Mayor Fulop

Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun Design $250 Million Plan to Fix School Budget Over Next Three Years


Mayor and Councilman Partner on Initiative to Fund Jersey City Schools
Revenue from Abatements, a Tax Levy and Budget Cuts All Part of the Plan

Taking steps to address Jersey City Public School’s $120 million budget gap, Mayor Steven Fulop and Ward D Councilman Michael Yun partnered on the Jersey City School Funding Action Plan they outlined for the next three years. Revenue from tax abatements, a school tax levy, the sale of city-owned property along with the 1% payroll tax already in place, are all part of the $250 million plan.

“Today we are discussing a three-year, $250 million plan to solve the crisis facing the Jersey City schools,” Mayor Fulop began. “It speaks to the seriousness that we view this problem and the commitment we have to making sure that Jersey City kids have the best opportunities possible.”

Mayor Fulop’s school funding plan

Jersey City Public School funding has hit a snag. The district will lose approximately $27 million in state aid this year. That reduction along with the deficit the Board of Education (BOE ) has carried these past five years are all part of the $120 million budget crisis. Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun’s plan targets a quarter of a billion dollars to be funneled to Jersey City’s schools over the next three years.

Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun met with stakeholders including parents, teachers and BOE administrators to come up with a strategy to bridge the funding gap. The plan includes new revenues, the 1% payroll tax, and a tax levy increase that comes to about $9 per taxpayer.

“Last year, we implemented the payroll tax and we expect that payroll tax to yield upwards of $80 million dollars this year,” Mayor Fulop said. “The last couple of months the Councilman and I have been meeting with PTA groups and we’ve introduced our budget earlier than ever so that we could make aggressive changes.”

The $250 million plan would restructure the Municipal budget to share the tax abatement shortfall in its entirety for 2020, 2021, and 2022; in total, an estimated $40 million that would go to the schools. The plan would collect $55 million from the city’s payroll tax, $15 million from the sale of the city’s Claremont Avenue property, $2 million from a Board of Education energy audit; $13 million from lead remediation; $5 million from a health benefits audit, $45 million from the Board of Education Operational Efficiency Corrective Action, and $75 million from the Municipal School Tax Levy Adjustment.

“We’ve increased the tax levy by 57% on the municipal side gradually over time and that would equate to a $9 increase per year,” Mayor Fulop said. “We think that’s manageable. We recognize that there are a lot of seniors in Jersey City and a lot of people on a fixed income that are still struggling, so we want to make sure that we’re able to achieve a solution that funds the schools but at the same time takes into account people who are on a fixed income.”

For example, a $25M increase to the 2020-2021 school levy, which can only be set by the schools, will result in a $101 annual increase ($9 a month) to CY 2020 residential taxpayers with an assessment of $440,000, the 2019 average. The BOE’s plans, so far, have been to rely on tax increases to bridge its budget gap, whereas the Mayor’s plan is less reliant on taxpayers.

Ward D Councilman Michael Yun discusses the school budget crisis

“We tried to minimize the tax increase for the people of Jersey City,” Councilman Yun said.

In addition, Mayor Fulop and the City Council approved an audit to review all PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreements. The audit is to ensure the city receives the revenue outlined in each PILOT agreement. Any additional dollars discovered in the audit would go to the BOE. Although it’s possible audit savings could go unrealized, the Mayor’s office said its confident the projections are both achievable and reasonable.

On the downside, the 2020 plan calls for a reduction in police recruiting, fire recruiting, overtime, hiring and pay freezes. Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun’s JCSFAP plan will give the schools $10 million from city budget cuts that include $2,.2 million in voluntary buyouts, $2 million in overtime reduction, $1.2 million from a pay freeze, $1.17 million from police recruitment reduction, $1.13 from fire recruitment reduction, $1 million in security contract reduction, $800,000 from operational efficiencies, and $500,000 from a health benefit waiver phase out.

“We are making sacrifices, and hard choices,” Mayor Fulop said.

In 2020, the City would move $10 million over to share from abatement revenue. By 2022, $40 million would be shared. Mayor Fulop said he’s committed to 100% sharing of abatement revenue. Jersey City has 178 tax abatements.

“That’s above and beyond anybody’s request,” Mayor Fulop said. “We think its proper to move into the direction of 100% sharing.”

Additional money for the deficit will come in when the city acquires the Claremont Avenue property where the Board of Education’s central office is headquartered, Mayor Fulop said. The city will lease it back to the school board for $1. This would be a solution to getting the BOE some additional dollars, rather than the proposal last year to sell it on the private market.

“There’s no secret we’ve been proactive with the schools,” Mayor Fulop said “We’ve done our best to highlight the fact that the city wants to do its part. We’ve outlined how we’re going to get there. It’s a $1/4 billion commitment. We think that’s meaningful.”

Header:  Mayor Steven Fulop and Ward D Councilman Michael Yun hold a press conference in City Hall Tuesday to outline their plan to fix the school budget deficit.  Photo by Sally Deering

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City Council

JC Council Approves Arts Trust Fund Referendum, Laurel Court Redevelopment, and New City Clerk


At Jersey City’s Feb. 13 city council meeting, members approved a referendum for a new publicly funded arts trust fund to be on November’s ballot, voted unanimously for Sean J. Gallagher to replace retired Robert Byrne as city clerk, and approved a resolution to move forward on a plan for the redevelopment of Laurel and Saddlewood Courts in downtown Jersey City.

City Hall’s council chambers buzzed with local residents including a group of Downtown homeowners who came to address the council. They represented 37 of the 38 homeowners who want the council to pass a resolution formalizing a plan that deems their properties in need of redevelopment with possible condemnation. The developer Lennar Multifamily Communities (LMC) has made a tentative deal with the 37 homeowners to buy their homes for agreed-upon prices. In their place, LMC will build a 50-story high-rise with 810  rental apartments and 14,000 square feet of retail space, a new public park, an expanded Filipino Veterans Plaza, and a new public school for 300-350 children.

