The Hoboken City Council’s $102.3 million municipal budget, which was introduced Wednesday night by a unanimous vote and will go to a public hearing and final vote next month – keeps taxes mostly stable for the 2012 calendar year, City Finance Director Nick Trasente said.
The measure will undergo a series of budget workshops, as well as a public hearing on April 4, before it can be adopted during a special meeting on Wednesday, April 11.
The budget is up from last year’s initial budget of $101.7 million.
The city budget is only one of three components that determines the property taxes that residents pay each quarter. It is added to the county budget (passed each June) and school budget (usually passed each April) to get a final number.
Trasente delivered a presentation to the council and public on Wednesday night detailing the budget. He said taxes will remain roughly the same, with a minimal decrease in the municipal tax rate of .002 percent. Roughly $54 million will be raised from local taxes, down slightly from last year’s tax levy of approximately $55 million.
The rest of a city budget is generally paid for by state aid, grants for safety programs, court (and parking) revenues, permit fees, and occasionally non-recurring land deals.
This budget calls for the city to retain a surplus of $4.1 million, down from a $5.1 million surplus from last year.
In past years, there was controversy because some council members who oppose the mayor believed some of the city surplus should go to provide tax relief to the residents. However, there was no debate on this budget at Wednesday’s meeting.
Trasente said a large portion of the budget, 38.1 percent, goes to salaries and wages for police, fire, and City Hall employees. Some 16 percent, the next highest percentage of the budget, accounts for employee health insurance.
“Believe it or not, we’re paying [more] for retirees than active employees,” said Trasente, who said that there are roughly 560 active employees and 440 retirees being paid for.
Trasente also said that he and Mayor Dawn Zimmer are seeking ways to cut the cost of retiree health insurance without affecting the actual plans.
The public budget workshops are scheduled for March 12, 17, and 20 at City Hall. For more information on the workshops, visit the city website at hobokennj.org.
One of the most prominent issues before the council has been the ongoing debate over food vendor regulation. Many restaurant and business owners have complained that food trucks often park in front of their locations and steal potential customers. The city originally considered levying huge permit amounts on food trucks, but the food truck owners said the fees were too high.
An ordinance introduced at a previous meeting by Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino, an ally of Zimmer, called for changing the legislation to offer compromises in food vendor parking and other regulations. This past Wednesday night, it was adopted in a 5-4 vote.
The ordinance caps the number of allowable licensed mobile food vendors to 25, and set the hours of operation to 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. The town will allow licensed vendors to park at a metered location for up to eight hours; however, vendors will not be allowed to park at the same meter for more than six hours.
Vendors will now also have to stay 75 feet away from the entrance of an eatery, and must pay $500 for a license application.
Joseph Branco, a resident and owner of two bar/restaurants – Room 84 and Scotland Yard – questioned the ordinance during the portion of the meeting for public comments.
“We all know that these food vendors are not following the parking laws,” said Branco, who also claimed that many mobile food vendors come from out of state and have the unfair advantage of dodging a sales tax.
“I’m not an enforcer,” said Giattino. “The enforcement will be the Parking Utility’s job.”
Branco continued to discuss the ordinance with Giattino after his allotted five minutes, despite Council President Ravi Bhalla insisting that his time was up.
“This is not a debate,” said Bhalla, later adding, “Mr. Branco, sit down.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new ordinance was the new GPS requirement, which will allow the city to enforce the parking restrictions by continually tracking the location of each vehicle.
“I spoke to lawyers about the GPS and they said it was fine,” said Giattino. “It doesn’t allow for selective enforcement. Everyone has to be treated the same.”
Councilwoman Beth Mason, a frequent vocal opponent of Zimmer, expressed her concern with the GPS regulation listed in the ordinance.
“The ‘Big Brother’ potential here is huge,” said Mason. “It basically says you’re guilty before you’re proven such. It’s a scary slippery slope that we are undertaking when you put a GPS on a private vehicle.”
