Updated 4:43 p.m. 7.24.23
With two of its members absent, Jersey City’s lawmakers on Monday failed to pass the proposed municipal budget so the city’s spending blueprint will either come back to the governing body for reconsideration or the state may step in.
Those were the options presented to the City Council by Steven Wielkotz, a financial consultant to the city, after the council could only muster four affirmative votes – instead of the five required, representing a majority of the full membership – in favor of the budget’s adoption.
Wielkotz, who has spent more than three decades advising municipal boards, said the state has a legal right to intervene at this late stage in the calendar year. “Fifteen or 16 years ago,” he said, “they did it to Hoboken,” and the result was a doubling of that city’s local tax rate.
“The state has already cut Jersey City a huge break in allowing you to pass a COVID emergency (ordinance) to raise the balance of a (roughly $20 million) deficit over four years,” Wielkotz noted.
And, while Council members James Solomon (Ward E) and Frank Gilmore (Ward F) griped that local working families were already hard-pressed to cover taxes and other expenses, Wielkotz asserted that when he and members of the city finance department met earlier this year, the city had been facing a 10% tax increase.
“But we got it down to 2%,” Wielkotz said, adding that with the financial pressures facing residents everywhere in the state, that figure was “exceptional.”
If there are further cuts to the budget, cautioned city Assistant Finance Director Kyle Greaves, that “would trigger layoffs of city employees and reduction of (municipal) services and it’s not the (city) administration’s goal to cut services.”
And city Finance Director Carmen Gandulla added it would be “unfair to anyone in this room” not to approve the budget, given the prior work put in by her staff and the state to try and deliver a reasonable version of a spending plan for the city.
But Ward E Councilmember James Solomon – who, with Gilmore and Ward D member Yousef Saleh – voted against the budget’s adoption, said he’s “consistently expressed concern about the budget” in that it “places a burden on my constituents.”
Earlier, council members had questioned increased employee overtime and health insurance fees but were told by city finance staffers those were matters outside of their control.
The proposed $701,380,029 budget calls for $367,041,522 to be raised locally, which Mayor Steven Fulop has advised in letters to homeowners would result in a $72 increase for the owner of an “average” house. Last year’s budget called for $335,341,237 to be raised in the local tax levy.
Council President Joyce Watterman, Councilmember at large Daniel Rivera, Ward A Council member Denise Ridley and Ward B Councilmember Mira Prinz-Arey voted “yes” to adopt. Watterman and Rivera credited the city finance staffers with working hard to achieve “improvements.”
A Jersey City Times reporter sought to question Gandulla about the proposed budget but she declined, referring the reporter to “the city press secretary.” When the reporter persisted, Gandulla replied: “I’m not the press secretary” and walked away.
At the outset of the meeting, Watterman said the council had been advised by the city business administration earlier in the morning that, aside from the budget, it was due to consider two new ordinances proposing new rules about processing applications for cannabis retail operations but she said the council couldn’t do that because they hadn’t been properly advertised.
“We’re going to need more discussion,” she said. “We can’t be acting on things at the last minute.”
As a consequence, three staffers of the city Department of Housing, Economic Development and Commerce who had been called in to brief the council on the contents of the proposed laws were advised to leave the City Hall chambers and the council proceeded to the budget matter.
Following the meeting, Solomon released a statement explaining his vote. “Today, I voted no on the city’s budget because it once again raises taxes on the city’s working families. 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.”