the City fund Dudley House (most of whose clients are non-Plainfielders) out of Plainfield taxpayer revenues. (For a thorough and thoughtful discussion of the Dudley House matter, see Councilor Storch's blog post here.)

Other items expected to be discussed are the funding of Mayor Robinson-Briggs' Public Information boondoggle proposal as well as an expansive Information Technology budget item.

Public input is sought -- and welcomed -- by the Council.

Come on out and share your thoughts and questions with them.

Plainfield City Council
FY2009 Budget Hearing

7:30 PM Tonight

City Hall Library
515 Watchung Avenue
(Parking and entrance at rear of building)

-- Dan Damon

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Jersey Monthly: Who killed Muhlenberg Hospital?

Supporters gather for mock funeral on the eve of
Plainfield's Muhlenberg Hospital's closing. NJ Monthly.

The current issue of New Jersey Monthly has a must-read article entitled 'Who killed Muhlenberg Hospital'.

Written by Ken Terry, a former editor of Medical Economics magazine (and author Rx For Health Care Reform), the article presents an overview of the process of the closure by Solaris Health System of the 131-year-old community hospital which served 15 area communities.

The map showing distances to area hospitals is worth the price of the magazine alone if you are not a subscriber.

My only quibble is that Terry touches very lightly on the roles of Assemblyman Jerry Green and Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

While it is true that the Mayor (without consulting the Council) decided to file suit against the state's decision to close Muhlenberg, an action in which she was later supported by the Assemblyman, a fuller telling of the story would include outlining the Assemblyman's failure to have a 'Plan A' to save the hospital in the first place and only bringing forth his 'Plan B' to smooth the way for the closure once Solaris made its announcement last spring.

Perhaps NJ Monthly could ask Terry to do a followup?

-- Dan Damon

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Mapp, Gilbert square off at League forum tonight

Former councilor and Union County freeholder Adrian Mapp will face write-in candidate Brenda Gilbert in tonight's League of Women Voters forum at the Plainfield Public Library.

Both are running for the Ward 3 seat on City Council in November's general election.

Annie McWilliams, candidate for the citywide at-large seat and William Reid, candidate for the Ward 1 seat will also participate, though neither is opposed in the general election.

All the candidates are Democrats.

Deborah Dowe, who was a Republican candidate, withdrew from the race in September.

The Plainfield chapter, under its current president Herb Green, is celebrating its 88th year, and is one of the oldest chapters in the country.

Following longstanding League practice, attendees will be able to submit written questions for the candidates, which will be posed by a League moderator who is not a Plainfield resident.

League of Women Voters Candidate Forum

7:00 PM Tonight

Anne Louise Davis Meeting Room
Plainfield Public Library
Park Avenue at West 8th Street

-- Dan Damon

Anthrax suspicions aroused at Plainfield Chase branch

Firefighters and police investigate suspicious envelope
at Chase Bank branch on Park Avenue. Photo: Dan Damon.

Plainfield appears to be one of many cities targeted nationwide where Chase Bank branches received envelopes containing a suspicious white powder. Memories of anthrax mailings several years ago in New Jersey put authorities on high alert.

Fire vehicles blockaded Park Avenue between Front and Second Streets Tuesday afternoon in response to a report of a suspicious envelope containing white powder that was delivered to Plainfield's Chase Bank branch in the county office building at West Front Street and Park Avenue.

Plainfield OEM coordinator Sheldon Green, police and firefighters cordoned off the area and eventually removed the suspicious envelope for testing.

Plainfield Fire Division equipment blocks off Park Avenue.
Photo: Dan Damon.

Today's Star-Ledger and Gannett editions report that the suspicious letters were received at numerous Chase Bank branches in central New Jersey -- including Watchung -- but both fail to mention the Plainfield incident. One has to wonder if this is because of the general policy by the Robinson-Briggs administration of keeping police activity off the media's radar. Read the Ledger story here, and the Gannett story here.

The Associated Press reports that more than thirty such envelopes were tested after a nationwide rash of mailings to Chase Bank branches were received Tuesday.

According to the FBI, the substance found is non-toxic and thought to be calcium.

Barricades were taken down in Plainfield and traffic restored about 2:30 PM.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mayor Robinson-Briggs' desperate budget gamble

Desperate to avoid proposing a tax increase in the range of 13% as she enters the final year of her term, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs had her budget team -- City Administrator Marc Dashield and Finance and Administration Director Douglas Peck -- do some pretty fancy tap-dancing at Monday's City Council budget hearing.

