The Business of the City: Miscellaneous

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Thoughts on the PMUA

Certainly, the PMUA has had a number of issues in recent years that have contributed to our rising taxes. We are all familiar with the overspending on trips that seemed only tangentially related (at best!) to PMUA business and operations, such as the infamous NFBPA junket of 2009. I applaud the citizen group led by Philip Charles and others which led the PMUA to revise some of the more egregious charges we were paying and to demand more accountability, openness, and transparency from the authority in terms of how it conducts business. That is true grassroots activism, and it shows the power of the people.
There is much more to be done, however—because we are still paying rates that are much higher than those of surrounding communities. We are paying too much! In my opinion, the role of a utility authority (much like the role of municipal government) is to deliver services on a professional and cost-efficient basis, keeping in mind that they work for the citizens who pay their salaries.
I have some proposals that I think should be studied to see whether they might provide some relief to the taxpayers.

1) MY VISION calls for a Volunteer PMUA Commission—NO stipends, NO medical benefits!
My proposal is for the PMUA Commissioners to serve on a volunteer basis, with NO compensation—meaning $0 stipend and NO medical benefits! When I served on the Plainfield Cultural and Heritage Commission, my fellow commissioners and I received no compensation at all—and that is how it should be. The number of hours that my colleagues and I worked producing events to promote Plainfield’s cultural life far outnumbered the hours that PMUA Commissioners serve—I simply can’t imagine receiving compensation for serving as a Commissioner. Active, community-oriented volunteers often do a better job, as they are not tempted by personal enrichment. Making the commissioners serve as non-compensated volunteers would be one way of ensuring that these seats are not given to anyone except those who truly want to serve the city and work toward saving us all money. 

Further, any projected travel expenses of a commissioner should be reviewed and approved prior to the trip being taken. When I go to academic conferences, I must provide a rationale for reimbursement of travel and registration expenses to my superiors. A questionnaire should be standard operating procedure for any expenses by PMUA Commissioners—for example: What is the purpose of the trip? What specific expertise are you there to provide/or to receive? How is this trip directly related to the mission of the PMUA? I think that this method of direct accountability would go a long way toward cutting some of the frivolous junkets that authorities seem to be so fond of.

2) MY VISION is to allow citizens to immediately opt for once a week sanitation pickup.
I have thought about this for a number of years. My huge black waste disposal can barely gets filled up once a week, except when I am spring cleaning, or doing a bit of extra entertaining. The same goes for most of my neighbors. As I have been out canvassing across the rest of the city, I have been querying residents about whether they would opt for a single weekly pickup if it were offered. Most said they would welcome the option as a way to reduce their bill.
I propose that we study the sticker method that has been adopted by a number of municipalities across the state and nation. For example, we could use a purple sticker to designate those households that have opted for twice a week pickup, and an orange sticker for once a week pickup. The trucks would see these stickers as they head down the street and would probably be able to get through their respective runs more quickly. This would really ease the burden on our overtaxed residents, including especially small families, those who live alone, and our senior citizens, many of whom don’t need to put out garbage more than once per week.
By adopting a plan like this, the PMUA could also more aggressively encourage stronger recycling and composting efforts by the residents of Plainfield. I think that this would be a model way of being able to streamline and provide good service in a way that truly considers the needs of our overtaxed residents. That would enable the PMUA to expend more efforts on the cleanup of downtown and the maintenance of the larger areas which are within its purview. It would also enable them to market and provide services to other municipalities without having to increase the workforce.

