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