With only a little more than two months left in 2022 and the holiday season coming, the City Council voted yesterday to adopt a municipal budget totaling nearly $725 million.

As a result, the average homeowner will be facing a municipal tax increase of $1,162 this year, according to Ward E Councilmember James Solomon.

The vote was 7-2, with Solomon and Ward F Councilmember Frank Gilmore dissenting.

Carmen Gandulla, city director of finance, declined to answer a reporter’s questions about the budget’s impact on the municipal tax rate overall.  

Gandulla did say that if the council tabled the budget for further review, the city “won’t be able to collect fourth-quarter (tax) billings.”

Defending the tax increase, the administration has pointed out that in 2021 it cut taxes by $960, making this year’s increase look unusually large. That decrease, however, was made possible with an infusion of federal monies from the American Rescue Plan.

Ward D Councilmember Yousef Saleh griped that the council was essentially  “being asked to vote for a tax increase” or face the likelihood of furloughs or layoffs in which case “the city’s business would grind to a halt.”

“We need to start (the budget review) process earlier,” he said. “And we need to check to see that every department head stays within spending limits.”

If those changes aren’t made next year, Saleh said, “I’ll vote ‘no’ (on the budget).”

Meanwhile, Saleh said, the city is being asked to pay a lot of overtime for police.  “I have to know where are our 900 police officers when I have to beg for six units in the Heights,” he said. At the same time, he said, there’s talk about the city’s privatizing its 911 emergency call center, which he said he is opposed to. Saleh also complained about the city’s practice of sending out city vehicles to private auto shops for repairs.

This budget, Saleh said, “is a clarion call” to change the way the city operates. “We need to hold every department head accountable.” And next year, he said, the council should have a prepared budget by February or March.  (Gandulla did mention at last week’s council session that 2022 “was a trying year coming out of Covid: The former CFO left on medical leave, and staff was working day and night” to get the budget in shape.)

Ward C Councilmember Richard Boggiano said the city was losing out on $1 billion in potential revenues by failing to reappraise new high rises while compelling the owners of one- and two-family homes to bear an unfair tax burden. 

He said the only reason he was voting for the budget was that otherwise “we’re going to lose out on $26 million in aid from the state.” He didn’t elaborate on the source of those funds.

Meanwhile, the lawmaker continued, “I have numerous neighbors who are furious (about higher taxes). We’re in crisis. I’m going to be around for three more years, and I’m not keeping my mouth shut anymore.” 

Boggiano mentioned that he is “working on an affordable housing plan with the Journal Square Community Association that puts the responsibility of affordable housing on developers and not on middle-class families who purchased their homes in the 1980s.”

Ward F representative Gilmore said, “We have to do better as a collective, making sure we’re prepared. I vote no.”

Council President Joyce Watterman acknowledged that the budget “appeared to us very late. I’m not happy (about that), but we have only two months left (in the year) and this is what we’re voting on. Next year, we’ll change the process.”

In a press release following yesterday’s vote, Solomon was unsparing in his criticism.

The budget, said Solomon “raises taxes while slashing critical programs, and it is months overdue—a clear indication of the failure of this entire process.”

Lamenting the tax increase, Solomon complained that the budget “is patched together with $70M in one-time revenue from the American Rescue Plan that will no longer exist next year, which means that working families will be on the hook for that shortfall the next time we convene for the budget unless we change course.”

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...