The Jersey City Council has introduced new ordinances which could limit the time the public has to speak, implement a new parking tax on visitors, and ask residents if they want to be taxed for a new Art and Culture Trust Fund.
During the Feb. 13 council meeting, it also adopted a resolution introducing the $613.9 million municipal budget in a 9-1 vote, starting this year’s budgeting process, which includes a series of budget hearings before the measure can be adopted later this year.
The budget covers city spending from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2020 and is a portion of a resident’s tax bill. It does not include additional taxes that will be collected by the county and the local school district.
Councilman Rolando Lavarro voted against the introduction. He said he voted no because the school district faces a funding crisis, and the city has an affordable housing crisis, neither of which he felt the budget addressed. Nor, he said, did it address the city’s needs assessment to deter violence.
Council President Joyce Watterman noted the budget now falls into the council’s hands, and budget hearings will take place. “Whatever changes need to be made then, we will make them.”
Last year, the council adopted a municipal budget of almost $599 million.
Beat the clock
The council will consider the fate of an approved introductory ordinance, which will limit the amount of time the public may speak during council meetings.
According to the ordinance, the public will have three minutes to speak on ordinances on second reading as well as during the public portion of the meeting when it can speak on any topic before the council.
The ordinance will give the public an additional two minutes for a total of five minutes to speak on the budget or any budget amendments during budget hearings only.
Currently, members of the public are allowed five minutes to address the council during the public-comment portion of meetings, and are given unlimited time during ordinances on second reading.
There is no time limit for council members.
According to the ordinance, the new time limit is proposed because meetings often run late into the evening or into the early morning given the “sheer number of people seeking to address the council,” which doesn’t give everyone a fair opportunity to be heard because not everyone can stay that late.
The measure was introduced with a 6-2 vote. Council members Richard Boggiano and Michael Yun voted against its introduction. Councilman Daniel Rivera was absent during the vote.
Several members of the public used their five minutes of public comment to speak out against the ordinance.
Resident Yvonne Balcer said the time limitations will “punish the public.”
“Do you think anyone will travel 45 minutes … to only speak for three minutes?” Balcer asked.
She said the meetings are long because the agenda is and filled with more ordinances and resolutions for the council to pass than in previous administrations, noting the council should limit the number of agenda items instead.
Resident Jeanne Daly called the time limitation “unacceptable.”
“You have 275,000 residents in Jersey City and only 25 people come to speak,” she said. “By the way I see it, you should consider yourselves lucky.”
She said because the “process is so rushed,” and the agenda is so long, she feels the council members do not have enough time to research everything they are voting on, so it’s up to the public to do the research and come to the meetings and “give you the facts.”
Esther Wintner said five minutes was not enough time to discuss a budget that is more than $615 million, calling the notion “preposterous” and said that passing the ordinance “shows contempt for the public.”
She suggested restructuring the agenda so that recognitions and awards were at a special meeting or at the council caucus meeting instead of during the council meetings.
Council President Joyce Watterman said she heard the public’s concerns and asked that moving forward the council be given only seven ordinances and 30 resolutions to vote on during council meetings.
Art funding on the ballot
The council introduced an ordinance that will put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to approve a new tax to support art and culture.
If approved, the tax would be two cents per $100 of assessed property value to an Arts and Culture Trust Fund, and act as a funding source for nonprofit art organizations in the city, operating similar to the city’s Open Space Trust Fund.
The tax revenue will be used to directly support creative cultural activities, including performance, visual, fine arts, music, dance, graphic design, film, digital media, video, architecture, urban design, humanities, literature, arts and culture education, historic preservation, museum curation, crafts, and folk arts.
The ordinance was introduced 8-1 with Boggiano voting against the measure. “We have enough taxes in Jersey City.”
Parking tax introduced
The council also introduced an ordinance establishing a parking tax on out-of-town visitors.
The ordinance will allow Jersey City to implement an additional 3.5 percent tax on fees at public and private parking garages within city limits. According to the ordinance, a 15 percent tax on fees at these parking facilities is already in place.
The city would then be required to use these funds for financing improvements to pedestrian access to mass transit stations.
According to the ordinance, parking for buildings designated for private one-family or two-family homes would be exempt from the additional tax as would nonprofit organizations, NJ Transit, religious institutions, charitable institutions, and educational institutions. Nonprofit hospitals are not exempt.
Residents are also exempt from paying the full amount of the additional tax at parking facilities as long as they have proof of residence.
For short-term parking, a resident will have to apply to the city for a rebate of the total 3.5 percent tax.