Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla is pushing back against measures in front of the city council to eliminate the office of constituent services and the in-house engineer, urging the governing body to remove the ordinances from Wednesday’s agenda.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
The mayor released a statement, which was accompanied by letters of support from four local residents, “out of dozens submitted,” voicing their support for the office.
“During a crisis, Hoboken residents reasonably expect politics to be put aside to do what is best to keep our residents safe,” Bhalla said.
“The City Council members voicing support for this ordinance are not just playing politics with one of the most effective departments in City Hall, theyâ€™re undermining our frontline response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The ordinance to eliminate the office, among others, is primarily a cost-saving measure made by the council, as well as a move to push back against the administration’s recent layoffs.
Recent austerity measures, which have resulted in the “forced retirement” or layoffs of 26 municipal employees, were made as the city is reeling from a multi-million dollar deficit that has been severely compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All we are doing is simply asking the mayor to better allocate the funds within his own office,” Councilwoman-at-Large Vanessa Falco, one of the sponsors of the cutting rid of the city engineer Kimberli Craft, said.
“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 thatâ€™s exactly what will continue to be done until those positions can be better funded in our budget.â€
City Hall officials have not been able to provide an exact dollar amount for the budget shortfall, but city spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri previously said that the deficit is â€œwell above $10 million,â€ and that the city has been losing roughly $1 million a month.
However, council members have estimated that the deficit is closer to $20 million: a roughly $14 million shortfall in the cityâ€™s operating budget, with an estimated revenue shortfall of at least $5 million.
Council President Jen Giattino, along with Council members Mike DeFusco, Michael Russo, Ruben Ramos, Vanessa Falco, and Tiffanie Fisher, have all voiced support for the office’s elimination.
“Right now, we still don’t have a budget in front of us,” 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo said over the phone.
“My position is really simple: I am not asking the mayor to eliminate any position in the city, I am trying to help restructure government so it runs more efficiently.”
The Office of Constituent Affairs consists of Caroline Caulfield, a former aide to U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), and and Migdalia Pagan Milano – a former council candidate endorsed by Bhalla – respectively.
An independent and nonpartisan state appointed fiscal monitor referred to the division in 2009 as â€œa luxury department.â€
Nevertheless, Bhalla and his allies on the council, have said the office”has been the heart and soul of Hoboken’s response to COVID-19,” providing crucial services for more than 1,000 residents.
” … We urge Hoboken residents to reach out to their individual Councilmembers in advance of Wednesdayâ€™s meeting to express the need and 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,” Council members Emily Jabbour, Phil Cohen, and James Doyle said.
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, Chaudhuri said.
“I strongly urge the council members who voted in favor of this ordinance on first reading to put politics aside during this pandemic and remove the ordinance from consideration,” Bhalla said, taking a similar stance on the engineering department.
” … 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.â€
Other council members, who voted in favor of the ordinance on first reading earlier month (which passed 6-3), pushed back on Bhalla’s characterization.
“To say that it’s politics is, at least in my opinion, a political statement,” Russo began.
“We’re all in this together and everybody’s trying to do their best to make sure the city is functioning at its optimal levels with what we have during this pandemic and quite honestly, I just don’t know why we’re going down this political road.”
Others have signaled support for the city’s constituent services, and have recommended tabling the ordinances until a budget is introduced.
â€œThis was never about eliminating constituent services or the individuals occupying this office. 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,” 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said.
“In the past, constituent services was handled and funded out of the mayorâ€™s office. I urge Mayor Bhalla to do whatâ€™s best for Hoboken and keep the constituent services team, who serve so many, when he puts forth his proposed budget next month. Iâ€™ve recommended carrying these two ordinances until we can review that budget.”
Bhalla noted that Fisher supported the move to bring back the engineering department, along with the construction, department back in 2018, stating at the time that “these roles will pay for themselves with the reduction in third party engineering costs.”
Another ordinance up for second reading at Wednesday’s meeting would temporarily reduce the salaries and compensation of all department heads, the city council, and the mayor by 10 percent.
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_