The Fire Division presentation was discussed, bringing out that the principal funding increase for FY2009 was for anticipated salary adjustments in the range of 4%-4.5%, according to City Administrator Marc Dashield. (The Fire Division contracts are up for renewal presently.)

Discussing the Fire Division's long-range capital needs, the Council was apprised the Division is looking into leasing new equipment rather than purchasing outright. (Fire trucks are expensive items, ranging from around $500,000 to well over $1M -- though a projected life of 15 years puts that in some perspective.)

The Division's proposal to eventually replace the South Avenue stationhouse adjacent to the Netherwood train station with a new facility at a new location caused a bit of a stir, with Councilor Burney wondering aloud if the city could get by with just ONE fire station. (I don't think closing either the Netherwood or West End stationhouses is a good idea. Keep in mind that the length of time it takes the Fire Division to respond to a fire at your home or business directly impacts the premium you pay for property insurance.)

Following that, Mr. Dashield handed out written answers to questions from the previous hearing, and then came the real meat-and-potatoes of the evening: Mayor Robinson-Briggs' proposal on handling the embarrassing $1.66M shortfall in the budget proposal submitted to the state.

I was put in mind of an Abbott and Costello routine.

There was much back-and-forth over which item was being discussed from the worksheet of adjustments recommended by the administration, leaving CBAC and audience members scratching their heads at points.

This was underscored by a shortage of handouts for the public, but more importantly from the format (evidently) of the budget document itself. I was reminded exactly why governors and presidents like to talk about a 'line-item veto' -- because, as in many forms of contracts and other legal documents, EVERY SINGLE LINE OF THE DOCUMENT IS NUMBERED (something Excel can do automatically), making it easy for all to know exactly where the discussion is focusing.

It also seemed to me that there would have been a much shorter and easier-to-follow discussion if we had used an old-fashioned technology like foils to project the page on a screen for all to follow along. Old-fashioned perhaps, but effective.

Finally, the explanation wrangled out was along these lines --
  • The $1.66M is a shortfall in REVENUES, owing to a typo in the proposed budget;
  • Robinson-Briggs proposes to correct the problem with TWO adjustments --
    • (1) Use $3.131M of the surplus instead of the originally proposed $2.3M, an increase of $831,000.
    • (2)Reduce the reserve for uncollected taxes from $3.929M to $3.097M, meaning a reduction of $832,000 to be raised as revenues.
  • Together, the two cancel out the $1.66M error.
When Councilor Burney asked whose responsibility it was to 'fix' the error: would the Administration have to resubmit the proposed budget to the State or what, Dashield threw the ball to the Council, saying they would have to address the matter through their amendments of the original proposal. (Thanks, guys.)

Dashield explained that the reduction in the amount to be raised for reserves against uncollected taxes was pushed to the maximum allowed by the State in view of the size of the error being adjusted for.

Showing itself unwilling to just take the Administration's word for it, the Council asked for the auditors to come to Thursday's budget hearing and explain that the Administration's proposal on the reserve for uncollected taxes was based on a reasonable expectation.

The Council would be remiss in its fiduciary responsibilities if it did not use this as an opportunity to ask 'Who made the error: the city or the auditors?' (The city claimed in the media that it was made by the auditors.)

I think Mayor Robinson-Briggs is making an enormous gamble here.

Solving the shortfall by reducing the amount set aside for uncollected taxes assumes that the taxes collected in the upcoming fiscal year will not only meet, but will actually exceed, this year's rate. The Administration would put the city in a real pickle if there is not enough blood to be squeezed from the stone.

In this regard, we need to bear in mind the dire projections for the New Jersey economy for the next year, as reported widely in today's papers.

As New Jersey, and Plainfield along with it, sinks into what is expected to be the deepest, sharpest and longest recession since the 1930s, Robinson-Briggs' rosy scenario may just be a pipe-dream.

In which case, the City could well fall into an emergency situation in the middle of the budget year and face either raising taxes or cutting services on an emergent basis.

Not a pleasant prospect.