“We support the city’s plan to redevelop our block based on safety issues as well as the obsolete design of the buildings,” homeowner Tommy Tran said. “All of us have been working so hard with the city’s planner to come up with a solution to this problem. I want to state we’re very knowledgeable about what we’re getting into.”

Tran talked to the council about the 38th homeowner who has refused to work with the other homeowners. Trans said the homeowner, a developer, doesn’t live on the property but bought a home there “with the intention to really bully us.”

“It was like, ‘If I don’t build on this block, nobody builds on this block’,” Tran said, referring to him. “We couldn’t deal with that. Our properties are obsolete. It’s been a long journey. I hope you can help us. Your vote today means a tremendous amount to us.”

Founder and CEO of the Shuster Group of Jersey City, Eyal Shuster is the 38th homeowner against the redevelopment plan. He attended the council meeting, and when it was his turn at the podium, he spoke out against the resolution, saying the city was treating him unjustly. If the resolution is approved, the council will then consider acquiring Shuster’s property through eminent domain.

“The city is unfairly and illegally favoring a competing developer and assisting its interference with our six-year effort to develop Saddlewood Court,” Shuster told the council. “With your vote today, you are not condemning my property, you’re condemning my livelihood and the livelihood of over 100 people who work in my office, 50 percent of which are Jersey City residents.”

Councilman Michael Yun showed his support for the redevelopment plan but warned the homeowners that he would not approve a tax abatement if the request came before the Council.

“Thirty-seven our of 38 homeowners want to redevelop their area,” Councilman Yun said. “I respect that. If 37 of 38 people look for redevelopment of their area, they deserve to have it, but don’t come back to the City of Jersey City looking for a tax abatement. You are not going to be happy.”

The council approved the resolution.

Art Tax Makes the Ballot

The council approved a referendum on November’s election day ballot allowing Jersey City residents to decide whether or not they want the city to establish an “Art Trust Fund,” an arts and culture initiative similar to the 2016 Open Space Trust Fund.  The council voted 8-1 in favor of the referendum with Councilman Boggiano voting “no.”

“We have enough taxes,” Boggiano said.

The fund would support local artists and arts education and would be paid for by the city’s homeowners and businesses at a maximum rate of $.02 per $100 of assessed property value. Mayor Steven Fulop supported the measure.

Three Minutes, Please

Josephine Paige addresses
the council, photo by Sally Deering

In a 6-2 vote, the council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would impose a three-minute limit on all members of the public wishing to speak at the second readings of ordinances at council meetings. The ordinance also includes a five-minute limitation on all members of the public “wishing to speak on the adoption of the budget and on any amendments to the budget”. Prior to the vote there had been no time limit on such opportunities. Several Jersey City residents spoke out against the restrictions, including Jeanne Daly of Jersey City.

“I think the three-minute limitation is unacceptable,” Daly began. “We have 275,000 residents in Jersey City, and the fact that 25 of us come to speak, you should consider yourself lucky. If everyone showed up, then we’d really have a problem.”

Daly admonished the council for not sponsoring ordinances and resolutions. There doesn’t seem to be enough time for the council members to research what they’re voting on, she said.

“You have the resolutions,” Daly said, “(and yet) it’s sometimes us, the residents, that have to look that up for you and then come in front of you and give you the facts. Council members are supposed to sponsor ordinances. This is what they’re supposed to be doing. If you do, you’ve done your homework.”

Appoint or Elect, Voters to Decide

Several Jersey City residents spoke out against the resolution passed last month by the council to approve a referendum for an appointed School Board. The referendum will be placed on November’s ballot, and if Jersey City residents vote in favor of it, Mayor Fulop will have the power to appoint the nine members of the school board for four-year terms (or longer) starting July 1, 2021.

“An appointed (school) board will leave the public with no say or input in the decisions made by the board,” Paige said. “With an elected board you can change members every year. With an appointed board, the same is not true. Members may remain on the board for as long as the mayor wishes, regardless of public discontent. Your vote will no longer count or have any impact.”

New City Clerk

New City Clerk Sean J. Gallagher, photo by Sally Deering

The council voted 9-0 to approve Sean J. Gallagher as city clerk, replacing the retired Robert Byrne. Gallagher worked with Byrne for 22 years and credits him for the inspiration to move up the ladder at city hall.

Council President Joyce E. Watterman cast a “yes” vote after thanking Robert Byrne for his service to Jersey City.

“Sean, I know you have great shoes to fill,” President Watterman said, as Gallagher stood at the podium. “You have a way of solving problems, and I do appreciate that. You always have something positive to say, and you come up with a solution, and that’s what you need, people who come up with solutions so they can move the city forward.”

With the unanimous vote cast, and to resounding applause, Gallagher accepted the appointment, with his wife, Laura, and son, Sean, watching from the front row of the public gallery.

“I definitely have really big shoes to fill,” Gallagher said in his acceptance speech. “Robert Byrne, without him I wouldn’t exist in the clerk’s office. He taught me well. I’ve worked with Robert for 22 years. He gave me the aspirations to move up. I would love to thank my wife, Laura, my son, Sean, and my brother William who introduced the family to Jersey City politics 25 years ago.”

Resolution Honors West Indies Festival

The council approved a resolution honoring Cheryl Murphy, founder and president of the West Indian Caribbean American Carnival Association in Jersey City, and the association itself upon its twenty-fifth anniversary . The nonprofit hosts an annual parade and festival featuring health screenings and entertainment and an annual business conference on finance, taxes, insurance, and maintaining “healthy” stores.

“We appreciate all that you do for the Caribbean community in Jersey City,” Councilwoman Denise Ridley said. Council President Watterman cast the final “yes” vote.

“Every year Cheryl’s here making sure that this parade and culture is noticed, and for that I commend you.,” President Watterman said. “So often, we get weary. We get tired, but you’ve been faithful. Congratulations for 25 years. I wish you 25 more.”

With a 9-0 vote, Council passed the resolution.

