The Jersey City Council finalized a roughly $658 million budget with no municipal tax increase that was significantly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but left many speakers disappointed after calls to reallocate funding from the police department went unanswered.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
Hundreds of speakers called in to the Jersey City special meeting, most of whom pressed for a rethinking of the 2020 fiscal budget while also chastising the city for scheduling the final budget hearing at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Resolutions finalizing fiscal year budgets would typically be voted on during a regular meeting, which would have been September 10th at 6 p.m. in this instance.
“Jersey City deserves much better than this vote process, and it deserves much better than this budget,” said Amy Torres, one of several speakers from the Hudson County Progressive Alliance.
“Your reaction in the face of this massive civic opportunity has been disappointing. In an opportunity to engage your constituents, you chose to rush forward with a vote that cut scheduled community meetings short, that was held in the middle of a workday, that doesn’t allow the public ample time to understand the comment process — in the midst a national reckoning, you chose to hold the process this way — in advance of your own election year.”
The public comments continued for another seven hours, with the majority of speakers calling on the governing body to vote no on the budget so more time could be given to its finalization. In the four months since the death of George Floyd, massive protests and civic engagement have culminated in a groundswell of calls to reallocate funding away from the police and towards social services and education.
“You cannot use police to solve social problems … police are not healers,” Stacy Hartman, a Ward C resident said.
“I want to live in a Jersey City that cares more about its people than a public safety budget,” Ward E resident Katelyn Halpern added.
“Cops do not reduce crime,” exclaimed Henry Prol, who lives in Ward C.
“More cops do not make us safe… We must make sure everyone’s most basic human needs are taken care of … We simply can’t do this if we’re dumping million into police budgets.”
Dozens of other speakers echoed this sentiment. Meanwhile protests have been ongoing in the city, with weekly demonstrations being held every Tuesday.
In its final form, the budget cuts $12 million from the Department of Public Safety and slashes nearly 42 percent from the city’s Department of Youth Development and Recreation. Officials said that the city’s finances had been “decimated” by the pandemic, per city Business Administrator Brian Platt.
“We’re trying to be as cautious and fiscally conservative as we can on the administrative side here,” he added.
Meanwhile, the city’s police budget is around $102 million, nearly 20 percent of the 2020 municipal budget and 43 percent of the city’s salary budget.
Yesterday, Councilmen Rolando Lavarro and James Solomon proposed redirecting $5 million from the public safety budget into community programs – without laying off police officers.
The proposal specifically called for allocating $1.5 million to the Jersey City Public Schools, $1 million to hire social workers and mental health professionals, $1 million to restore cuts to the Youth Enrichment Division for a Fall Youth Jobs program, $1 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and legal services for tenants who may be displaced, and $500,000 for community-based violence prevention strategies.
Lavarro, who indicated that he was going to review police retirements and see how those savings could be reinvested in the community at the August 12th council meeting, came up with a plan with Solomon’s help modeled after Newark redirecting up to $15 million from their police budget in June.
But the proposal was immediately squashed by local politicians, including Fulop – who called their proposal “a bad idea for Jersey City” – and appeared dead on arrival even before the beginning of the meeting.
Most of Fulop’s allies on the council voted for the proposed budget while voting down the amendment put forth by Solomon and Lavarro, while others, like Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano – a retired police detective – expressed disapproval of the proposal to take monies away from the public safety department.
“I think they’re dead wrong in what they’re doing,” he said previously, saying the city has to ” maintain our police force the way it is” and that the proposals would result in Jersey City “[becoming] Seattle or any of those places.”
Elected officials weren’t the only ones panning the proposals from residents and activists.
A number of prominent public safety officials, such Jersey City Police Officers Benevolent Association President Carmine Disbrow, Fire Chief Steve McGill, and a board member with the Jersey City Public Safety Citizen Advisory Board – Lt. Morgan Torres – called into the virtual meeting to stave off the calls to defund public safety.
Disbrow called funding cuts to public safety “unimaginable,” Torres called it “absolutely absurd,” while McGill called it “exactly the wrong time” to enact such a measure.
“While racial tensions have led to protests, looting, rioting and in many major cities, now is exactly the wrong time to defund public safety,” McGill said.
“Experimenting with new approaches to public safety and social justice is fine, however, more thought and time should be given to such idea, instead of hastily attempting to reallocate funds now. This should be discussed at a later time.”
Several subsequent speakers expressed confusion with McGill’s remarks since there is yet to be a call to defund the fire department.
Council members Solomon and Lavarro, as sponsors of the proposed amendment, were frequent targets criticism, particularly from active and retired law enforcement members.
Mark Razzoli, a retired Jersey City police detective, Old Bridge councilman, and a Republican nominee for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional district, said that Lavarro “has never said no to a campaign contribution from a cop,” while Solomon was “the same individual who wanted to take a million dollars from the municipal budget and pay the rent for illegal aliens.”
“And now you want to defund the police department. You’re clearly a socialist,” he directed at the Downtown councilman.
As an elected official, he said, members of the council need to have to “intestinal fortitude to stand our ground and not pander to radical groups who are attempting to divide and weaken us.”
“I would like to remind councilman Solomon and Lavarro that public safety is a foundation of the community. It drives the local economy and maintains your tax base,” Razzoli continued.
Solomon, before the vote on the the amendment he proposed with Lavarro, said that the public speaking portion was “one of the more incredible shows of civic passion for Jersey City.”
“This is an historic time … and Jersey City needs to meet the moment,” Lavarro added.
“The amendment itself doesn’t even meet the moment … but this is what we were able to come up with in a short time period. But this is a long game.”
Ultimately, the council voted 7-2 against Lavarro and Solomon’s budget amendment, with only the two sponsors voting yes.
Subsequently, the nearly nine-hour meeting concluded with the administration’s budget being approved 6-2(1): Lavarro and Solomon voted no, while Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh abstained after a lengthy explanation.
“There are issues I have with this budget,” he said before casting his vote.
Following the conclusion of the meeting, Mayor Steven Fulop applauded the approval of the city’s spending plan and made no mention of the calls to scale back police funding.
“Our diligence from the onset helped to meet my goal of avoiding tax increases and further financial burdens for residents already struggling, while still balancing the biggest budget instability we’ve ever faced in our city’s history,” Fulop said in a statement.
“Despite the unprecedented circumstances, with this budget, we’re investing more in affordable housing, public safety, and other critical services and resources we provide that so many residents rely on.”
Chief News Correspondent John Heinis contributed to this report.
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_