Hoboken council members aim to cut city spending

Office of Constituent Affairs, City Engineer, and some salaries are all on the chopping block; May 6 meeting could be contentious

On May 6, the Hoboken City Council is scheduled to vote on three introductory ordinances which sponsors say will help reduce city spending in light of the city’s growing budget gap.

The first ordinance, cosponsored by Council Vice President Vanessa Falco and Councilman Mike DeFusco, would temporarily reduce the salaries of all council members, the mayor and city directors by 10 percent for the remainder of the year.

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“Hoboken was facing a multi-million-dollar budget deficit long before the global health crisis, and yet we’re still lacking the necessary financial planning to responsibly move forward,” said Council Vice President Vanessa Falco and Councilman Mike DeFusco in a joint statement. “With such an astronomical municipal shortfall, City leadership should be leading by example and willingly forgo a portion of our own salaries. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen the mayor heartlessly and carelessly move forward with 26 layoffs in the middle of a pandemic before even sharing a budget proposal with the City Council. Hoboken residents and municipal employees deserve better and it is only responsible that we begin making cuts at the top and work our way down.”

According to the ordinance, the council believes the budget gap to be roughly $20 million.

When asked if the budget gap was now $20 million, city spokesperson Vijay Chaudhuri said, “Given the continued decrease in revenue of at least $1 million per month, combined with additional COVID-19 related expenses, and without a clear understanding of COVID-19 reimbursements or relief in a federal stimulus package, our finance team is constantly updating their projections. We continue to await guidance from the State on how to anticipate revenue for the budget for the remainder of 2020 due to COVID-19.”

A second introductory ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Ruben Ramos and Councilman Michael Russo, would eliminate the Office of Constituent Affairs.

According to a press release from members of the council, in 2009, an independent and nonpartisan state-appointed fiscal monitor determined the office was expendable. Ceasing its operations would play a significant role in restoring the fiscal health of Hoboken.

A third ordinance will eliminate the City’s Engineer in favor of using one of the vendors already approved to do work in Hoboken.

“Four months after learning about the anticipated multi-million dollar deficit in this year’s municipal budget, the City Council has still not been presented with any formal plans to address this issue,” said Ramos and Russo in a joint statement. “When Hoboken found itself in a similar crisis 10 years ago, a governor-appointed state auditor fully eliminated the Office of Constituent Affairs to advance the city’s fiscal health. Given the current state of our finances, it is only sensible we again follow this same advice. We are all elected to public office to serve our residents and remain committed to being constituent focused and address the everyday needs and concerns of our neighbors.”

Mayor Ravi Bhalla re-instituted the Office of Constituent Affairs in 2018 to help residents with quality-of-life issues.

Last weekend Bhalla’’s Nixle alert regarding COVID-19 updates began with thanks to the Office of Constituent Affairs “for serving as a critical, frontline resource to residents during our COVID-19 response,” noting that office employees shifted their duties of helping residents with routine issues to serving as first point of contact for residents seeking help.

“They have helped dozens of residents successfully navigate the state’s office of unemployment insurance, with many landlord/tenant issues, and most recently coordinated the many volunteers to deliver thousands of meals each week for our seniors.”

In February the city announced that in 2019, the Office of Constituent Affairs serviced approximately 2,500 requests from residents, assisted with 50 cases in coordination with the city’s tenant advocate, oversaw 1,050 requests through the Hoboken 311 system, and sent more than 6,000 emails on behalf of constituents.

“We fully support the incredible work performed by lifelong Hoboken residents Caroline Caulfield and Migdalia Pagan Milano, and we thank them for everything they have done for thousands of residents since the Office of Constituent Affairs was launched in October 2018,” said council members Emily Jabbour, Jim Doyle, and Phil Cohen in a joint statement. “Councilmembers Mike DeFusco, Ruben Ramos, Mike Russo, and Vanessa Falco are leading the seemingly politically motivated charge to eliminate the Office of Constituent Affairs, an office that has helped hundreds of residents in need as a result of COVID-19 who are out of work and looking for assistance, as well as coordinating volunteers to process and deliver food to our seniors, and much more. This is a clearly targeted move taking aim at one of Mayor Bhalla’s first initiatives as Mayor, and we would hope that our Council colleagues will overwhelmingly oppose this senseless ordinance that will only hurt our residents in this time when they need help the most help from their city.”

Pagan-Milano ran against DeFusco in the First Ward council race as part of Bhalla’s slate in 2019.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said, “This isn’t about ending constituent services, it is about rightsizing during a difficult time. As the mayor reabsorbs this function back into the mayor’s office, hopefully he will choose to keep Caroline to continue to provide this function, who I think does a great job working for Hoboken, and maybe more appropriately downsize his own staff who primarily just work for him.”

As for the Office of Engineering, Jabbour, Doyle, and Cohen said that hiring Kimberli Craft as the city’s engineer in 2018 saved the city from having to hire outside engineers and contractors at a higher cost for work she does in house.

“Council members routinely seek to bring ‘in-house’ various functions that often have been performed by outside consultants because it saves taxpayers money,” they said. “Ironically, this proposal would actually squander $200,000 a year in savings of critical taxpayer dollars that this office has saved, which is inconsistent and defies all logic.”

Hoboken’s virtual city council meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6.

It can be live-streamed online on the city’s Facebook page at 7 p.m. or live-streamed on the city’s council website at http://hobokennj.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx

Those who wish to speak at the meeting may sign up in advance through the city clerk’s office at cityclerk@hobokennj.gov or call (201) 420-2000 ext. 2004. Comments and questions can be submitted in advance, which will be read into the record.

Those who wish to speak during the meeting can also attend the meeting via Zoom at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81994281334 by  entering the Meeting ID: 819 9428 1334.

To call into the meeting via zoom dial 1-646-876-9923 and enter the meeting ID.

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

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