Mason said she feared the system could expose the town to potential lawsuits. But Bhalla said that like Giattino, he spoke with an attorney and was content that there was no legal danger.
“I’m satisfied that the GPS requirement as applied in this ordinance does not present any concerns with respect to violations of [the Constitution],” said Bhalla. “I also want to remind the public that having a food truck is not in itself a right. It’s a privilege.”
Councilman Tim Occhipinti, another frequent opponent of Zimmer, said he agreed with every aspect of the ordinance except for the GPS requirement.
Although some vendors and business owners took exception with the ordinance, one vendor, Ali Gomah, expressed his pleasure with the new regulation.
“I’ve been here for 17 years and I’m hoping to be there another 17,” said Gomah. “I know it’s not easy to please everybody. I want to say thank you, you did a great job.”
A food vendor and business owner were also heard arguing outside the meeting room.
“The “Big Brother” potential here is huge.” – Councilwoman Beth Mason
The appropriations list was significantly more detailed than the list turned down during last month’s meeting, which totaled $750,000, and was primarily to be used to fund the city’s pending legal battles (see Feb. 26 story).
Occhipinti suggested that the council amend the list of items included on the appropriations document to include only salary and wage funding. However, First Assistant Corporation Counsel Melissa Longo said that an amendment was a poor idea.
“It’s arbitrary and capricious to sit here and [decide to] pay the employees salaries but [not] their health insurance,” said Longo, adding that she disagrees with making distinctions of importance, such as giving matters of salary higher priority over current legal battles.
The majority of the council turned down the proposed amendment, and the council once again argued over the full list of appropriations.
“As I recall, this is the fourth time we’ve been given the opportunity to vote on temporary appropriations,” said Bhalla, adding that by not funding their expected bills, the council is acting unprofessionally. “I’ve made that view clear several times now, unfortunately without success to convince my colleagues.”
“Is that why council members get up from the desk and leave during the meeting?” asked Councilman Michael Russo, making reference to a recent meeting in which two Zimmer allies of the council sneaked out of City Hall because they would not have the majority that night. Russo’s comment received applause from the audience.
After the full appropriations resolution failed, Occhipinti attempted to keep arguing his point.
“You’re not recognized, councilman,” said Bhalla.
“You don’t want to compromise at all,” said Occhipinti, adding, “Good Republican.”
“Mr. Occhipinti, you’ll have the opportunity to speak all you want during new business,” said Bhalla.
Southern parks, Soares appointment, other affairs
Also at the meeting, two resolutions were passed authorizing a purchase offer to two downtown lots for the acquisition of parkland. Members of the council explained to the public during the meeting that the resolution was simply an offer to buy the property, not seize it.
A resolution was also unanimously passed reappointing Tony Soares to the North Hudson Sewerage Authority. When Soares was first appointed in 2010, he was already on the Zoning Board, causing a rare public split among vocal Zimmer administration supporters, who disagreed about whether one person should hold positions on two boards. Zimmer herself felt that a person should not be on two boards at once.
However, Soares’ term on the Zoning Board expired over a year ago, Soares said Friday.
The sewerage board slots come with health benefits and a $5,000 stipend. Soares, a former Hoboken councilman, said last week, “It has a $5,000 stipend which I use to attended conferences on wastewater treatment, engineering, and related events. I pay my own hotels and travel and meals. The remainder was donated to local charities like the Housing Authority fall festival and Jubilee Center and FBW [Fund for a Better Waterfront].”
Also at the meeting, an ordinance was introduced with a 5-4 vote to exceed the state-imposed 2.5 percent municipal budget increase cap, going up to 3.5 percent if necessary. According to Trasente, the ordinance will allow for the city to store the funds, which equal roughly $2.9 million, and use them within the coming years as needed.
“It’s a good security in case something comes up one year and you need it,” said Trasente.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at email@example.com.