Sunday, November 30, 2014

Will City Council Back Audit?

One of the items up for consideration Monday is a "forensic audit" that would probe fiscal transactions dating back to 2006 and spanning years when the city had no chief financial officer.

Eleven firms responded to the city's request for quotations for special audit services. ParenteBeard was selected and the proposal is to perform the work at a cost of $60,000, half of which will come from an account covered by the 2014 budget and half from 2015's budget. The 2015 budget will be subject to City Council approval once it is submitted by the administration.

But the first hurdle will be to get the resolution on the agenda for the Dec. 8 regular meeting, The governing body has stymied a number of Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's initiatives. Some members and Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green have openly supported former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs over Mapp, who took office Jan. 1, 2014 for a four-year term after previously losing a mayoral bid to Robinson-Briggs in 2009. The former mayor herself has appeared frequently at council meetings to criticize Mapp even as his administration has struggled to untangle the fiscal mare's nest he inherited.

In December 2008, Plaintalker found finance the main issue in city government.  Subsequent years brought a high degree of turnover in the Robinson-Briggs administration. After Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007, the city operated without anyone in the statutory role  See "Fiscal Woes Mount in City" and "State Questions CFO Process" for more background. The problems continued into 2010 as reported in "Audit Report Spurs Concern."

Explosive testimony by Finance Director Bibi Taylor in 2011 highlighted an investigation of Robinson-Briggs' financial demands on staff, which led to a reprimand for the mayor.

The city hired Ron Zilinski as CFO and treasurer to avoid daily fines state officials threatened to impose on the mayor and council, but Zilinski left abruptly in January 2012. In February 2012, the full-time business administrator and CFO of neighboring South Plainfield agreed to spare Plainfield five to seven hours a week of his time to fill the gap, as reported here.

The part-time arrangement continued through the final two years of the Robinson-Briggs administration. In January 2014, Al Steinberg became the full-time CFO for a four-year term.

The city solicited quotations for a forensic audit in late summer and received eleven responses. The firm selected was ParenteBeard, which has since merged with Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP.

The meeting Monday is 7:30 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. and the regular meeting will be held at 8 p.m. on Dec. 8 in the same location.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Note on "Taste of Plainfield"

Displaying taste of plainfield flyer.jpg

The poster above is about an event to acquaint people with the city's many diverse cuisines, but I must say the city seal in the middle seemed out of place. It gave the impression that the city was involved, but Mayor Adrian O. Mapp said that is not the case.

A Massachusetts town recently sought to curb use of its official seal by businesses and non-governmental entities, saying such use was misleading.

Plainfield's seal was rather liberally used during the past administration, on 140 T-shirts for a gang workshop in 2013 and on lapel pins given out at events. It is more properly used on city documents.

State legislation is proposed to prevent unauthorized use of official seals.

So save the date for "The Taste of Plainfield," but just be aware it is not a city-sponsored event, despite the city seal on the poster.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Three Board Changes Sought for PMUA

December will bring another attempt to change members of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, including a move to switch Chairman Harold Mitchell to an alternate's seat that would force him to vacate the chairmanship.

The Dec. 1 agenda calls for removing the Nov. 10 nomination of Michelle Graham-Lyons from the table at the Dec.8 regular meeting. Mayor Adrian O. Mapp is also nominating former Commissioner Wilbert Gill to replace Mitchell in an unexpired term to Feb. 1, 2016. The term for the vacant alternate's seat for which Mitchell is nominated expires on Feb. 1, 2015.

Graham-Lyons was nominated to replace Malcolm Dunn, a holdover in a term that expired in February. If confirmed by the council, she would serve until Feb. 1, 2019.

Gill served during the administration of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams. He was nominated, but not appointed, three times in 2012 during the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. He is related by marriage to Mapp.

The authority has a board of commissioners, five with five-year terms and two alternates who serve two years. Alternates may only vote when needed to make a quorum and cannot serve as board chairman. Commissioners whose terms expire can stay on as holdovers until a replacement is approved.

The agenda-fixing session is 7:30 p.m. Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Property Tax Rewards Program Proposed

On the eve of a major shopping day, Monday's agenda arrived with a plan to reward people for shopping in Plainfield.

Among items to be considered at the agenda-fixing session is a resolution to support a "Property Tax Reward Program" offering rebates to property owners, tenants and even non-residents who spend at city-based businesses. The company that would run the program, FinCredit Inc., would receive 25 percent of the gross rebate. The homeowner would receive the rest as a credit against property taxes. Renters and non-residents would receive a rebate check minus a $7 processing fee.

