Published in the Courier News, Friday, March 21, 2008
Plainfield flushes out late payers
By BRANDON LAUSCH
PLAINFIELD — Some names on the list read like a roll call of Plainfield notables or a catalog of movers and shakers.
But this directory of roughly 1,600 names — including the city's personnel director and health officer, as well as at least two school board members — isn't a roster of Queen City officials. It's a rundown of residents who, at least at some point, were behind on their sewer bills.
In a public notice that took up nearly four pages of Tuesday's Courier News, city Tax Collector Maria Glavan announced that a lien sale will be held inside City Hall at 10 a.m. April 15 on properties that are behind on taxes and other municipal charges for fiscal year 2007, which began July 1. The notice, which will be printed four times, will cost taxpayers a total of $19,519. Nearly all of them are back sewer fees.
Although Glavan and representatives of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority — the body created in 1995 to manage the city's solid-waste operation and sanitary sewer service — said the number of delinquents isn't unusual, the cross-section of residents included in the list may raise eyebrows.
Included in the columns of fine print is Boniface Udenta, the city's health officer, who owes $858.08 for a property on West Third Street that he said has remained vacant for two years. When notified Thursday of his appearance on the list, Udenta said he was shocked.
"I can't explain how they work," Udenta said. "To be honest, I'm at a loss. How am I getting billed when nobody lives in the house? That's my dilemma."
Udenta said his search for tenants has been fruitless because of crime in the neighborhood. The property he is trying to rent, Udenta said, has been broken into three times. Although he maintained that no one is using the building's sewer system, Udenta admitted receiving notices from the utilities authority.
Udenta said he contemplated contesting the charges but lost track of the bills after vacationing abroad and returning to a stressful job. He said he plans to visit the authority next week "and say, "How come I'm getting all these bills when nobody lives in house?"
Though some echoed Udenta's commitment to address their debts —- like city Personnel Director Karen Dabney, who owes $1,411.32, or school board member Christian Estevez, who remains $533.37 behind —- others said they already paid up or were listed incorrectly.
Plainfield Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett said she paid the outstanding $1,704.34 balance on her account this week while Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Sheldon Green said he was also in the clear. But Adrian Mapp, a former city councilman and Union County freeholder, said "there's no way that could be possible" when informed of the $1,399.81 he apparently owed for a property on West Seventh Street.
Shortly after hearing the news, Mapp drove to the authority's headquarters and said he straightened out the erroneous listing.
"I don't know how the . . . records came to reflect the names of my wife and I, but it's not a good thing to have your name in the paper for something that I know nothing about, for a property that we do not own," Mapp said.
According to Erin Donnelly, a representative for the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, the average household pays a quarterly bill of $127.25, which equates to $509 annually. The charges reflect last year's 20 percent rate increase that raised the average household charge from $106 every three months to the current $127.25 rate, she said. Bills are determined based on use.
Donnelly said the Utilities Authority expects to recover $1.5 million during next month's sale "for services rendered to these delinquent accounts."
Though Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said public officials getting behind on their sewer fees may typically remain a private matter, she said it clearly becomes public when notices are published.
"And I think the issue is both of appearances and expectations that people who are public officials, particularly those who are close to budget matters and municipal matters . . . you should be aware of the need to pay bills and what the routine is," she said.
Reed said it's not unreasonable for citizens to expect that public servants should understand the importance of fiscal responsibility and the need "to comply with this kind of payment, which really makes government more efficient and effective."
"There is a need for public servants to give the public reason to trust them," Reed continued. "And I think that this kind of dereliction could just once again make people feel, "Well, they think they can get away with it,' and that's unfortunate."
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.