Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Layoff Plan Advances, Outsourcing Costs To Be Reviewed
The City Council agreed Monday to move a Planning Division layoff plan to the Oct. 13 agenda for a vote, but will not approve outsourcing the division until further analysis of four bids received on Oct. 1.
Numerous speakers disagreed with the proposed outsourcing of the Planning Division, which serves four city land use boards in addition to seeking and monitoring federal, state and county grants and answering queries daily from developers and property owners. Many speakers were incredulous that the bidders could handle the workload at the costs quoted, and predicted change orders and other ploys to increase billable hours.
Corporation Counsel David Minchello and City Administrator Rick Smiley defended the proposed outsourcing as a means of cost saving and greater efficiency. Smiley said the current Planning Division staff, with salary and fringe benefits, costs $408,027 annually and another $75,000 is budgeted for consultants, for a total of $483,027. He said the four respondents to the request for proposals all projected "significant savings" greater than $200,000 to $300,000.
Planning Director William Nierstedt spoke for himself and the three others who would be laid off, reading a 12-minute statement on what the division does and challenging the notion that an outside firm could replicate it. The others, April Stefel, Scott Bauman and Ron Johnson, each ceded their three-minute allotment for public comment to Nierstedt. Among them, he said, they have 46 years of experience and work 6,697 hours a year.
Nierstedt said their compensation averages out at $50 per hour, while a consultant gets $140 an hour. Paying that rate for the workload would cost nearly $1 million, he said.
The city will only get an unlicensed junior planner for eight hours a week at the rate projected for outsourcing, he said.
"There is no economy or savings here," he said, surmising that the goal of an outsourced firm would be "escrow dollars."
Nierstedt and numerous other speakers said people will not be able to get their questions answered, but will have to wait for callbacks or maybe go to an out-of-town office. Other losses would be institutional knowledge of the city and its structures, easy interaction with the Inspections and Building staff, and even defense against developers who might want to skirt the rules.
An attorney who often represents clients at the land use boards told the council, "You want someone strong working for the city of Plainfield."
"Your legacy will be how Plainfield develops while you're on the council," attorney Daniel Bernstein said.
A speaker who claimed 30 years of owning property in Plainfield called the city "an untapped gold mine" where development is imminent. As demands on the Planning Board increase, he said, "You want to give them premier service. The last thing you want is another level of bureaucracy."
Only one speaker lashed out at Nierstedt, claiming she has has "nothing but problems" with the Planning Division and alleging "unprofessionalism and bias" on his part.
Among council comments, Cory Storch said, "It seems to me the way we are saving money is by drastically reducing services."
But Eric Watson, director of Public Works and Urban Development, said there would be "no diminishment" and the Planning office would be staffed "five days a week, eight hours a day," with four to five people.
Storch said he would not support outsourcing unless he got a much more detailed explanation of the bids. Minchello said the bids are public documents available to anyone.
Of the six council members present Monday, Storch and Rebecca Williams were not in favor of moving the layoff plan to the Oct. 13 agenda, while Vera Greaves, Diane Toliver, Tracey Brown and Council President Bridget Rivers agreed to move it. Gloria Taylor was absent. The resolution will be to send the layoff plan to the state Civil Service Commission for approval.
The regular meeting is 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.