The resolution notes the plan will require a "partnership, participation and acceptance" by merchants, patrons and the governing body in order to succeed. The biggest success story seems to be Marlboro Township, which is also billed as the first municipality to use the plan.

Although the fine print on the FinCredit web site says participants will receive banner advertising on the site, there is none so far.

In the years since Plainfield was the shopping mecca of Central Jersey, many retailers have left or gone out of business. The loss of Macy's as a retail anchor in 1992 was a major blow to the downtown economy, which is now dominated by stores offering urban wear and low-end merchandise. The Special Improvement District management holds sidewalk sales and other promotions and there are lots of shoppers, but for higher-end goods many residents go to the malls or downtown Westfield.

The Urban Enterprise Zone program here was only able to engage 105 of 731 eligible retailers and this plan may encounter similar resistance. Merchants will have to be able to swipe the cards to record the transactions for credit. Employees who speak various languages will need education on the plan. One hopes there has been some buy-in already from the business organizations in the downtown and South Avenue business districts.

Despite all these caveats, any boost to the local economy is a good thing. The resolution is only asking for support of the plan. A fiscal impact statement says the cost has been incorporated within the 2014 Economic Development program budget. It will be interesting to see what the governing body says.

The council meeting is 7:30 Monday (Dec. 1, 2014) in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving
to all!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Downtown Sights

The downtown business district is still a very mixed bag, especially for people who remember Macy's and the earlier retailers who made Plainfield a shopping mecca in the old days.
How's this for advertising? Old-school sidewalk chalk. (Click any image to enlarge.)
"Talent for Survival" coming soon! These buildings have survived since the late 19th Century.
If these bricks could talk!
"Cricket Coming Soon !!!" Almost as cryptic as "Talent for Survival."
So ... the former Strand Theater will be a family entertainment center, for birthday parties and such, I guess.
Melancholy Magic Marker mannequin head ponders it all.
Heading for the senior center to renew my membership, I came across this little garden next to the Neighborhood House.
Walking home on Watchung Avenue, I paused at City Hall to read this message again: "Erected by the people to inspire zeal for the common welfare and dedicated by them to the cause of just and capable government." Let's think about that for 2105.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On Ferguson

Everything that needs to be said about the Ferguson verdict has already been said in the hours since it was announced. My hope for Plainfield is that the Human Relations Commission and our many clergy leaders will help people here work out their feelings about the verdict. It certainly brings up a lot of bad memories for Plainfielders and a feeling that justice has yet to be served in too many cases.

I'm sure we will hear both prayers and protest in coming days. Hurt must heal, if possible, without further hurt.

Snowbirds Arrive, Snowstorm to Follow

I have been waiting to see when the first Slate-Colored Junco would show up in our yard and it happened over the weekend. This bird is considered a harbinger of winter and so is also called a "snowbird."

A pair arrived and splashed in the birdbath, no doubt washing off the grime of their long trip south from the Canadian forests where they breed in summer.

My nature notes don't get a lot of page views, but I still like to share these indications of the changing seasons. And later today I will be looking for my snow shovel!

Work In Progress on 80-unit Senior Housing

It was a long time coming, but construction has finally begun on a five-story building downtown that will have 80 senior apartments.

I took advantage of the unusually warm weather Monday to walk over and get some photos.
Developer Steven Chung won permission in 2008 to split a large parking lot behind his building on East Front Street, leaving one portion for use of customers and clients of the commercial tenants and using the north part for new construction.
Not a lot of work was going on Monday, but it was exciting to see the excavation and concrete poured for the base of the building. It is off East Front Street between Roosevelt and Westervelt avenues.
In 2008, The Monarch was being built with 63 condos, but other projects failed to materialize. They included 12 condos on West Front Street and a 224-unit project at Leland and South avenues. Over on Richmond and Third, a developer was allowed to withdraw plans for a 352-unit project.
So it is good to see things happening now.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

More PMUA Details on Wages, Union

Someone asked about union contracts for PMUA employees and when I searched the interwebs for "PMUA Local 97," a Plaintalker post from January popped up, to my surprise. I got the Local 97 reference from PMUA minutes, which I was reading because I was unable to attend authority meetings for several months.

As reported in the post, all PMUA employees, including management, faced a wage freeze in 2014. No one was to receive a cost of living increase or merit pay. The freeze could be lifted if conditions improved.

Still, there was talk of need for a "chief of operations" as the authority continues to expand outside contracts.

Also noted, "Another reason stated for the need of a COO is that about 45 employees, mostly at the transfer station are in negotiations to form a union. The employees aim to join Teamsters Local 97."

So there you have it. Because I missed so many meetings, I don't have an update. You can read the entire post here and you can read PMUA minutes for yourself here.

