An economic revival is tied to re-branding the city's image, Deputy City Administrator Carlos Sanchez said at Wednesday's budget talks, but also to unity among the city's diverse populations.
Calling it critical to a city with declining ratables, Sanchez said it is not going to happen "unless we all come together as a community."
Sanchez drew on his experience as the 10-year director of economic development in Elizabeth. He came to Plainfield on Feb. 1 and has since been examining Plainfield's needs. He cited two big pluses in the city's favor, its recent designation as the state's 28th transit village and the start of the one-seat ride to New York on the Raritan Valley Line. To attract new residents and commercial enterprises, he said, the city must become more welcoming, with amenities to enhance residential development around the train stations and a more streamlined approval process for developers.
"Every time we delay an approval, that means dollars and cents to developers," he said.
For the past eight years, economic development was in the hands of a division-level manager. Prior to that, the title of deputy city administrator had been changed by ordinance from an ombudsman function to a focus on economic development. Sanchez now holds that cabinet-level title. Among his wide-ranging plans, he said he intends to place a desk in his office so business owners can meet with advisers on dealing with lenders to grow their companies. He also intends to create better understanding of the remaining benefits of the Urban Enterprise Zone program, review all redevelopment plans, enforce ordinances on store window signage, and get business owners into a Google program that offers free web sites to market their products.
Also up for discussion Wednesday was the budget for Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's office, which now covers the new title of chief of staff. The City Council approved the title and a salary range last year, but a council majority is now balking at paying for the person Mapp chose to fill the position. City Administrator Rick Smiley recited the numerous tasks of the chief of staff, but Councilman William Reid told Smiley, "It sounds like you're describing the mayor's job and your job."
Mapp is the full-time finance director in Orange in addition to being the part-time mayor of Plainfield. Smiley is in charge of day-to-day operations of the city and said the chief of staff is the city's liaison to county, state and federal.government, in addition to performing constituency service and other tasks.
Mapp was a councilman before being elected mayor and Reid has framed his argument against paying the chief of staff in terms of the council's denial of hiring an office assistant for the previous mayor, Sharon Robinson-Briggs.
The previous mayor herself took notes through the session and spoke in public comment against paying $80,000 for a chief of staff. She said she was "shocked" at a $1 million increase in the budget and claimed she worked "seven days a week" as the mayor.
"Mapp has the same option," she said. "He should not have someone to uphold his back because he is not here in the day."
The Citizens Budget Advisory Committee is scheduled to give its report Monday. CBAC member Jan Massey asked the council's budget consultant, Lawrence Caroselli, if the budget was reasonable.
"Certainly, it is up to the council overall," Caroselli said, but added, "It is a fairly reasonable budget for where Plainfield is and where it would like to go."
Finance Director Ron West responded to Plaintalker earlier on Wednesday with this explanation of a further reduction in the projected tax increase for 2014:
"The Introduced budget indicated the municipal tax increase for a home assessed at $113,000 would be $129.37, of which $25.99 was due directly to the loss in ratables. This represents a 2.68% increase over CY 2013. The average home assessed at $113,000 received a municipal tax increase of $166.06 in 2013.
"As a follow-up to the Introduced budget the Council was provided with a list of requested amendments from Administration: $142,000 in additional funding requests, offset by $431,898 in lower pension payments for 2014, for a net budget decrease of $289,898.00. The $289,898.00 net decrease would lower the tax increase to $101.96 per average assessed value home, an increase of 2.12% over 2013."