In attendance: Council President Joyce E. Watterman, Councilman at Large Rolando R. Lavarro, Jr., Councilman at Large Daniel Rivera, Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley, Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano, Ward D Councilman Michael Yun, Ward E Councilman James Solomon, Ward F Councilman Jermaine D. Robinson; and City Clerk Sean J. Gallagher.

Next Council Meeting: Wed, Feb. 26, 6 p.m.
Jersey City City Council Chambers
City Hall
280 Grove Street, JC
For more info: https://jerseycitynj.gov

Header:  Thursday’s Jersey City Council Meeting comes to order, photos Sally Deering

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Ibou Ndoye

Art Review: Ibou Ndoye and Adebunmi Gbadebo at NJCU


Painting on glass is tricky. Glass is not as forgiving as canvas or paper, and it stubbornly resists attempts by artists to convey texture. Yet when glass painting is done right, it shimmers like the surface of a lake — or the probing front of a camera lens. In Senegal, painting on glass is a science as well as a tradition: Masters turn out portraits on the backs of clear sheets, swivel them around, expose them to light, and generate an unearthly gloss and inner radiance that paintings with opaque backgrounds can’t match.

“The Wrestler” by Ibou Ndoye

Ibou Ndoye has plenty of experience painting on glass. In some of his works, the glass is broken, and fitted into the openings in wooden frames, like a ladder or a film strip. “Neighbors Near and Far,” his show at the Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University, doesn’t actually contain all that much glass painting. It mainly consists of huge, boisterous, enveloping canvases hung like tapestries; one of these is so long and broad that it spills down the wall and rolls, carpet-like, on to the floor. But all of these giant images possess the fiercely illuminated, sun-blasted quality of Senegalese glass painting. Glass is a major part of Ndoye’s artistic identity, and the translucent spirits of Dakar animate everything this artist does. Ndoye, who lives and works in Hudson County, doesn’t need to tell us that he was inspired to make these grand canvases after a trip to Africa. He doesn’t need to give us much background at all. The work speaks, eloquently, about his passions and his perspective.

Glass painting in West Africa has roots in a lower-tech era. Yet its modern resonances are undeniable. When done properly, a glass painting is seen through a thin, shiny transparent layer. It’s not unlike the way we modern viewers apprehend most of the images we encounter: through the backlit flat-panel screens of laptops and phones. The people on the seven glass plates in “Neighbors Near and Far” have the candid, shocked-awake, slightly distorted expressions that FaceTime imposes on those who use it. One man, depicted in sandals and a kufi, has his hands up and an entreaty on his worried face; another, a woman, carries an accusation in her eyes and a barbed threat in her hair, which leaps in black spikes from her head and scrapes the rim of the dish. Some of these glass vessels are circles, others are octagonal like a stop sign; all are, like iPhone screens, too small for the lively faces they trap and pin behind glass.

The characters in the wall-hangings play to the audience, too. A group of women sit around a mancala, and though they’re mid-game, they’re not looking at the pits and the pebbles. Instead, they’re staring outward, with smiles on the verge of grimaces, as if they’ve been posed there by an annoying photographer. The “Young Brothers” peer out between the skinny trunks of trees as if to challenge a voyeur treading on their turf. “The Wrestler,” the grey-faced star of a kinetic mixed-media canvas of paint and collage, performs his feats of strength and balance for two crowds — an arc of dispassionate dashiki-clad viewers who stand behind him and the real-life art appreciators on the gallery floor, who will be, I reckon, quite a bit more engaged.

In these scenes, there’s no place to hide: Sun and clear sightlines make every gesture apparent. Ndoye’s characters act like they know it. They’re all onstage or on camera, and their awareness of the viewer is inscribed in the pieces. And it’s this, more than the patterned backgrounds or brilliant colors or interplay of figures or even the facial features of the subjects, that marks this work as unmistakably West African in tone if not in origin. On glass and on canvas, Ndoye paints people who know you’re looking at them. They’re being watched, and they recognize it, and they pull you in to the performance.

“Uprooted” by Adebunmi Gbadebo

“Uprooted,” the other Black History Month exhibition currently on view at NJCU (this one is at the Visual Arts Gallery) addresses visitors in a thinner and sterner voice. The show features work by Newark-based sculptor and fiber artist Adebunmi Gbadebo, who works in a style that will be familiar to anybody who has seen recent avant-garde fiber art installations at area museums. Gbadebo makes large three-dimensional frames out of chicken wire and affixes massive amounts of fiber to the structure until it takes on the appearance of a huge fuzzy boulder or block. The boulder is suspended from a string and appears to float; the blocks are stacked into a great furry monolith of heft and subtle menace. Fingers of fiber climb a far wall as if they’re trying to escape the confines of the gallery. A long, thick rope snakes across the floor, daring visitors to pull it (don’t).

What’s really striking about these works, though, isn’t what they look like. It’s what they’re made of. All of Gbadebo’s artifacts are comprised of human hair — hair, specifically, from people of African ancestry. The artist does some amazing, gravity-defying things with the locks she’s collected: She masses it and hangs it in great bunches like animal pelts, she balls it up and stacks it, she pounds it flat until it has the consistency of paper and prints on it. So complete is her transformation of black hair that it often doesn’t look like hair at all. It’s possible to encounter, and even appreciate, Gbadebo’s work without ever realizing that the fibers she’s weaving, teasing, and flattening contain human DNA.

That is part of Gbadebo’s point, one that’s driven home further by her use of indigo dye, a substance associated with the slave trade. We don’t always notice the extent to which the manmade environment that surrounds us was built on the backs of black bodies. Yet to apprehend the full conceptual scope of “Uprooted,” the viewer needs to step back from the pieces and understand the backstory, the artist’s motivations and materials, and the conditions of the work’s creation. The show requires more than the basic transaction between the gallerygoer and the creator: It demands attention to something that can be missed if you aren’t in the know.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Museums in New York City have been mounting shows of that sort for years, and “Uprooted” does feel more like a Manhattan-style exhibition than anything I’ve yet seen in Jersey City. It’s hard not to contrast the Gbadebo exhibition with the tropical wave rippling at the Lemmerman. Ndoye’s figures establish an immediate relationship with the viewer. Gbadebo is quite a bit more parsimonious with her affections and with her energy, too. Instead of a rough neighborly handshake, she offers hard-won beauty. You’re welcome to observe it. Look at it long enough, and you might even get comfortable with it. But she’s certainly not going to do all the work for you.