That January post also broke the news of the lawsuit filed by former PMUA Chief Financial Officer James Perry. There is no update on that right now, either.

Each year, the City Council assigns liaisons to various boards, commissions and other entities including the PMUA. These liaisons are supposed to attend meetings and report back to the council. Some past liaisons have acted more as advocates for the PMUA than members of the governing body charged with bringing back information to the full council. Some just don't attend. Many times there are just a few members of the public in attendance at PMUA meetings.

If you want to see what Plainfield Plaintalker or Plaintalker II posted about the PMUA, go to the links and use the search box in the upper left corner. Plainfield Plaintalker has posts from June 2005 through May 2010 and Plaintalker II covers May 2010 to present. There are some overlaps from when I pressed the wrong  button on Blogger. If you are new to Plainfield or just getting interested in a civic role, the archives may provide background on the issues for you. For me, the archives tell me stuff I forgot! Now that I am officially old (over 75), I can't keep all this stuff (about 5,000 posts) in my head!


All City Unions Due for Contract Settlement

Contracts for all seven city bargaining units should be in place by mid-December and will cover all four years of Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's term.

Salary increases must be passed by ordinance on two readings. Final passage on an increase for members of the Plainfield Municipal Management Association took place Nov. 10 and six other contracts passed on first reading, with final passage expected on Dec. 8. The bargaining units as listed on the Nov. 10 agenda are the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association, the Plainfield Fire Officers Association, the Fire Mutual Benevolent Association, the Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 19 (officers and rank & file) and United Service Workers Union Local 255. Increases for all are 1.5 percent annually for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Over the years,  some unions have worked for years without a contract. It seemed unusual to have all contracts settled and Plaintalker asked Mayor Adrian O. Mapp about it.

"First, let me say how pleased I am that we have been able to work in good faith with all of our bargaining units to come up with new collective negotiation agreements," Mapp said. "Our goal was to have all of the agreements settled before the end of my first year in office and to have them in place for a full 4 years to run concurrent with my term. I don’t recall this ever being done."

Mapp cited a spirit of cooperation between the administration and the bargaining units.

"The team was very focused, candid and honest in its approach and gained the trust of the various bargaining units who all wanted to reach agreements that were reasonable and fair, during the very challenging economic times that we face as a City. The success of these negotiations is unprecedented and speaks to the spirit of cooperation that exists between my Administration and our Unions. Fairness, cooperation, professionalism and respect were the determining factors," he said in an email response to our query.

The city also has a roster of non-union employees that used to get raises after all the union contracts were settled. The list includes department heads, the city administrator, the police director, the city clerk, the chief financial officer, the fire chief, the personnel director and several other titles. Raises for those employees used to be passed by ordinance as well, but in recent years that has not been the case. In 2006, only the chief financial officer and the city clerk received raises by ordinance, retroactive for four years. The title of police chief was abolished in 2008 and replaced by the title of police director. However, no salary band was set for police director until 2010.

Plaintalker reported on the increasing disparity in compensation for cabinet titles in 2009. One of the concerns was the ability to attract top staff in the future with such disparity. The list of non-represented officials also changed, as indicated by past responses to Plaintalker's OPRA requests. Perhaps the most curious situation among the non-union employees was having a department head (Public Affairs & Safety) over a police director. In the last administration, Martin Hellwig held both titles, in effect reporting to himself. He received only one salary but also had pension income from Essex County.

Plaintalker will be looking into the non-union contract situation in coming weeks.

Besides settling contracts, another item that can affect the city budget is the amount owed to employees for unused sick and vacation days. The state requires municipalities to declare the amount in budget statements, along with any funds set aside to help meet the liability. Plaintalker wrote about "The Big I.O.U." in 2008, when the so-called Compensated Absence Liability was around $4.9 million for 17,661 days and nothing was set aside for payouts. In 2014, the liability is down by 29 percent to $3.4 million for 12,950 days and $200,000 is in reserve. It is still a lot compared to municipalities that don't allow accumulation of sick and vacation days, but at least it is trending downward.


Friday, November 21, 2014

New Inspections Director Starts Monday

If you get Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's weekly message in your email, you already know that there will be a new director of the Division of Inspections on Monday.

If not, here is the announcement:
"An important part of my Administration is to improve the quality of life for all in the City of Plainfield. The maintenance, upkeep, and development of our residential neighborhoods and commercial corridors impact residents, businesses, and visitors to our great city of Plainfield. My aim is to reengineer the mission and processes of the inspections division. To help accomplish this, join me in welcoming Mr. Phillip Izzo as the new Director of the Inspections Division, as he will be starting on November 24, 2014. Phillip brings with him over twelve years of municipal inspections experience. His expertise ranges from the following: construction, fire sub-code, plumbing, and electric. There will be further collaboration between departments and we can expect great things from Philip."

