Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hispanic Affairs Commission Reorganizes

Conceived ten years ago by the late Councilman Ray Blanco, an advocacy group for Hispanic residents is enjoying a rebirth with new leadership.

Since Blanco envisioned the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs, the city's Latino population has swelled 67 percent to the point where half the schoolchildren come from Spanish-speaking families. A walk around the downtown or Park & Seventh business district turns up dozens of restaurants offering cuisines of more than 20 homelands of new residents and recent summer festivals have brought thousands of Latinos out for music, food and souvenirs of their heritage.
Flor Gonzalez
On Wednesday, commission members met in City Hall Library to introduce new officers as Latino entrepreneurs and activists looked on. Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition and a 35-year city resident, is the new president.

Gonzalez said the commission will launch a "Get to Know" campaign alerting the public to its mission, through direct contact and outreach through churches, schools, sporting events, festivals, the July Fourth parade, social media and perhaps even signage in taxis.

She said the commission will seek participation from all residents, including youth and seniors.

"Our commission is going to be here for all of you," she said.
Maritza Martinez
 Maritza Martinez, owner of a downtown business for 25 years, is vice president. Other officers are Carlos Ponton, secretary and Libia Saavedra Price, treasurer. The City Council liaison is Rebecca Williams and Christian Estevez is Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's appointee to the commission.

In a press statement, Mapp said, "As mayor, I work hard every day to ensure that Plainfield is a city of opportunity for all. The Hispanic Advisory Commission is an integral part of our community's vision for 'One Plainfield, One Future.' "

Police Director Carl Riley told the commissioners he hopes to increase the number of Spanish-speaking staff in the Police Division, currently only 15 out of 140 employees. He urged the commissioners to encourage Hispanics to take tests to serve as dispatchers, police aides and police officers.

As for the Hispanic community at large, he said, "Everybody's going to be treated the same, whether undocumented or not."

Williams recalled being a community activist working with Blanco when he came up with the concept of an advisory commission on Hispanic affairs. An ordinance creating the commission was passed in 2005. Blanco passed away unexpectedly in 2006 while he was council president.

Initial appointments to the commission in 2010 faltered and it became inactive. Williams said its renewal now and the appointment of Carlos Sanchez as deputy city administrator for economic development speaks to the commitment of the Mapp administration "to engage the Hispanic community."

Duties and powers of the commission include advising the mayor and council of needs, concerns and accomplishments of the Hispanic community, seeking input from community residents and leaders, making city services more accessible to Hispanics, insuring their role in policy-making and improving communications with the administration and governing body.

The commission will meet at 7 p.m. on May 8 in City Hall and subsequent meetings will be on the first Thursday of each month. The public is welcome to attend.


See Liberty Village Meeting on YouTube

David Rutherford has posted the PCTV YouTube video of the Emergency Town Hall on Liberty Village

Budget Meeting Relocated

Tonight's budget deliberations session has been moved to City Hall Library. The meeting is 7 p.m. and topics are the Health Division and Purchasing. Remaining sessions have been changed - details later. 

Budget Talks Ongoing, More Tonight

Tuesday's budget deliberations featured a new Recreation superintendent promising innovations, but gave a cold shoulder for Media plans to re-brand the city.

All seven members of the 2014 Citizens Budget Advisory Committee took part, along with City Council members William Reid, Vera Greaves and Council President Bridget Rivers. Finance Director Ron West and Chief Financial Officer Al Steinberg gave overviews.

Steinberg launched the session at the Plainfield Public Library by announcing a very good tax collection rate last year "which allows the city to make an investment in itself." He said the addition of new personnel in 2014 'has to come with results to allow for stabilization of the budget."

It was Steinberg's first day on the job as the only full-time CFO since 2007, in itself a key factor in Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's fiscal plan for the city.

Superintendent of Recreation Roni Taylor was only four days into her position, but said she had completed an assessment of all facilities and intended to present expanded programs for people of all ages.

"We've got to get people walking," she said of one innovation.

Also on tap will be swimming lessons at city pools and a combined youth baseball program. Taylor said she plans to replace "pencil and paper" records with automated data and will create dual language signage at playgrounds. Partnerships with schools and churches are also a priority, she said.

