Tuesday, May 22, 2012
The Public Purse Redux
The City Council is currently in the process of budget hearings for the CY 2012 budget. We have heard from several departments about their needs for the coming year, in terms of personnel and operating expenses. As this is my first budget deliberation session as a councilor (the prior year's budget was passed before I came on the council), I had several policy questions regarding the impact of the budget increases on Plainfield's struggling taxpayers. I also don't feel that I have been given enough information from the administration about the deferred payment that is coming due, among other things.
I also had several policy questions about the status of seasonal employees, and when the Personnel Director came before the council earlier this month, I asked about the distinction between seasonal and temporary employees. She stated that seasonal workers could only be on payroll for a maximum of THREE months, not SIX months, as the Recreation Superintendent had erroneously stated on the record two weeks prior, during the Recreation budget hearing. Temporary workers (a different designation) could work for six months.
I then asked what would happen if a seasonal worker was on payroll in violation of the city's policy, and it was stated (as I understand it) that the division head would have to file an "Action Form" to remove the worker from the rolls as part of the process of being in compliance. It was also noted that it was the responsibility of the division head to alert Personnel to changes in employment status.
During these very difficult economic times, we need to be extremely careful about how your tax dollars are spent each year. Last week, I asked a question about what this year's tax impact was projected to be. No one from the administration could answer this question. You deserve to know how much the administration wants to raise your taxes with the budget it presented to the council. At this late date, I find the lack of information quite alarming.
Even more alarming, however, is the fact that the Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services Department's Information Technology, Media, & PCTV74 Division currently has an employment bulletin up on the city's website (click HERE), looking to fill NEW "temporary" positions by hiring NINE (9) "Senior Computer Service Technicians" (a Civil Service title) at an hourly range of $25.67-$34.15, with a Plainfield residency requirement listed as well.
Like all the other councilors, I am very supportive of technology and bringing the city into the 21st century--we have seen the results of the technology upgrades in the City Clerk's office, with documents, OPRA request forms, the city council agendas, meeting minutes, the city's charter, and so forth now being accessible online; residents can also pay their tax bills online, and the new phone system seems to be working well. So, I have no problem with using IT to make the city run more smoothly and professionally.
However, when the IT Division came before the city council a couple of weeks ago with view of its budget needs, the Director requested only 3 employees to be added for Information Technology: 1 network engineer, 1 additional support technician, and 1 clerical assistant. How did this (frankly, reasonable) request for IT blossom into 9 positions? In doing the math, the potential impact of nine additional employees at the hourly range of $25.67-$34.15 is of great concern to me--why would the division post for nine senior computer service technicians?
In all fairness, I don't know whether they would be full-time or part-time, as the posting doesn't say, but consider this as a potential impact: At the lower end of the range, meaning $25.67, working full-time (140 hrs per month for 6 months), the cost for NINE workers total could be as much as $194,065.20. If workers were hired at the top of the range, the potential could be as much as $258,174.00. For six months.
Here are the questions that I feel the public needs an answer to as we continue with budget deliberations: Are nine senior computer service technicians needed? If so, why wouldn't this need for nine computer techs have been reflected in the division's budget presentation? Add to this the division's request for additional personnel in Media and for PCTV74, and it becomes potentially very expensive to the taxpayers of our city.
Again, I strongly support the work of the IT director--and I have stated this support many times publicly as well as to him directly, but I have an obligation to ask the questions that my constituents need answered on policy and budget issues. A question I was asked by a constituent had to do with why these particular civil service titles are being used, when they were not mentioned before--I detected some cynicism in the question--I assured the constituent that I would ask as many questions about the city's policies as I could.
I have asked several additional questions of the administration for which I am still awaiting answers. I think that, the more transparency there is for residents to understand how the budget process works, as well as for them to understand the employment policies of the city, will be a great benefit to us all.
We did not complete the discussion with the IT Division head on the evening of the presentation, as the hour was getting late--the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee also has questions to ask so that they can provide their recommendations to the council in their report at the end of the budget deliberation process. I am hopeful that we can finish soon so that we can finally pass a budget.
These are extremely difficult and challenging times for Plainfielders--I hear from you every day about the taxes, the PMUA rates, jobs for our young people, the proposed Muhlenberg housing development, public safety, the roads, the uncut grass and your concerns over foreclosure rates and abandoned homes--it is our responsibility as council members to make sure that we are providing you with what you need, in terms of city services, while at the same keeping costs reasonable.
*Everyone is aware of my strong support for the Plainfield Public Library (see here), which meets the needs of the majority of our community while remaining fiscally responsible. The mayor wants to cut the library's budget while, at the same time, increase the budget significantly for other areas. The modest increase that the library is asking for ($66,000) juxtaposed against the hundreds of thousands of dollars that other departments are requesting needs to be examined closely--we need to make sure that you are getting the best services for your tax dollars.