Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Alarming Health Concern

Backing up Dr. Yood's concerns about public health concerns, here is an excerpt from the April 23 budget session post that I did not publish:

Health Officer Needed
Among items of interest, a discussion of the Health Division on April 23 meeting revealed the city is still seeking a Health Officer. Meanwhile, the city is using the services of a Union County health officer who is not providing "managerial oversight."

Finance Director Ron West West said the city has 330 retail food establishments, but only 106 got inspected last year, leaving 224 that were not inspected.

"We only did 30 percent of what was required," he said.

So far in 2014, only 14 such inspections have been made.

The Health Division also is responsible for issuing dog and cat licenses, but West said only 164 dogs are licensed and only three cats. He said at least 17 households went to South Plainfield to get rabies shots for pets and now they will be receiving letters from the city saying their dogs are not registered and they face fees and penalties.

West said the city is mandated to provide public health services. He said the city has been "historically challenged" with health issues.

"We need to be at the forefront," he said.

West said the division has not been technologically sophisticated group, but plans call for a move away from paper records.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Study Team Holds Third Muhlenberg Forum

Activist Nancy Piwowar wears a Candy Striper uniform at the third Muhlenberg forum.

Nancy Piwowar envisioned a medical museum as a "cultural tourism" draw to Plainfield.

Claire Tucker called for a trauma center to deal with drug overdoses, shootings and stabbings.

Citing extreme health and social services needs here, Jeff Scheckner said of all places in Union County, "Plainfield needs a hospital."

No one spoke in favor of putting hundreds of luxury apartments on the site of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, which closed in 2008.
Planners Susan Gruel and Fred Heyer conducted their third community meeting Tuesday to gather comments from residents. Their charge in a study funded by the city is to gain consensus on what people want to see on the site.

"Our final product will be a change in zoning," Heyer said.

The initial concept will be posted on the city web site and it will be discussed at another community forum before a final report.
Dottie Gutenkauf
Activist Dottie Gutenkauf, who organized rallies to save the hospital and later to restore it, told Heyer and Gruel Tuesday, "I think you two have heard more than adequately from the Plainfield community what is wanted."

Many in the crowd of about 50 had attended all three community meetings and some had special concerns about the shuttered hospital. Deborah Dowe said she and Piwowar have been investigating the hospital's finances. Other speakers sought to dispel the notion that the hospital closed due to burdens of charity care. Dowe, who previously spoke about the stress and possible dangers to women having to travel to Elizabeth to give birth, said a protest is planned with a baby carriage being pushed from the Plainfield Health Center to Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth. Dowe said the protest will be "live-streamed internationally."

Heyer and Gruel had to remind the audience of the scope of their study. Heyer said developers look for the "highest and best use" for a site, but they were looking for consensus from the neighborhood and the result might not be the the same.

Gutenkauf reminded the audience that Muhlenberg has an application before the Planning Board to relocate the satellite emergency department from the hospital to Kenyon House at the corner of Park Avenue and Randolph Road. Although the board is dealing just with plans for a new SED there and not with what will become of the hospital site, Gutenkauf urged all to attend the Planning Board meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library.

P.S. Plainfield View has video of Assemblyman Jerry Green's comments.


Why No Blog Post?

Random image: Confederate Violets
I went to Monday's budget session despite having other things on my mind and when I got home and tried to write about the meeting, it was just so hard to describe that I gave up.

These meetings are supposed to be a final step in the long process that begins with departmental and division requests from all directors and managers. The administration is supposed to review and can modify the requests before compiling them in a budget document. The City Council introduces the budget and then it is their turn to review, modify if necessary and pass it.

In this case, the budget process spans two administrations, one with a lame duck outgoing mayor and a new one with her political arch-enemy in charge - not exactly a recipe for collegiality. While city staff largely remains the same, department heads and cabinet members changed and have to get up to speed with the ongoing budget process.

Although the new administration has brought on a finance director who can cite facts and figures like a boss, some council members have chosen to dominate the 2014 budget meetings with political barbs and demands to know what staff does (readily accessible in the Municipal Code, the city web site and even in the big budget books before them). Commentary falls back on cliches such as "top-heavy" and statements such as "we just can't afford some of this stuff."

There seems to be a disregard on the part of some council members for what the finance director and the new chief financial officer say, but they are the ones who have the knowledge and skills to restore and improve the city's fiscal health. The city is accountable to the state for how money is spent and these two officials know what the state Local Finance Board expects from the municipality.

