The Jersey City Council failed to pass their $701,380,029.82 municipal budget with a roughly two percent tax increase during a special meeting this morning in an unexpected twist.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
Initially, the city wanted to discuss and pass cannabis revisions that have been in the works.
However, Council President Joyce Watterman and Ward E Councilman James Solomon both noted they did not have time to review them, nor were they posted for the public to review.
“We have to stop getting things at the last minute,” Watterman said.
The municipal budget was $697,509,540.10 when approved on first reading on May 10th and the council passed a temporary budget that added $3,870,489 on June 28th. Today’s special meeting was noticed on Friday, as only HCV reported.
Finance Director Carmen Gandulla explained that this budget did not contain any information the council had not seen before and that the spending plan had been done in collaboration with the electeds.
“I heard a lot more about budget communications, budget transparency,” she added.
“Does anyone want to talk about the overtime? How are we dealing with the police department? I know we were trying to control it,” Watterman questioned.
“We are projecting to have a savings overall in salaries and wages. We’re continuing monitoring that,” Jersey City Budget Examiner Kyle Greaves said.
He noted they have had quarterly meetings with department directors on overtime expenditures.
An ordinance introduced by Solomon early this year, which was eventually approved unanimously, also now mandates monthly overtime reports from each department.
“When it came to employees increase, is that reflected in the budget We talked about that, they can hire. People were missing. Is that included?” Watterman asked.
Greaves explained not every request for personnel increases was funded.
“We determined all those requests would result in additional tax levies. They were detailed at the budget amendment hearing. Any personnel changes that have been taking place are reflected,” he added.
Ward F Councilman Frank “Educational Gilmore still wanted to hear more about police overtime.
“In regards to the overtime … who’s the overtime going to? Is it higher-ups in the police department? Is it regular officers?” he asked.
“Can we have a breakdown? People yell you’re just giving away money.”
“This year, our goal was to reduce overtime by 15 percent. Additional determinations regarding overtime, you’re going to have to get from the department director. You would need to discuss that with [Public Safety] Director [James] Shea,” Greaves replied.
Councilman-at-Large Daniel Rivera also asked how this budget looks compared to last year.
Greaves indicated federal aid was reduced, which was a contributor to the two percent tax increase, as were healthcare and pension costs.
“We were able to generate a cash surplus … to help mitigate some of those add costs we have. We saw a very large increase in our revaluation,” Greaves added.
“I prepared a budget action plan this year. I have been aggressively managing this better this year. All of this is contingent on our audit,” noted Gandulla.
Greaves added that with no layoffs, “discretionary items” and overtime were the main items that saw cuts.
Gandulla then asserted that it was not realistic to further reduce the budget without considering furloughs and layoffs.
“The alternative we did was a voluntary buyout … to see if people wanted to retire,” she added.
“How much did our healthcare increase? I know healthcare went up across the whole country. We had a lot of increases as a city ourself,” said Watterman, to which Greaves said it went up by about 10 percent.
“We did increase our employee contributions by five percent. It’s not enough to cover the increase. The increase was unavoidable. We don’t want to underfund our health insurance,” he further stated.
Rivera said that police salaries should be higher to be on par with neighboring departments, but Greaves said that is done via union contracts and therefore not solely up to the administration.
When it was time to vote, Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh said that while things were trending in the right direction, it wasn’t enough for him to vote in favor for it.
“This budget is a significant improvement over the last year. I know we had to do a moderate tax increase. I’m going to vote no. That’s not to say that’s not a good budget,” he explained.
“There’s things out of our control, like the school budget. We need one budget policy for the whole city. I made a commitment to my constituents.”
Solomon and Gilmore also voted no, with Solomon citing “too much of a burden on working families” and Gilmore claiming “homeowners are being nickle and dimed.”
“It’s always a challenging thing for our city. I know the finance department has new leadership. I am going to vote yes. I don’t know what happens after this. The public… they need to understand,” Watterman said.
The vote was 4-3, with Saleh, Solomon, and Gilmore voting no. Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano and Councilwoman-at-Large Amy DeGise were absent.
City Clerk Sean Gallagher explained that even though the majority present voted yes, the budget was defeated since it requires at least five votes to pass.
“Since we can’t pass our budget, what’s the next move?” Watterman asked.
“I’m really not certain because this has not happened,” Greaves replied.
Steven Wielkotz, an accountant who has been consulting with the city on the budget, said that the council will have to convene for another vote, or multiple votes if need be, soon.
“By the resolution failing, the option is to continue to bring it up meeting after meeting until it passes. I know the State has sent out letters. Time is of the essence,” he said.
Gandulla also expressed frustration over the absences, noting a special meeting was called since the July 12th council meeting only had six electeds present.
Greaves noted the resolution was for final adoption and that it would return to the council unless amended, which would require another hearing.
“That’s not the finance department’s goal here,” Greaves clarified, indicating that they didn’t plan on making changes.
Watterman and Rivera then asked if layoffs will be necessary given the circumstances, to which Gandulla said it was possible.
“ … It’s not fair considering the much-improved budget this year … It’s not fair to anyone in this room,” she said.
“The most important thing is the city and the people of the city who have experienced tax increases. I voted against every part of the process. While we appreciate there’s been a lot of work in the approved process … there’s been problems for multiple years that got us to this,” Solomon said.
“The plan was for adoption today,” Gandulla replied.
She said the economy and the impact of COVID-19 affected where the city is financially..
“We just have to move forward,” Rivera said.
Wielkotz noted that the state has the ability to come in and set the budget if a municipality is unable to get their council to pass it, noting that they’ve already cut Jersey City a break.
He added a two percent tax increase is rare among New Jersey municipalities this year.
“I’m going to talk to some of my colleagues and see,” said Watterman about the budget’s next steps.
The council adjourned without any definitive plans on what will come next.
“I have voted no on every step of the process this year because of the commitment I made after last year’s budget crisis to ensure that working families do not shoulder the burden of the city’s financial woes. If this budget comes to a vote once again, I will again vote no,” Solomon, who has voted against every budget since he took office in 2018, added in a statement.