Hoboken considers the future of the Office of Constituent Affairs and city engineer

Efforts to eliminate both called politically motivated

On Wednesday, May 20, the Hoboken City Council will consider on second and final reading, an ordinance to eliminate the city’s Office of Constituent Affairs as well as the City Engineer, both of which Mayor Ravi Bhalla said he opposes.

Some members of the council have said that by eliminating the offices, the city will be able to save money as it faces a multimillion-dollar budget gap this year. But Mayor Bhalla says both offices are vital.

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Constituent services

The Office of Constituent Services, consisting of Caroline Caulfield and Migdalia Pagan Milano, has assisted over 1,000 residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the city.

In 2019, the office serviced approximately 2,500 requests from residents, assisted with 50 cases in coordination with the tenant advocate, oversaw 1,050 requests through the Hoboken 311 system, and sent over 6,000 emails on behalf of constituents.

Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who reopened the office in 2018, said he opposes the elimination of the Office of Constituent Services in a statement sent with four letters from constituents who support the office.

He said that during the pandemic the office has helped residents with unemployment claims, coordinated volunteers to serve thousands of meals to self isolating seniors, and connected residents to the Hoboken Food Pantry to get needed meals additionally, calling Caulfield and Pagan Milano “the heart and soul Hoboken’s response to COVID-19.”

“That’s why I’m extremely disappointed that the City Council is even considering a law to abolish this office, right in the middle of this national pandemic,” said Mayor Bhalla. “During a crisis, Hoboken residents reasonably expect politics to be put aside to do what is best to keep our residents safe. The City Council members voicing support for this ordinance are not just playing politics with one of the most effective departments in City Hall, they’re undermining our frontline response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s unfortunate that any Councilmember would want to abolish an office serving vulnerable residents with critical services, at a time they need help the most.”

He urged members of the council to remove the ordinance from consideration.

During the last council meeting, only Council members Jim Doyle, Emily Jabbour, and Phil Cohen opposed the ordinance.

The three council members said they continue to support the work the office is doing and thanked Caulfield and Pagan Milano in a joint statement, calling the ordinance politically motivated.

“The proposed ordinance to abolish the Office of Constituent Affairs is motivated purely by politics, solely because its creation was one of Mayor Bhalla’s first initiatives,” said the trio, noting that the office has helped hundreds of residents during the pandemic. “It is our sincere hope that our Council colleagues will reject this senseless and mean-spirited proposal at this Wednesday’s meeting, because now, more than ever, in the midst of a pandemic, Hoboken residents need help from their City.”

They urged residents to reach out to their respective council members before the meeting to express their support for the Office of Constituent Services.

“It is time to put partisan politics aside for the good of our community and to reject this senseless proposal,” they said.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who sits on the councils finance subcomitee, said that the measure is about addressing this years budget shortfall which she estimates is $20 million.

“This was never about eliminating Constituent Services or the individuals occupying this office,” said Councilwoman Fisher. “As taxpayers face a potential $20 million budget shortfall, the City Council initiated steps the mayor should have already taken to reduce administrative overhead which has grown significantly over the past two years. In the past, Constituent Services was handled and funded out of the mayor’s office.  I urge Mayor Bhalla to do what’s best for Hoboken and keep the constituent services team, who serve so many, when he  puts forth his proposed budget next month.”

She added that she recommended that the council carry over the ordinance eliminating the Office of Constituent Service and the ordinance eliminating the city’s engineer until the council gets the opportunity to review the budget.

Council Vice President Vanessa Falco said, “It’s astonishing to see Mayor Bhalla take a position on the City Council’s effort to more appropriately fund City Hall, since he remained silent when 26 people were laid off or forced into early retirement last month.”

“Many of these employees were lifelong residents of Hoboken and played an integral role in the day to day operations of the City,” she added. “All we are doing is simply asking the Mayor to better allocate the funds within his own office. Instead of handing out nearly $70,000 a year in stipends to three political insiders imported to City Hall from his 2017 campaign who already bring home a six figure salary. We were all elected to office with the responsibility of addressing constituent services, and that’s exactly what will continue to be done until those positions can be better funded in our budget.”

Engineering office

The mayor also said he opposes the possible elimination of the city’s Engineering Division, which was also created in 2018 with the support of the council.

According to Mayor Bhalla the city’s professional engineer Kimberli Craft has achieved six figure cost savings for Hoboken taxpayers and the city by overseeing projects in house as opposed to the city contracting outside engineering firms to do the same work.

“The City Council’s ordinance to eliminate the office would force the City to expend more taxpayer dollars to hire much more expensive firms at a time we must be saving every dollar possible due to COVID-19,” said Mayor Bhalla. “This is a nonsensical, politically motivated ordinance to target the very office that keeps projects including the Northwest Park, paving of our roads, and most recently, the business recovery plan supported by Councilman DeFusco, on track and moving forward. Any Council members voting in favor of this ordinance are doing a disservice to Hoboken taxpayers and unnecessarily adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget in an incredibly challenging fiscal year.”

He also noted that in 2018, Councilwoman Fisher supported the creation of the office, stating in her own press release at the time that “These roles will pay for themselves.”

Yesterday, Acting Business Administrators Jason Freeman and Caleb Stratton sent a letter to the council highlighting the cost savings the office has produced for the city, stating that the office has saved between $150,000 and $300,000.

They said should the office be eliminated, costs for the remainder of this year alone would more than double and it would take more time for the city to complete new and existing projects.

They said that without a professional engineer the city would also miss out on state aid and grant funding for projects, stating that since the office was created grant awards have more than doubled.

“Eliminating this vital division will only be detrimental to the City of Hoboken,” they said. “Project management will be less efficient and costs will significantly increase. The residents of Hoboken will have to bear both the financial and quality of life burdens.”

The ordinance to eliminate the city engineer was only opposed by Council members Jim Doyle, Emily Jabbour, and Phil Cohen during the last council meeting.

How to participate 

Hoboken’s virtual city council meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 20.

It can be live-streamed online on the city’s Facebook page 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 and entering the Meeting ID: 830 2521 9057

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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