-- Dan Damon

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Monday, October 20, 2008

With budget mess, a calendar for you

Councilor Burney has graciously provided members of the Budget Advisory Commission an outline of the balance of the budget process:
Proposed Budget Completion and Adoption Dates

Monday October 20
  • Fire and other department(s).
Thursday October 23
  • Extra budget meeting: Deep dive - IT, Public Information, Incorrect revenue from housing project [the $1.66M PILOT misstatement], and Project Alert [Dudley House].
Friday October 31
  • Citizens budget advisory committee sends budget recommendations to council.
Friday Nov 7
  • City Council sends budget changes to Council finance committee.
Monday Nov 10
  • City Council discusses budget changes and receommendations (from citizens budget advisory committee) with self, and requests admin comment and implementation. Citizens budget advisory committee presentation of receommendations to City Council.
Wed Nov 13
  • Admin responds electronically to change recommendations.
Mon Nov 17
  • Resolution for budget changes is finalized and brought forward.
Mon December 1
  • FY 2009 budget adoption.
With the budget process in such disarray because of Mayor Robinson-Briggs' flawed submission of a proposal, all taxpayers should be on the alert as the process moves forward.

We need to know that the Citizens Budget Advisory Commission is getting complete and accurate information on which to base their assessment and recommendations -- and that they are truly independent and not being pressured by the Administration or the Council.

The Council also needs support and input -- individually and as a group -- from concerned taxpayers as they try to sort out the mess.

The Council also needs to put the Administration on notice (O Ray Blanco! Where are you when we need you?!) that it is the Council that strikes the budget, not the Administration. How the mess will be cleaned up is a decision that falls on the Council -- happily or unhappily.

According to this list, the Fire Division and others are to be taken up after tonight's expected-to-be-brief Council business meeting at the Courthouse (8:00 PM).

Expect to hear much more from the media and the bloggers as this misshapen budget beast slouches toward adoption.

-- Dan Damon

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Sunday twofer: FOSH sale, Drake House event

It's going to be a gorgeous day.

Don't spend it all on the yard.

Check out the FOSH Fall Garage Sale (by popular demand), with about 60 homes. Set your sights on Watchung, Leland and Woodland Avenues and proceed from there.

There is also a special-interest multi-household yard sale at 1326 Watchung Avenue benefiting the Homeless Animal Lifeline. Pet lovers, you know what to do!

From Noon to 5, you can check out the Drake House, where Alicia Washington will be protraying Abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and pick up a guide to the other 24 sites open today, which is the final day of the annual 'Four Centuries in a Weekend' sponsored by the Union County Commission on Cultural and Heritage Affairs.

-- Dan Damon

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Straight talk needed on Robinson-Briggs budget deficit

The $1.66 million deficit uncovered at a public budget hearing through Council questions is an extreme embarrassment to Mayor Robinson-Briggs and her budget honchos, City Administrator Marc Dashield and (still unbonded) Director of Finance and Administration Douglas Peck.

What Plainfield taxpayers need is some straight talk from Mayor Robinson-Briggs and her hand-picked budget experts.

All Plainfield taxpayers are getting so far is spin.

Take, for instance, the coverage of the story in today's Courier (see here), where Dashield tries to throw the City's auditors under the bus. (You will note that Assemblyman Jerry Green is mysteriously silent, as is Finance Director Peck.)

Writing against deadline, as Courier reporter Mark Spivey has to do, has inherent problems, the chief of which is that there is not enough time to get to the bottom of the Robinson-Briggs administration's shameless spinning of every difficulty.

Just a few of spin items --
  • Who is responsible for the budget proposal submitted? No matter who helps prepare it, the responsibility is solely that of Mayor Robinson-Briggs and her hand-picked department heads. These folks sign off on the documents and attest with their signatures that the documents are accurate and meet the requirements of state law. There is no crossing one's fingers when signing off.

  • 'Licensing' the auditors? Since when does the City 'license' the auditors? Auditors are licensed by the state. They are hired by the City to perform a number of tasks. If they prepare any documents for the Mayor or her designees to sign off on, those who sign off are on the hook.

  • Is anyone checking anything? PILOTs are an important part of the City's annual revenues. The payments due are arrived at through calculations made according to state-approved formulas. While they may fluctuate slightly, an increase of 1,000% is eyepopping, a red flag that would have been obvious to anyone familiar with PILOTs or who scanned the comparison of the most recent year and the projection at all.

  • When did the Robinson-Briggs administration know it had a problem? Lost in all the hubbub is that Dashield and Peck told the Council that they knew the mistake had been made and that the budget proposal had been forwarded to the DCA in Trenton for review anyway. Helluva a way to run a railroad, wouldn't you say?
If these were adults, they would take responsibility.

Instead, Robinson-Briggs looks for someone to throw under the bus and then goes for the sugar bowl.

Leaving the Council to make good on her sloppiness.

Why should Plainfielders have to put up with this incompetence?

-- Dan Damon

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Robinson-Briggs budget proposal sloppy and deceptive. On purpose?

