As Jersey City continues to suffer growing pains reflected by a surging municipal budget and the fastest growing rents in the New York City metropolitan area, the city’s municipal government spurred in part by Ward E Councilman James Solomon is taking steps aimed at reining in both.
On January 25, the city rolled out a buyout offer to non-uniformed city workers.
A memo issued by the city Division of Human Resources outlines the city’s offer of a “voluntary separate incentive package…for any full-time civilian employees with 15 or more years of total service to the city to retire on March 1, 2023, and (to) receive $20,000 or 25% of total salary, depending on the salary bracket.”
Employees who accept the offer will “…receive all terminal leave payments on the date of retirement instead of over three or more years as currently required by executive order,” the memo says.
The city has set a February 28 deadline for eligible employees to decide whether to take what it calls a “onetime offer.”
“While we are offering this package in an effort to allow our employees greater flexibility in managing their own finances, this is also one of our first proactive steps to mitigate the negative impact on the overall municipal budget (which totaled nearly $725 million for 2022, accounting for an average per household tax hike of $1,000.)”
The memo says the city is “…still evaluating other options to help reduce expenses, including but not limited to furloughs and layoffs. We are making a lot of tough choices right now and, we appreciate your patience as we work through this.”
Jersey City has about 3,000 employees of whom about half are in the police, fire or emergency services departments. These individuals are excluded from the buyout offer.
Also on January 25 the council passed a resolution introduced by Ward E Councilman James Solomon requiring department directors to submit monthly overtime reports and requiring the city’s CFO to report any requests for deadline extensions on the filing of the city’s annual budget, the filing of the annual audit of the city’s accounts and transactions, or the filing of the city’s annual financial statement.
Meanwhile, the City Council also voted 8–0, with no discussion and with at-large member Daniel Rivera absent, to exceed the 2023 municipal budget appropriation limit by 3.5% ($19.5 million) over last year characterizing the move as “advisable and necessary” based on the recommendation of city budget examiner Kyle Greaves.
In other business, the council heard again from tenants at Portside Towers, 100 Warren St. and 155 Washington St., upset over the city’s newly-appointed landlord/tenant relations director’s ruling exempting Equity Residential, owner of the apartment complex, from rent control but recommending tenants seek an appeal with the city’s Rent Leveling Board.
Portside residents have persistently complained their rents have unfairly skyrocketed while simultaneously having to put up with persistent elevator breakdowns and code violations.
But Councilmember Yusef Saleh (Ward D) informed them that he and his colleagues have been drafting a set of proposals designed to deal with out-of-control rents in non-owner-occupied buildings in particular like the newer high-rises where some landlords have been granted long-term exemptions from rent control.
He said the city is weighing heavier fines of landlords for violations of the city’s rent code; penalties for false statements made by landlords in official city records; and, in cases of disputed rent hikes, forbidding landlords from imposing those increases without first waiting for the adjudication of those disputes.
In the latter situation, Saleh said the tenants would be expected to put cash in escrow to cover the rent increase sought by the landlord in the event the landlord is victorious. Such a law would, potentially, prevent the kinds of actions to which Portside tenants have been subjected for the past several years, he said.
Additionally, Saleh said lawmakers are contemplating mandating that the city maintain a database map pinpointing locations of residential buildings with rent control and buildings granted rent control exemptions with expiration dates listed; standardizing the explanatory form filled out by the city’s landlord/tenant relations director in outlining the reason(s) for approving or denying a landlord’s petition for exemption from rent control; and setting an annual ceiling of 5% on rent increases in owner-occupied buildings instead of pegging increases to the Consumer Price Index.
And, he said, council members would urge state lawmakers to review conditions for making certain landlords eligible for long-term rent control exemptions.
But Council President Joyce Watterman cautioned that, “These are only proposals; they’re not written in stone.” In the meantime, she advised Portside tenants to move ahead with their appeal.
During the meeting’s public session, Hudson County Commissioner Anthony Romano said that now that redistricting has placed Portside in his legislative domain, he’s becoming an “advocate” for the beleaguered tenants. He pledged to “work together” with Saleh “so that we come to a resolution that is fair so we can keep those that have affordable housing in Jersey City and some sort of balance that benefits everyone.”
In other business, the council heard from Roger Heitmann and Irene Borngraeber, of the Friends of Riverview Fisk Park, and Lauren Morse, of the Hudson County chapter of the N.J. Native Plant Society, about the recent destruction of the park’s rain garden, where, according to Borngraeber, volunteers spent 1,000 hours introducing 141 new native plants to a weed-filled landscape.
Unfortunately, she said, that effort went for naught after a contractor hired by the city razed the garden. But, she added, “This is not the fault of the guys with the weed-whackers. It was caused by the ignorance of the people who manage them.” Still, Borngraeber credited Lucinda McLaughlin, city director of Recreation and Youth Development, with seeking to make amends.
Morse added that this destruction marks the third such rain garden in the city to be sacrificed without prior consultation with the gardens’ advocates. The latest casualty, she said, means that, “local birds can’t use the garden to shelter or find food,” nor can the garden be depended on to soak up storm water or reduce heat. “We have to stop this culture of cutting down anything at whim,” Morse said.
“It’s part of a recurring pattern,” agreed Heitmann.
In other business, the council agreed to purchase a vacant property at 18 Sherman Place from the Galczynski Family Trust, of Colonia, for $1.25 million for the construction of the new North District Police Station, with Ward C representative Richard Boggiano dissenting. John Metro, city business administrator, said the land was needed to help ensure optimum parking and traffic circulation.
The council also appointed Rania Saleh to the Women’s Advisory Board of Jersey City as a replacement for Xionara Gonzalez, who had to step down for personal reasons. Saleh, sister of the councilman, is a clinical pathologist who is active in community affairs.
At a “town hall” meeting January 12, the JCWAB announced plans to focus on helping women achieve financial independence, refer women in need of addressing mental health issues to appropriate networks, raising awareness of programs related to the education of children and providing easy-to-access resource materials.