The discussion Monday veered off into personnel matters and other off-topic chatter at times, including remarks that reveal some council members don't read their packets and don't even know what they recently voted on. I found it discouraging and sad.

One way or another, the budget process will wrap up probably in May and those who haven't paid attention to the budget can then pay no attention to other things. I hope all who follow these meetings on PCTV think about who is properly representing the public and who thinks they are stars of their own political show.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Arbor Day 2014

 City officials and 100 Evergreen School students took part in tree-planting ceremonies at Library Park Friday to celebrate Arbor Day.
 Public Works Superintendent John Louise greets the students, teachers and Principal Wilson Aponte.
Mayor Adrian O. Mapp welcomes all and salutes the work of the Shade Tree Commission.
The Plainfield High School ROTC Color Guard presents the colors for the salute to the flag.
Planning Director William Nierstedt presents the fifth consecutive Tree City USA award to Mayor Mapp.
The city's Tree City USA flag, displayed by Shade Tree Commissioner Jan Massey and STC Chairman Peter Simone, will fly on the flagpole near City Hall.

Shade Tree Commission Chairman Peter Simone describes the 2014 Specimen Tree, a Copper Beech on Hillside Avenue.
Shade Tree Commission Secretary Mary Burgwinkle spoke about Arbor Day and read a poem about trees for the children.
Students choose buckets to help with the planting of five new trees in Library Park.
Two Kousa Dogwood and three Japanese Snowbell trees were planted.
Students take part in planting the trees.
Each student contributed some soil to the planting sites.
Chief of Staff John Stewart, Commissioners Mary Burgwinkle and Jan Massey, Mayor Adrian O. Mapp, Public Works Superintendent John Louise, Planning Director William Nierstedt and Shade Tree Commission Chairman Peter Simone helped plant a tree.

The`Shade Tree Commission is responsible for the planting of more than 1,000 trees since it was established. Other members are David Frost, Tim Kirby, and Oscar Riba. Carmen Louise is the mayor's designee to the commission and Cory Storch and Rebecca Williams are the City Council liaisons.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Shakespeare Garden Opens

Saturday marked the 87th season opening at the Shakespeare Garden, and volunteers answered to call  to weed and plant to prepare for visitors.
If you visit soon, you can see the special Garden Club daffodils that the Plainfield Garden Club planted in November 2010.
A special chore this year is replacing brick borders that were disturbed when boxwood hedges had to be removed due to disease.
Poppies and Calendulas were among flowers planted for 2014, while invasives such as White Star of Bethlehem were being removed Saturday.
A volunteer places plants prior to digging them in.
Plainfield Garden Club members and volunteers work from planting guides for the various beds.
As a gardener myself, I was intrigued by the variety of tools and equipment that volunteers brought.
Rope guides for the roses and honeysuckle were tied to the pergola. An American variety of Wisteria may be added this year. The pergola was funded with grants and constructed in 2010 by Union County Parks employees.
As part of Cedar Brook Park, the Shakespeare Garden is open dawn to dusk. The garden is at its peak in early June, but always interesting as the seasons pass.
As volunteers prepared the garden, another group was using a roller to fix up the very popular cricket pitch nearby.
Here's a close-up of the cricket pitch. Cedar Brook Park also has a pond bordered by native plants, picnic areas and other sports fields. It is a great place to take out-of-town visitors, especially to see the Shakespeare Garden.


Friday, April 25, 2014

News to Follow on Weekend

My Arbor Day report and commentary on Wednesday's budget deliberations will follow on the weekend. I need to take a break!

Happy Arbor Day!

My Redbud tree bloomed this year for the first time. I grew it from seed collected on Cleveland Avenue, which has many Redbuds. Germination involved boiling water (how does Mother Nature do it without a kettle?).

 I wrote about "My Little Redbud Tree" four years ago, when it was a seedling. Last year, it was taller than me and I am just thrilled to see these flowers, that emerge before the heart-shaped leaves!

Plant propagation has been one of my interests for more than 30 years, but this is my first success with a tree. I recommend learning how to "grow your own" as both fun and a way to save money.


Residents at Second Muhlenberg Community Meeting: No Apartments

Dottie Gutenkauf gives comments to Heyer, Gruel & Associates
About 90 residents turned out for the second of three sessions gathering comments on the future of the Muhlenberg site, with the consensus for a medical use and against JFK Health System's proposed 600 apartments.