The inscription above City Hall cites the building as
"dedicated by [the people] to the cause of just and capable government.

The Robinson-Briggs budget proposal presentation for FY2009 evoked visible signs of anger and consternation among Council members at Thursday's budget hearing, according to phone conversations I had after the meeting (which I did not attend).

Members of the Citizens Advisory Commission had privately expressed concerns to me over the inability of the Robinson-Briggs administration to provide accurate and timely information to them previously.

But Thursday evening's meeting seems to have gone over the top.

Among the issues that bear looking into are --
  • Robinson-Briggs' effort to deceive the Council over secretly funding the Dudley House drug rehabilitation program (which has non-Plainfield and non-Union County clients) out of the City budget after failing to get grant monies to run it;

  • Robinson-Briggs' failure to advise the Council in advance that the much-vaunted 'shared services agreement' with the school district for information technology services had foundered and is considered dead as of August, a revelation which appeared as news to the Council;

  • Robinson-Briggs' attempts to portray her reduced staffing of the Police Division as an 'improvement' over the McWilliams' administration, for which she drags out the old, discredited canard of '18 police layoffs' (which Courier reporter Mark Spivey innocently reported as fact in his story on Wednesday's meeting which can be found here); and finally,

  • Robinson-Briggs' budget proposal misstates expected receipts in a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program by a figure in excess of $1.5 million. This means that the shortfall in revenues will have to be made up. The choices are: 1) through a tax increase, 2) through a one-time fix such as the sale of an asset [which the State frowns on], or 3) dipping into the City's 'rainy day' funds.
According to members of the Citizens' Budget Advisory Commission, these are only the latest bloopers. What intrigues me is that once the State's Department of Community Affairs reviews the budget proposal and bounces it back for needed corrections, time will be lost, more than likely running the projected adoption process into overtime.

The shambles in the budget process that is being revealed is particularly striking since no one can recall such a mess during the tenures of previous finance directors Ron West or Tom Morrison III, which takes us back to at least 1994.

Robinson-Briggs' new finance director, Douglas Peck, may yet rue his comment to the Plaintalker last July (see here) --
Peck said he sees as the biggest issue that decisions are being made about the budget “that are not informed decisions.”
All of which leads me to wonder if Robinson-Briggs intends to delay the budget's adoption to minimize the effects of proposed program and staff changes, rendering them effectively moot, as has been the case with past budgets.

In any event, dear taxpayer, it is your wallet that is being picked.

Be watchful!

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Make money from your scrap gold -- for yourself and the Symphony

In times like these, many Plainfielders are thinking about ways to come up with a few (or maybe more than a few) extra bucks.

Now comes an opportunity to get some cash -- and help the cause of the Plainfield Symphony at the same time.

Bring in your scrap gold to Suburban Jewelers today, tomorrow and Saturday and they will buy it from you and make a donation out of the proceeds to the Plainfield Symphony. (You MUST mention the Symphony when bringing the items in.)

'Scrap gold', you ask? As did I.

Not being a jewelry buff, I was intrigued that folks would have 'scrap' gold, but when I asked
Suburban Jewelers' helpful owner Lisa Cohen, she promptly explained how gold items can become 'scrap'.

"Lots of earrings and cufflinks end up losing their mates," Lisa said, "and go to live in the back of a drawer or a jewelry box. Then there are chains and bracelets that may get broken or lose some links. And we shouldn't forget that some items go out-of-style or are gifts or hand-me-downs that the owner knows they will never use or wear."

Suburban Jewelers has bought such items from customers ever since it began business, and Lisa thought it would be a great opportunity to also benefit the Plainfield Symphony, of which she is a long-time champion.

How does it work?

Scoop up your loose items and bring them down to the store -- which will be open tonight and tomorrow until 7 PM just for this event.

Lisa will assess the purity of the gold in the items (see the slide show below), weigh them up, and calculate the value to you based on what gold is selling for on the open market that day.

One customer was surprised to find that the items she brought in netted her $450 in cash on the spot.

Not bad, huh?

The slide show above details the steps from bringing your items in to the store to determining the value to you -- and a contribution to the Plainfield Symphony.

Lisa's offer stands for the balance of the month of October, but YOU MUST MENTION THE PLAINFIELD SYMPHONY for the Symphony to benefit.

Suburban Jewelers
126 East Front Street

Phone: (908) 756-1774

Open this today and tomorrow, 10 AM - 7 PM
Saturday, 10 AM - 5 PM

Metered parking available on Front Street and in the City lot
behind the store, accessible off East Second Street.

-- Dan Damon

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