The City Council approved a $102.9 million municipal budget on Wednesday that calls for a tax levy decrease of $900,000. In a 5-4 vote, the council adopted the budget, amended on April 9 to add $500,000 to the budget originally introduced on April 4. The extra amount will be used to pay some long outstanding bills.
The budget is up from last year’s budget of $101.7 million.
The municipal budget is one of three components that determine the quarterly taxes that residents pay. The other two components are the annual county budget, and the school budget.
For 2012, residents’ taxes will remain roughly the same, with a tiny decrease in the municipal tax rate of .002 percent. Roughly $54 million in total will be raised from taxation, which is down from last year’s amount of approximately $55 million.
“We need to figure out a way to be more civil to each other and reduce the personal attacks.” – Council President Ravi Bhalla
“When [Zimmer] ran for mayor, she promised to cut taxes by 25 percent,” said Mason. “She had a plan, so where is it?”
“We’ve had far and away the best tax decreases across the entire state,” countered Councilman David Mello, a member of the pro-Zimmer majority on the governing body. He voted “yes” with Council President Ravi Bhalla, and council members Peter Cunningham, Jennifer Giattino, and Carol Marsh.
After the meeting, Mayor Zimmer thanked the council majority, the city directors, and the finance department, conspicuously omitting mention of the “no” voters: Mason, Michael Russo, Theresa Castellano and Timothy Occhipinti.
“[Thank you] for working so hard to create this strong, responsible budget,” said Zimmer, who added that the budget was adopted in the shortest time frame in over a decade.
Heated exchanges took place between the council majority and minority before the approval of the budget. For the most part, the arguments centered on the 3.6 percent cash surplus level, which concerned some council members, who preferred the surplus to be at least five percent.
“I wasn’t particularly happy with this budget,” said Marsh, who voted for the budget. “I felt it was very important to maintain a five percent surplus.”
Parking and Transportation Director Ian Sacs explained that the parking utility surplus had to be diminished to contribute to the city’s cash surplus. He also said that had the council voted to refinance the Midtown parking garage when the adjacent hospital was sold, the city would not have had to deplete the parking utility surplus. The initiative to refinance the garage received only five of the six votes required, each from one of Zimmer’s allies.
“There were only five votes, not six, to refinance the garage with a bond at a lower interest rate,” said Sacs. “So that’s exactly what happened. We had $4 million dollars available that we could have used for a whole slew of [parking and transportation assets] to improve the community. Now, that money is not available.”
Occhipinti, a frequent opponent of Zimmer, attempted to interject that Sacs was incorrect.
“Don’t say ‘no,’ Councilman Occhipinti, because you’re wrong,” said Sacs. “You don’t know the answers and you’re just saying what sounds good, but that’s not true.”
Russo, another frequent opponent of Zimmer, said that Sacs was failing to consider other options.
“We had the ability to maintain that [parking utility] surplus,” said Russo. “We’re talking about options here. You can’t make statements one way if you’re not willing to do it the other way.”
Russo listed other areas in which the city increased spending, such as their recent hiring of a business administration team in March after former administrator Arch Liston resigned.
“The way this budget is structured, the city has got a great ability to regenerate surplus next year,” said Cunningham, who helped structure the budget. “If you don’t agree with the policy decisions, then you should have said something before.”
Cunningham also said that Occhipinti “should take some finance classes” to help understand how the budget works, to which Occhipinti responded that the council majority is seeking to put blame on the minority.
A resolution was passed accepting a grant from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The city will now obtain a fire boat at an upfront cost of $364,464, which will be reimbursed in full by the Port Authority, according to the resolution.
“With thousands of Hoboken residents taking ferries every day,” said Zimmer in a memo to the council, “I believe we have an obligation to be in a position to assist our residents if there is an accident, as well as provide assistance in the event of a disaster in the region.”
Zimmer also said the fire boat will be decommissioned if the boat increases staffing requirements or if it becomes too difficult for the city to fund on an annual basis.
An ordinance sponsored by Giattino seeking to prevent the potential weathering of new roads was adopted. The ordinance requires that companies opening roads submit a deposit. If the city has to perform work on the roads following an inspection, the cost of the work is deducted from the deposit.
During the new business portion of the meeting, Castellano and other council members agreed that budget discussions had grown too heated and unprofessional.
Bhalla agreed, adding that the subject of the budget perhaps added fuel to the fire of the discussion.
“We need to figure out a way to be more civil to each other and reduce the personal attacks,” said Bhalla. “We had an intense discussion about the budget, which is important to all of us, and maybe that set a certain tone for the meeting.”
“I ask my colleagues that for the future, try to respect each other and try not to interrupt each other, if you can resist temptation,” Bhalla continued. “It’ll actually make all of us look better as a collective council and I think the public will generally receive us better collectively.”
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org