The office of superintendent has been vacant since September 2012. Plans call for five full-time staff in 2014 and $382,702 for seasonal workers, with $84,000 for pool salaries and $95,627 for other expenses. The total proposed Recreation budget is $833,620, but West proposed amendments totaling $20,000 for uniforms for the expanded baseball league, park maintenance and playground equipment and repairs.

Funds to cover the $20,000 as well as $112,000 for Engineering and $10,000 for merchant fees in a new electronic payment system for Municipal Court fines will come from excess 2014 pension allocations in the introduced budget, West said.

Reid called for lower taxes and also held out hope that a former Recreation employee would be rehired. Greaves said her one issue was bickering over two baseball leagues. CBAC member Jan Massey asked for a count of Recreation participants, but Taylor said she could not give an answer at this point, due to the way data had been kept. Massey also questioned the use of city pools by non-residents. Taylor said she understood lifeguards just did head counts, but she wants data on hours, ages and who is using the pools. Reid said he wanted "low or no fees" and felt children from North Plainfield should not be turned away.

Taylor said she wanted to create "a culture of membership" at the pools.

CBAC member Richard Stewart said a "new look at programs" is needed, and fees are not always a bad thing. He said there is a "correlation between fees and kids' dedication to the sport." He urged more outreach to Hispanics, who make up 50 percent of the school population.

But CBAC member Mustapha Muhammad said a large part of the city population is disenfranchised and may not afford fees. He called recreation "the path to vocation and education" but deplored the state of Seidler Field. Drill teams, dance teams and step teams are always looking for a place to practice, he said and should be able to use city facilities.

On overall finances, Steinberg spoke about the 10-year loss of ratables that must be considered along with the improved tax collection rate. He said taxes could rise yearly without a push for economic development, which is one of the components of the 2014 budget.

Also interviewed were IT Director Chris Payne, who noted the need to replace equipment and to assess its use. A new property management system will be rolled out in 2014, he said, with block and lot information available to all. Digitizing cashier systems and monitoring spending will also be priorities.

Rivers asked about use of consultants versus in-house staff and West said the city is always looking at the pros and cons.

The expanded Media division got a cool reception after West said its budget was up 82 percent. Formerly just PCTV operations, the division now includes a public information officer and web site management. The web site needs to be redesigned and the city needs a re-branding strategy, West said.

"We just can't afford some of this stuff," Reid said, adding he thinks the mayor should put out press releases. He said the city existed for 140 years and over the last 20 he did not recall anyone with the PIO title. But then he said there was one in the last administration who was let go because the council said he wasn't needed.

City Administrator Rick Smiley said the Media team will eventually pay for themselves, but Reid said, "What is your definition of 'eventually?' "

"I don't see us affording all of this at one time," Greaves said.

Muhammad agreed with the arguments, saying "if we really critique our internal controls, we wouldn't have to extend the budget like this."

Greaves said residents, especially seniors, have no more income after paying for "food, medicine and taxes."

Acting PIO Rebecca Perkins said the division is going from simply television to something that serves as public information.

"It's really an expansion of service," she said.

The last presentation was a brief one on the Purchasing Division.

Budget deliberations continue at 7 p.m. tonight in the Anne Louise Davis Room at the Plainfield Public Library. City Hall Library.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Speakers Offer background on Liberty Village Saga

Two people added some back story Monday to the Liberty Village controversy, while Deputy City Administrator Carlos Sanchez attempted to focus on action needed for the Section 8 complex's next chapter and Assemblyman Jerry Green called for a probe by Rep. Rush Holt on residents' rights.

Current owner Sam Perlman began his remarks by citing "a lot of misinformation" at the town meeting called by three City Council members. He echoed the timeline Sanchez had explained, the property being built in 1982 with a 50-year "payment in lieu of taxes" agreement. There was also a 30-year management plan with the Housing Authority of Plainfield. In 2009, the senior partner died and Perlman said he met with HAP staff, but was not allowed in the complex.

Perlman said he "knocked on nine doors" and took pictures and statements.

"I saw things I was disgusted by,' he said.

His investigation led to a lawsuit that was settled by not having HAP manage the complex any more, and the owner sought the "biggest and best" management company, which he identified as Interstate. He said for 78 of the 96 units, improvements included 105 refrigerators and stoves, 38 cabinets, 25 new hot water heaters, new roofs on all buildings, re-tiled bathrooms and window bars.

