North Bergen has demanded that Union City pay what they say is an overdue contribution to the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR) squad – which serves five towns in Hudson County – or face legal action.
The demand has widened a longstanding political rift between the two towns’ mayors, Brian Stack and Nicholas Sacco, two local Democratic rivals.
At issue is $5.7 million plus interest that Union City owes to the NHRFR. Each town must pay several million dollars into the squad’s annual budget. According to two North Bergen spokespersons, Union City pays 31 percent of the cost of the Regional budget and generates at least 47 percent of alarm fires.
Lawyers for North Bergen have said that Mayor Stack and Union City’s failure to pay has disrupted the regional company’s business, including limiting its ability to make pension fund contributions, according to a letter released weeks ago.
The letter was sent to the town on Aug. 16 and gave Union City 10 days to pay up or face legal action. Union City did pay some of what they owe within the 10-day period, according to North Bergen Township spokesperson Paul Swibinski.
“North Bergen taxpayers will not pay a cent of the interest penalties caused by Union City’s negligence and fiscal blundering.” – Mayor Nicholas Sacco
But Stack disagreed.
“This is definitely politically being done by Mayor Sacco,” said Stack. “This is Sacco playing politics because I don’t adhere to his political plans for the county. He’s not going to bully Union City... this will expose what Sacco’s doing at the Regional just like he does with multiple autonomous agencies.”
But Paul Swibinski said North Bergen’s letter is not political in any way, and Stack’s reaction is a smokescreen to cover up what he said are his poorly managed finances.
“We don’t care if Mayor Stack stomps his feet and holds his breath until he turns blue,” he said. “It has been frustrating to see Union City lag behind and owe millions of dollars each year. We pay our bills on time, we expect other towns in the Regional to do the same.”
Despite North Bergen’s letter, Mayor Stack claims that Union City has never skipped a payment.
“Union City’s chronic lateness in paying its fair share of fire protection costs is the main reason why the state is assessing the NHRFR over one million dollars in completely unnecessary interest charges,” said Mayor Sacco in a recent press release. “The blame lies squarely with Mayor Brian Stack and his administration. Taxpayers in the other four Regional towns should not be punished for Union City’s mismanagement.”
Phil Swibinski found it hard to believe that Stack claimed to not have been contacted about payment when “the Regional sends a statement to Union City detailing the amount owed every month.”
“One does not simply forget about a $6 million debt,” said Phil Swibinski.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and Chairman of the Fire Board had not seen or received the letter that North Bergen sent to Union City.
“I’m going to ask our [board] attorneys to get a copy of the letter, they’ll evaluate it and advise myself and the board…what reaction the board should take,” said Turner. “I’m always optimistic when these issues come up from time to time that they can be resolved.”
According to Turner, the NHRFR covers 225,000 people.
Doesn’t like the formula
Stack has complained several times about the NHRFR budgeting formula, and he thinks his town pays an unfair amount.
“I was against the regionalization because I knew this was going to happen,” said Stack.
Union City makes the largest contribution, $18 million a year, of all five member towns in the NHRFR. Unlike some towns, Union City does not have a waterfront or a commercial district that receives transitional aid/assistance from New Jersey. North Bergen pays the Regional $13 million annually.
“The cost is too high for Union City,” Mayor Stack said several weeks ago.
Stack said last week that he wants a reassessment of the formula, which is based on assessed property values. Stack has introduced legislation in the senate so that the budget for NHRFR is submitted to the Department of Community Affairs yearly.
“We’re going to try and get it done for the next budget year which begins in January,” said Turner. “Everybody adopted the formula; everybody signed off on the formula. I expect another minor adjustment. I don’t expect anything dramatic.”
North Bergen complained according to Phil Swibinski that despite Union City’s late payments, the city has received over $25 million in special aid from the state over the last two years, which none of the other four towns have received.
“North Bergen has never missed a monthly payment into the Regional because my administration is committed to responsible budgeting and strong fiscal controls,” said Sacco. “North Bergen taxpayers will not pay a cent of the interest penalties caused by Union City’s negligence and fiscal blundering.”
Stack noted that the men in the fire department do an outstanding job and this has nothing to do with them.
Vanessa Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org