This is the division that the late Mayor Albert T. Williams said generated the most complaints from citizens. Over the years, this division has expanded, then shrunk. Inspectors during one administration had to be sent for training on how to deal with the public. At times, the division was heavy on patronage. Citizens who reported neighborhood infractions of the property maintenance code claimed they themselves were cited for violations in some sort of retaliation for speaking up. One year, inspectors got laptops intended to reduce paperwork, but then the technology was dropped.

Among other issues over the years, a frequently-mentioned need for inspectors to work evening and weekend hours ran afoul of work rules prohibiting staff to be in City Hall during off hours without a supervisor. The need for expanded hours arose due to a spike in unauthorized construction and repairs on nights and weekends. Sometimes a property owner was later forced to remove a fence or deck built without permits.

A related issue has been education of property owners on city rules for building and repairs, especially in the six residential historic districts. The Latino population increased by 67 percent between 2000 and 2010 and there is a need for information in Spanish.

In all, the new director will find plenty of challenges as he moves to modernize and improve Inspections. New development will place extra demands on the division. Getting things done right in a timely way will yield benefits for decades to come.


Skipping A Day

I have several possible stories that all need a little extra something to become real, so meanwhile I will forsake blogging for alternate activities, mainly crocheting scarves. See you later!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oreo? O Really!

Here's a political bulletin from the front, aka the annual League of Municipalities Conference. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Library Launches Makerspace

With a $7,500 state library grant and additional funding from the Friends of the Plainfield Public Library,  a new Digital Design Studio is taking Plainfield into the "maker" world, a realm of creativity that is sweeping the country. In June, President Barack Obama hosted a first-ever Maker Faire in the White House.

Tina Marie Doody, the library's head of Public Services, views the huge scanner/printer that will produce posters and more.
While 3-D printers have hogged the headlines with their ability to replicate objects including human body parts, the Plainfield library is focusing on 2-D applications such as posters and art. Plans call for non-profit organizations, art students and individuals to use the computer and printer. Doody said the choice was made "because we have such an active art community in Plainfield and so many different organizations."

Diego Licht, the library's Makerspace and IT manager, demonstrated on the Wacom HD tablet how an old photograph can become a large print, enhanced by use of special paper.
Images on the tablet can be modified as needed.
To the right, behind the monitor, is a large print made from a photo taken by Jackie Schnoop for the library's annual photo contest. The framed print was presented to her on Nov. 15 when she won first prize in the contest
Cheryl O'Connor, director of the New Jersey Library Cooperative known as LibraryLinkNJ, gives the tablet a try by drawing her favorite doodle. The organization provided the library's $7,500 Makerspace grant.
Deputy State Librarian Peggy Cadigan was on hand for the Digital Design Studio opening, and also explored the tablet's possibilities. (See more about the New Jersey State Library.)

Licht displays the various-sized pen nibs that are among the tablet's many features.

The Makerspace can be used to create in-house posters for the library's four display areas, such as seasonal reading lists. The Plainfield Symphony is a likely candidate for the two free posters per year the library will allow for non-profit organizations. A continuous paper roll on the printer allows for banners of any length. The computer can even help with quilt design. There will be a fee-based service for some items.

In all, the Digital Design Studio is a 21st Century resource that dramatically broadens possibilities for Plainfield's arts and cultural community. Library Director Joseph Da Rold welcomes all to learn more about the studio.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Sandy Spector on Thanksgiving Menus

A note from caterer Sandy Spector regarding Thanksgiving menus intrigued me, and I asked her to answer some questions for a blog post. I'm sure many family gatherings nowadays will include dietary options that our grandparents never imagined. Here is the Q&A:

Q. When and how did you decide to broaden your menu?
A. We have always provided holiday menus with specialty items, food for major sporting events shared around the TV with friends and family, children's parties, High Holiday observances and so much more.
Because many of our clients have special dietary needs, allergies to certain food items, dietary choices eliminating certain food categories, we have done extensive study and research with recipe testing to be able to delight their culinary senses.

