Listing millions of dollars in spending cuts from last year and his new administrative goals for the current year, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy delivered his State of the City address Wednesday to an enthusiastic crowd of political supporters and high-level administration employees.
City finances and public safety featured prominently in the speech.
Noting that the $477.3 million budget proposed for the 2011 calendar year “is the central issue facing my administration and [the] governing body,” Healy said the city has lost $70 million in state aid but has made cuts to offset it. The budget will go to a public hearing and final vote next month.
“Stable to him I don’t think is stable to the rest of us.” – Steven Fulop
He also discussed the recent contract amendment negotiated with the police union, a deal that he said saved nearly $4 million in tax dollars this year and averted the layoffs of 82 officers. The savings came from deferred pay and wage increases to which the police union agreed last month.
Healy reiterated a promise he made earlier this month that property taxes will be stable under the next municipal budget, which was introduced three weeks ago and covers spending from Jan. 1 through Dec.31.
However, at least one City Council member and some residents questioned this vow after the speech, saying that not all of the predicted revenues would come in.
In a one-hour speech before an audience of about 150 people, Healy also vowed to continue the administration’s opposition to Spectra Energy’s planned natural gas pipeline through the city into Manhattan for ConEdison customers.
Allies applaud specifics
Healy’s allies, not surprisingly, said they appreciated the initiatives that show the city is moving forward.
“It definitely shows that it’s not the same as in past years,” said Ward C Councilwoman Nidia Lopez. “We’re getting the right state and federal grants to make a difference in Jersey City. In my ward, for example, we’ve been able to get grants to restore [the historic] Apple Tree House. That’s going to be something incredibly valuable for my ward. That’s something that’s going to bring new business and tourism to the area.”
Healy vowed to continue the administration’s opposition to Spectra Energy’s planned natural gas pipeline.
“We all know these are difficult times. I don’t believe the mayor tried to sugarcoat anything,” said Ward D City Council William Gaughan. “The one thing I’m really impressed about is we are moving forward with the light rail from Fenmont Avenue to over Route 440. That’s a huge operation that will really encourage the development of that area. The mayor discussed 45 new market-rate housing units that are being developed. Well, that’s in the ward that I represent up in the [Jersey City Heights]. That is a Godsend to an area that has been desolate for a very long time.”
While more than 700 units of new housing were developed in the city last year, much of it was built downtown and along the waterfront, so the 45 market rate and workforce units at Summit Heights are a departure.
Can taxes be stable if city loses revenue?
Ward E City Councilman Steven Fulop, a frequent Healy critic who is likely to run for mayor in 2013, said the questions he had about the upcoming municipal budget remained unanswered in the address.
The day before the address, Fulop released a statement in which he said Healy was “making the claim that this budget is delivering ‘stable taxes,’ which is one factor that families in this city use to budget for their households. Misrepresenting this is dangerous. The budget you presented shows that proposed taxes for 2011 will increase more than 13 percent over the previous full-year budget. Regardless of when you choose to do it, taxes will have to increase significantly at some point in 2011 to raise the revenue you’ve budgeted. There is nothing ‘stable’ about that.”
The councilman reiterated these comments after the address ended.
“The mayor uses the term ‘stable’ when discussing taxes. Well, that’s a relative term,” he said. “Stable to him I don’t think is stable to the rest of us. Either way you want to look at it, we’ll either have a 7 percent tax increase or a 13 percent increase.”
He pointed out that the city had planned to generate $15 million from the sale of a municipally owned plot of land, and a potential buyer had signed a letter of intent to purchase the land. But that buyer was forced to back out of the deal just last week. In the past, according to Fulop, previous potential buyers had offered far less money for this site than $15 million.
The loss of this sale and other money the city is counting on next year could impact the need to raise taxes.
Fulop added, “It’s nice for him to talk about coed flag football, but that doesn’t save people tax dollars. And that’s what people care about. I’d like to see him get to work on things that will save tax dollars.”
At least two residents who attended the address were also skeptical of the mayor’s claim that taxes will not increase next year.
“It was a good speech, more or less. It was nice to hear about some of the positive things going on in the city for a change. But taxes are, inevitably, going to go up in Jersey City,” said Arnold Williams, who has attended or watched on TV previous State of the City speeches in the past. “There’s just not enough of our commercial development paying their fair share. Money is getting tighter from the state, from the federal government. They’ve got to make up for those losses somewhere. And we know where they’re going to make it up.”
Riaz Wahid, another resident who attended the address, agreed.
“There was nothing for middle class taxpayers like me in this speech,” he said. “They’re already starting with a $40 million hole for next year. What are they going to do about that? This year, they saved money with the [amended] police contract. But that was just a Band-Aid. What are they going to do next year? What we need is radical surgery.”
The City Council will hold a public hearing on the budget next month before taking a final vote.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.