COVID-19 relief funds committee met with city resistance

City officials have a problem with a resident survey on how the funds should be spent

City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski addresses the public at the May 2021 council meeting, held at the auditorium at Bayonne High School where the Board of Education usually holds its meetings.
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City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski addresses the public at the May 2021 council meeting, held at the auditorium at Bayonne High School where the Board of Education usually holds its meetings.

The committee created by the Bayonne City Council to oversee the city’s spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds has been met with resistance by City Hall, according to City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski.

The move to create the oversight committee followed discussion at the council’s June meeting of how the city administration spent $9 million in CARES Act funds distributed in 2020, which Ashe-Nadrowski said didn’t need council approval. She said that approximately $6 million was spent on municipal salaries, approximately $2.6 million went to small businesses, and the rest covered COVID-19-related costs such as virus testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).

This time, the council wanted a say in how the city will spend the $39.2 million that Bayonne received in COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan. While council members toyed with the idea in March, the council unanimously approved a resolution creating the committee in June.

Surveying residents

Ashe-Nadrowski said the committee met once. Afterward, it wanted to get residents’ input as to what to spend the funding on.

“What came out of that meeting is that we should really ask the people what they need,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “The suggestion was to put a survey out there.”

Within days, a survey was created, but Ashe-Nadrowski said she hasn’t gotten much help from the city in sharing the survey.

“I as a council person, and the community, shared the survey,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “But it’s not on the mayor’s pages or the city’s pages.”

Ashe-Nadrowski said she sent it to be posted on the city’s website, but Mayor James Davis did not approve it.

“There’s a new policy now where the mayor needs to approve everything,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “Previously it would just go up there.”

Infrastructure?

According to Ashe-Nadrowski, Davis told her he was reviewing the survey and wanted to add a section on infrastructure, regarding the city’s Long Term Control Plan to deal with its antiquated combined sewer system.

A few weeks passed, and Ashe-Nadrowski never heard back, so she added a section on infrastructure to the survey herself and sent it back in to be posted on the website. It still did not get posted on the website, she said.

“We lost like a month and a half almost, so I just decided I would post it on my social media, and had people share it out of there to try and get people to take the survey,” Ashe-Nadrowski said.

According to Ashe-Nadrowski, the committee also distributed the surveys to some people in person.

“We gave out like 100 something paper surveys,” Ashe-Nadrowski said.

Little feedback

The results of the survey are now in, but responses were not as high as expected.

“We didn’t get as much feedback as we wanted because we didn’t get any support from the city side,” Ashe-Nadrowski said.

So Ashe-Nadrowski is going to share the survey again, in hopes of getting more feedback. She plans to announce the results at the Sept. 22 council meeting.

According to Ashe-Nadrowski, it was a requirement in order to spend the funds that the city engage with the community on the matter. The survey aimed to do just that, but the city didn’t share it. Ashe-Nadrowski said that Davis told her the city is looking into what “engaging with the community means.”

Davis will decide

The rationale for the committee was to allocate the federal money in line with local opinions of where it should be spent. But in the end, the decision is up to Davis.

“In reality, the committee has no real power,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “We can make recommendations overseeing it, but in the end it’s the mayor’s call.”

She clarified that the city council, which established the committee, would still need to approve spending.

“It is up to the mayor to decide how he wants to spend it, but ultimately that spending has to come to the council anyway for approval,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “Just like any other spending, it has to be approved by the council.”

City responds

In response to Ashe-Nadrowski, Mayor James Davis said he took issue with the phrasing of the survey.

“The City Administration did not draft the survey questions and was not comfortable with their wording,” Davis told the Bayonne Community News in an email.

Davis said that in terms of feedback: “The online responses that others received are not in our possession, so we cannot speak to the response rate that they received. Online comments come from people with Internet access and the time to answer surveys. Elected officials also have the responsibility to look out for the economic interests of those who do not have either Internet access or the time for online surveys.”

While Davis might not have been on board with the survey, he is still open to input on how the funds are spent. According to Davis, his administration “will listen to ideas from a variety of people, and will then take appropriate action.”

Dispersing the funds

As to engaging with the community regarding funds, Davis said that would occur when spending is approved at council meetings. For instance, some spending of the $39.2 million was already included in the city’s 2021 budget, which the council adopted in August.

“The public would have the opportunity to comment on anything that is introduced in the form of an ordinance, a budget amendment, or a resolution at a City Council meeting,” Davis said.

As to what that money is spent on, so far it includes grants for small businesses and increasing the number of police officers and firefighters.

“A first round of grants went out to local businesses several months ago,” Davis said. “A second round of business grants is going out shortly. City officials have met with the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation to plan for rental assistance for needy tenants. Federal funds are also being used to improve public safety by increasing our numbers of police officers and firefighters back to their pre-COVID numbers.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.