Many of the speakers were activists who protested the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in 2008 and continue to challenge any use other than a full-service hospital. Muhlenberg served 100,000 people in Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties, they argue, and other medical facilities are dangerously distant for Plainfield residents in life-threatening circumstances.

Resident Siddeeq El-Amin said the need to transport patients to other locations ties up ambulances for hours.

"Solaris and JFK basic abandoned us medically," he said, referring to parent organizations of the shuttered hospital.
Claire Tucker
Resident Claire Tucker said she has worked in health care all her life and most recently did volunteer work for Obamacare. She called health care "a moral imperative."

 Saying she has witnessed so much violence, including drug overdoses, knifings and shootings, she said, "We need a trauma center - it takes just minutes to lose life."

"This is only a handful of people," she said of Thursday's turnout. "We need to be galvanized."

She urged attendees to knock on doors and get their neighbors out to such meetings.

Her personal reason for wanting a medical facility on the site is that she has a step-son with Down Syndrome who is prone to choking and who needs immediate care when that happens.

"It only takes a minute to die," she said. "We need a hospital, we need a trauma center. No one is going to buy a luxury apartment in Plainfield."

Among other speakers, former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs gave a lengthy account of efforts she said her administration made to secure a buyer who would keep a medical use at the site. She also cited a condo complex above the new senior center where units are not selling.
Assembly Jerry Green spoke "as a citizen" but also delved into politics as resident Robin Bright, one of the most outspoken opponent of apartments at the site, confronted him.

"Read my lips," he said. "No units."

JFK Health Systems pushed last year for the governing body to accept zoning changes and the apartment proposal, and Rev. Gerald Lamont Thomas told the council the plan had widespread community backing. When the council declined to accept the plan, JFK yanked a web site called "Muhlenberg Moving Forward" that promoted the residential project. It did not close the satellite emergency department as Thomas hinted would happen if the plan was rejected, but now Muhlenberg has an application before the Planning Board to move it to the Kenyon Building. The board will continue hearing the application at its meeting 7 p.m. on Thursday (May 1) in City Hall Library.

Heyer, Gruel & Associates were hired last year by the city to perform a planning study on best uses for the site. The comment sessions are part of a process that will culminate in a report to be issued this summer. The last comment session is 7 p.m. Tuesday (April 29) at Emerson School, 305 Emerson Ave.


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 Perelman 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 Perelman said he met with HAP staff, but was not allowed in the complex.

Perelman 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.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Liberty Village "Town Meeting" No Guarantee of Action

Tomorrow night at 7 p.m. in Ruth Fellowship Ministries, there will be an "urgent" meeting on the future of Liberty Village, a 96-unit subsidized housing complex in the Fourth Ward.

At issue is an impending sale of the complex to a buyer who needs City Council approval to continue a "payment in lieu of taxes" (PILOT) agreement that dates back to 1982. The buyer will increase the percentage of the rent roll paid to the city from 6.28 percent to 10 percent and will make numerous improvements at the site. Deciders on the actual sale will be other authorities.

This is not a City Council meeting. Only three council members will take part: Council President Bridget Rivers, who represents the Fourth Ward; Councilwoman Vera Greaves, who holds the First & Fourth Ward at-large seat; and Councilwoman Tracey Brown, the Citywide at-large representative. No votes can be taken.

Those expected to attend to answer questions are Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development Carlos Sanchez, Housing Authority of Plainfield Executive Director Randall Wood, principals of Liberty Village Estates Urban Renewal LLC and their attorney, William Eaton; and possibly someone from HUD, according to Rivers.

Sanchez and Eaton have already explained the situation at two council meetings. Plaintalker reported on those meetings on April 8 and April 16 Eaton has stated a May 1 deadline sought by the buyer, as the Section 8 contract for the current owner expires on  May 6. However, as indicated at the two meetings, speakers have said the council should hold out for more concessions and Rivers said she believes the council has until May 31 to render a decision.

For the April 15 council meeting, the prospective buyer was observing Passover and was not present, although Eaton again answered questions and stressed the need for the PILOT agreement to continue.

"I think all the information has been provided," he said.

But Rivers called the process a "rush, rush, rush" and said the council had until May 31 to act. She alluded to things she was told by unnamed outside sources regarding the deal.

Brown attempted to review the facts as already presented.

Greaves told Eaton on April 15, " I wasn't here last week and I have no idea what this project is about.," and added, "I actually need to figure out what is going on."

