Three weeks in office isn’t enough time to close a $20 million structural budget deficit. That’s the mantra being repeated by Mayor Steven Fulop and his seven allies on the City Council after the governing body last week adopted a $515.9 million city budget for 2013 that includes a 7.6 percent municipal tax increase.
The 2014 budget, they vowed, will be better.
In the meantime, property owners will have to absorb a tax hike city officials say will translate into a $250 increase over a year for the average property owner.
The budget passed the City Council on Wednesday by a vote of 7 to 2, with independents Michael Yun (Ward D) and Richard Boggiano (Ward C), who are not allied with Fulop, voting against the spending plan.
Yun and Boggiano tried to delay a vote on the budget until July 31 to see if spending cuts could be made that might lesson the impact on taxpayers. Council President Rolando Lavarro Jr. accused the pair of “grandstanding,” adding that they have had ample time to review and discuss the budget.
When casting his vote against the budget, Boggiano said, “When Mayor Fulop was on the City Council, he never voted for a budget that included a tax increase.”
Property owners in Jersey City pay a tax rate determined by a combination of three budgets: for the municipal government, the school district (determined every April), and the county government (usually struck in June).
Of the city’s adopted budget of $515.9 million, $217 million will be raised from property tax dollars.
On a property worth the city average of $93,500, a property owner will pay $250 more in municipal taxes over a year, in addition to $17 more in county taxes and $34 more in school taxes, City Budget Director Robert Kakoleski recently explained.
The municipal portion of a taxpayer’s overall increase is 7.6 percent this year. But smaller rises in the school and county budgets offset this so that, taken together, property owners will pay a combined increase of 3.92 percent this year in taxes.
‘This is a tax on mom and pop.’ – Pat O’Melia
Fulop: Next year will be better, trust me
Fulop understood that he was inheriting a difficult budget situation shortly after being elected in May. The previous City Council had introduced a 2013 municipal budget but never adopted it. Fulop said that the budget that was introduced contained several revenue and spending miscalculations.
By the time Fulop took office on July 1, the fiscal year was half over, $260 million of the city’s operating budget had already been spent, and, he said, it was too late to make significant spending cuts that would have offset the tax increase.
“A $20 million structural deficit six months into the year after [former Mayor Jerramiah T.] Healy spent the money, means that the city would have had to cut $40 million, annualized, to cover the deficit, which is virtually half of the police department or fire department, something I am not willing to do,” Fulop said last week after the budget passed. “I will not compromise public safety.”
Ward E City Councilwoman Candice Osborne, who apologized to residents before voting in favor of the budget, echoed this point at the council meeting.
“I want to apologize to the people of Jersey City,” said Osborne. “We inherited this budget and there was little we could do to make cuts this late into the year because, in order to close the deficit, the cuts would have been so drastic that we would have had to have major cuts in the police and fire departments. But even though we inherited this, we are the ones voting for it, and I know appearances matter.”
Ward F Councilwoman Diane Coleman and At-large Councilwoman Joyce Watterman also apologized for voting in favor of a tax increase.
The administration is currently doing a citywide, department-by-department assessment of city services and staffing levels. Fulop and others in the administration believe that next year there might be significant savings gained by overhauling city departments and restructuring how the city maximizes its 215 employees.
As a candidate, Fulop also called for the consolidation of some services and departments. It is widely expected that the administration will collapse the Jersey City Incinerator Authority into the Department of Public Works and merge the Parking Authority with the Jersey City Police Department.
“We are looking at overall restructuring of the departments and some retirement changes [for city employees],” Fulop said, adding that he expects “some big revenue items” to come in next year, although he did not specify what those revenue items might be. “I think we will be looking at a more stable situation once I can get my arms around a [full] budget year.”
‘It’s your budget’
But Yun and Boggiano thought there were opportunities to make cuts this year.
Yun specifically honed in on salary and staff increases being made by the Fulop administration.
Wages and salaries in the mayor’s office will be upped from $929,650 to $1,029,650 – an increase of $100,000. Wages in the revamped Mayor’s Action Bureau will increase by $180,137, from $366,863 to $547,000.
The city’s website touts a “new and improved” Action Bureau whose “goal is to provide [residents] with quality information, courteous customer service, and quick turn-around on quality-of-life complaints.”
Details on how Fulop plans to overhaul and improve the Mayor’s Action Bureau have yet to be released. But during a series of town hall meetings Fulop held throughout the city in June, many residents expressed a desire for better constituency services from municipal departments. An expanded Action Bureau may be Fulop’s attempt to address these criticisms.
Salaries in the city’s law department will also be increased under the amended budget, from $2,998,221 to $3,173,221 – an increase of $175,000. There will also be salary and wage increases in the city’s Department of Public Works and in the Department of Housing, Economic Development, and Commerce.
Yun pointed out that in the approved budget these salaries were prorated since these are new hires who will begin to work late in the year. Next year, however, the city will have to cover the 12-month wage and benefit costs of these new hires.
“This is your budget,” resident Yvonne Balcer told the council members. “You’re held responsible. It’s your budget now. It does not belong to the mayor. And you can start slashing. If you want to make cuts, you have the authority to do so.”
An angry Pat O’Melia told the council, “When you look at Jersey City, this becomes a very narrow tax. We have 120 abated properties, the state has properties [that don’t pay taxes]. The county has its properties. They’re not taxed. This is a tax on mom and pop. Diane, Richie, do you think the working people in your districts can pay this kind of an increase? You need to cut this budget fiver percent on the back end.”
Watterman, a Fulop ally on the council, implored residents not to “lose hope.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.