Neighbors Near And Far: Ibou Ndoye
The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery
Hepburn Hall
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 3

Uprooted: Adebunmi Gbadebo
The Visual Arts Gallery
Visual Arts Building
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 5
Artist Reception: February 19, 4:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Header: Ibou Ndoye

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Courtesy Jersey City Arts Council

News Analysis: Arts Trust Fund


Hey there, Jersey City resident. Do you support your local arts institutions? You do, huh? Would you be willing to pay to keep them solvent?

The municipal government is wagering that you would. Last Wednesday, the Fulop Administration declared its intention to create an Arts Trust Fund designed to channel public money to Jersey City arts organizations. Unless the government reverses direction, there’ll be a question on the ballot this November, and you’ll get to decide whether a Fund like that is something the town needs.

Make no mistake about it — this is a tax. To be specific, it’s an incremental bump in property taxes, and property taxes are already a site of considerable local controversy. The exact rate of the tax hasn’t been fixed, but according to the City, it won’t exceed two cents per hundred dollars of assessed property value. Should voters approve this measure, the municipal government expects to take in $800,000 to $1,000,000 annually, all of which will be dedicated to arts organizations.

That is, to put it mildly, a lot of paintings. For an arts organization working with narrow margins, an infusion of money from a Fund as substantial as that could mean the difference between survival and extinction. Yet there are thousands of artists in Jersey City. Who will decide which ones merit public financial support, and which ones are unworthy?

So far, the City has been inexact about this. According to a statement from the press office, the municipal government intends to form a committee that includes “local leadership, community members, artists, and other stakeholders,” which could mean anybody. It’s likely that the municipal government hasn’t figured it out yet. Nevertheless, seats on a board like that are going to be coveted. The chair of a committee with a million dollars to distribute will instantly become a power broker. Jersey City has long maintained an office of Cultural Affairs, but it isn’t a centralized authority with genuine grantmaking capacity. This would be.

The proposal is modeled on the city’s Open Space Trust Fund, which has raised, through taxation, millions of dollars for local park improvements. Last year, the City began spending that money, allocating $3,000,000 to greenspace projects around town, including La Pointe Park, Van Vorst Park, and Reservoir 3 in the Heights. There’s no sign that these projects aren’t popular, or that most Jersey City residents regret giving the City the authority to use tax money like this.

But the park system is a public utility. In order to make the case for an Arts Trust Fund, advocates are going to have to argue that cultural organizations are something similar. This is a treacherous path for artists to walk. By no means is it a universally accepted position, even by artists, that the arts can or should have social value. Many of our municipal cornerstones — including the schools — are currently in the midst of a funding crisis. Those in favor of the Trust Fund may need to convince voters that local arts, too, are in peril, and that public intervention is warranted.

Perhaps it is. Many of Jersey City’s best-known arts organizations are growing; some of them are moving into newer and bigger digs in parts of town where the property values aren’t cheap. The municipal government has an incentive to create a nexus of arts institutions that would reinforce the city’s claim to be a worthwhile destination. Yet a cultural center like that comes at a high price. Heather Warfel Sandler of the Jersey City Arts Council points out that there are only a limited number of corporate donors in town. Supplementary municipal support, she believes, would allow arts organizations to thrive, and create free programming that would be directly beneficial to the community. Arts, says Warfel Sandler, contribute to the economic stability of the city.

Longtime residents will recognize that argument.  It’s the same one that was used by arts advocates during the debate over the institution of the Powerhouse Arts District. The PAD was meant to anchor arts activity in the Warehouse District, and create a Downtown haven for creative people and a magnet for visitors. The ordinance passed, and the PAD was instituted, but the neighborhood never developed in the manner in which its advocates hoped it would.  Notably, the social utility of the arts was also an argument used by those who sought to preserve the community at 111 First Street.  Jersey City residents weren’t moved to make an intervention. The building was leveled, and its tenants were scattered.

That was fifteen years ago. Jersey City has changed and grown.  It may be easier to convince residents that a small sacrifice made on behalf of arts groups is worthwhile. Artists, too, might have put aside some of their skepticism about the intentions of the municipal government, and they may be less afraid of concentrating power in the hands of a committee selected by City Hall. But before we journey further down the twisting road from proposal to reality, we’re going to need more communication, and more clarification.

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Mayor Steven

Arts Trust Fund, New Hotel and Redevelopment on Council Agenda


Mayor Steven M. Fulop Wants Voters to Decide Fate of Arts Trust Fund

The Jersey City Council’s Caucus meeting held Monday night included resolutions to convert a 5-story residential building into a boutique hotel, and a redevelopment plan for 37 homes in downtown Jersey City. An hour into the meeting, held in the Efrain Rosario Memorial Caucus Room in City Hall, Mayor Steven M. Fulop stopped by to discuss the Arts Trust initiative that could bring in an estimated $800,000 a year for non-profit arts groups.

Accompanied by Director of Jersey City’s Division of Cultural Affairs Christine Goodman, Mayor Fulop spoke to the Council about the Arts Trust, an arts and culture trust fund similar to the 2016 Open Space Trust Fund. The Arts Trust Fund would support local artists and arts education and would be funded by taxpayers at a maximum rate of $.02 per $100 of assessed property value. Mayor Fulop and Goodman want Jersey City voters to decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by placing a Referendum on November’s voting ballot.

“This is something we’ve worked on with the arts council for the better part of two years now,” Mayor Fulop said, “trying to find a solution to support arts and non-profits in Jersey City with long-term sustainable funding. We met with a group of about 80 organizations last Monday.”

