UPDATED—9:27 a.m., June 7.
Voting 5-4 in favor of the amended municipal budget, the Hoboken City Council will move forward with a $117.6 million plan that will amount to a 1.7% tax increase for property owners. For those of you doing the math, that’s a $7.61 increase per $100,000 of assessed value.
The political showdown has been months in the making, as Councilmembers Tiffanie Fisher, Jen Giattino, Peter Cunningham, Ruben Ramos, and Mike DeFusco voted in favor of the budget while Jim Doyle, Vanessa Falco, Emily Jabbour and Mike Russo voted nay.
“We’re incredibly proud of this municipal budget containing a reduction in the original proposed tax increase because it is fiscally responsible, it supports essential city services and public safety and it was arrived through a thoughtful process with input from the City Council, the administration and the community,” said Council President Jen Giattino and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, in a joint statement.
Fisher and Giattino’s new amendments reduce the City’s legal department by nearly $100,000, while also trimming the Mayor’s budget and the Police Department budget.
“We are thankful to the State Department of Community Affairs for their assistance in finalizing the budget and ensuring that it met all legal and fiduciary standards. We are pleased that this compromise provides full funding for legal services to continue addressing crucial issues including our Tenant Advocate and the Monarch project appeal that was recently announced. Hoboken taxpayers deserve nothing less than this type of effective local governance that ensures taxpayer resources are spent wisely.”
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Bhalla expressed his concerns with the amendments—specifically citing increased costs in pensions, waste hauling and contractual obligations with unions as budgetary constraints .
“The cuts to the legal department could substantially jeopardize our ability to continue fighting the Monarch waterfront development, pursue additional affordable housing initiatives, and other critical services offered by the City that require legal representation,” said Bhalla.
“Second, their amendments target my office and eliminates a member of my staff, Jason Freeman, who goes above and beyond to respond during emergencies, and other important duties. Already, the Office of the Mayor is one of the most understaffed in the region, as documented by our legal department. It’s unfortunate that the amendment targets his employment, as one of the hardest working employees in City Hall.”
Bhalla also points out, “the amendments cut the Hoboken Police Department by approximately $100,000, with cuts including equipment and service agreements requested by Police Chief Ken Ferrante. Finally, the budget amendments have the very real possibility of cutting our Office of Constituent Services, and will likely force layoffs and elimination of personnel.”
Nevertheless, the council moved forward with the discretionary spending changes, which Bhalla also characterized as “fiscally irresponsible and politically vindictive.”
Councilman Mike DeFusco, “Mayor Bhalla’s distorted view of reality when it comes to the municipal budget is almost as troubling as his continual misuse of taxpayer resources for his own petty politics. The DCA absolutely did not reject the city budget as the Mayor said in his political attack delivered on a city platform, and the only potential job cuts in this budget will come from a bloated Mayor’s office that has increased its spending by 40% over the prior administration and engaged in highly questionable political hit jobs.”
In early May, the Administration removed Giattino and Fisher from City Hall as they were reportedly there seeking assistance for a constituent, resulting in a back-and-forth between parties involved.
“It’s unfortunate Mayor Bhalla feels the need to keep personally attacking two dedicated community leaders who have done so much for our city in Councilwomen Giattino and Fisher,” said DeFusco, “and I hope that all residents can see through his bizarre rhetoric and understand that the City Council is doing its job to protect taxpayers while the Mayor only cares about political attacks.”
All of this sets the stage for what will surely be a dynamic 2019 Hoboken Municipal Campaign, with Bhalla having recently named a slate of challengers for the November City Council elections.
***UPDATE: Councilmembers Doyle and Jabbour have issued a joint statement (5:46 p.m.):
“It’s disappointing, although sadly not surprising, that Councilwomen Fisher, Giattino, along with Councilmen Cunningham, DeFusco, and Ramos, have chosen to support underfunding important portions of the City’s budget in their attempt to force the administration to make untenable choices for cuts, such as the funding of the fight against the Monarch towers on our waterfront. Their relentless political vendetta against Mayor Bhalla is embarrassing and a detriment to the sound running of our City. While they blandly describe it as “doing more with less”, these five members of the Council have shamelessly targeted certain employees, such as Jason Freeman of the Mayor’s office, by cutting salaries from certain offices to such a degree that would necessitate dismissal from employment. They cower behind statements like, “we did not and cannot cut specific employee’s jobs”, but the reality is that while the Council, by law, cannot cut a specific individual’s pay, it can attempt to surgically cut funds to achieve that end. It is sad when, instead of allowing debate at the Council meeting to discuss the identified underfunding of the budget, including the effective elimination of Mr. Freeman’s salary, Council President Giattino shut down any discussion or dissent and instead rushed to call for a vote. That lack of respect for the deliberative process, for fellow council members, for the Mayor’s office, and for the budgeting process as a whole reflects poorly on the Council.”
***UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Councilperson Fisher responds with another statement (6:17 p.m.):
“It’s a made up crisis filled with a lot of false narratives. Legal costs are fully funded and if there are layoffs, it will not be at the hand or because of the City Council.
The Council didn’t decide how the Mayor should handle the reductions to his office budget, we only said it should return to the much lower budget under Mayor Zimmer at the end of her last term.”