Q. Which alternate category (gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan or raw) is most popular? What are some examples of the choices in each category?
A. "Vegetarian" items are probably the most requested...we do our with no fake flavored replacements. There is a growing call for "Gluten Free" items as can be seen in the ever increasing shelf space provided to items that can be included in the diet of Celiac Disease sufferers and those who just feel better by eliminating certain food from their diets.. "Vegan" dishes are a distant third place. "Raw" items are definitely the least requested.
Vegetarian...Eggplant Rollatini with fresh Tomato Concasse
Mushroom and Walnut Pate with Crisp Herbed Croustades'
Gluten Free...Lemongrass Shrimp Soup with Spaghetti Squash
Kale Salad with Butternut Squash and Toasted Almonds
Vegan...Pumpkin and Cashew Curry
Quinoa Fritters with Grilled Pineapple and Roasted Red Pepper Salsa
Raw...Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake
Corn Salad with Tomatoes, Avocados, Shitaki Mushrooms and Fresh Herbs

Q. Can a client split menus for different needs? (Example: Parents like traditional, adult children are vegans).
A. Absolutely!! We recommend it...we also recommend that everyone share these special dishes.

Q. How does your service work? Is food delivered in advance or served on Thanksgiving? Besides food, what else can you provide for a holiday gathering? (Tables, chairs, waitstaff, d├ęcor, etc.)
A. We do both. The client can get a delivery before the holiday or arrange a pick up. We also do special holiday deliveries with set up.
We can arrange for rental of tables, chairs, linens, tableware, glassware and flatware. Our clients have hundred of items from which to choose. We also provide staff, upon request. Holiday rates apply.

Q. How much advance notice do you need and can clients arrange it all by phone, online, in-person meeting?
A. We need as much advance notice as possible as we stop taking orders when we feel we our "dance card" is full. Staffing takes more notice than menu. Clients can arrange everything on the phone. (908) 400-9979 We send proposals for client confirmation...upon which we add them to the roster.

Watson's 90-Day Acting Term Ends in December

On Sept. 15, former PMUA Executive Director Eric Watson returned to the role he held before leading the authority, heading the city Department of Public Works & Urban Development. Mayor Adrian O. Mapp named him to a 90-day acting position which expires Dec. 15.

The mayor will have to seek City Council advice and consent to his nomination of Watson if he is to receive a full term concurrent with the mayor's, ending in 2017.

While he had many supporters on the council as PMUA director, it is not apparent how much he might have for confirmation as department head. The council meets on Dec. 1 for an agenda-fixing session, folllowed by a voting meeting on Dec. 8. If no action is taken by then, the council could tsck a special meeting on to the Dec. 15 agenda-fixing session for the January reorganization.

Two council members, Tracey Brown and William Reid, are former PMUA commissioners. When she served as council liaison to the PMUA, Council President Bridget Rivers often defended the authority against criticism by other council members. But a majority this year has frequently chosen not to support Mapp's decisions, so his choice of Watson could falter simply because of council hostility.

The public has no vote in the matter, but has had plenty to say about Watson's return to a city post after receiving a controversial settlement in January 2012.

Also of note, current PMUA Executive Director Dan Williamson's contract will expire in July 2015. Williamson was the city's corporation counsel before being hired to head the PMUA. Watson headed the authority from 1995 to 2011, but Williamson received just a three-year contract. His continued employment will be decided by the authority's board of commissioners.


Stinky Ginkgos

The beautiful yellow leaves of the Ginkgo tree are falling near the Plainfield Public Library and several other locations around the city. But so are the much-maligned fruits of the female Ginkgo.
Watch your step near the Ginkgos, lest you get the smelly pulp of the fruit on your shoes.
These fruits do contain an edible portion, but it takes some trouble to get it out. The Washington Post published an article on how to prepare Gingko seeds for roasting and eating. 

There are people who enjoy urban foraging, but I am not one of them. My thought when I see Ginkgo trees is awe at their status as "living fossils." They are a link with the time of the dinosaurs. I love their fan-shaped leaves, which I have seen replicated in fabric prints and jewelry

They are a favored street tree  for their stately form and ability to resist pests and diseases. But landscapers are warned to make sure they get only male tree to avoid the stinky fruit problem. Make sure to take a good look at the next Ginkgo you encounter, but look down before looking up!


Sunday, November 16, 2014

New Revenues Among PMUA Updates

A surge in development will bring new revenue to the PMUA, Executive Director Dan Williamson told the authority's board of commissioners Thursday.

Sewer hookups for new homes and apartment buildings will yield $2,130 per unit, he said. for example, the developer of an 80-apartment building under construction off Roosevelt Avenue will need to pay $170,400 in sewer connection fees. The sewage will flow into one large pipe connected to the sewer system.

The authority is trying to get information from the city on which approved development projects are actually under construction, to make sure all are properly charged the fees, he said.

Sometimes there is a lag between land use board approvals and construction, often for reasons of financing. The 80-unit building was approved in 2008, but construction only began this year. Other proposals include a 148-unit complex on West Second Street, 20 units on East Second Street and possibly 200 new units on South Avenue.

