As the May 8 mayoral election nears, candidates Mitchell Brown, James Davis, and Jason O’Donnell debatedthe issues, pitchingtheir visions for the future of Bayonne. The debate took place on April 10 at the Hudson Reporter offices on 20th Street and Broadway.
Six topics and 90 minutes of debate revealed divisions among the candidates, particularly on issues of housing, redevelopment, and fiscal stability.
On tax abatements, payments-in-leu-of-taxes (PILOTs) and their plans to reduce the structural deficit while stabilizing the local tax base
“On tax abatements, I think all three candidates would probably say the same thing,” said Brown, a physician and attorney with a longtime private practice in midtown on Broadway.His platform, in a nutshell, is to bring “fiscal responsibility to municipal government,”to “expand services for seniors and kids, even putting up things like an animal shelter,” and to “stop taxing and spending and paying the fire and police to the exclusion of everybody else.”
“That all can be done if we start reining in the budget and bringing into reasonable ranges the amount that we’re paying police and firemen,” said Brown, who called the city “over-policed.”
He’s right that the three candidates agree that tax abatements and PILOTs are necessary. Where they disagree is what the financial effect will be on Bayonne over time, what kinds of projects should be prioritized to receive the incentive, and what the developers’ responsibilities should be to the city’s education, infrastructure, and construction workers.
“Where there is a low burden to the city, in terms of school, infrastructure, police and fire, abatements are a viable incentive for developers,” Brown said. “But for industrial warehouses, I would not be friendly to abatements.”
“Everybody says these abatements are given out on the back of taxpayers,” Davis said.“Nothing could be farther from the truth.” Davis is running on his record of facilitating real estate development on Bayonne’s bountiful and long-dormant properties. As evidence, he cited a development on 46th Street and Broadway that once paid $84,000 per year in property taxes.
“New building will pay upwards of 380,000 a year with PILOT,” he said, though those payments will go only to the city instead of regular property taxes, about half of which are paid to the school district.
O’Donnell said that Davis’s redevelopment policies leave “little to no funding for our education. Over the next 30 years, we will effectively be underfunded.”
Davis, meanwhile, touted as evidence of successful development the Costco project and a potential ferry that he helped facilitate on the former Military Ocean Terminal Base (MOTBY). But that didn’tdispel his opponents’skepticism about the efficacy of abatements and PILOTS.
The debate revealed divisions among the candidates, particularly on issues of housing, redevelopment, and fiscal stability.
O’Donnell, who has adopted tax abatements and PILOTs as part of his campaign’s core messaging, criticized Davis for giving too many (around 40), to too many residential developers rather than commercial developers. He also criticized him for not requiring those developers to hire local union labor, build affordable housing, or pay into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.
“What is that going to do to our residents?” O’Donnell said.“How are they going to afford those luxury apartments?”
Brown, on the other hand, was critical of the kinds of businesses Davis has attracted with abatements and PILOTs.
“The jobs we’re talking about are going to be unskilled, low-income jobs,” he said.“What we really need to do in this town is bring up the median income with skilled jobs, good jobs, jobs that provide careers.” He argues that stabilizing the tax base requires greater work opportunities for current residents. “An industrial warehouse is not the type of jobs that are going to bring higher incomes to the town.”
Davis, meanwhile, defended jobs at a future industrial warehouse at the Port America site that did not receive a tax abatement, as well as jobs at a future Costco.
“This is how you fix your structural deficit – by development,” Davis said. “A third of my abatements go to commercial properties that employ people. It’s not just about residential development.”
In response to the charge that his development plans don’t accommodate the needs of Bayonne’s middle- and low-income residents, Davis touted the recent announcement of an affordable housing complex for seniors. “The one thing I will always do is never leave anybody behind,” he said.
On the Bayonne business community, attracting new businesses and helping existing ones
“We need to encourage new businesses and foster their growth by using the UEZ and things like that,” said O’Donnell, who proposed more funds for local businesses to improve facades, sidewalks, and streetscapes.
“The UEZ has been around for decades and haven’t helped anything,” countered Brown, who called Broadway “essentially blighted.”Brown proposes imposing higher standards on business owners to maintain the appearance of their buildings.