3) My VISION is to examine whether it would be beneficial to reabsorb the PMUA back into the city.
In his run for mayor last year, Third Ward Councilor Adrian Mapp proposed that reabsorbing the PMUA could result in cost savings of up to $2 million annually. Adrian and I have discussed this issue a number of times over the past year, and I give full credit to him for all the effort he has put into analyzing this idea. His proposal to bring the PMUA back under the umbrella of the city would enable us to write off a portion of the sanitation services on our federal taxes. This issue, which affects every single resident—homeowners and renters alike—it is far too important to remain silent on. And front-line workers would be protected while some of the wasteful upper management could be eliminated.
 A recent article in the Star-Ledger (dated April 13, 2010) detailed how East Brunswick, by eliminating its sewer authority, has projected a $500,000 cost savings in the first year alone. In looking at Councilman Mapp’s calculations, it is certainly within the realm of possibility to see Plainfield saving the $2 million. This should be studied. Here is the link to the article, which I encourage you to read:

4) MY VISION is to see the PMUA shrink in size at the administrative level.
We must cut administrative waste. As you know from reading the paper, it is easy for many of these utility authorities (such as the notorious Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority) to become “patronage pits” for favored political friends and campaign contributors. It would be better for Plainfield as a community to have stricter council oversight of the PMUA before the governor steps in, as he did upstate. In addition, lawyers, engineers, and other entities benefit from contracts that are doled out in ways other than through true competitive bidding, and we all pay, as part of the so-called “corruption tax” that we pay here in New Jersey--estimates are that the New Jerseyans pay approximately 15% more for everything because of pay-to-play!

5) MY VISION is to see the PMUA aggressively market its services to other municipalities.
The PMUA exists for now, and while we consider its future, we must also consider the here and now--the authority could be more aggressive in marketing its services to other municipalities. Rather than sending all the upper-level executives and paid commissioners on junkets at high taxpayer cost, as has been standard operating procedure in the past, money would be better spent inviting an independent marketing consultant with specific expertise in marketing this kind of authority to work towards marketing the PMUA’s waste disposal, recycling, etc. I specifically mean a consultant with a proven track record whose contract would specify exactly what he or she would be accountable for, with goals, timelines, action plans, etc.--ineffectiveness would mean non-renewal of the contract. 

Additional Thoughts--Citizens Committee
So, those are a few of the proposals that I have been thinking about with regard to the PMUA. I think we must begin thinking aggressively and seriously about doing something. The rates we pay CAN BE STABILIZED with serious cost-cutting and no loss of service. As a member of the Council, I would look to appoint a citizens committee to help us work toward a solution. I would encourage some of the individuals who have done so much over the past year or more on behalf of the residents to be a part of that committee—and it would be an active committee, NOT one for “show.” These grassroots activists have demonstrated their commitment to making our PMUA more responsive to residents’ needs—they deserve a seat at the table.
Finally, it is clear that we need sanitation services in the city, and the PMUA workforce that picks up on my block does a great job—they are friendly and courteous—they are our neighbors, too. I think that there are ways to ensure that we get the best for the prices we pay, and I hope that some of these proposals will help promote more dialogue.
I will close with the words of the PMUA from its website—this should be at the forefront of any and all discussions about this entity:
PMUA Mission Statement:
"To safeguard our public health...
Enrich our environmental quality of life...
Regulate, promote and encourage responsible actions for a cleaner, litter free city...
Invest in improving our infrastructure...
By providing and managing environmentally friendly, comprehensive, and cost-effective collection, transport, recycling, treatment and disposal services for municipal solid waste materials and sanitary sewers."

All best,
Endorsed by Councilors 
Cory Storch (Ward 2) and Adrian Mapp (Ward 3)

Rebecca Williams, City Council Candidate
New Democrats for Plainfield


Column D
Vote Tuesday, June 8


  1. I like it. Once a month p/u.
    For bottles & papers too....

  2. You are right on the money!

    Maybe the City and PMUA could share the use of some of their trucks. This would reduce the costs for leasing or purchasing and make the operations more efficient.

    What about sewer? We pay nearly twice what other Union county towns pay for sewer.

  3. I like what you say here, too. I especially think you could do a lot to organize a base of support around your point #3. My only (minor) concern is that the idea has been floated before without much success. I guess too many of the “right” people benefit from the status quo.

  4. Too many commonsense approaches. You'll never win a seat with them.

  5. Greensboro 2010 (NFBPA Forum)