Connection needs are measured in EDUs, which Williamson explained Thursday as "estimated daily use," but which Plaintalker has understood to mean "equivalent dwelling unit." Whatever the term, each new one-family home or apartment will be subject to the connection fee.

Williamson gave several other updates Thursday:
- He said the Cottage Place building damaged in May by a drunk driver has been repaired and renovated.
- The Rock Avenue transfer station's scale house was repaired by the authority's maintenance staff at a savings over hiring outside workers.
- Revenue from collection fees at the transfer station have increased from $333,000 in 2005 to $1.5 million so far this year.

The authority now provides services to nine municipalities and one outside board of education, another source of revenue, although final disposal costs take 80 percent of the income. The authority nets between $200,000 and $250,000 from the operations, which cover bulky waste, vegetative waste and recycling.

On rates, there was a 7.3 percent reduction in 2012, which did not change in 2013. The authority hopes to reduce or at least stabilize rates this year. There may be a need to shrink the work force, Williamson said.

The 2015 budget will be delayed due to burdens on staff from illness and having to deal with three audits, Chief Financial Officer Duane Young said. State agencies demanded masses of records within strict time frames, displacing staff from budget work. Commissioners asked whether temporary help could be hired, but Young said the work was really not suited to such assistance. The authority does rely on its auditing firm to help with budget preparation, he said. The new deadline for the budget is December 21, he said.

The authority received a $1.1 million premium from the Joint Insurance Fund, but it also had its buildings sharply devalued by the JIF after an inspection. Previously the JIF relied on the asuthority's own valuation of its buildings.

The authority is also launching a pilot program in two city zones to allow residents a choice of receptacles for trash and recyclables, depending on household needs. Residents would be able to choose between 96-gallon and 64-gallon containers.

For more information on solid waste and sewer services, see the PMUA web site.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Official Results Confirm Winners

Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi today posted official results of the Nov. 4 general election and Plainfield's winners remain the same as on Election Day.

Uncontested in the First Ward City Council race, Diane Toliver received 1,457 votes, 11 more than the unofficial tally. In the Third Ward, Gloria Taylor received 1,835, seven votes more and Randy Bullock's total was unchanged at 244.

In the Second and Third Ward at-large race, Rebecca Williams won with 3,758 votes officially, up by 15. William Michelson gained one vote for a total of 563.

The school board winners on Nov. 4 - David Rutherford, Carletta Jeffers and Terrence Bellamy Sr, - remained the same. So did tallies for the team backed by Jerry Green and one independent candidate. You can see all the Union County official results here

No reason was given for the week-long delay in release of the official results. In the city, there was talk of an unusually high number of votes cast at one Fourth Ward polling place, but as noted, no major changes occurred in the outcomes.
Ward 4, District 1
One district out five drew 40 percent of the Fourth Ward totals for the Green slate.

The winners will take office on Jan. 1, 2015. The outgoing school board members, Dorien Hurtt, Jameelah Surgeon and Alex Edache, were the last to win in an April election. They ended up serving an extra eight months due to the school board race being moved to November. The current winners will serve an even three years.

On to 2015! As usual, three school board seats will be up and two council seats, representing the Second Ward and the First & Fourth Ward at-large. State Senate and Assembly seats will be on the ballot and the Regular Democratic Organization of Union County will reorganize, electing committee members and a chairman. Plainfield has 68 committee seats, a male and female in each of its 34 voting districts. If you don't want to toss your own hat in the ring, consider helping out in a campaign. At the very least, take time to vote in 2015. All relevant dates will be posted in January and Plaintalker will remind you of filings and elections. Take part, it's your right as a citizen!


Library Owed for Back PMUA Costs

The Plainfield Public Library will receive nearly $16,000 for erroneous solid waste and sewer charges dating back to 2003.

As resident Alan Goldstein suggested at a special library board meeting on Oct. 16, the library property is city-owned and so not subject to PMUA charges according to the interlocal services agreement between the city and the authority.

The PMUA board of commissioners was on the verge of approving a resolution to refund the money Thursday when Commissioner Carol Brokaw raised objections, saying the lapse was a shared mistake.

"Both parties have responsibility in a contract," she said.

Commissioner Charles Eke agreed that responsibility for the ongoing error should be shared, but PMUA Counsel Leslie London said the contract was with the city and library staff would not have known of the details.

Commissioner Malcolm Dunn noted another property, "the Crescent island," which was owned by a church and not the city and questioned whether there might be more instances of erroneous billing. The board agreed to hold off on the resolution until December to allow for the possibility of other repayments.

