In his last State of the City address before the upcoming May 14 municipal election, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy spoke of a Jersey City where green initiatives and recreational programs for children are expanding, businesses are moving in and growing, and taxes are stable.
But critics of the mayor, including Ward E City Councilman and mayoral candidate Steven Fulop, called the address a “backward-looking” speech that outlined few future goals for the city, stretched the truth regarding taxes and job creation, and excluded a discussion of the controversial property revaluation currently taking place.
With the municipal election less than three months away, Healy’s State of the City gave a preview of some of the themes he is likely to highlight on the campaign trail in the coming weeks.
Healy and Fulop are the top contenders in the mayoral election, although four other people – Jerry Walker, Dwayne Baskerville, Cynthia Chandler Johnson, and Abdul Malik – have also declared their candidacies.
Healy touts crime stats, new hires
With crime still a primary concern among voters, Healy began his address by noting that last year Jersey City had the lowest number of murders since 1969. Last year, there was a 4 percent drop in violent crime from 2011, and a 3 percent drop in non-violent crime during the same period.
Crime has gone up in some categories, however. Last month the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) announced that aggravated assault and burglary each went up by about 3 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Healy also highlighted the fact that the city has been able to hire 25 new officers thanks to lateral transfers from other police departments, as well as due to municipal funds, and a $1.85 million Community Oriented Policing Services grant from the U.S. Justice Department.
“With all of these new hires, the [JCPD] now has a total of 802 sworn officers, and the new officers are assigned to walking posts throughout our city,” Healy said during the address. “My pledge to you tonight is that my office and the [JCPD] will continue to find grant funding to hire an additional 50 police officers in 2013.”
Perhaps the most controversial comments made during Healy’s one-hour address came when he discussed taxes and business development.
Parks and recreation
Parks and recreation programs for the city’s children were two other themes that received a lot of weight during Healy’s address.
“As we strengthen our neighborhoods, we have made the creation of parks and the restoration of existing parks a priority and we outlined this goal in our Parks Master Plan,” Healy said. “This year, we will continue progress we’ve made restoring our beautiful city parks as we have done in recent years at Hamilton, Audubon, and Ercel Webb parks.”
A $440,000 renovation of the Fulton Avenue Park – which is being paid for with money from a legal settlement from PPG Industries – the $875,000 redesign of Muhammad Ali Park, and the creation of the 17-acre Berry Lane Park are three current projects the mayor cited in his address.
“Recreation is vital to the quality of life and has been a focal point of my administration,” said Healy. “As I pledged last year, the Recreation Department has developed a boxing and fitness program for city youth that will be unveiled in the coming months. Currently, we are finalizing a blueprint to renovate the old Harmon Street pool facility to conduct this activity.”
A few community activists who work with at-risk youth, most notably LaVerne Washington, have often lamented at City Council meetings the lack of a city-sponsored boxing program for teens. The creation of a municipal boxing facility and program on Harmon Street would fulfill a request often made by these activists.
Taxes and Goya
Perhaps the most controversial comments made during Healy’s one-hour address came when he discussed taxes and business development in Jersey City.
“Jersey City has continued to stabilize taxes,” Healy said emphatically. “I am pleased that we were able to stabilize taxes over the course of the past two years, and my administration is committed to working with the City Council to pass a budget in 2013 that does not increase taxes, yet maintains the same high level of services.”
Noting that the city has a “growing…tax base,” Healy added, “We continue to be a magnet for investment and development. Both commercial and residential construction [have] continued throughout our city, bringing construction jobs and permanent jobs for our residents.”
Pointing to the new Goya Foods distribution center currently being built on County Road, Healy said the project has already created more than 150 construction jobs and “will bring close to 500 permanent jobs to Jersey City” when completed.
Goya’s move to Jersey City from its current facility in neighboring Secaucus has been controversial. The fact that Healy has been highlighting this new facility in recent weeks has raised some eyebrows. In 2011, the state Economic Development Authority gave Goya $81.9 million in tax breaks as part of New Jersey’s Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program. A divided City Council then approved another series of municipal tax breaks, arguing that Goya would bring jobs to Jersey City.
On closer examination, however, Goya is actually creating few new jobs. Most of the 324 to 493 jobs the company is bringing to Jersey City are ones already held by employees in Secaucus and another Goya facility on Long Island. An October 2011 study done by New Jersey Policy Perspectives found that only nine new jobs would actually be created once Goya opens its facility in Jersey City.
Fulop: Wasn’t strong on vision
Fulop, one of two City Council members who voted against the municipal tax breaks approved for Goya two years ago, said he was unimpressed with Healy’s address.
“I think any resident of Jersey City knows that taxes have increased 90 percent in the last eight years,” he said. “There is a trend in this administration that in an election year taxes don’t go up and then the next year there’s a massive tax increase. So, to say that you’ve stabilized taxes when you’ve had an [overall] increase of 90 percent I think is not an accurate statement. And I don’t know how you can go through a 45-minute speech and not touch on the reval that he requested, that is probably the scariest thing impacting the city over the next year.”
In a property revaluation, or “reval,” a city reassesses all of its taxable properties so that they are paying taxes on the current market value of the property. Because some properties (particularly older ones) are paying based on property values from more than two decades ago, they are paying a smaller share of the tax burden, whereas newer properties with a more recent assessment may be paying more. A reval is supposed to equalize the tax burden.
As a rule of thumb, about a third of property owners will not see a tax increase as a result of the current reval, which was started in 2011. About a third of property owners will actually see their taxes drop slightly from the reval. But another third of property owners will see an increase – and the increase could be significant.
However the revaluation turns out, the Healy administration has decided that it will not go into effect until the second half of this year – a move Fulop said was politically motivated.
“If it was such a good thing, he wouldn’t have delayed it until after the election,” Fulop said. “There wasn’t a lot on vision. I would have liked to see more of a plan going forward, especially on the reval and taxes.”
In response to these criticisms, Healy said, “His whole strategy has been to criticize the city, make the city look bad, and then in turn to make me look bad.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.