She later reacted emotionally to a resident's comments on the matter by saying, "She's getting on my nerves, honest to God."

No action can be taken Monday as it is not a legal council meeting. If the three get their questions answered to their satisfaction, a special meeting can be called at which the full council may act. But Gloria Taylor and William Reid also questioned the deal and there is no guarantee that it will pass unless a majority feels comfortable in approving the PILOT. Stay tuned ...


Easter Greetings

Happy Easter!

Wishing all who celebrate Easter
a lovely day with family and friends

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Budget Sessions Coming Up

I regretted not being able to attend the City Council's first budget session Thursday night, as I decided instead to cover the Planning Board hearing on Muhlenberg's application to relocate the satellite emergency department. Both were held at 7 p.m. in two different locations.

The 2014 budget process is of interest because the city finally has a permanent chief financial officer in place and a new finance director, in addition to the seven-member Citizens Budget Advisory Committee and a new budget consultant who is the former Union County finance director. The meeting Thursday was on budgets for the city's two largest groups, the Police and Fire divisions. Perhaps Councilman Cory Storch of the council's Finance Committee will give a recap on his blog or maybe the session will be aired on PCTV.

There are three more budget meetings. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 22, the meeting will be held in the Anne Louise Davis Room at the Plainfield Public Library and the topics will be Economic Development and Administration & Finance, which includes Information Technology & Media, the Health Division and the Purchasing Division. For the first time since 2005, the city has a cabinet-level person in charge of economic development, so that should be interesting.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23, also at the Plainfield Public Library, the budget deliberations will cover the Inspections and Recreation divisions within the Department of Public Works & Urban Development, as well as the mayor's office, which now includes the new position of chief of staff.

The last currently scheduled meeting is on Monday, April 28 at 7 p.m. in City Hall Library. The topic is listed as feedback from the council and the CBAC and "other" matters.

These deliberations are meant to lead to any changes in the introduced budget. The amendments must be published and a public hearing will take place before final budget passage. This process in recent years has drawn little citizen interest, but with a new administration and the current political climate, there may be more attention to budget matters.

The public hearing has been advertised for 8 p.m. on May 5 in Municipal Court, "at which time and place objections to the Budget and Tax resolution for the year 2014 may be presented by taxpayers or other interested persons."

From the legal notice: "Copies of the detailed budget are available in the office of Abubakar Jalloh , City Clerk, at the Municipal Building, 515 Watchung Avenue, Plainfield, New Jersey, (908) 753-3000, during the hours of 9:00(A.M.) to 4:00(P.M.)." 


Friday, April 18, 2014

Planning Board Carries SED Application to May

Time ran out Thursday before the Planning Board completed a hearing on Muhlenberg's proposal to relocate the satellite emergency department, so it will be continued in May.

About 50 residents attended the meeting at the Plainfield Public Library, examining displays of plans for the new SED and hearing testimony from JFK Health System's vice president for corporate facilities, Frank Tsemberlis; engineer Matthew Robinson; and architect Robert Ryan. The board also took questions from the public, but by the time a 10:30 deadline rolled around, it was too late to hear from a planner that attorney Wendy Berger said was the final witness on the application.

The Planning Board meets next on May 1 and May 15, and testimony and deliberations may span both meetings. No further notice will be given, so anyone interested in the case was advised to mark their calendars with the May dates. The meetings begin at 7 p.m. in City hall Library.
The SED is now located in Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, which closed as an acute care facility in 2008. Plans call for a modern, more efficient SED on the first floor of Kenyon House, at the Park Avenue and Randolph Road corner of the property. A new garage will be constructed to house two emergency vehicles. The improved SED is expected to serve up to 21,000 patients annually, up from 17,000 currently served.
While Thursday's meeting was about relocating the SED, some who spoke were more interested in what will now become of the vacant hospital. The property was subdivided into three parcels in 2007 and the largest   is where in 2012 JFK Health System envisioned 600 apartments.

In public comment, resident Clare Zanfini gave a history of the hospital and alluded to "the upcoming atrocity." She recalled hearing that if the city did not go along with the plan for 600 apartments, there would be no emergency room. Now, she said, "We all know this is the opening salvo. They have not considered almost 4,000 people that might be moving in."

Planning Board Chairman Ron Scott-Bey banged his gavel to bring the discussion back to the application.

