Jersey City Council Chambers

At Tuesday’s Jersey City Municipal Council caucus meeting, council members vented frustration about public parking in the Heights, poor service offered by the Via transit shuttle, and incorrect billings of residents by the Municipal Utilities Authority.

But they were silent on what, if anything, they’d do about a proposed pay raise for themselves or whether they’d ratify changes to a contentious redevelopment plan to convert an industrial site to luxury apartments next to Berry Lane Park.  Both items are listed for consideration at the Feb. 24 council meeting.

At the caucus, Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh griped that many of his constituents have continued to struggle finding overnight parking along the Central Avenue corridor ever since the city Parking Authority, an arm of the city Public Safety Department, converted a public metered lot to reserved parking for Authority employees and police vehicles.

Saleh said the Authority closed off the lot to the public and removed meters from 26 public parking spaces. “It boggles my mind how [the Parking Authority] could willy-nilly change the lot without getting our approval,” he said.

Meanwhile, he added, the lot has become a safety hazard for area residents, with homeless individuals setting up “camps” there. A fight between two homeless men ended with a killing on the Cambridge Avenue side of the lot in July 2021.

He said residents also have to compete with seven to 10 U.S. postal trucks taking up curbside spots around the perimeter area of the Parking Authority on Central Avenue. At one time, he said, the trucks parked in an adjacent lot of a fast-food eatery; now they are back on the street.

John Metro, acting city business administrator, said he’d research the matter.

On another transit-related front, several members of the governing body questioned the quality of service being delivered by Via Jersey City, the on-demand intra-city shuttle van that has been offered to local residents, workers and visitors in partnership with the city since late September 2019.

Ward F Councilman Frank Gilmore said he’s gotten reports of extended wait times for pickups and of Via vans sitting idle while parked in lots in the city’s isolated Caven Point section—presumably as a staging area.

Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley said Greenville residents have complained to her that pickups they thought had been arranged had been erroneously canceled by the company, causing confusion and requiring them to wait even longer to receive service.

Barkha Patel, the city’s senior transportation planner, responded that the average wait time “has been hovering at around 20 minutes” rather than the 15 minutes Via had projected when it designed the program for Jersey City.

She said the company had lost drivers due to the pandemic but that it intends to hire more to make up the deficit, particularly since rider demand has escalated.

“We’re seeing 12,000 to 13,000 riders per week” on average, Patel said. She also noted, “There shouldn’t be more than a few vans” parked in Caven Point during peak hours.

Council members peppered John Folk, fiscal officer for the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority, with questions about whether homeowners could expect refunds for added sewerage service fees on their water bills.

Folk said that, as of 2021, property owners have been billed for this service on the basis of a rate formula keyed to household water usage. Problems developed, he said, because the MUA didn’t have a breakdown of the city’s housing stock in terms of number of residential units per household, which, he said contributed to faulty billings.

A single-family homeowner can expect to pay an annual fee of $150—or $12.50 per month—for solid waste service, and with each additional household unit, the fee is adjusted upward, Folk said. He indicated homeowners can expect the agency to adjust their bills going forward according to whether they had overpaid or underpaid.

Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey recommended that the MUA post on its website a detailed explanation of the billing issue and/or include that explanation with the next batch of water bills it mails to property owners.

The city’s handling of Covid-19 testing drew criticism from Ward E Councilman James Solomon, who questioned a $2 million bill submitted by Bespoke Health LLC, the New York-based firm hired to help direct the city’s response to the pandemic.

The council is being asked to authorize an “emergency contract award” to Bespoke for rapid Covid-19 testing of residents during a 13-week period. A city Health and Human Services Department representative explained that “massive delays in testing and long lines [at local testing sites]” had prompted the city to seek to hire Bespoke for this “emergency response.”

Solomon said that, despite numerous requests, the council has yet to receive a breakdown of costs for all of Bespoke’s billings.

“What is going on? Why don’t we put this [service] out to bid?” he asked.

Solomon was referring also to a $15 million contract the city awarded Bespoke last month to administer Covid-19 vaccinations.

Metro told the council his office has received more detailed billing information from Bespoke but that it’s close to 100 pages. “We’re just going through it for possible redactions” before sharing the contents with the council, Metro said.

In other matters, the council heard Public Safety Director James Shea give a ringing endorsement of two security-related expenditures, one for $185,000 for a 5-day tactical, incident-response exercise and de-escalation program run by Tomahawk Defense LLC, of Nashville, Tenn.; and another for $31,212 to Zistos Corp., of Holbrook, N.Y., for cameras equipped with telescoping rods that can view under doors or around corners.

Shea said the Tomahawk training program, which the city has used for the past eight years, has proved its worth many times over as evidenced, for example, last weekend when police and emergency personnel “handled by textbook” an emotionally disturbed person who tried to harm himself and also burn down a building.

“We’re very happy with the [training] results and how it’s improved our officers’ performance,” he said.

According to Shea, the specialized cameras also helped officers respond well to a situation six months ago in which a man had barricaded himself in a building trying to harm others.

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...