At last night’s City Council meeting, lawmakers moved ahead on a plan to finance a massive $57 million budget deficit that administration officials blame on the Covid-19 pandemic with a form of debt called “special emergency notes.”
Since the start of the pandemic, administration officials say Jersey City has racked up nearly $93 million in unanticipated spending and, therefore, never budgeted sufficient revenues to deal with the crisis.
Already the city has been impacted by its fiscal pressures: Moody’s Investor Service last month downgraded the city’s credit rating to A1, meaning it’s exposed to “some but low credit risk.”
At Monday’s City Council caucus, City Finance Director Carmen Gandulla said that about $35 million of that shortfall was funded last year. To deal with the outstanding balance, Gandulla said she’s asking the council to set in motion legislation to finance the balance.
To that end, the council voted to set a “special deferred charge” of $57.4 million and to provide for successive annual emergency appropriations of “not less than $11,481,562” to be spread over the budgets of the next five years.
Gandulla said those projections build in anticipated annual municipal budget increases of 2%.
To implement these measures, the council Wednesday night introduced an ordinance “authorizing an emergency appropriation” for “expenses incurred as a result of COVID-19,” with Ward E representative James Solomon dissenting. The ordinance will get a public hearing in two weeks.
As city taxpayers struggle to keep up, they were ultimately spared what critics La Verne Webb Washington, Jeanne Daly, Gary Murphy, Erica Walker, Bernard Gardner and Phil Carrington an unfair slight to the city’s youngest. “Having free, unfettered access to pools in the heat of summer is one of (the city’s) most important assets,” Murphy reasoned.
But Lucinda McLaughlin, city director of Recreation and Youth Development, defended the user fees proposed for Pershing Field, the city’s only indoor pool, and at Pavonia Pool and Lafayette Aquatic Center as a “fiscally responsible action,” particularly when it comes to protecting summer pools.
Supporting an aquatics environment, particularly in an urban setting, “is exceptionally important,” she added.
However, McLaughlin said, “Our budget no longer supports our facilities. It costs a lot to staff our pool sand supply them with chemicals (and) under my watch, I will not allow our three remaining pools to disappear.” The city shuttered its Harmon Street pool about two decades ago.
But for Ward E member Frank Gilmore, many of whose constituents frequent the Lafayette pool, wondered: “What do you tell a child, many with siblings, whose parents are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to survive” that they now have to find extra money for their kids to be able to swim?
However, after learning that a state grant could be tapped to pay for a portion of pool staff salaries, at-large member Yousef Saleh successfully proposed eliminating user fees for kids (under age 17) at all three pools. There will, however, be higher fees charged adults and seniors but, on the recommendation of Ward B member Mira Prinz-Arey, these fees won’t take effect until May 2024. Non-residents will pay twice as much.
Only Ward E representative James Solomon opposed the measure providing for free swims for kids and eventual higher fees for adults and seniors. In a prepared statement, he said: “Jersey City deserves free public spaces. The plan to charge pool fees for adults and seniors next summer goes against that core value…to address a budget shortfall….. We cannot use Jersey City’s working families as a crutch to balance our budget. The city government is responsible for that task, not families who want a place to stay cool this summer. I will work with my colleagues to find different sources of revenue and remove this fee before a single resident is charged for it.”
On another kids summer front, the council—through the intervention of Ward A representative Denise Ridley and a private donor—had good tidings for income-challenged parents planning to send their children to the city Rec summer camp.
Ridley has proposed that the city accept a cash gift offered by a firm she identified as Jersey City Initiatives LLC that, she said, would “provide funding for low-to-moderate-income families” to subsidize the cost the camp which, until this year, was free for locals.
Ridley said the firm is offering to give $25,000 a year for the next 20 years.
“Many residents reached out concerning the new summer camp fees and their displeasure with the new charge,” the lawmaker said. “This gift will help ease that burden.”
Ridley added: “It is good to see a company not only benefitting from the expansion of Jersey City but being an active partner in making the city a better place for its residents.”
Jersey City Initiatives recently received approvals for the construction and installation of a billboard in the vicinity of 9 Rt. 440 and offered the donation with the idea of the city using the money for a public propose in the neighborhood most impacted by the sign, according to a resolution proposing the city’s acceptance of the donation.
Low-to-moderate-income families are being charged $150 for a child to attend a two-week-long camp session at the city’s Caven Point Athletic Complex in Ward A and Pershing Field Park in Ward C while non-income-challenged families will be asked to pay $300 per session per child.
Ridley said the gift “would allow over 150 kids meeting the low-to-moderate-income requirements to attend the camp for free.” Among the camp activities offered are swimming, arts and crafts and food. Those who’ve already paid to register their kids for camp will be provided subsidies to recapture their costs, Ridley said. More information on summer camp is available at www.jcrec.recdesk.com.
Residents will be seeing improvements to municipal play areas now that the council has awarded contracts for new playground safety surfaces at Hamilton and Stevens parks, soccer goals for various parks, replacement of basketball courts at Lena Edwards and Bayside parks and repaved courts at various parks.
The council is also being asked to contract with Reliable Tree Services, Inc., of Cliffside Park, for Hamilton Park tree maintenance and removal.
In other developments, the council agreed to accept a $4 million, 3-year grant from the state Department of Community Affairs “to support ferry transportation services at the Port Liberte Ferry Terminal.” The city has yet to designate a ferry operator for that service.
The council also accepted a state Department of Transportation $100,000 grant to conduct a feasibility study that would include an analysis of soil and structural conditions for the proposed Bergen Arches greenway/rail project.
On the cannabis front, the council agreed to provide letters of support for three new retail shops: The Medicine Women LLC, at 660-684 Tonnele Ave.; The Other Side Dispensary LLC, at 36 Congress St.; and RIPT Dispensary, at 220 Broadway.