Among details elicited by other speakers, Tsemberlis answered Dan Damon's question on ownership by saying Muhlenberg owns the parcel but the SED operates under JFK's license "like a tenant." The two entities have common ownership and share a board, he said. The Community Hospital Group is the parent organization.

In answer to resident Nancy Piwowar's question on how the  applicant proposed to educate the public about the relocation, Tsemberlis said there would be a print and digital advertising campaign to publicize the changes.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf said she read that JFK Medical Center in Edison spent $30 million on their new emergency department and asked how much the Plainfield one will cost. The answer was from $2.5 to $3 million, but the annual volume in Edison was described as 70,000, in contrast to 17,000 in Plainfield.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Liberty Village Town Hall Announced

Council President Bridget Rivers, Councilwoman Vera Greaves and Councilwoman Rev. Tracey Brown are holding an "Urgent Town Meeting" on the future of Liberty Village Apartments Monday. The meeting is 7 p.m. at Ruth Fellowship Ministries, 733 S. Second St.

Mayor Mapp's 100-Day Report

Yesterday the Courier News had Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's entire 100-Day Report online but it is not in the print edition, which I read as an e-newspaper facsimile. It is, however, posted on the city web site as well if you want to read it.

Know More About Tax Liens

By coincidence, the AARP Bulletin has an article on dangers of tax liens just as the City Council is passing legislation broadening reasons why liens can be placed on a home.

Homeowners would be well advised to learn more about tax liens and how, as the article points out, a tax debt can swell with interest and other charges to an insurmountable burden. The article also goes into illegal practices that some who buy tax liens use. It is not just embarrassing to have one's tax lien published in the local newspaper, it can lead to homelessness.

The city annually holds tax lien sales at which investors buy the liens and pay the money owed. The property owner then owes the investor the money, plus up to 18 percent interest. After a set period of time, the lien holder can move to foreclose on the property.

The ordinance just passed this week on first reading would add costs incurred when the city has to "abate a nuisance, correct a defect, or put a premises in proper condition." The city would have to document the activities performed, show a reasonable cost and certify that the action taken and the costs were both "necessary and reasonable under the circumstances."

The ordinance will be up for a public hearing, second reading and final passage in May.

Plainfield's tax collection rate has varied over the years. The city's auditors, Supplee, Clooney, noted a collection rate of 93.84 percent on Dec. 2012, up from 90.50 percent on Dec. 2011, when almost 10 percent of property owners failed to pay their taxes. In 2013 the rate improved to 96.32 percent and Ron West, finance director in the new administration, is aiming for an even better rate as part of a comprehensive budget strategy.

If you want to know what the city does with your money, take a closer look at the budget process. The administration developed a budget which is posted on the city web site. The governing body will begin deliberations on the introduced budget tonight with an overview of projected costs for the police and fire divisions.The entire budget deliberations schedule is on the city web site. The council has the power to amend the budget and will hold a hearing on the amended budget before final passage.

There are two important meetings tonight and I am probably going to the Planning Board meeting where Muhlenberg's application to relocate the satellite emergency department will be heard. That one is 7 p.m. in the Plainfield Public Library's Anne Louise Davis room.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Former Mayor Comments on Budget, Employees

Former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs urged support for the Legal Shield program, payment of gang workshop expenses, job restoration for certain employees and cuts in the current mayor's budget when she spoke in public comment at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Robinson-Briggs lost her bid for a third term in 2013 to Mayor Adrian O. Mapp, who lost to her in the 2009 mayoral race, as she frequently reminded him for the ensuing four years. When Mapp was council president, he often wielded his power to keep her proposed resolutions off the agenda.

On Tuesday, Robinson-Briggs began by saying she came out "on a rainy night and a night that I had surgery" to speak. Among her concerns:

- She had allowed employees in 2013 to sign up for a payroll deduction plan for legal costs, which Mapp halted.
"It was reviewed and approved by me and it should have gone forward," she said.
The issue came up at every meeting for about three months, including one in March where Gloria Taylor, appointed to fill the Third Ward vacancy caused by Mapp's taking office, accused him of "dirty politics" by offering a quid-pro-quo to restore the program.

- Robinson-Briggs urged payment of disputed costs associated with a gang workshop she held in August 2013.
"Please pay them," she said. "Vendors are calling."

-She urged the council to add Kim Montford, a former Shade Tree Commission member (and her 2013 co-host for Rev. Al Sharpton) to the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee. The seven-member CBAC is appointed by the council.