Ward D Councilman Michael Yun questioned why the 80 organizations couldn’t fundraise for themselves. Mayor Fulop said that a lot of the organizations don’t have the infrastructure to write the grants

“They spoke about the challenges around that,” Mayor Fulop said, “and they spoke about how difficult it is to find funding. This is a challenge arts groups face around the state and the country. We think it’s important to try and help them out because (the arts) are really crucial to a city that people want to live in.”

Goodman spoke of a “severe and pervasive funding gap that Jersey City non-profits face and have faced for a very long time on the state level”.

“(Jersey City is) on the very bottom of the funding list for counties across the state,” Goodman said. “We have Essex, a comparable county pulling in $5 million in funding. The entire County of Hudson gets $200,000 to share, so there’s a huge funding gap.”

Councilman Yun asked what the arts groups would give to Jersey City in return for the funding.

“The story is what they already do for us, “ Goodman answered. “We have theaters, dance companies, but we’d like to talk about the story of arts education. This funding stream could really help programming that reaches children and young people and exposes them to art at a greater rate than they are being exposed to now.”

Mayor Fulop said the Council would set the exact tax rate with a goal of bringing in $800,000 per year which is comparable to the tax brought in to support the Open Space Trust Fund. Councilman Yun went on to say that although it was a good initiative, his main concern was the many special taxes Jersey City residents already pay.

“We have so many special taxes now, ” Councilman Yun said. “I think it’s not the right thing to do.

Proposing a new hotel

109 Columbus Drive. Photo by Sally Deering

A proposal to change the residential use of a 24-unit building to hotel use for a proposed boutique hotel was brought before the council by Charles Harrington, lawyer for the developer. Harrington said the change from residential use to hotel use would begin the process for a redevelopment plan for 109 Christopher Columbus Drive in Ward E. If the building were to be converted to hotel use, the people living in the five-story building would face eviction once their leases expired.

“If this is passed, what will happen to them?” Council President Joyce E. Watterman asked.

Harrington said that his client would work with the residents to help them relocate.

“My client is looking at that,” Harrington said. “They have rights.”

Councilman Yun said it would be important to speak with local residents and groups like the Van Vorst Park Association to get their input on the conversion.

“I’ve met with the Van Vorst group in the past,” Harrington told the Council.  “We had a similar proposal, and at that time, 4 or 5 years ago, it was really well -received. It’s a boutique hotel concept similar to here.”

Councilman James Solomon of Ward E proposed to spend the next three days meeting with members of the community for their perspective and report back his findings at Thursday night’s Council meeting.

“Before we move forward, I would like to see a financial analysis,” Councilman Lazarro added.

Redevelopment Plan for Laurel Court and Saddlewood Court

Laurel Court, Jersey City. Photo courtesy redfin.com

The Council moved on to a resolution concerning 37 homes in Laurel Court and Saddlewood Court in downtown Jersey City’s Ward E, and the approval for redevelopment and “condemnation of the property” because the homes, built in the 1970s, are dilapidated and outdated. If approved, the homeowners could sell their homes to the developer for profit.

“(The homeowners) met with me in 2018,” Councilman Solomon said, “and 37 out of the 38 homeowners on that lot said this is what they want. That is my understanding of where we’re at.”

Councilman Lavarro said the 37 homeowners are likely motivated by an inability to afford living in Jersey City, but he disapproved of the resolution because it doesn’t justify the need for condemnation of the property. The homes under consideration would be “prized homes in other parts of the city,” he said.

“If you’re going to declare this as an area in need of redevelopment, you have to be able to justify that,” Councilman Lavarro said. “We can go out and mark every home throughout Jersey City as an area in need of redevelopment and make it a home for the affluent and the wealthy. That’s not the way I want to go about redeveloping Jersey City”

Without justification, it seems unlikely the Council will approve redevelopment.

Council President Joyce E. Watterman presided over the Caucus meeting with Councilman at Large Rolando R. Lavarro, Jr., Councilman at Large Daniel Rivera, Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley, Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano, Ward D Councilman Michael Yun, Ward E Councilman James Solomon and Ward F Councilman Jermaine D. Robinson in attendance.

The next Jersey City Council Meeting will be held on Thursday, Feb. 13, at 6 pm
Council Chambers
Jersey City Hall
280 Grove St, JC
For more info: jerseycitynj.gov

Header: Mayor Steven M. Fulop and Cultural Affairs Director Christine Goodman Address the City Council at its Caucus Meeting on Monday. Photo by Sally Deering

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JJ Nov 1960

Machine Bosses and Typewriters: A Reporter’s Life Covering Jersey City


Ron Semple summarizes growing up in Jersey City in one word: paradise.

Semple grew up surrounded by family and in a close-knit working class, immigrant community in the Heights. Catholic parishes with enormous congregations were a consistent presence in everyday life. The streets were clean, there was one cop for every 300 people, and public transportation could get you anywhere you needed to go. “There was no sense of anybody being an outsider,” he said. “We considered the rest of the world, especially New Yorkers, to be creatures from a different galaxy.”

Courtesy Ron Semple’s Facebook page

A career newspaperman who worked for the Hudson Dispatch and the Jersey Journal, Semple, now 85, will be speaking at the Jersey City Free Public Library on Tuesday, February 11. The discussion, “A Century Ago in Jersey City,” will focus on life in Jersey City during and after World War I. Semple’s two books, Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson and Her Morning Shadow, are both works of historical fiction set during the First World War. Black Tom retells the events of the 1916 Black Tom explosion, an act of German sabotage that left four dead and was a catalyst for the U.S. entrance into the war months later. Semple only learned about Black Tom from a plaque in Liberty State Park in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Her Morning Shadow follows a Ukranian immigrant who rebuilds his life in Jersey City after the war. In writing his books, Semple was able to explore his hometown’s lesser known history.

As Semple tells it, he grew up under the tutelage of legendary Jersey City mayor Frank Hague. “I didn’t meet a Republican until I was 12 or 13. They just didn’t exist,” he said. “Everybody was a Democrat. Mainly because every family had somebody on the payroll that they had to protect.”

