Cannabis regulation, police overtime, off-street parking and delayed public projects proved hot-button topics at Monday’s caucus of Jersey City lawmakers.
At-large City Council member Daniel Rivera presided, with Council President Joyce Watterman, Ward E representative James Solomon and at-large member Amy Degise no-shows.
Council members debated the pros and cons of changes being pitched to the current laws on the city books governing the licensing of cannabis businesses which, if adopted by the council Wednesday, would apply only to new applicants. A city-wide cap of 48 dispensaries is proposed as part of the changes proposed.
Those applicants currently in the pipeline would have the old rules apply to them, assistant city attorney Thomas Slattery told the governing body, “no matter where they are in the process,” meaning they would presumably be exempt from the proposed cap.
The council previously set a 60-day moratorium, expiring September 1, on accepting new applicants, pending a review of the current rules which some have labeled confusing, given the various government layers involved in the review process, including the Cannabis Control Board, Planning and Zoning Boards and, ultimately, the council itself.
As of March 27, (the most current city data available), the CCB has approved 53 cannabis retailer applications for which the council has issued letters of support for 17.
According to Slattery, there are “around 19 or 20” applications still in process. “No one’s going to cut off from being heard,” he said.
Slattery said the new rules would give the CCB more latitude in reviewing applications. The intent, he said, is to remove the current “hard and fast rules” about distancing from other already-approved cannabis businesses. In some cases, he added, it may “serve a location better to have some closer to each other.”
But making such an allowance struck Ward A Councilmember Denise Ridley as “too subjective” a criterion.
And Ward C Councilmember Richard Boggiano, who opposes cannabis establishments in the belief they lead young adults from pot to more potent drugs, was adamant about keeping them away from schools.
As an example, he pointed to a cannabis retail application submitted by Neon Heights LLC for 535 Newark Ave., “right down from Dickinson High School with 2,000 kids. People in the neighborhood don’t want it.” He urged the council to table the resolution when it – and six other pending applications – come up for a vote Wednesday.
Another issue that riled several lawmakers was continuing escalation of police overtime that came up as the council prepared to act Wednesday on adoption of the 2023 municipal budget totaling about $700 million.
“I’m not against the police,” said Ward D representative Yousef Saleh, “and I want more police officers in my ward but overtime in the department has become a runway train.”
Ward E representative Frank Gilmore said: “Our phones are exploding” with complaints from constituents about the ballooning costs for paying cops assigned to “fixed patrol posts” in areas that police officials deem to be high crime areas.
Rivera asked city business administrator John Metro to “give us line item (cost breakdown) to show us what’s going on with every single manpower.”
City Finance Director Carmen Gandulla said she’s tried to work closely with the council to cut costs where possible, such as the 10% across-the-board cuts effected in each municipal department and with the state to provide cost projections over the next five years.
Saleh said the council “respects the work you put in” but added that something has to be done to reverse the spending pattern in the JCPD. “When I started on the job three and a half years ago, police O.T. was about $6.5 million and now we’re at $13.5 million. People don’t mind paying taxes if they get something back.”
And that’s not happening, at least in Journal Square, griped Boggiano. “We’ve had five shootings in my ward,” he said, “and nothing’s been done. … Get (the police) out of the cars (at fixed posts) and into the streets….”
Rivera urged city administrator to “listen to the police union side – look at it through their lenses. We need to hold the (city public safety) director accountable.”
Metro responded that department heads are mayoral appointees and “don’t have (fixed-length) contracts.”
Any discussions with the public safety boss (James Shea) about shaving money from his budget would have to be framed in the context of how departmental strategies weigh against fiscal pressures and public impact. “Do we remove fixed-posts? Do we scale back on training?”
On the parking front, the council is being asked to provide an endorsement of a proposal by a Great Neck, N.Y. developer to build 360 residential units, as part of the Homestead Place Extension Area in the Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan area, of which 20% — 72 units – would be reserved as affordable housing at 701 Newark Ave. The developer needs the endorsement (a “resolution of need”) to qualify for 4% federal low-income housing credits from the N.J. Housing Mortgage Finance Agency.
But there are no plans for off-site parking at the location which has been used for parking. Charles Harrington, an attorney working with the developer, said that city engineers have ruled out using part of the site for parking because it would be unsafe for vehicles going in and out onto the heavily-trafficked Newark Avenue.
“They don’t live in Jersey City,” Boggiano griped, adding that the city administration’s policies on limiting parking at new developments has been a disturbing trend and unfair to residents. “You’ve destroyed Journal Square,” he said. “This is getting out of hand.”
Metro said it “would be an injustice” to vote against a project that proposes to advance additional affordable housing.
Boggiano said he and Prinz-Arey are in the process of coming up with their own plan to create additional affordable housing in the city.
Meanwhile, the council was advised that several major public project improvements involving public safety and recreation have to be put on hold because prices for the work were deemed too high by the city’s experts.
Work on the Reservoir No. 3 Historic Structures project – building a pedestrian bridge to close a gap along Jefferson Street – is being delayed because the bids came in “several million dollars over budget,” said Bharka Patel, city director of infrastructure. Until the work is done, she said, the park can’t be opened to the public because the breach would expose visitors to “water and mobility challenges.”
And the only bid received from WHL Enterprises Inc., of Woodbridge, for air-conditioning to be installed at the new police training facility “came in $1 million over budget,” Patel said.
Patel added that the council should expect to see more of the same on other projects as the cost of materials continues to rise.
Lawmakers did get some good news on the recreation front, however, with the news that the New Jersey Joint Budget Oversight Committee has awarded Jersey City $2 million in funding for park upgrades. The city will allocate $1 million toward repairs needed at the Pershing Field ice rink, although it will still need an additional $4 million to complete the job, according to Lucinda McLaughlin, city recreation director. The other $1 million from the state will go for improvements to Thomas McGovern/Country Village Park in Greenville.