- Claiming the Mapp-led council in 2013 "cut my budget down to the bones," she rattled off a long list of items she felt should be cut from Mapp's 2014 budget, including new staff salaries.
"Are these positions that we need to run the city or are they political salaries?" she asked, alleging many new hires were on Mapp's transition team.
"To add another million dollars to the budget is absolutely criminal," she said.

- Robinson-Briggs also urged restoration of "mentor" Roland Crawford, whose job at Hannah Atkins Playground was "written out of the budget." Crawford, also known as Roland Muhammad, frequently castigated Mapp and certain other council members on Robinson-Briggs' behalf, noting, "I say things the mayor can't say."


More To Follow on Council Meeting

Tuesday's City Council meeting was perhaps the most contentious this year. Speakers called for removal of all new hires in the administration of Mayor Adrian O. Mapp and council members promised sharp cuts in the budget. Former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs read out a list of cuts she recommended, but also urged approval of expenses she made in 2013 for a gang workshop and related activities. There was more, all of which was captured on tape for later viewing on television or YouTube. Check the blogs in coming days.

Liberty Village Proposal Rejected Again

The April 7 promise of action on the Liberty Village tax agreement fell through Tuesday when a City Council majority failed to move the item to the agenda for a vote. Council President Bridget Rivers said the governing body needs more information and has until May 31 to make a decision.

The 96-unit subsidized housing complex has a prospective buyer who needs transfer of an existing  "payment in lieu of taxes" agreement in order to proceed and has offered to increase the amount from 6.28 percent to 10 percent of the rent proceeds. The buyer, Liberty Village Estates Urban Renewal LLC,  also proposed electrical and plumbing upgrades, a new community room, a communal laundry and other improvements.

Unless the company can get approvals needed for a HUD contract by May 1, the subsidized housing complex could move to market rate rents, an attorney for the company said at the April 7 meeting where the PILOT resolution lacked consensus to be put on the April 15 agenda. Rivers dismissed the idea of time constraints and said action would be taken at the regular meeting, but numerous speakers last night challenged the proposal. Among them was former Councilman Malcolm Dunn, who served on the Housing Authority when the complex was developed. Dunn urged the council to seek concessions.

Resident Mustapha Muhammad also called for caution, characterizing the deal as "last-minute politics being thrown at you from this administration." Muhammad said it has been eight years since the community room has been used and said, "The owners need to be accountable."

Attorney William Eaton, representing the buyer, enumerated all the proposed improvements including the increased PILOT amount and explained that the current owners, Liberty Community Associates, face expiration of their Section 8 contract. He said he worked with the previous administration last year on the PILOT proposal and with the management to improve their performance score, but Rivers and others on the council insisted they did not have enough information. 

Eaton said he would be happy to meet with them, but the principals were observing a religious holiday and would not be available until Thursday. He said the company owns 6,000 units of affordable housing and will obey a local ordinance that gives city residents first consideration for jobs at the complex.

However, nothing Eaton or the city's Economic Development director, Carlos Sanchez, said persuaded the council to take action Tuesday. 

"This is like a rush, rush, rush," Rivers said. "We have two meetings in May," she added, alluding to what she said was a May 31 expiration of the Liberty Village rent vouchers.

According to a special report of the National Housing Trust on Expiring Section 8 Contracts, the Liberty Community Associates contract expires on May 6.
 Liberty Village Estates Urban Renewal LLC sought the PILOT approval in order to effectuate a May 1 transition. The vote to move the resolution to the agenda Tuesday required five affirmative votes, but only Rebecca Williams, Cory Storch and Tracey Brown voted "yes," with Rivers, Vera Greaves, William Reid and Gloria Taylor voting "no."


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

More Apartments, More Inspectors?

This bank of new meters at 109 East Fourth Street reminded me of the fact that almost all the new and proposed housing in Plainfield consists of apartments. That could mean more work for the Inspections Division in several regards.

The city has a number of requirements for multi-family dwellings, as does the state. Many checks are performed at the city level, such as those for tenants' health (presence of vermin), comfort (no heat or hot water) and safety (faulty wiring or other hazards).

The new administration will most likely have to assess the need for more inspectors to perform Certificate of Compliance inspections and such in addition to answering complaints. The division may be due for an assessment of its tasks and how they are currently performed, as well as a projection of greater need for services as more apartments come on line.

