Budget battle

$117.6 city budget adopted in narrow vote

The Hoboken City Council passed a $117.6 million budget last week sparking debate among council members as well as the mayor.
The Hoboken City Council passed a $117.6 million budget last week sparking debate among council members as well as the mayor.

Last week, the Hoboken City Council approved a $117.6 million budget which will result in a 1.7 percent municipal tax increase this year.

This means taxpayers will pay an additional $7.61 per $100,000 of assessed value. 

The budget passed by a narrow margin in a 5-4 vote with Council members Jim Doyle, Vanessa Falco, Emily Jabbour, and Michael Russo voting against the measure.

The budget cuts about $642,000 from the original version introduced by the administration last April which would have resulted in a 2.8 percent tax increase.

These cuts include $85,000 from the mayor’s office, which affects a communications director, deputy chief of staff, and chief of staff.

The council originally introduced an amended budget which would have brought the tax increase down to 1.3 percent, but after the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) had “some concerns” with the roughly $836,000 in reductions, the council restored some of the funds they had cut.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who chairs the council’s finance subcommittee, said in a public meeting that some of the changes were corrective, and some were made by the administration. She also said some of the changes were made based on feedback from the public and other council members.

She explained that some of the funding had been reinserted into the mayor’s office, zoning office, and corporation counsel, noting that there was funding for the tenant advocate and also funding for snowplowing and the new water utility.

During the meeting, Jabbour asked if the DCA’s concerns with the budget had been addressed, including potential layoffs caused by departmental underfunding.

Council President Jen Giattino said, “We are not cutting any money from any classified salary and wage line items.”

Business Administrator Stephen Marks said the DCA had concerns that the council’s amended budget was underfunded, and that he “will have to do a reassessment of salary and wages to determine if a layoff plan is in fact necessary.”

Asked by Doyle if there would be layoffs, Marks said, “There are reductions in offices and line items structurally where there are current or existing employees, where if those offices were to be funded at the same rate for the rest of the year, it would lead to an underfunding of the budget.”

Giattino said that salary and wage line of classified workers had not been changed in the amended budget, and therefore it would be the administration’s choice if it decided to move forward with layoffs.

Giattino then called for a vote on the budget amendment and the budget as a whole.

The members did not offer explanations for their votes, including Falco and Russo, who originally voted in favor of the May 6 budget amendment.

Dueling press releases

The following day Mayor Ravi Bhalla released a nixle alert on the newly approved budget calling the budget amendments  “fiscally irresponsible and politically vindictive.”

“[Fisher and Giattino’s] amendments target my office and eliminate a member of my staff, Jason Freeman, who goes above and beyond to respond during emergencies, and other important duties,” Bhalla said.

He also said cuts in the legal department could “jeopardize” the city’s fight over the Monarch development, which would result in two 11-story buildings being built along the northern waterfront, as well as the city’s ability to pursue additional affordable housing initiatives “and other critical services offered by the city that require legal representation.”

He added that the amendments have a “very real possibility” of cutting the Office of Constituent Services and “will likely force layoffs and elimination of personnel.”

Bhalla also noted that the city had other financial constraints, including increases to state pension system payments, increased cost of solid waste hauling and recycling, and contractually obligated increases in salaries and wages.

He added that the cuts would eliminate $100,000 from the police department and will likely cause other necessary layoffs.

In response, Fisher and Giattino released a joint statement noting they were proud of the budget “because it is fiscally responsible.”

“It supports essential city services and public safety, and it was arrived through a thoughtful process with input from the City Council, the administration and the community,” they said. “We are thankful to the State Department of Community Affairs for their assistance in finalizing the budget and ensuring that it met all legal and fiduciary standards. We are pleased that this compromise provides full funding for legal services to continue addressing crucial issues, including our Tenant Advocate and the Monarch project appeal that was recently announced. Hoboken taxpayers deserve nothing less than this type of effective local governance that ensures taxpayer resources are spent wisely.”

In another email to constituents, Fisher said Bhalla “manufactured crises where none exist and specifically used fear mongering about topics like Monarch and our Constituent Services Office that are important to Hoboken, and to 2nd Ward voters in particular, to get you to vote against us in the upcoming election.”

She explained that the special counsel budget for the city is set at roughly $1 million and that less then 30 percent of this budget has been spent.

Giattino in an email to constituents explained that the city council cut some of the funding to the mayor’s office “to be closer to the cost of Mayor Zimmer’s office in 2017.”

Zimmer had only a chief of staff and a communications manager.

She also said, “The mayor also has the ability to reduce the salaries of his staff, instead of reducing headcount.”

In a separate statement, Councilman Mike DeFusco said the only potential layoffs would be in the “bloated mayor’s office” which “engaged in highly questionable political hit jobs.”

“It’s unfortunate Mayor Bhalla feels the need to keep personally attacking two dedicated community leaders who have done so much for our city in Councilwomen Giattino and Fisher,” he said.

Doyle and Jabbour then released a statement. They said council members Giattino, Fisher, DeFusco, Ramos, and Cunningham who voted for the amended budget have a “relentless political vendetta against Mayor Bhalla [which] is embarrassing and a detriment to the sound running of our city.”

They said that the budget attempted to “surgically cut funds” so that employees like Freeman who was “shamelessly targeted” by “cutting salaries from certain offices to such a degree that would necessitate dismissal from employment.”

They also criticized Giattino for calling a budget vote before a full dialog could take place.

For updates on this and other stories check http://www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.