A potential bailout plan for the Jersey City public school system keyed to a special income tax on property owners got a chilly reception from city lawmakers at Monday night’s City Council caucus session.
The proposal, pitched in the form of a resolution by Ward F Councilman Frank Gilmore, calls for the New Jersey Treasury Department “to conduct a feasibility study to determine the administrative costs and revenue potential of a local income tax to solely fund the Jersey City Public School Board.”
It goes on to say that, “Any reports produced by the study, if conducted, should provide revenue projections taxing various income brackets at rates not to exceed 1% to help close the (school) funding gap” currently estimated at about $184 million.
This proposed fiscal remedy, the resolution says, is offered in the spirit of “finding solutions to the local school funding crisis and ensuring that every child receives fair and equitable resources.”
Based on the 2020 Census, Jersey City’s population was counted as 292,449, the average per-person income was $44,761 and the median household income was $76,444.
The city Board of Education has projected it will need close to $1 billion to fund the city’s public schools for the 2022-2023 school year.
State approval is required before such a tax could be implemented to plug the district’s shortfall, according to municipal administrators.
If the Treasury Department were to recommend going this route, Jersey City would become the first municipality in New Jersey to enact such a remedy, officials said.
But not all city lawmakers agree that a special tax is the best approach.
Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano reminded his colleagues that the state has come up with its own strategies to raise money for schools statewide with questionable results. As examples, he cited the sales tax passed by voters in 1966, the lottery introduced in 1970, and the state income tax adopted in 1976.
“Now,” Boggiano said, “we’re looking for another tax when we should be asking where’s the money (from the other taxes). Nothing’s come from that.” Meanwhile, he said, owners of one- to four-family homes “are being crucified.”
When Gilmore responded that “we’re just asking (the state) for a feasibility study,” Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh said that, while such a study may be the basis for “a good conversation,” city lawmakers should anticipate that “the public will not find (a proposed tax) palatable. This is just going to be a tax on hard-working people.”
Instead, Saleh said the city should “find cost-cutting measures internally.”
And Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey said the city needed to consider how the proposed tax might residents who work in New York State.
Again, Gilmore sought to placate his colleagues. “It’s just a study we’re asking for at no fee to the city. This should be a layup. It shouldn’t be one (recommendation) against another.”
But Boggiano persisted, saying that if and when the state Treasury does its study, the council should ask the state where the money that the Board of Ed has been spending on schools thus far been going.
Meanwhile, city Health & Human Services Director Stacey Flanagan asked the council to consider regulating the sale of flavored cannabis foods by smoke shops to under-age youths. “We’ve had cases recently of kids getting sick and hospitalized,” Flanagan said. “Kids are eating (the offending ingredients) like candy and getting sick.”
An ordinance designed to deal with the situation was expected to be drafted for a first reading at the council’s Wednesday night meeting.
In other health-related matters, the council heard Flanagan’s defense of a $1 million “emergency” contract to Bespoke, the company the city has chosen to spearhead the effort to contain Covid-19 among residents.
Flanagan said the money was used to purchase 13,000 Covid-19 home tests for residents and for staffing seven testing sites around the city during a five-week period from Dec. 1, 2021, to Jan. 31, 2022, when the city experienced an estimated 31,000 new cases of the virus.
It was an emergency situation, Flanagan said, because people had been complaining to the city that they weren’t getting their test results quickly enough, preventing them from going back to work or boarding a plane for a business or pleasure trip. Meanwhile, she said, labs had been charging the uninsured as much as $100 for the test, “which we felt was outrageous.”
Flanagan and city Business Administrator John Metro said they’d provide the lawmakers with a detailed breakdown by Wednesday’s meeting.
In another public health development, the council will be asked to ratify an agreement with Bayonne, NJ to have its health officer, Michelle O’Reilly, temporarily double as Jersey City’s health officer as well through June 30 at a cost of $34,666. She’ll replace Dr. Chatrughan Bastola, who stepped down at the end of February to take a comparable job for the City of Englewood. Chatrughan served in Jersey City over four years at a salary of $109,000.
Flanagan said O’Reilly will be dedicating 15 to 20 hours a week to Jersey City and will be available on weekends and for emergencies. Flanagan said the city made overtures to the Hudson Regional Health Commission for a temporary fill-in but the commission’s board concluded its staff had too many other commitments.
Flanagan said three members of her staff plan to take the state test for municipal health officer in May.