“The only way to bring up Broadway is to raise the median income of the town,” Brown said, proposing that this could be achieved by building housing for people with above median income. “When the median income comes up, you’ll get prime retail to service those people,” Brown said.“Right now we have ultra-low-end retail.”
“The developments that they talk about are exactly what we’re doing,” Davis responded.“When you look at [development]…they were all empty lots along the light rail. We are the only city that never benefited from the economic boom from the light rail. That’s exactly what we’re doing now. We’re attracting those up-and-coming business people. If you look at Broadway now compared to what it was four years ago, there is a major difference.”
On clean streets and parking
“In my entire life, I don’t think the streets have been dirtier than they are now,” O’Donnell said. In response, Davis trumpeted his cleanup initiatives that take place a few times a year, most notably on Earth Day, which has become a well-attended citywide annual event since Davis took office.
“It’s also something that has to be an education point. This is something where, as a community, we need to clean our streets.” Davis said. He added that he plans to issue another referendum on side-street cleaning, which residents voted down in 2004. “As far as I’m concerned it’s necessary,” he said.
O’Donnell, echoing Davis, said, “We need to encourage the public to take pride in the cleanliness of our streets. But that’s not enough. We have to take decisive action to get that done.”
O’Donnell praised Cleveland as a model with its “keep Cleveland clean” campaign and garbage cans on every block. “We need to take that initiative on as a government,” he said.
Brown, returning to a favorite debate theme, said, “If we took some of the money that we’re spending on the police and fire department, and realigned the budget, we would have enough money to clean the streets. We would have enough money to put in parking lots where people can park. The problem with Bayonne is that it looks run down. I don’t see a lot of dirt.”
On public transit
Mayoral candidates have been calling for improved public transit since the early 20th century. It wasn’t until 2003 that the light rail came to town, which regularly causes a glut of parking from residents traveling across town to catch a train. In the last year, a long-proposed ferry has showed strong signs of becoming a reality, while a conceptual gondola spanning the Kill Van Kull has sparked the imagination of residents.
Davis can rightfully take credit for moving the ferry forward, a project whose prerequisites included developing MOTBY.
“We have to get people off the roads and rails and into the water, which is our greatest commodity,” Davis said.
“A $26 round trip? I don’t know how many commuters in Bayonne that can afford that,” said O’Donnell of the potential ferry service. The gondola, meanwhile, he called “unrealistic, unfeasible, fantastical.”
O’Donnell said that the city’s greatest need is for increased capacity on the light rail, a solution that he pledged to achieve by working with NJ Transit.
Brown, while supportive of public transit solutions, said that he “would never claim to be an expert” on public transit and, as mayor, would commission studies to help solve transit issues. “I’ve heard these ideas about cross-town trollies for many years and nothing has ever been implemented,” he said. “When you have a problem and no people with the expertise to deal with it, you have to bring in experts to find out the feasible alternatives available to move people around.”
On water infrastructure
Bayonne has seen water rate increases as a result of the city’s contract with Suez. Rates increase when Suez is unable to collect an agreed-upon revenue every year.
“I assure you that we will revisit that contract,” O’Donnell said.
“I think we need someone who can negotiate a good contract,” Brown said. As a physician and attorney, he is adept at negotiating, he said.
Davis agreed that the contract needs to be revisited.
On community engagement
Davis again plugged his record of reintroducing the Hometown Fair, but Brown was unimpressed.
“I don’t think events create a sense of community,” said Brown, who suggested every fair have a theme that could better engage residents. He also proposed classes and adult education.
Brown said there “seems to be no cohesive community programs” in Bayonne and called for a “functional community center,” with programs for all ages, a goal Davis said he shares, but has not been able to achieve due to its high costs and lack of available public land.
“We need programs that are sustainable and all year around,” O’Donnell said.
Davis stuck to his guns and delivered the same message he has been delivering since the Hometown Fair came back and the UEZ helped beautify Broadway by painting ordinary street features and installing potted plants. “It’s those little things that go a long way,” he said. “The more people interact, you become a safer, better community for it.”
On a lighter note
In response to a question about swimming, Davis said that he swam frequently in Newark Bay as a kid despite having a pool in his backyard, much to the chagrin of his mother. Meanwhile, O’Donnell swam in the water surrounding Bayonne only on occasion, while Brown never learned to swim. As a physician aware of the water contamination levels in those waters, Brown opposed the practice.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.