Semple’s first exposure to the newspaper business came in the sixth grade. He’d go to work with his father, who owned a stringer news service, at the Spingarn Arcade Building near the Five Corners in Journal Square. There, his father would dictate stories to rewrite men in New York and “I’d be banging away with two fingers on the typewriter.”

The summer after his first year in college, Semple went to work with his stepfather as a rigger at Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Hoboken. After one day on the job, he said, “I understood that being a reporter was a hell of a lot better than being a rigger, even though it only paid half as much.”

He started at the Hudson Dispatch, which circulated in North Hudson and Bergen Counties, in 1957. “It was a good newspaper and a tremendous training ground. Practically everybody when I was on the Journal, who was a first-class reporter, had worked for the Dispatch first.” Within a week of joining the paper, Semple recalled being sent to the scene of a car crash and having to report the lead story of the paper “not because I was particularly good. It was typical.” (The Dispatch closed in 1991.)

Semple remembers covering events like the 1957 municipal election, when remnants of the Kenny machine vied for mayor and city commission seats and the sense of camaraderie that existed between political opponents behind the scenes. “These guys would say terrible things about each other for public consumption and then go drink together at night. There was this sense we’re all in this together.”

At the Journal, where he stayed until 1965, Semple started as a general assignment reporter, eventually becoming city editor. He managed ten general assignment reporters who would span across the city to report the day’s news. Political coverage was the Journal’s most important product at the time, and the city hall reporters were considered among the most knowledgeable and respected at the paper. More than anything, Semple said, “being a reporter in those days in Jersey City was an impossibly glamorous job.” (Ask him about a pinochle game that took place in the press room of the 7th Precinct Police Station on Montgomery St.)

Semple continued to work in daily newspapers across the country in a decades-long career that took him to Montana and across the Midwest.  In his 50s, he became a firefighter, EMT, and later served in the Coast Guard Auxiliary in North Carolina, where he now lives with his wife, Jane.

Listening to Semple recount his life, interspersing colorful stories of his childhood, his service in the Marines during the Korean War, and his time as a Hudson County newspaperman with raucous laughter, it’s easy to see why Jersey City serves as a backdrop in his books. “I know it best,” he said.

“That’s still my hometown. Doesn’t matter where the hell I go.”

Join Ron Semple for “A Century Ago in Jersey City,” a discussion on life in Jersey City during and after World War I, at the Jersey City Free Public Library, Tuesday February 11, 6pm, in the New Jersey Room. The event is free and open to the public.

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Jersey City Times file photo

Is Jersey City Due for Another Reval Already? A Taxpayer’s Guide to the Issue


Jersey City last conducted a citywide revaluation – its first in 30 years – in 2018.  But property tax data published in October 2019 by the NJ Division of Taxation reveals Jersey City may once again be approaching the need for another revaluation.  A driving factor is the market growth of Jersey City’s taxable real estate.

NJ law states that property should be assessed according to its market value for local property tax purposes.  However, that only happens if the taxing authority (the city) keeps tax assessed values in sync with market values.  These two values grow disconnected when market values change but the tax assessed values remain pegged to what is on record in the city tax office. Revaluation is the process of updating the tax assessed values (what the city uses to compute property tax bills) to equal market values (what a house is worth on the open market).

Three key metrics published each year by the state help us understand this relationship between assessed and market values. These metrics are also used to help determine the case for revaluation.

The Tax Base

The “tax base” is the sum total of all taxable real estate in the city.  Each year, the city must estimate the market value of the tax base, which it does so via a process based on recent home sales data. The market value of the tax base is then factored into both the apportionment of county taxes and state education aid.

The market value of Jersey City’s tax base grew from $34 billion in 2018 to over $41 billion in 2019.

To ensure residents  are taxed fairly, assessed values should be kept in sync with market values, as state law mandates. Thus, as market values grow out of sync with assessed values (as is happening in Jersey City), a question of tax fairness arises.  The state uses the equalization ratio and the coefficient of deviation to gain insight into this question.

The Equalization Ratio

The “equalization ratio” is the assessed value of the tax base divided by the market value of the tax base.  An equalization ratio of 1.0 indicates that assessed values are in sync with market values. As the equalization ratio decreases, it points to disconnect: the market value (the denominator of the ratio) grows as compared to the assessed value (the numerator of the ratio) which remains pegged at whatever was established in the last revaluation.

Jersey City’s “equalization ratio” decreased from 1.01 in 2018 to 0.88 in 2019.  The NJ Division of Taxation states in its “Handbook for NJ Assessors” that an equalization ratio of 0.85 or lower “may denote noncompliance.” Further, it states that a “continual decline…shows a lack of assessment maintenance and may indicate a need for reassessment/revaluation.”

To dig deeper into the question of tax fairness, we have to ask: was market growth even across Jersey City in 2019?  Another way to put it: are market values growing disconnected from assessed values at the same pace throughout the city?

The Coefficient of Deviation

The state uses the “coefficient of deviation” to shed light on this question.

Each taxable property in the city – for instance, a person’s home – has an “assessment-sales ratio” which is the property’s assessed value divided by its market value. This is the per-property equivalent of the citywide equalization ratio.

The coefficient of deviation evaluates the degree of variance between individual assessment-sales ratios to the equalization ratio.  As the coefficient of deviation increases, it indicates more variance, suggesting that market values of individual properties are appreciating at different rates as compared to the equalization ratio.  Another way to put it: assessed values, which are the basis of property tax bills, are growing more obsolete at varying rates across the city.

Jersey City’s “general coefficient of deviation” increased from 16.5% in 2018 to 18.1% in 2019.  N.J.A.C. 18:12A-1.14 states, “A coefficient of deviation greater than 15 percent generally indicates a need for revaluation.” Additionally, the “Handbook for NJ Assessors” states “The current acceptable figure for Coefficients of Deviation is 15%, although some authorities advocate 10% in light of improved assessment practices, computerization, and increased valuations.”