The late Mayor Albert T. Williams named Inspections as the division that drew the most citizen complaints. Residents have complained in public comment at City Council meetings that inspectors are either too zealous or too lax. Back when Hank Kita  and Harold Gibson were top officials in the administration, they took the trouble to follow inspectors around in a sort of "time-and-motion" study to see how many inspections could be done in a day, but as I recall, results were inconclusive.

Given the fact that the current mayor formed a transition team to identify issues and suggest solutions, maybe the likely increase in tenants is already in the radar. If not, it's something to look at.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Important Meetings This Week

There are several important meetings this week. here is the lineup:

April 15 - City Council regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

If the council approves a "payment in lieu of taxes" transfer to a new owner, 96 residents of Liberty Village in the Fourth Ward will receive amenities including electrical and plumbing upgrades, a community room with computer stations and a card-operated laundry room with 8-10 new machines. The PILOT program dates back to 1979 but must be amended. The prospective new owners, Liberty Village Estates Urban Renewal, intends to pay 10 percent of its annual gross shelter rents to the city instead of the current 6.28 percent. The Housing Authority of Plainfield has the right of first refusal to the sale, but HAP Director Randall Wood stated on April 7 that the authority did not have the $9.2 million to buy the property..

April 15 - Special PMUA meeting, 3 p.m. at 127 Roosevelt Ave.

canceled April 16 - "The First 100 Days" - Mayor Mapp and administration report, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Anne Louise Davis Room, Plainfield Public Library

April 17- Planning Board meeting with Muhlenberg application to relocate satellite emergency department, 7 p.m. in Anne Louise Davis Room at Plainfield Public Library.

Google image
The satellite emergency department would be relocated from the closed Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center building to the Kenyon Building at the corner of Park & Randolph.
The property was subdivided in 2007 (Park & Randolph at lower left on this tax map image). Although activists suspect JFK Health System's next move will be a renewed push to place 600 apartments on the largest parcel, that is not part of this application. However, the Planning Board meeting includes a general comment portion for the public to speak on non-agenda items. Here is the Muhlenberg legal notice.

April 17 - Budget deliberations, Public Affairs & Safety (Police and Fire), 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The council and its 2014 Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (Michael Horne, Lydia Sumner-Jones, Delois Dameron, Mustapha Muhammad, Jan Massey, Rashid Burney and Richard Stewart) meet to discuss the two  divisions that make up most of the budget.

Good luck to everybody that wants to keep up with these important meetings. 


Passover Greetings

Chag Sameach
to all our friends and neighbors
who are observing

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What Do We Want For Plainfield?

The flood of comments to a post on Tuesday appears to have been a fluke, but still the tone of many indicates the need for honest talk about Plainfield.  What kind of city do we have, and is it the kind of city we want?

I have lived here for more than 30 years now, and as a reporter I got to interact with perhaps many more parts of the community than most residents. The majority of Plainfielders, of whatever race or class, get along as neighbors and have a common interest in the betterment of the city. In block associations and other organizations, diverse individuals have no problem joining together for the common good.

But in recent years, I have observed an increase in people drawing distinctions and getting off in their own ideological corners. I think the public comment portion of many City Council meetings would bear that out. Some speakers see plots where there are none. Others fling characterizations that do not exist in fact.

My hope had been earlier this year that the proposed revival of the Human Relations Commission and the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs might foster greater understanding among city residents in all four wards and of all ethnic backgrounds. However, I have not seen any meeting schedules for these organizations so far (nor for several new boards and commissions). Most of us are very busy with work and family and though we may try to advance harmony in our personal interactions, it is up to some of these appointed groups to take on the general task of helping us all get along.

I hope we will soon hear from these organizations and what they are doing to promote good will among Plainfielders. Many people choose to live here specifically because it is a diverse population, but once factions arise and start drawing lines in the sand, diversity is no longer a good thing. If people feel forced to take sides and show solidarity by condemning "the other," the city suffers.

Perhaps later this year we shall see more of a movement to embrace what we have in common as Plainfielders and leave off the negative race and class distinctions that separate us. Let it be so.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

PMUA Proposes Help for Pool Owners

Property owners who have swimming pools may be able to fill them without incurring a water charge, Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority Executive Director Dan Williamson said at Tuesday's board meeting.

Williamson said the authority plans to purchase five meters which will measure the flow, so pools can be filled and owners will not be charged.

