Constituent Services in the cross-hairs

Hoboken mayor to veto ordinance that would eliminate Office of Constituent Affairs

The Hoboken City Council adopted an ordinance to eliminate the Office of Constituent Affairs which Mayor Ravi Bhalla said he will veto. The council could move to override the veto at an upcoming meeting.
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The Hoboken City Council adopted an ordinance to eliminate the Office of Constituent Affairs which Mayor Ravi Bhalla said he will veto. The council could move to override the veto at an upcoming meeting.

Mayor Ravi Bhalla said he will veto a newly adopted ordinance which aims to eliminate the Office of Constituent Affairs, calling the office and the work they do “vital.”

The council adopted the ordinance with a 6-3 vote at a nearly four-hour virtual meeting on May 20.

“The action taken by six City Council members was, in the words of Monsignor Michael Andreano, an ‘abomination’ that hurts the most vulnerable members of our community in the middle of a national pandemic,” said Mayor Ravi Bhalla. “At a time when residents need help more than ever, Caroline Caulfield and Migdalia Pagan-Milano have gone above and beyond to help the elderly, disabled, and those most in need due to COVID-19.

“This unfortunate ordinance, attempting to undermine City Hall’s assistance to those in need, will be vetoed so Caroline and Migdalia can continue serving as a vital resource for all Hoboken residents.”

The council also adopted an ordinance to cut salaries for the mayor, city directors, and themselves, quashed a measure to switch their own health plans, and tabled a resolution which would have approved a 5 percent tax increase on residents third-quarter tax bill in August.

Constituent affairs

Some members of the council said that by eliminating the office, the city will be able to save money as it faces a multi-million-dollar budget gap this year, which continues to grow due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who sits on the council’s finance subcommittee, estimates that the budget gap is almost $20 million.

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

In 2019, the office, which Bhalla reopened in 2018, served 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 more than 6,000 emails on behalf of constituents.

Bhalla 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, calling Caulfield and Pagan Milano “the heart and soul of Hoboken’s response to COVID-19.”

In the public portion of the meeting, the council heard from multiple speakers, and roughly 25 letters were read into the record urging the council to keep constituent services open and supporting Caulfield and Pagan-Milano.

But members of the council said they were just following the mayor’s lead to cut costs, noting that 26 city employees were either laid off or retired on May 7.

“The outpouring of support from the administration and Mayor Bhalla  for the Office of Constituent Services is puzzling to me,” said Council Vice President Vanessa Falco. “Does he not have the same regard for the other offices that represent vital municipal functions?”

“This ordinance is not being presented in retaliation for the mayor’s actions, but more in support of the mayor,” Falco continued. “His directive has shown that there’s a need to reduce staff and expenses … So as a council, we’re assisting him in this.”

“I don’t think the solution to the layoffs is to fire more people from City Hall,” said Councilwoman Emily Jabbour. “I am not sure what the endgame is.”

Fisher said it’s up to the mayor to keep the staff, as the council can eliminate departments but can’t fire city employees and that he could keep them on within the mayor’s office if he finds they are more important than others he currently has on staff.

“We have a responsibility to the residents of Hoboken, and we are doing everything we can think of to reduce the tax burden on our residents,” Fisher said.

Only council members Jim Doyle, Emily Jabbour, and Phil Cohen opposed the measure. This means that, should the mayor veto the bill, the council would have enough votes to override at a future council meeting.

“Apparently the mayor doesn’t realize it is 100 percent his duty to provide this service to Hoboken residents, and it is 100 percent his ability to keep the existing team to do so,” she said. “As corporation counsel said last night, no one will be fired as a result of the council’s action. The mayor should spend less time misleading the public on this and more time focused on the significant financial crisis he has created.”

Salaries sliced

The council adopted an ordinance to reduce the salaries of the mayor, city directors, and all nine city council members by almost 10 percent.

Councilman Doyle had proposed an amendment to the ordinance which would have cut the council’s own salaries by about $7,000, but the amendment failed in a 3-6 vote.

“If we are going to do it, then why don’t we take it on the chin,” Doyle said.

“This isn’t about taking it on the chin or giving it on the chin, it’s about being accountable for massive overspending,” said Councilman DeFusco, noting that a 10 percent salary cut is going to save the city the $20 million it needs but that in doing so the council is “showing that we’re willing to stand together.”

Healthcare switch quashed

The council voted down a resolution which would have switched its healthcare plan. Doyle, Jabbour, and Cohen said the new plan is less expensive and would help the city save.

“It’s disappointing that last night six Council members rejected a resolution asking Council members to forgo taking their city-funded platinum-plus health insurance option in favor of taking the city-funded HSA Plan and saving the City 28 percent on its insurance expenses for Council members,” they said in a joint statement. “The City’s HSA Plan is the same healthcare option Mayor Bhalla and his Directors use to insure themselves and their families, and it is sad that the Council members are willing to cut the Office of Constituent Services to achieve alleged cost savings but aren’t willing to make modest changes to their own healthcare benefits.”

Tax increase tabled

The council tabled a resolution which would have increased residents’ third-quarter August tax bill by 5 percent.

The New Jersey Division of Local Government Services (NJDLG) issued a Local Finance Notice which recommends that municipalities issue estimated property tax bills for the third quarter installment of 2020 taxes. This, because the NJDLGS may be delayed in reviewing the city’s budget, which is scheduled to be introduced in June, prior to final adoption because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hudson County Board of Taxation may also be delayed in certifying the city’s 2020 tax rate once the city’s budget is adopted. But without a certified 2020 tax rate, the city’s tax collector can’t prepare and mail property tax bills by the June 30 deadline for this year’s third-quarter installment of taxes.

According to the resolution, the estimated tax levy for 2020 would be a total of $196.6 million.

“Normally we have a budget passed around this time, so what this is doing is understanding that we may see an increase come from the municipal and county level,” said Acting Business Administrator Jason Freeman. “So this creates some flexibility so people will see an increase now to mitigate a larger increase come fourth quarter.”

“If you don’t do anything right now, you’re going to have to make up the entire increase at the end of the year,” Freeman said.

The five-percent increase is the maximum amount allowed on estimated tax billing, said Hoboken Finance Director Linda Landolfi who said if she could, she would have recommended that the city issue a larger tax increase.

“This really causes me great concern: we have no idea what the budget numbers are going to look like,” said Councilman Michael Russo who motioned to table the resolution.

It was tabled with a 6-3 vote.

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.