At Wednesday night’s meeting, Jersey City’s Municipal Council members approved a feasibility study of a potential income tax to fund the Jersey City Board of Education. It also greenlighted a residential development project on Route 440, agreed to pay another big bill for Covid-19 spending, and scheduled an April 27 public hearing concerning the sale of cannabis-containing edibles to youths by smoke-shops and candy stores.
After some debate, the council voted 7–1, with Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh the lone dissenter and Council President Joyce Watterman absent, to petition the state Treasury Department “to conduct a feasibility study to determine the revenue potential of a local income tax on Jersey City residents to fund the Jersey City Board of Education.”
That study, the resolution continues, “should provide revenue projections taxing various income bracket at rates not to exceed one percent to help close the funding gap.”
It is hoped that the new tax dollars will help plug a $184 million revenue shortfall projected for the 2022–2023 school year.
“I don’t see residents stomaching this,” Saleh said.
A better approach, Saleh said, would be “lobbying the state to give us back the money they cut from aid to local schools.” According to Saleh, the federal government stipulated that under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act it would not allow funding to local school districts to be cut. Nonetheless, the city’s share of local school aid was trimmed, he said.
The Board of Ed should also be tapping whatever revenue was collected by the city through the local payroll tax to help reduce the fiscal gap, Saleh said.
And, Saleh said, more focus should be given to “internal controls” over spending by the district and the city. “We need more accountability on both sides.”
Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano reiterated his frustration with the state, which he said had passed three legislative initiatives since 1976 to deliver more money to local schools but had little or no evidence to show that those initiatives had succeeded. “People have had enough,” he said.
Still, Boggiano ended up voting “yes” for the study.
Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley was also skeptical about the proposal’s merits. “I don’t believe in double-taxing people,” she said, “but since it’s just a study, I vote ‘yes.’”
Ward E Councilman James Solomon and Councilman-at-large Daniel Rivera were more upbeat about the undertaking. “It’s important to be pro-active,” Solomon said. “I welcome the study.”
Rivera called the measure “an excellent (beginning) to start the research.”
After much back and forth, the council adopted amendments to the mixed-use Water Street Redevelopment Plan that will allow the builders, Robert and James Caulfield (formerly of Fields Development Co.) to transfer to the city two parcels on the east side of Rt. 440—for possible widening of the highway—in return for the right to build across the street.
The project will provide more than 600 new market-rate apartments, nearly 30,000 square feet of retail space, and a garage with nearly 400 spaces.
Residents Chris Gadsden and Jeanne Daly said that the development team was getting an unfair pass by not being required to include “affordable” apartments—as provided for under the city’s IZO (Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance), but city Corporation Counsel Peter Baker said the project got city approvals in November 2021, thereby predating the IZO and exempting it from regulation.
Gadsden cautioned that the developer has a dubious track record under the name of Katerra, which, he said, failed to meet payroll tax obligations and then filed for bankruptcy. The developer’s attorney, James McCann, said Katerra has no connection to the Water Street project.
Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey said that while she, too, would like to see more affordable housing in the West Side, like University Place and other projects that have accompanied smaller developments in the area, the development will benefit the neighborhood because the Caulfields have pledged to undertake “storm flood mitigation” in the area, add 40 public parking spaces, and install street lighting.
“After 440 Farms closed,” Prinz-Arey said, “we had to close the street. We couldn’t police it due to crime in the area.”
The property transfer will also benefit the city, the councilwoman said, because down the road when 440 is widened, the city would likely have had to pay out “millions” to acquire the rights-of-way along that side of the highway.
On the public health front, after receiving further information about expenditures for Covid-19 test kits and the staffing of pop-up test sites starting late last year, the council voted 5–2–1, with Solomon and Gilmore dissenting and Saleh abstaining, to pay Bespoke Health LLC, of New York, $1 million under an “emergency contract.”
Gilmore took issue with the financial breakdown provided by the city. “They’re charging $65,000 for one day of testing?….This is crazy,” he said. Paying this bill, “makes us look bad….”