At present, sewer bills are based on summer water usage and residents have complained that use of pools or sprinklers distorts household water use. Commissioner Charles Eke recalled a meeting on the topic "in 2007."  Plaintalker covered a 2009 water issues meeting where officials discussed meters, although at the time the option offered was purchase of a $2,800 meter. The new option involves having PMUA use a meter to measure the flow needed to fill a pool over three to four hours.

Water use in underground sprinkler systems might be measured by a meter purchased by the property owner from the water company or by coming up with a flat credit for sewer fees from June 15 through the end of August, Williamson said.

Another option mentioned at the 2009 water issues meeting was changing to using winter water usage to establish sewer bills.

In other news, the authority is working on a shared services agreement with the Roselle Board of Education. Outside revenue was an early promise for the authority, but until recently there was none. Now the authority has contracts with several nearby municipalities for acceptance of bulky waste or Type 23 vegetative waste at the Rock Avenue transfer station.

Chief Financial Officer Duane Young reported that the budget was "$1 million to the good," but warned that the authority won't have $1 million extra every year.

Plans are proceeding for repairs to the Rock Avenue Interceptor, through which 50 percent of the city's waste stream passes. The 90-year old clay pipe is badly damaged, according to the latest PMUA newsletter. Twenty-two bidders picked up packets for the project and bid opening will take place on April 17. The repairs could cost between $1.1 to $1.4 million, according to the newsletter.

The PMUA will hold a special meeting at 3 p.m. on April 15 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue.


Many Meetings Coming Up

The last half of April will be jammed with public meetings, with some yet to be announced.

Here is a lineup:

April 15 - City Council regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

New - April 15 - Special PMUA meeting, 3 p.m. at 127 Roosevelt Ave.

New - April 16 - "The First 100 Days" - Mayor Mapp and administration report, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Anne Louise Davis Room, Plainfield Public Library

April 17- Planning Board meeting with Muhlenberg application to relocate satellite emergency department, 7 p.m. in Anne Louise Davis Room at Plainfield Public Library.

April 17 - Budget deliberations, Public Affairs & Safety (Police and Fire), 7 p.m. in City Hall Library

April 22 - Budget deliberations, Economic Development, IT & Media, Health Division, Purchasing Division, 7 p.m. in Anne Louise Davis Room, Plainfield Public Library.

April 22 - Historic Preservation Commission, 7:30 p.m. City Hall Library

April 23 -Budget deliberations, Public Works & Urban Development, Inspections, Recreation, and General Government, Office of the Mayor, 7 p.m, Anne Louise Davis Room, Plainfield Public Library

April 24 - City's Muhlenberg Study group takes citizens' comments, 7 p.m. Clinton School

April 28 - City Council and Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, 7 p.m. City Hall Library

April 29 - City's Muhlenberg Study group takes citizens' comments, 7 p.m. Emerson School

The City Council may be holding one or two special meetings, to be announced.

Check the banner on the city web site for more information

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Spring Sights

The flower beds in front of City Hall have been cleaned and mulched. The Knockout Roses and Coreopsis are trimmed. The Yews are showing signs of growth. All in all, it is an inviting sight. Public Works Director Eric Jackson and Public Works Superintendent John Louise carried out the renovation last year with advice from the Plainfield Garden Club, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Shade Tree Commission. Last April's view shows the work in progress.
On Park Avenue, David Holmes III (aka Chef D) gives a nod to the season with this colorful window display at his "It's-A-Wrap" restaurant.
Next door, David Holmes Jr. welcomes customers to The Computer Store with this tasteful window display. Both stores set an example for others in the Park & Seventh shopping district with their eye-catching windows.
Outside the chiropractic office in the next block, the heather is in bloom. This owner landscaped his front lawn when he took over the historic former dental office and is careful to maintain it. It gives plant lovers a little extra boost to see this harbinger of spring, and even passersby who don't know it's heather can appreciate the lovely flowers.
Still on the to-do list: Putting back signs such as this one that were damaged in the severe winter. 
The sign above warns truck drivers about the height of the railroad underpass on Watchung Avenue. Many a truck has gotten wedged under here even with the warning sign, but maybe replacing it should still be near the top of the to-do list.
The interesting sign here is the one for Union County College superimposed over one for the former Thul's automotive store. The college is expanding its presence in Plainfield, a welcome indication of support as the city pumps up its transit-oriented development initiatives.

We are promised a couple of really nice days this week. Get out and about and see your own signs of spring in the Queen City!