Hoboken’s dire financial situation continued to boil during Wednesday night’s city council meeting, with employees laying into the administration over 26 recent layoffs, which are expected to save the city $2.5 million annually.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
As council members continued to debate what austerity measures should and should not be taken – with no budget formally introduced yet – Acting Business Administrator Jason Freeman said that the 26 layoffs announced last month would amount to annualized savings of $2.5 million, including pension and health insurance costs.
Of the 26 employees, 11 were laid off, while 15 took the option of an early retirement which some employees characterized as “forced.”
“We did the best we did could to reduce that number in a difficult situation … we agonized over this for a very long time,” Freeman said.
The city, meanwhile, has stopped paying any part-time employees “not providing a service at this moment,” Freeman said, such as crossing guards and certain recreation department workers.
These moves have come as the Mile Square City faces a multi-million dollar budget deficit that has been severely compounded by the COVID-19 crisis.
City Hall officials have not been able to provide an exact dollar figure to the deficit, but city spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri has said previously that the deficit is “well above $10 million,” and that the city has been losing roughly $1 million a month.
However, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher estimated last night that the deficit is close to $20 million: a roughly $14 million shortfall in the city’s operating budget, with an estimated revenue shortfall of at least $5 million.
The council heard from a number of municipal employees, who were highly critical of the administration for allegedly not making direct contact with them prior to issuing layoff notices.
“The mayor has never spoken to any of us … I’ve been coming into work, doing my job, to only turn around to have to be laid off,” said Jennifer Boehm, a former customer service representative in the construction department.
“The mayor says the layoffs are required to balance the budget … the council has asked for a revised budget, but the mayor and his staff do not comply.”
“A fair decision would have been to exercise all possibilities before a layoff, but a lack of transparency prevented that,” Hoboken Municipal Employees Association President Diane Nieves, who had previously been highly critical of the layoffs, said last night.
“Retirement is supposed to be a joyous milestone in our coworkers lives, but instead this admin has forced our coworkers to retire.”
Another employee echoed sentiment that layoffs were targeted, exclaiming that she felt she lost her job for refusing to work on campaigns during city time.
The New Jersey Civil Service Commission is currently considering whether or not to stay the layoffs after being contacted by the Hoboken Municipal Supervisors Association on April 22nd, as HCV first reported.
This uncertainty has prompted some council members to push for more savings by cutting salaries and positions.
One ordinance would temporarily reduce the salaries and compensation of all department heads, council members and the mayor by 10 percent.
Another would abolish the Office of Constituent Affairs, a division which an independent and nonpartisan state appointed fiscal monitor referred to as “a luxury department” in 2009.
And finally, a third measure would eliminate the city’s in-house engineer, Kimberli Kraft.
All three first readings passed 6-3 and are scheduled to be voted on during the May 20th council meeting. Council members Emily Jabbour, Jim Doyle and Phil Cohen voted no on each ordinance introduction.
The dissenting voters, in a previous statement, called the move to eliminate the constituent affairs “politically motivated,” and said the office “has helped hundreds of residents in need as a result of COVID-19 who are out of work and looking for assistance, as well as coordinating volunteers to process and deliver food to our seniors.”
Doyle also mentioned that he planned on introducing a measure that would cut council members salaries by $20,000, which Cohen said he we would support. Hoboken council members earn $24,000 a year with the option to utilize health benefits.
Before those received an initial okay, council members clashed on a number of financial ordinances after hearing from the employees who had been laid off.
For example, 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo asked his colleagues to vote no on a resolution authorizing temporary budget appropriations.
“This council is going to be tasked with finalizing [the budget]. The longer we wait the more difficult that’s going to be,” he said.
“If we vote no we all be forced to have a budget before us asap so we can fund the city. I just cant keep voting on emergency appropriations — we are running the city by invoice and purchase order, we’re not planning for those expenses, we’re just accepting them and paying for them.”
Additionally, Councilwoman-at-Large Vanessa Falco asked if there was ever consideration to postpone the layoffs until after the pandemic, when the city “returns to a bit of normalcy … especially considering that we haven’t even seen a budget.”
She also chided Mayor Ravi Bhalla for his handling of the layoffs: “At what point do you address the public? when does that happen?”
When asked if the city is considering any more layoffs, Freeman said that the city is “looking at all of the cost saving measure to put us at sound financial position at this moment.”
In response, 1st Councilman Michael DeFusco predictably took the opportunity to fire a shot at the mayor.
“We can ask all the questions we want [but] we’re not going to stop these layoffs until we get rid of this administration, that’s the layoff that we need to make.”
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_