Despite some school funding concerns, Jersey City Council approves nearly $599M budget

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The Jersey City Council voted 7-2 to approve a nearly $599 million municipal budget, with Ward E Councilman James Solomon and Council President Rolando Lavarro voting no, since the budget does not allocate any monies for the public school district.

On July 19, Acting Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker wrote a letter to the council saying that the district doesn’t want any money from the city because it can’t rely on “quick fix solutions,” to the surprise of Solomon and Lavarro.

Before voting on the budget last night, Soloman stated that he thinks that this year’s budget is better than last year’s because it “spends our money much more effectively,” such as additional investments for the Division of City Planning “which we have historically underinvested and I think we really, really need to continue to strengthen those parts of our city given the development here.”

He reiterated his call for the city to share tax abatement revenue, but also noted that he believes that the council can “find monies in many other ways too, we don’t have to simply just find efficiencies and look at retirements, we can use any number of different tools to fund the schools through this budget.”

Solomon also said he strongly disagrees with the BOE’s decision not to request funds this year because he believes it doesn’t represent the best interests of the city.

However, he hopes that the council can meet with the BOE again to make sure next year it’s budget is fully funded, or else the city will be in the same place next May as it was this May when the BOE was sending layoff notices to non-tenured teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week.

We interviewed Solomon after the vote to ask him why he voted no.

“It was primarily a statement that says this budget doesn’t address the long-term school funding challenge … I can’t in good conscience go to the voters and the people who elected me to make sure that our city budget addressed the fundamental problems of Jersey City, and schools are number one,” Solomon said.

We also asked him for his reaction, given that he has appeared before BOE meetings making the case that the city council would be willing to work with the BOE to find school funding solutions, when he read Walker’s letter rejecting the council’s help.

“Two reactions. First is disappointment. I think we stood ready in this budget cycle to work with the schools. We even invited the Superintendent and the board president to a budget hearing to specifically to work out whatever concerns they might have but obviously they didn’t attend the hearing,” began Solomon.

“Second reaction is just resolve. We didn’t get it done with this budget, but now we start again. The commitment I’ve made is to start much earlier, we’re going to start on January 1, and not in May, sitting down with the schools and making sure our budget process aligns with theirs.”

Solomon had previously advocated for a plan that would have allocated millions of dollars to the public schools via tax abatements, but that will obviously no longer be a possibility in the short term.

Furthermore, school district officials have previously said that all New Jersey School districts are bound by law to issue a notice of non-renewal to all non-tenured staff.

In a separate interview, Lavarro explained that he also voted no on the budget because it did not include funding for Jersey City Public Schools. We asked him if he had any theories as to why the JCPS would turn down the council’s help after initially requesting it.

“I couldn’t speculate to be honest with you. I don’t know the machinations that go on there … but in the world of politics as it stands, nothing surprises me there. As I’ve said, three days before I got that letter, I was literally informed that there was a shortfall and a need, but subsequently told after that there wasn’t. I’m not making any suggestions there, just literally reporting facts,” said Lavarro.

Despite the concerns expressed by Solomon and Lavarro, Mayor Steven Fulop praised the budget that was approved last night in a statement released this morning.

“For five years our administration was able to deliver flat taxes to residents, an accomplishment that no other city in New Jersey has had. So after five years of flat taxes, we thought a modest two-percent increase to fund enhanced services for residents is reasonable,” Fulop said.

Some of the highlights of the adopted budget include an $18 million reduction in payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), the hiring of 75 new police recruits and 20 new firefighters, as well as funding for an intra-city transit system to serve Greenville and the Heights.

Fulop further stated that the $598,752,096 budget actually has $38 million in new funding sources for the JCPS: $27 million from the payroll tax, an $8 million municipal budget increase, and $3 million in shared services.