What does this mean for taxpayers?

To understand the impact of these citywide trends on individual taxpayers, a detailed analysis could be conducted using recent property sales records.  Such an analysis could point to how the disconnect between market values and assessed values is playing out in terms of location (neighborhood), property class (for example 1-4 family home vs. commercial property), and dollar size of the transaction.  This analysis could help point to whether or not the city should conduct another revaluation.

Until then, taxpayers can use the tax appeal process to obtain tax fairness if they are over-assessed (over-taxed).  The county administers the tax appeals process. To file an appeal, taxpayers can visit the Hudson County website and access the “Tax Appeal Filing Handbook.”  The appeal process is for taxpayers who believe their property is over-assessed. There is a technical, mathematical process for determining over assessment which the Handbook explains. Taxpayers can personally petition for an appeal or engage an attorney to represent them before the County Tax Board.

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Cheryl Gross

Art Review: Cheryl Gross and Andrea McKenna at the Eonta Space


It’s difficult to be a human being on a planet in ecological distress. It’s far tougher to be anything else. Plants and animals have been hit hard by the Holocene—they’ve suffered from widespread habitat degradation and general disrespect from the dominant species (us). Some scientists argue that we humans have driven the biosphere into its sixth global extinction event. Others say we’re merely cutting a swath of unprecedented devastation. All agree: It’s bad out there.

Exterior conditions eventually seep into our interior worlds. Most thoughtful human beings are haunted by what we’re doing and how we’re living, and artists, for whom sensitivity is part of the calling, are particularly susceptible to guilt feelings. Yet expressing those reservations about our poor stewardship of the planet is a challenge. If an artist’s commentary is too subtle, she risks soft-pedaling something that demands immediate action. If her commentary is too blatant, she risks coming off as a scold.

An existential crisis requires an aesthetic response more forceful than the creeping unease present in many modern gallery shows. In a moment as fraught as the one we inhabit, we shouldn’t be put off by a firm guiding hand or even a wagging finger. “Commit to Memory: The Precipice of Extinction,” an arresting two-artist show that opens at Eonta Space (34 DeKalb Ave., eontaspacenj.com) at 6 p.m. tonight and runs through the end of March, makes a passionate case for the animals.  It can be blunt.  At times, it’s downright angry.  But it’s never less than articulate, and if it prompts viewers to chuck fewer bottles into the ocean, it’s wall space well used.

Not that all of it is on the walls. Some of the pieces in the show hang on a gauzy black curtain—a veil, really—that cuts Eonta Space in half. The rest of the gallery is inhabited by Cheryl Gross’s creatures drawn on paper in bright, lurid colors. Almost all of them are single images of animals that are either extinct or endangered.  A few of these tributes to the beasts in the crosshairs have been framed. Others feel like they were torn from the sketchbook and hung in the raw, which imparts some added urgency to a show that already rings like an alarm clock. Some of this work was indeed recently completed: A multi-panel image of an owl, its white wings fluttering across a hot yellow background, bears a 2020 date. Gross is feeling the press of time. She expects you to feel it, too.

Those familiar with the artist might remember prior work that possessed the fantastic quality of storybook illustrations. These drawings aren’t dissimilar: Her animals are patchworks of colors and textures, and the scenes they inhabit often contain splatters of ink, frantic crosshatches, waves and dots that reveal a world untethered and in motion. Yet the whimsy associated with Gross’s prior pictures isn’t always present. Instead, there’s peril, and unwelcome restraint—frogs hemmed in by black lines that bunch and scratch like barbed wire, red ink that drips suggestively over the determined face of a tortoise, a penguin with a bullseye in its belly. A flying squirrel, soaring from a blue sky into a nebulous field of gray, appears to be coming apart. Others blend in as best as they can, but camouflage isn’t easy to find. Many of the animals bump against the limits of the page, their  presence too large for the paper to contain—goldfish that have outgrown their tiny bowls to which they’ve been consigned by humans. The message is clear: There’s nowhere to hide.

To her credit, Gross resists the urge to anthropomorphize her beasts. She’s preserved their alterity and with it their dignity. The artist demands that the viewer confront these animals in all their animality and see them as creatures with the same right to inhabit the planet that humans have. The violence of habitat loss is not always left implicit. One fish is trapped in a bottle like a mariner’s model of a ship, while another confronts a row of plastic containers (and another blood-red splatter) with a look of extreme agitation. This sort of literalism would swamp an artist with lesser skills. But her experience handling fantasy material helps her out—she’s able to draw an allegory with a point so fine that you don’t mind cutting your fingers on it.

Gross supplements the drawings with a fifteen-minute animated film that features some of the same characters you’ll recognize from the walls. That penguin, for instance, has a starring role, although notably she’s given a near-human personality and a near-human set of concerns. This elicits sympathy for the character, but it doesn’t address the viewer with the same straightforward, impersonal honestly that the drawings do.

“Undercurrent” by Andrea McKenna. Photo courtesy Eonta Space

A better counterpoint to Gross’s images of animals is provided by a series of devastated paintings by Andrea McKenna, who is also the curator of the gallery at Art House Productions. These hang like scrolls from rough wooden rods affixed to both sides of the black curtain in the middle of the gallery.  Each image is of a single spectral human figure whose face and body is dissolving into the gloom that surrounds her. Some of the paintings are so distressed that they’re practically translucent—like a threadbare coat that’s no longer up to the task of stopping the wind. Gross’s color palette runs marvelously, unreasonably hot; McKenna works in steel gray, rust red, and institution blue. Gross’s work speaks of a fiery, vivid present where the animals are in peril. McKenna’s paintings whisper of a cold future after the animals are gone.

