With several members of the Hoboken City Council citing the nearly $118 million amended budget’s 9.8 percent municipal tax increase, the governing body voted down an amendment that would’ve been necessary to approve the full spending plan.
Councilwoman-at-Large Emily Jabbour, who sits on the council’s finance subcommittee, said that the amended budget cut $100,000 from community development, $60,000 from the vacation incentive fund from the fire department, reducing $200,000 from medical insurance costs, and finally slashed $10,000 from the recreation department.
“Realizing, at this point, that there’s a larger concern has come forward in terms of the timing of the budget, we are in a position that in order to move forward with the next quarter’s tax collection, we’ll need to move forward with the budget before October 1st.”
Nevertheless, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher explain why she still had reservations about the spending plan in front of them.
“The cuts that Councilwoman Jabbour mentioned, we talked about last week and I didn’t fully appreciate that the administration actually put additional costs in – not just COVID related. So on a net basis, the tax levy is the same, so we don’t have any change.”
From there, 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, who historically votes down every budget with a tax increase, said that he feels all the city officials involved need to do more to look out for the taxpayers.
“I’ve made suggestions to use more surplus to try and get to that goal. I’ve made suggestions to cut 10 percent in other expenses across the board to try to get to that goal. I’ve made suggestions to restructure government, remove departments, change things around,” the councilman began.
“I’ve made all these suggestions … there seems to be no appetite for any of them. And it becomes very, very frustrating.”
Russo continued that even if the budget was voted down, the council continues to approve temporary emergency appropriations, which he estimated are over $90 million for this fiscal year.
“We basically funded the city already so we’re at a point where the budget is almost a moot point.”
Next, 1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco agreed with Russo’s point of view, pointing out that the budget was expected to have at least a $7 million shortfall since the beginning of the year – long before COVID-19 was a concern – so it was disingenuous to blame the budget on the current public health emergency.
Specifically, DeFusco took umbrage with $100,000 being allocated to special counsel fees and another $5,000 being added to the business administrator’s office.
Jabbour said the $100,000 was necessary due to pending litigation pertaining the Hoboken University Medical Center, while Hoboken Finance Director Linda Landolfi said the $5,000 was due to an IRS penalty for a late filing of 1099 employees in 2017.
She said the filings were just one day late, but still resulted in a monetary sanction.
Later, Jabbour indicated that while the municipal tax increase is over 9 percent, the overall increase the taxpayer would receive equates to 1.4 percent after factoring in the Open Space Trust fund, county, and board of education budgets.
Council President Jen Giattino found it ironic that the county’s 6.52 percent tax decrease went a long way in keeping the tax rate stable after year’s of people complaining about county tax decreases.
“In the past, it’s so funny, because we always said the opposite, we were always like ‘No, we’re flat, we’re flat, we’re down: it’s the county that’s doing it to us!’ And everyone would say, on the other side, ‘you can’t just blame the county.’ It’s very ironically actually how it’s swapped.”
“A 10 percent municipal tax increase is a great deal of money to our tax base, do not take credit for the county’s tax decrease,” DeFusco swiped at Jabbour.
The two electeds traded shots after Jabbour said she felt DeFusco was engaging in an “asinine exercise” by questioning relatively small budget expenses line by line.
Landolfi also noted that the allocations between the 12 Hudson County municipalities was what impacts each individual budget, as opposed to just the individual tax decreases or increases.
5th Ward Councilman Phil Cohen reiterated most of Jabbour’s points, adding that the council has the ability to continue alleviating the burden on the taxpayer by approving a $4.7 million bond with the local library.
He said if that was approved, the new budget would have result in a tax bill that is only around a 0.5 percent increase.
Around that point, Russo began to get fed up with some of his colleagues rosy perspective on the budget, exclaiming that in 2014, Cohen called for a forensic audit of the county and Russo believes he should’ve done the same in Hoboken.
He also expressed anger about employees being laid off long before the financial burdens of COVID-19 were a reality.
“You made a comment ‘we’re not seeing massive layoffs because of COVID.’ You’re right: we saw ’em before COVID! We laid off 26 people between layoffs and forced retirements! We can’t gloss over this stuff!,” Russo stated.
” … I blame most of this stuff on the Zimmer administration, I don’t blame it on this administration as much … the reality is for eight years we didn’t do anything to increase our revenue base.”
Russo also expressed dismay over the city approving around $250 million in bonding in the past decade, again questioning why surplus money isn’t being utilized in this budget.
He further stated that the narrative that it is too late to make significant changes since it’s almost October is “bull****.”
Finally, after about an hour of discussion, the council voted down the budget amendment by a vote of 5-3(1), with Jabbour, Cohen, and Councilman-at-Large Jim Doyle voting yes, while Russo abstained.
As a result, a special meeting has been called for next Wednesday to again discuss the budget, which currently sits at just under $117.8 million with a $62 million tax levy.
This morning, Mayor Ravi Bhalla expressed optimism on getting a spending plan approved in a timely fashion.
“My Administration introduced a balanced budget designed to overcome the unprecedented challenges of a pandemic and maintain community services while investing in our future,” he said.
“I look forward to continuing to work with the City Council to adopt a budget that reflects our city’s priorities.”
Correction: 3rd Ward Councilman Mike Russo abstained on the budget amendment, an earlier version of this story said he voted no.