Jersey City could remove art-funding ballot question

Mayor Fulop to request art referendum withdrawal due to COVID-19 impacts on taxpayers

Jersey City voters may not have the option to vote on a referendum which could have established an Arts and Culture Trust Fund through a special tax.
Jersey City voters may not have the option to vote on a referendum which could have established an Arts and Culture Trust Fund through a special tax.

In a move to help taxpayers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Steven Fulop announced on April 22 that at the next council meeting he will recommend the withdrawal of a referendum planned for the November ballot which could have established an Arts and Culture Trust Fund.

The fund could have supported local artists and arts education and would have been funded by a special levy through a maximum tax rate of $0.02 per $100 of assessed property value.

“We were the first to put out an actionable plan supporting sustainable funding to benefit our burgeoning arts industry and our residents, but the world is changed today and we want to minimize the impact on our taxpayers as much as possible,” Fulop said.

“There is a lot of uncertainty between now and November, so we want to do the responsible thing and start making the tough decisions now so that we can better plan as we come to realize the full magnitude of the pandemic’s economic impacts.”

Due to the pandemic, people across the state are out of work, furloughed, or facing salary cuts and could face increased taxes as municipalities rush to combat the unprecedented public health emergency.

Jersey City estimates it is facing a budget gap of over $70 million.

To mitigate the financial impacts, Jersey City has instituted a hiring freeze, salary freeze, has offered employees of 15 years or more a buyout, and is currently reworking the city’s introduced $613.9 million budget.

The district’s school tax may also increase this year if the Jersey City Board of Education moves forward with the $736 million proposed budget which includes a roughly $64 million increase in the school tax levy compared to the previous academic year.

The 47 percent increase to the school tax levy from $136 million to $200 million means the owner of a home with an average assessed value of about $452,000 would pay an extra $688 in school taxes next year.

While not due to COVID-19, the increase in school taxes is due in part to changes in the state’s school funding formula as the district faces a loss of more than $175 million in state aid over the next five years. The district, which educates more than 30,000 students in more than 40 schools, lost $27 million in state aid last year alone.

Art funding

The Jersey City Arts and Culture Trust Fund, announced in February, follows years of city and local arts organizations lobbying state legislators to implement mechanisms that would allow for long-term arts funding.

The Arts Trust Fund would be the first time any city in New Jersey took such actions and would be on the Nov. 3 ballot.

It would have mirrored the city’s Open Space Trust Fund enacted by referendum under the Fulop Administration in 2016. Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey chaired the fund. The city announced last year it would pay out $3 million in citywide park improvements and upgrades.

According to the arts and culture referendum, the tax revenue would 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.

According to state law, if the referendum were to be included on the Nov. 3 ballot, the city would not be permitted to vote on the issue again for another four years.

More than 20 residents spoke for nearly 90 minutes in support of the referendum at a February council meeting.

Members of Jersey City’s artist community urged the council to allow residents to vote on the measure emphasizing the importance of supporting the arts, the impact art education has on children, and the positive impact art programming has on the local economy.

“This is not an easy decision, and we have many more difficult decisions ahead of us as we work to recover from this health crisis,” Fulop said.  “I’m confident that our vibrant arts scene will continue to see significant growth and support as we all work together, as Jersey City does, to get back on our feet.”

“We look forward to the day when we can reopen our renowned art galleries and kick off the summer art shows that attract people from all over the region, and our arts community knows we will continue to fight for them and support them as we get through these challenging times together,” Mira Prinz-Arey said.

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