Plainfield, like the majority of NJ municipalities, is delayed in our budget process as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, however we are only slightly behind our typical schedule and within the extension given by the sate. On Monday April 13, 2020, at a special council meeting, we will be voting on the administration’s budget request. We will not be voting to approve the budget request, just to vote that it is being received as submitted.
By city charter and state statute, the budget is the responsibility of the City Council. The Mayor and his administration present their budget proposal to the council but the final product and appropriations belong to the council alone. I stress this because many people criticize or critique mayoral budgets and the reality is there is no such thing as a Mayor’s budget, only a budget request. ALL approvals for spending, and any resulting increase in taxes lays at the feet of the city council members – period.
The budget process includes receipt/acknowledgement of budget request, public hearings on requests with presentations by department heads, amendments made to the budget by council and then adoption of the final budget. The public hearings have, for many years, included council appointed members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) who ask questions alongside the council members and then submit their recommendations. There has been some conversation internally about whether the CBAC should continue this year and my answer was “WITHOUT A DOUBT, YES”.
This being said, the “budget request” submitted to the council by the Mayor is asking for a 1.5% increase in spending for CY2020 (From $86,615,195 to $87,969,193) – that is an additional $1,353,999 in spending.
Spending and taxes in Plainfield, and in New Jersey as a whole, have been well passed the breaking point for a long time and the notion of increasing discretionary spending during a time of extraordinary economic uncertainty is, without question, the wrong way to go.
During his Facebook live event last night, the Mayor said about the budget, “we are simply being fiscally prudent as we exercise care, caution and thoughtfulness in dealing with this global crisis and to guard against the unknown.” His budget request is the opposite of guarding against the unknown and includes expenditures that should be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated entirely. There is zero need for travel and expense reimbursement and other discretionary spending that the Mayor stated he has “put the lid on”. The budget should reflect the current state of affairs as they relate to the city and its residents and taxpayers.
At a City Council meeting in March, a member of the Council Finance Committee announced that the Finance Committee would select the departments that would appear before council and CBAC members during the public hearing portion of the budget process. That choice is outside the law, as our City Charter requires all department heads to present and defend their budget requests to the Business Administrator in a scheduled and advertised public meeting (Article V, Section 3).
That legal requirement was skipped in the Administration’s budget request process (I don’t personally recall when it has been followed to the letter of the law actually). In my opinion, the City Council has a fiduciary responsibility to discuss each department’s budget in public with the directors. Skipping this part of the process is a dereliction of duty. Failure to hold complete public meetings lacks transparency and open public dialogue about the priorities that are important to everyone. If the department directors are unable to defend their budgets or answer questions related to spending and programs then we should replace each of them with more qualified individuals.
If the City Council President decides to eliminate the CBAC or allow for the manipulation of full public budget hearings then he should be held to account for that decision. There is no valid, ethical or legal reason for not having a full-throated presentation and discussion of the budget, in any year, let alone 2020.
If the Mayor can do a Facebook event with his full cabinet and the City Council can have an online meeting with the public participating, we can certainly schedule multiple budget hearings and stream them online. Our citizens can watch them from the safety of their homes.
The American public has been begging for transparency and open communication regarding public policy and Plainfielder’s are no different. If we can’t have an open discussion about spending then we must either have something to hide or be unable to have straightforward and honest dialogue with our fellow residents to offer a clear concise defense of the proposed expenditures.
I have gone through the entire budget book in detail and made pages of notes regarding numerous expenditures. I hope that all of my colleagues will do the same and bring to the table their proposed amendments.
I also look forward to hearing from our fellow residents about their ideas and perspectives on the budget – I may not agree with all of them but I am open to listening and learning. There can be no sacred cows with respect to discretionary spending. The responsibility of controlling costs falls to my council colleagues and myself. This is not the time to be ill prepared or to fail to understand the needs and struggles of our fellow residents and taxpayers.
The special council meeting will be webcast on Monday, April 13, 2020 @ 7:00 PM. The public will have an opportunity to make comments and ask questions during the allotted public comment period just like in person council meetings. I encourage everyone to register for the webcast to understand how the 2020 budget process will take place. To register for the council click on the link: PLAINFIELD COUNCIL MEETING WEBCAST REGISTRATION
I also encourage residents to share their suggestions and ideas regarding the budget and any other topics of interest to them with their council members.
Steve Hockaday, Council President, Councilman Ward 4, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elton Armady, Council Vice President, Councilman-At-Large, email@example.com
Ashley Davis, Councilwoman Ward 1, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sean McKenna, Councilman Ward 2, email@example.com
Charles McRae, Councilman Ward 3, firstname.lastname@example.org
Barry Goode, Councilman-At-Large Wards 1 & 4, email@example.com
Joylette Mills-Ransome, Councilwoman-At-Large Wards 2 & 3, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you Sean for a clear articulation of the process and role of council members.