On the chopping block

Council takes aim at salaries and departments as 26 Hoboken employees leave the workforce

Budget gap battle: Members of the Hoboken City Council discussed layoffs and measures to cut city spending as they face a multi-million-dollar budget gap.
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Budget gap battle: Members of the Hoboken City Council discussed layoffs and measures to cut city spending as they face a multi-million-dollar budget gap.

As Hoboken attempts to grapple with a multi-million-dollar budget gap, the Hoboken City Council will consider eliminating the city’s Office of Constituent Affairs, City Engineer, and slicing salaries for the mayor, department heads, and itself.

This comes after 26 city employees left the city’s employ on May 7 who were either terminated or “forced” to retire, according to city employees.

According to Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who sits on the council’s finance subcommittee, the city’s budget gap has grown from an estimated $14 million in February to an estimated $20 million due to loss of revenue because of the public health emergency, but the city says it is still compiling the figures.

“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 continuing to update their projections as a budget is constructed,” said city spokesperson Vijay Chaudhuri.

On their own

 “Why let the people who serve the most pay the costliest price?” asked Gerard Ciandella who had worked for the city for 13 years.

“I was given less then 24 hours to accept a 20-percent pay cut from my current salary putting undue pressure on me and my family to make a life-changing decision,” said Ciandella who noted he had to decline his bumping rights “because the city was basically renegotiating much lower salaries and caps on salaries.”

Bumping rights are when a senior employee is allowed to replace a less senior employee.

“A fair decision would have been to exercise all possibilities before a layoff, but a lack of transparency prevented that,” Hoboken Municipal Employees Association President Diane Nieves said, noting that the city had not yet presented the council with a budget and that  “Retirement is supposed to be a joyous milestone in our coworkers’ lives, but instead this admin has forced our coworkers to retire.”

Councilwoman Vanessa Falco read a letter from Gina O’Connor, a full-time secretarial assistant in the city’s health department.

She said that while she was not on the list to be laid off, two people on the list had bumping rights over her, which got her a demotion. She could not accept it because she couldn’t perform the skills required due to her Multiple Sclerosis, and she would lose her health benefits.

“As a result of this action I was forced to retire, not on my terms,” Falco read.

Jennifer Boehm who worked for the city for 15 years, recently in the construction department, said the mayor never talked to her or the other employees who were being laid off, noting that the council has yet to receive a budget from the administration and consider other saving measures.

“People say it’s a good time to get laid off because you get extra money from unemployment, but with the economy the way it is what if I can’t find a job?” she said. “How do I feed my kids? How do we survive?”

Of the 26 employees, 11 were laid off, and 15 entered retirement, according to Acting Business Administrator and Director of Operations Jason Freeman who noted that the decrease in staff will save the city roughly $2.5 million annually, including salary, pension, and benefits.

But this savings doesn’t include payouts for retirements, terminal leave, vacation time, or sick leave, which Councilman Michael Russo pointed out means the city is really saving only roughly $1.7 million, which Freeman confirmed.

Freeman said the city has stopped paying part-time employees who are not “providing a service at the moment,” such as members of the recreation department or school crossing guards.

Councilman Michael DeFusco asked if the administration was considering more layoffs. Freeman responded that the city was still “looking into all cost saving measures.”

What’s next?

With a 6-3 vote the council introduced three ordinances that some of them say will help the city save by eliminating the city’s engineer in favor of outside vendors, eliminating the Office of Constituent Affairs, and cutting some salaries.

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

“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,” said Ramos and Russo in a statement. “Given the current state of our finances, it is only sensible we again follow this same advice. … We all remain committed to being constituent focused. …”

Earlier this month Mayor Ravi Bhalla thanked the Office of Constituent Affairs, noting that office employees shifted their duties of helping with routine issues to serving as the first point of contact for COVID-19 issues.

“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,” Bhalla said.

In 2019, Constituent Affairs serviced approximately 2,500 requests, 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.

Council members Emily Jabbour, Jim Doyle, and Phil Cohen, who voted against all three measures, called the move to eliminate Constituent Affairs “targeted” and “politically motivated.”

Potential salary cuts

The council will also consider a salary ordinance, sponsored by DeFusco and Falco, that would reduce the salaries of all council members, the mayor, and city directors by 10 percent for the remainder of the year.

This would reduce the mayor’s salary from $116,950 to $105,55 per year. Salaries for council people would decrease from $24,130 to $21,717. The council president’s salary would decrease from $26,541 to $23,887.

The salaries of city directors can not exceed $114,480, with the exception of the Director of Recreation who could receive up to $116,388 and the Business Administrator who could receive up to $145,800. The Finance Director is capped at $90,630.

Doyle said he planned to introduce an amendment to the ordinance at the next meeting which would cut council members salaries by $20,000.

Cohen said he would support the measure, stating that comparing 10 percent of a council person’s salary to 10 percent of a director’s salary is like comparing “apples to oranges” because the council is a “part time job.”

“When it comes to supporting families, this is not our primary source of income, but for our directors it is their primary source income,” Cohen said.

He said he would reintroduce his previously defeated ordinance which would have the council eliminate their healthcare benefits.

“Don’t tell me this is not my main income,” Russo countered. “My business is closed. …  When’s the last time you stood at Home Depot looking for a day’s work? … I have six mouths to feed. When’s the last time your kids ask, Daddy, why aren’t you eating with us, and you lied because there wasn’t enough food. … Get your head out of your ass.”

The ordinances are scheduled to come before the council on May 20.

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.