The grassy island with a memorial flagpole at East Seventh Street and Crescent Avenue is maintained by the city, but is owned by Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church.

PMUA Executive Director Dan Williamson said the library situation involved its parking lot and there was "some confusion" over the listing.

Williamson mentioned research into possible charges dating back before 2003, but Dunn questioned a statute of limitations and said, "I don't see us going back 15 years. It's crazy."

The authority was established in 1995. Ratepayers are charged a "shared services" fee that covers trash pickup in public areas such as parks and municipal buildings, among other things. Even residents who "opt out" of PMUA trash pickup are charged the shared services fee, which has caused controversy for several years, as described at the link above.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

City Plans New Cash Handling Rules

Starting in January, residents paying cash for city services will have to do so through the Tax Office only.

The move is in response to repeated audit findings that cash handling rules were not being followed. In remarks on a corrective action plan for the 2013 audit, Chief Financial Officer Al Steinberg told the City Council Monday that cash was kept in unlocked drawers in City Hall Annex, among other lapses. All cash is supposed to be deposited within 48 hours of receipt, auditors said.

Here is the new process:
Starting January 1, 2015 the City of Plainfield will accept cash payment exclusively through the 
Tax Office. Each office that accepts cash payments will receive a receipt book which will be 
color coded to their department. The forms will be four parts, (one copy stays in the book while 
the customer brings the three remaining parts to the Tax Department along with the cash payment 
to be endorsed as the deposit is made by Tax. The Tax Department then takes one copy of the 
endorsed cash receipt and the customer takes the remaining two parts back to the originating 
department where one copy is given as payment for the good or service received and the other is 
given to the customer as his/her receipt. The Departmental copy is then submitted to Finance at 
month end along with the Departmental Monthly Report.

Councilman Cory Storch questioned "making residents do all this work" and said he hoped the process will be made more user-friendly. While Steinberg mentioned the need for staff education on fiscal rules, Finance Director Ron West put it more bluntly.

"We've asked the team to unlearn everything they ever learned about doing their jobs. They have to learn a whole new way to do their jobs," West said.

Steinberg is the first permanent CFO since Peter Sepelya retired in 2007 and West follows a span of six finance directors in the previous administration's eight-year tenure, including some gaps with no one in charge.

Each year, city auditors make a report on the city's fiscal practices and the council must sign a corrective action plan. For 2013, nine of 16 recommendations were unresolved from prior years.  Still, the city was able to dodge a state penalty for not adhering to best practices, which in 2012 caused loss of a portion of state aid.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Official Results Friday

Usually the official results of a Tuesday election are published on the following Monday, but for the Nov. 4 general election, they will not be released until Friday (Nov. 14) for unspecified reasons. Plaintalker will update election coverage as soon as the Union County Clerk's Office releases the numbers.


Photo Exhibit Opens Saturday

exhibit opening

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Welcome Sign - Too Much Information?

Click image to enlarge
The Planning Board approved new "welcome" signs Thursday, despite some concerns about the design. The image above shows the front and back of a sign.

What do you think? If a sign lasts ten years or so and a mayor's term is four years, should a mayor's name and slogan be on the sign? Are there too many words? Should the City Seal be on it? 

The signs are not expected to be placed at gateways to the city until Spring, so if you have any thoughts about the proposed design, let the administration know early on.


Veterans' Center Opens on Veterans' Day

About 100 people gathered Tuesday for the long-awaited opening of the Plainfield Veteran's Center.
Mayor Adrian O. Mapp welcomed the veterans and guests. 
"Welcome Home, Heroes and Sheroes"
The center, which is part of The Monarch building at 400 East Front Street, has its own way sign.
Mayor Mapp invites attendees to enter.
High above the crowd, a flag flies from an aerial bucket.
A red carpet leads to the entry.
Police officers stand guard.
.Inside at last! The veterans were meeting in the senior center next door but now have their own place with their own key. Mayor Mapp and post commanders signed a $1-a-year lease. The commanders received a large commemorative key to the room. They were presented with an American flag donated by Veronica Lewis, who had received it after her brother, Alexander Belin, died in the invasion of Normandy Beach. 

Asked what he thinks of the new meeting place, "Love it!" said Commander Cornell Hawkins of Johnson Jeter American Legion Post 219. His group meets on the second Tuesday of every month.

Commander Herbert Goines of VFW Post 7474 called having their own center "a big difference." The post meets on the second Friday of each month. 

The veterans' center was promised in 2006 as part of a $15 million project which included a new senior center and 63 condos on three upper floors. Among dignitaries Tuesday was former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who said when introduced, "We did this - finally!" 


