O’Donnell retired from the Bayonne Fire Department in 2015 after 20 years of service. Before that, he attended New Jersey City University where he studied fire safety. He also served as the city’s Director of Municipal Services from 2009 to 2010, and Director of Public Safety from 2010 to 2014 under former Mayor Mark Smith. He was campaign manager for Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti in a 2007 unsuccessful Assembly race.
In 2010, he was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, representing the 31st legislative district, serving until he declined to run for re-election in 2016. In May of 2016, he made headlines for rescuing a woman from a freezing lake in Asbury Park.
O’Donnell, who lives with his wife and three kids three blocks from where he grew up in Bayonne, sees the same issues facing the city as any resident.
“Bayonne is becoming unaffordable for too many people born and raised here,” said O’Donnell, who speaks passionately about the cost of living, quality of life, and infrastructure. He calls the property tax burden that most people experience “the number one issue facing our state today.”
“When we award wealthy developers 25- and 30-year tax breaks without benefits of project labor agreements [with local unions], that will rob future generations of education funding. I don’t think that’s the wisest move.” – Jason O’Donnell
According to United Way’s annual ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) Report, which draws on census data, half of Bayonne homeowners are housing burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of income on housing. The data shows that residents, despite being employed, are increasingly struggling to make ends meet while the cost of housing increases.
O’Donnell said he sees this personally in the faces of residents, such as one elderly neighbor who, like many seniors, is on a fixed income. “She would never complain,” he said, “but I see the strain in her eyes to make it month to month.”
This trend is consistent across Hudson County, the state, and the country, but mayors play a significant role in setting housing policies on the local level. Zoning laws, for instance, regulate how land is used and what kinds of buildings can be constructed. Bayonne, with mostly small plots of land, is largely zoned for middle density housing, while new development, one of Bayonne’s most contentious issues, is high density and usually within walking distance of light rail stations.
O’Donnell agrees that the city should expand its property tax base through development but is critical of the city’s use of payments in-lieu-of taxes (PILOTS), otherwise known as tax abatements.
“When we award wealthy developers 25- and 30-year tax breaks without benefits of project labor agreements [with local unions], that will rob future generations of education funding,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t think that’s the wisest move.”
PILOT agreements, which are baked into state law, exempt developers from paying property taxes as an incentive to build in Bayonne. The developer instead makes payments as a percentage of the revenue generated from that development. Ninety percent of those payments go directly to the City of Bayonne, five percent goes to the county, and five percent goes to the Bayonne School District. Half of the Bayonne School District’s $130 million budget is paid for with local property taxes.
“If you’re telling me we’re going to wait 30 years to achieve financial sustainability, I don’t think that’s something you can tell overburdened taxpayers,” O’Donnell said.
Right now, the administration of Mayor James Davis has issued 27 PILOT agreements in hopes of creating the infrastructure necessary for growth to continue.
“But those PILOT agreements are residential,” he added. “So what jobs are being brought in?” Aside from Barnabas Health at Bayonne and a recently approved hotel planned for South Cove Commons, most development in Bayonne has been residential, targeting young professionals commuting to Manhattan with rental-only units.
O’Donnell calls for stronger project labor agreements to ensure that developers are using local union labor for all projects.
On affordable housing, O’Donnell said he wants to invest more in the affordable housing trust fund and take a hard look at Bayonne’s affordable housing requirements.
Quality of life
According to recently released NJ State Police Uniform Crime Reporting data, overall violent crime is down in Bayonne, but crimes like aggravated assaults (without a weapon), forcible entries (such as car break-ins), and motor vehicle theft are up from January to August of this year compared to the same period last year.
“We’re always looking to modernize and find ways to make quality of life for residents better,” O’Donnell said of the recent uptick in crime. “But the quality of life worries me. Is it safe for our kids to walk down city streets?”
O’Donnell proposes more foot patrols, among other proposals that have yet to be hammered out in the early-goings of the election season. “I know that we can certainly use police resources in a better way,” he said.
O’Donnell also sees traffic congestion and parking as major issues that are slowing down commuters and posing greater risks to pedestrians.
“We need to look at new and innovative ways to get our folks around,” he said. “Parking and congestion are real problems, and if we don’t come up with real solutions; if we don’t put forth a plan to address those, it will only get worse.”
Years of experience in both state and local government give O’Donnell a unique perspective. “I got a firsthand view of where the money flows and what to expect from Trenton,” he said. “And a front row view of how these issues affect the pocketbooks of day-to-day taxpayers.”
“I think Bayonne can be better and it deserves better than what we’re getting,” O’Donnell said. “I look forward to a spirited and robust campaign where we can talk about the issues affecting people here in Bayonne.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.