"We did everything," he said.

He said his company "looked very hard" to find a new owner and settled on Tryko, which owns 6,000 units.

"We're at a crossroads now," he said.

The PILOT was brought to the council on April 8 and did not get moved to the agenda.

"We want Tryko to be the new owner," he said.

Regarding use of a community room, he said it was necessary to use it as a staging are for the repairs, which other speakers said resulted in the complex going from an unacceptable rating from HUD to a much higher one.

He asked the council members, all seven of whom attended the meeting, to please vote for the PILOT agreement.

In another revelation, a former manager at the complex told residents, "There are things in place to prevent the kind of things you were subject to."

She said the property was never registered with the state Department of Community Affairs and so was never inspected for 26 years. The state usually inspects multi-family dwellings every five years. However, HUD inspections revealed sub-par conditions that yielded unacceptable scores.A new manager was able to improve the Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) scores.

(David Rutherford's Plainfield View has video of most of this. See and hear for yourself.)

4/22 correction from Bridget Rivers
Good morning,
1st I would like to say thanks for coming out last night. I just want to make one correction I did say I would not push to have a special meeting until I have everything that was mentioned in WRITING.
The residents were promised many things in the past which were not delivered, and there is nothing in writing from the owners to substantiate that. I do not want the same thing to happen again.
I was not there when the now owners took over management from the housing authority so I have nothing to do with what was done in the past, but I can speak up for the residents now.
 I will have a special meeting to make sure the deadlines are meet.
I also would like for the new potential owners to meet with the residents. You must know no matter what I have the residents best interest at heart.
Guys I cannot allow the residents to get burnt on this one. Please understand. As always your I appreciate constructive criticism.


Monday, April 21, 2014

A Quick Summary of the Liberty Village Town Hall

Council President Bridget Rivers (l.) addresses residents at the town meeting

Billed as a night for truth to be told, Monday's "town meeting" on the future of Liberty Village took on a Rashomon tone as two speakers said a sale must take place by early May and Assemblyman Jerry Green said he will ask Rep. Rush Holt to effect an extension.

Carlos Sanchez, the city's new economic development director, gave an audience of about 60 Liberty Village residents and others a detailed scenario of the situation leading up to the proposed sale of the 96-unit subsidized housing complex. The parties involved include HUD, the current owner, a management firm and a prospective buyer. The City Council's only role is to agree to amend and transfer a "payment in lieu of taxes" agreement to the new owner in order to effectuate the sale. Sanchez described all the improvements and amenities that will come with the sale, but said it must happen by May 7 or 9 when the Section 8 contract is due to expire.

Green came to the table frowning and as Sanchez said the new 20-year contract was needed "to assure your rents don't go up," Green blurted, "I ain't got all night to be here," demanding that Sanchez finish. He expressed displeasure that as "head of housing in the state," he was not called about the deal, although later he said he knew about it last year. He chided Sanchez for talking about a laundry and community room "when HUD is about to close them."

"I'm starting at Washington to find out whether they  failed to negotiate," he said, telling the residents, "I asked Congressman Rush Holt to find out what rights you have."

Sanchez had previously given details of the proposed sale at council meetings on April 8 and April 15. On Monday, current owner Sam Perlman backed up the need for a decision in early May and the fact that the PILOT agreement is integral to the sale. The prospective owner was still observing a religious holiday as he was last week and did not attend Monday's meeting.

Although it was suggested that the council could schedule a special meeting to vote on the PILOT, Council President Bridget Rivers said, "I never said I would have a special meeting to get the PILOT signed."

(There was a lot more to this meeting, but I can't write any more right now. Look for more tomorrow. It was also taped for PCTV and two other bloggers were there.)

Houses of Worship Tour May 3

Displaying 14tour_poster.jpg

A couple of weeks ago I met a Plainfield woman in Westfield at a downtown bus stop. We were chatting about city churches, especially Grace Church and its Tiffany windows. She mentioned how she always intends to go on the tours of churches, but never quite manages to do it. Well, here is the 2014 info and I hope my bus stop friend makes it this time. I do not ordinarily post event notices, but this one is for her.