Mayor's PMUA Choices Fall Through

PMUA Reorganization, February 2014

Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's nominations for PMUA commissioners were changed three times during Monday's City Council meeting, only to be tabled in the end.

Mapp had proposed Thomas Crownover to replace Malcolm Dunn, Michelle Graham-Lyons to replace Harold Mitchell and Ada Melendez to fill a vacancy left when Cecil Sanders went from a 2-year alternate's term to a 5-year commissioner term. After the governing body interviewed candidates in closed session, the roster became Graham-Lyons to replace Dunn and Melendez to replace Mitchell, who was named for the alternate seat. But when moving items to the agenda, the council only agreed to put Graham-Lyons up for a vote. 

The council held both an agenda-fixing session and a regular meeting in tandem Monday, and when the PMUA nomination came up for a vote, it was tabled.

Mapp said after the meeting he was "extremely disappointed."

"I tried in the interest of the city to do some shuffling or juggling in an attempt to get support for at least two new commissioners," he said. "In spite of that, the games continue."

Nonetheless, he added he will keep trying.

He said the council members had made it very clear they were not going to support Crownover under any circumstances. Crownover is an attorney and also director of a parking authority. Mapp previously nominated Crownover in January and in April. In 2011, Crownover was among critics of the PMUA and served on a group that studied the authority, reporting in 2012 three options: fix it, dissolve it or do nothing.

Mitchell, currently the chairman, and Dunn are both holdovers as commissioners. Sanders, Carol Brokaw and Charles Tyndale are the other commissioners and Charles Eke is an alternate. The board oversees the the authority, which provides solid waste and sewer services to the city. See the PMUA web site for more information.



Monday, November 10, 2014

Downtown Sights

My visits to Plainfield's downtown have been limited this year due to my surgery and recovery, so I was curious Sunday afternoon to see what was new.
One new sight was a thrift store in the middle of the block between Park and Watchung. It was clean and brightly lit.
The clothes appeared to be of good quality and a few interested customers were checking the racks.
Other storefronts were for rent. The downtown's largest landlord is Paramount Assets. which several years ago acquired about 45 storefronts formerly owned by the Pittis Estate.
Some stores on the north side of the street closed or are in transition. This one is having a half-price sale on its wares.
The 1980s dream of a downtown filled with high-end shops, as in the city's retailing heyday, is not yet realized. One can buy a hookah or sell old jewelry, but not buy upscale goods right now.
I think this pawn shop is new. While a pawn shop is not specified as a permitted use in the central business district, maybe it would fall under retail use? Not sure.
This window display fascinates me, with its santos and replicas of traditional kitchenware. There was also a child-size black outfit with gold braid trim, maybe for a miniature matador?
Graffiti, especially for gangs, is an urban problem that needs constant attention. In the Queen's Courtyard off Front Street, the walls have been painted over many times, but now there is this mysterious legend. Wolves against foxes???
Dan reported on the advent of "Tasty Cheese" in the old Strand Theater. A few years ago, the owner told me his plan was to open a place where children's parties could be held, similar to Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. I stood on tiptoe to peek in the grill and saw what looked like kiddie amusements. Taped to the grill was an ad for a chef, so we may have to wait to see what will open there.
Meanwhile, the city's Victorian history mingles with patriotism and holiday spirit on this downtown street light.

Do you shop downtown? I must admit to more online shopping and spending money in Westfield. Will new downtown dwellers find it to their liking? Does it need a better mix of offerings?


"Welcome" Signs To Be Replaced

"Welcome" signs at city gateways are in need of replacement, Public Works Superintendent John Louise told the Planning Board last week.

Signs in 14 locations are damaged, faded or missing, Louise said. At least one dates back to 1994. New signs will be erected at no cost to the city through a business sponsorship plan. The sponsor's name will be attached separately below the signs, which may cost between $1,500 and $2,000. They will be made in the city's own sign shop, he said.

Board member Billy Toth asked about the wording, which includes the current administration's slogan, "One Plainfield, One Future." Toth said he never heard of it before. Louise said the old signs span five administrations and it was not uncommon to have a mayor's name on signs. Toth asked whether the slogan portion was replaceable and and Louise said it was not.

After a few more questions about their construction, the board approved the sign project.

Walking downtown Sunday, Plaintalker only found one "welcome" sign on the corner of Park & Front. As championed by the late Pat Turner Kavanaugh, the sign (above) includes student accomplishments. It is metal on a single stanchion, though the signs discussed Thursday will have two posts and sounded more like the large wooden signs that Plaintalker recalled seeing at other locations. If an image of the proposed design can be obtained, Plaintalker will post it later.