Both artists do have their antecedents in the canon. McKenna’s images, for instance, echo the modern dislocation and emotional fraying that Francis Bacon captures in his canvases. Nevertheless, their styles remind me more of pop-album art than museum art, and as a huge appreciator of record sleeves and covers, I don’t mean that as an insult. McKenna’s scraped and slathered paint and ghostly figures are evocative of industrial music and the art that surrounds it—images from the catalog of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, and similar groups. Likewise, the furiously colored animals in Gross’s drawings bear more than a passing resemblance to the menagerie of Roger Dean, the imaginary-landscape artist who designed the covers to many of the classic Yes sets of the 1970s. Yes was one of the first rock groups to take environmental threats seriously, and Dean’s images, fragile and fantastic as they are, are visual analogues of lyrics about a world spiraling close to the edge. Yes’s message was timely then, just as Eonta Space’s message is timely now. But eventually, time runs out.

“Commit to Memory” series by Cheryl Gross. Photo courtesy Eonta Space

Commit to Memory: On the Precipice of Extinction
Eonta Space (www.eontaspacenj.com)
34 DeKalb Ave.
February 7 — March 31
Artist Reception Weekend Hours: Friday 6-10 p.m., Saturday 4-8 p.m., Sunday 2-6 p.m.
Header: “Commit to Memory” series by Cheryl Gross. Photo by Tris McCall

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20191012_125039

Officials Promise an End to School Water Fountain Saga


15 Jersey City public schools and facilities were set to have their water fountains lead free and operating by November, but they remain shut off. Now these fountains—plus those in 25 of the district’s other schools that had been inactivated due to threats from lead—are scheduled to be back on by March 1.

“This past November, the district had a press release saying that the fountains will be opened in 30 days, but I went back to McNair in December over break, and there was no progress being made,” said Harshal Rajesh Agrawal, a recent McNair high school graduate and local activist on the issue.

Agrawal questions why the repairs took so long.

“Given common sense and my limited technical understanding of the situation, I would think the fountains at McNair should’ve been opened a few months ago. The filters were installed and tested and the results came back clean.”

It turns out that Agrawal’s assessment was correct.

“The water pipes coming into McNair were all resolved a while ago, and there was no work required by the JCMUA,” said Hudson County Freeholder Joel Torres in an email.

“The reason for the delay was that there were fountains in other schools that still needed to be reviewed to make sure they were fully remediated. The superintendent didn’t want to do a piecemeal type of process and wanted to turn on the fountains in every school at the same time. Therefore, they’re finalizing this review to turn them on this month,” Torres added.

The city has spent $1,800,000 on bottled water since lead was first detected in the schools in 2006, and the board has not said how much more these remaining repairs and related purchases will wind up costing.

“It could be as low as $4-$5 million. It could be as high as $15 million,” said former Board President Sudhan Thomas in November 2019.

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What Quality of Life

Artist’s Diorama Begs the Question: ‘What Quality of Life?’ in Greenville


In an art show that Project Greenville put on this past fall, artist Pat Olsen, a lifelong Jersey City resident (and full disclosure, an acquaintance of this writer), displayed a striking diorama symbolizing the quality of life in south Greenville.

The theme of the group’s fall show was “Neighborhood Portraits: A Collection of Familiar Faces and Places.” At the writer’s request, Olsen brought her diorama back out for the last day of Project Greenville’s “Winter Wonderland” show on Dec. 7.

Olsen’s diorama is divided in half. On one side is a graveyard in which skeletons lie beside tombstones marking services and businesses. Tucked into the cemetery is a sign that says, “WE BUY HOUSES/Cash! CALL: 1800-VAMOOSE.” The scene is enclosed by a picket fence that is ablaze. A buzzard on a sickly tree overlooks it all.

Diorama “Quality of Life” by Pat Olsen

“The buzzard up there is the real estate developers,” Olsen explains. “And the skeletons, they died from neglect and the quality (of life). The cemetery is full of all the things we’ve lost, like the buses, the supermarket. We’re in a desert, and the flames are … the neighborhood is burning.”

The surface of the other half of the diorama is green. On it sits tall gold-colored blocks that represent the city’s “gold coast.”

“It’s a tale of two cities,” Olsen said about the project. “It’s all the things we’ve lost in Greenville, and it’s the neglect and the quality of life issues and how the signs are on every block. ‘We’ll buy your house for cash. Get out.’”

It’s just a feeling that we have that we’re not wanted in our own neighborhood. And if the city has four million dollars to put [pavers] on Newark Avenue to raise the street, how come we can’t have a library, or how come the parks weren’t fixed?”

Last year Jersey City established a “quality-of-life task force” that handles code enforcement of “problematic properties and businesses that frequently violate quality of life,” according to the city’s website. This rotted streetscape is exactly the moribund life that Olsen’s piece depicts. Problematic properties, in the artist’s view, are simply par for the course.

“The bike lanes in some sections of the city, they’re painted green; and in other sections of the city there are none. Or there’s [sic] potholes. We don’t even have supermarkets anymore. The bank is closed,” the artist said.

One thing Olsen is particularly irked by is the lack of reliable public transportation to and from the many senior housing residences along Ocean Avenue.

“So, you have all the senior citizens, and you don’t have a bus line for them. And they want you to use your app to get a ride to come to you. How many old people can use a cell phone and an app and get a car ride? It’s not going to happen. And those are the mobile ones.”

Olsen did express hope about the purple vans slated to begin their rollout next month, public vehicles that for a subsidized price will shuttle residents in Greenville and the Heights to other locations in those neighborhoods and to and from the transit hubs and business districts in Journal Square and Downtown. To Olsen’s satisfaction, users will be able to summon the vans via a good old-fashioned phone call (among other ways).

Olsen also expressed hope about the $200,000 the city pledged for upgrades to Martyniak-Enright Memorial Park at Pamrapo Ave. and Old Bergen Road due to begin in the spring.

“My earliest memories of the park in the 1950s were cutting through it, drinking from the water fountain, and seeing boys playing ball,” Olsen said. “I think I remember swings there.”

The artist believes the park is important for two reasons: to get people out of the house and to spur interaction amongst a cross section of people. She plans to attend every meeting related to the park’s improvement.

 

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