Plainfield seeks ways to trim tax increase
By BRANDON LAUSCH
PLAINFIELD -- As the holidays draw near, many shoppers are spending their season of giving in a frantic search for that elusive gaming system or coveted pair of Hannah Montana tickets.
In Plainfield, city officials are in the height of budget season, combing their proposed 2008 spending plan for excesses and devising more ways to shrink a tax increase that once stood at 8.7 percent.
In a scene that is repeating itself across New Jersey this winter, cash-strapped government leaders -- while working to slash the local tax burden -- are attempting to avoid a Grinch-who-stole-funding persona at a time residents generally expect good cheer.
"The underlying thing here is that we have to scrutinize everything in the budget because taxes are hurting people," said Democratic Councilman Rashid Burney, chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee and a self-described fiscal conservative. "So everything is being looked at. There are no sacred cows. There are no sacred departments."
A controversial proposal
A suggestion to move what officials described as unused money from the city's recreation department prompted dozens of residents to jam City Hall for a special hearing Monday on the nearly $70 million budget.
In an effort to protest a perceived cut of $75,000 that a parade of residents said would impact athletic programs, locals involved with the department relayed their success stories.
The first, and arguably most dramatic, speaker was 10-year-old Brandon Steele, who quickly chastised city leaders for even thinking about shifting money away from recreation programs.
"In the schools, they say No Child Left Behind, but when you're taking it (funding) from us, we are being left behind," said Steele, who at one point gripped the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyelids shut in a struggle to maintain his composure.
Following Steele were a line of parents and other residents who coaxed one another to deliver passionate testimonials as they lobbied for funding, some telling officials that athletics gives many children the opportunity they need to avoid the pitfalls of gangs and drugs.
Officials have maintained that any supposed recreation cuts will not impact programs. According to current budget documents, the department stands to get a substantial increase in 2008 -- to more than $725,000 -- from this fiscal year's allotment of nearly $678,733, of which $657,409 was spent. Burney said council members are merely discussing whether recreation programs can efficiently operate with a steady funding level.
But Councilman Cory Storch said the massive turnout could sway official opinion.
"I believe that the council is thinking very seriously about the input, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw money restored from the council's supposed cut," Storch said a few days after Monday's meeting.
"People coming out, or even calling and e-mailing, it definitely has an impact," he added. "Especially when it's a lot of people at the same time. I think the council members have to assess who's advocating for something that may be a different kind of agenda because it's not unheard of that staff who are impacted by the cuts will rally the troops."
So it goes in this volatile time of year, when the city's proposed budget still is very much a living document. Already, with the recent announcement of $800,000 in extraordinary state aid -- though $100,000 less than the amount in this year's budget -- city administrators have pegged the current tax increase at 6.3 percent, well on its way to the 4 percent hike some officials say they would be happy to approve because it generally mirrors the rate of inflation and abides by state guidelines capping property tax increases.
As it stands, the 3.46 percent tax rate proposed by officials would equate to an annual tax bill of $3,909.80 for a homeowner living in an average house valued at $113,000. If the budget was passed today, residents would see a property tax increase of $167.30, officials said.
But there still is painful work ahead. Next month, city Administrator Marc Dashield is expected to discuss the results of another budget review, which will pinpoint promising line items officials can tweak without unduly impacting services.
Dashield, who practically is a budgeting Army of One thanks to the recent departures of the city's chief financial officer and finance director, said officials are hoping to locate up to $650,000 in additional cuts. The City Council finalizes changes through the formal passage of budget amendments.
One less job in planning
Another budgeting sore point for some vocal residents and officials is the proposed elimination of a $30,000 job in the Planning Division. Opponents of the cut say the position will play an increasingly vital role as the city wades through what some have called a historic amount of redevelopment plans.
Those same critics, who have questioned whether the duties will be outsourced to hired hands with little knowledge of the city's character, also say the overworked planning staff can't absorb the additional work.
"I totally do not buy the claim on the part of the administration that this position can be absorbed," said Storch, the council liaison to the Planning Board. "I think it's just wishful thinking. I have a very, very strong bias toward strong planning with a lot of local input, and I think the way to do it is to have the internal resources to get the input, to reach out into the community and understand the community."
But as residents and officials wrangle over some points in the budget, other proposals have advanced with less attention.
According to a Courier News review of city documents, the fiscal year 2008 budget promotes a mantra of "fiscal realism," with "making the hard decisions for the future of Plainfield" working as a tagline of sorts. Its core services are police, fire and code enforcement, as well as the expansion of the city's tax base.
Infrastructure, such as information technology and road maintenance, also ranks high on the priority list, with technology netting a new $125,000 line item to fund and manage upgrades to outdated city computer systems. Meanwhile, fixed costs -- think health insurance and pensions -- continue to soar, further limiting the city's financial wiggle room.
State aid is expected to account for about 42 percent of projected revenues, with receipts from delinquent taxes adding another 19 percent. Other money generators include municipal court fines, parking meters, interest on investments and revenue sharing with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, among others.
In all, projected revenues will net about $25 million, leaving the city to raise more than $44 million of its budget through taxes.
To lighten the tax load, officials appear to be targeting just about every department in the city. When comparing appropriations from fiscal year 2007 to the next, reductions are shown in the public information office, community relations/social services, public works/urban development, corporation counsel and community development, among others.
The city's auxiliary police force, described by some as dysfunctional and championed by others, requested $14,000 for the 2008 budget, the same amount it received in fiscal year 2007. The administration is requesting its elimination.
"It's tough," Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Plainfield, said of the city's budgeting process in times as tight as these. "That's why 98 percent of the people in this city know Jerry Green, 75 percent of them support Jerry Green. Those other 25 are because I can't give them what they want. I have to make business decisions, and the business decisions I make outweigh people's personal agendas."
AT A GLANCEBrandon Lausch can be reached at (908) 707-3175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What a difference state aid makes. Though the $800,000 in extraordinary aid Plainfield is receiving for its proposed spending plan is $100,000 less than what's included in the 2007 budget -- and far less than $2.9 million officials asked for -- it sure doesn't hurt. A comparison of Plainfield's budget with and without help from the state:
Proposed budget 2008
Introduced budget With Extraordinary Aid
Projected revenues $25 million $25 million
Extraordinary aid $0 $800,000
Base budget $65.4 million $65.4 million
Cost drivers $4.4 million $4.4 million
Core service investments $125,000 $125,000
Total projected expenditures $69.9 million $69.9 million
Gap to be raised by taxation $44.9 million $44.3 million
Percentage increase in taxation 8.7 percent 6.3 percent
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