TALE OF TWO CITIES: Schism Over Hoboken Municipal Budget Increase Yields Conflicting Perceptions

TALE OF TWO CITIES: Schism Over Hoboken Municipal Budget Increase Yields Conflicting Perceptions

by Christopher Halleron

To borrow still more from Dickens, Hoboken seems to be entering an “epoch of incredulity,” as ongoing rancor over the municipal budget increase has left council members and the administration still sparring about the realities of the situation.

One reality which has been somewhat obfuscated in the dust-up is the fact that yes—Hoboken tax payers will in fact see an increase this year.

“After no municipal tax increase last year, this year unfortunately the City was faced with a number of fiscal challenges beyond its control, including over $1.2 million in pension costs, $1.38 million in increases in personnel due to previous contractual obligations, increases in recycling and solid waste hauling, and more,” said Hoboken Spokesperson Vijay Chaudhuri. “Mayor Bhalla and the City will continue to provide critical City services to residents while being responsible to taxpayers.”

As we reported earlier this Spring, the tax increase was initially set for 2.8%. At that time, Councilperson Tiffanie Fisher, Chair of the Finance and Revenue Subcommittee, announced her intention to trim that increase—setting the stage for a fight that will likely last through the upcoming municipal election in November.

“After weeks of working with the Administration and the Department of Community Affairs, last week the City Council voted 5-4 to adopt the Amended Municipal Budget,” said Fisher. “Although we will have an increase in the municipal tax rate for the first time in several years, we were able to keep the increase to 1.66%, down from the 2.81% originally introduced by the Mayor in late March.”

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.

While the amended budget does see a decrease from the Mayor’s proposed budget, Fisher illustrates that there are increases of $120,000 to certain areas—Fire Department, City Clerks, Senior Citizens, Hoboken Parking Utility and the Capital Improvement Fund.

That said, where the contention lies is in the Council’s cuts. Specifically, one cut seen as significant to the Mayor is the $85,000 reduction in the Mayor’s Office budget. In a statement made via the City’s official Nixle account on June 6, Bhalla says, “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.”

Said Fisher, in a statement on June 10, “We didn’t decide how he should handle the reductions to his office budget, and we did not target anyone specifically.  We only said it should return to the much lower budget under Mayor Zimmer at the end of her last term.”

Nevertheless, City Spokesperson Chaudhuri still maintained to hMAG on June 10 that, “It’s unfortunate that the Councilmembers specifically targeted the employment of Jason Freeman simply because he does an effective job for the Mayor.” As to whether or not Freeman’s employment by the City has or will actually be terminated, Chaudhuri said, “The Business Administrator is evaluating all options regarding Mr. Freeman’s employment.”

Per his June 6 statement, Mayor Bhalla also contends that, “the budget amendments have the very real possibility of cutting our Office of Constituent Services.”

While not directly under the Office of the Mayor but rather the Department of Administration, the Office of Constituent Services was a longstanding position in City Hall prior to the Zimmer Administration.

“When Mayor Bhalla came into office, he promised to bring back the Office of Constituent Services to improve efficiency of City Hall and municipal services for residents,” said Chaudhuri. “Since the office has been created, hundreds of constituents have been assisted by Caroline Caulfield and her staff. The employees of the Office of Constituent Services, located on the first floor of City Hall, do not work directly for the Mayor.”

Caulfield is a former staffer for U.S. Senator Cory Booker. The Office of Constituent Services is also staffed by Migdalia Pagan-Milano, who has been named on Mayor Bhalla’s slate to run in the First Ward against Councilman Michael DeFusco.

Per Fisher’s statement, “Notwithstanding what the Mayor has alleged, the Council Approved Budget provides for 100% full funding of this office at the levels originally provided for by the Mayor—the Council made no changes to this line item. It would be the Administration’s sole prerogative to eliminate this office if it were to happen.”

Concerns over additional expenditures by the Office of the Mayor and Department of Administration stem from Mayor Bhalla’s announcement just weeks after his inauguration that he would take on an “Of Counsel” role with Lavery, Selvaggi, Abromitis & Cohen, P.C.—a New Jersey-based law firm that practices in Zoning, Planning & Land Use and Real Estate.

When asked how the Mayor’s second job has impacted requirements of the administrative staff, City Spokesperson Chaudhuri told hMAG, “Mayor Bhalla is a full time Mayor and works tirelessly for the City.”

Meanwhile, with the City’s myriad of ongoing legal battles, another item that has drawn concern is the cut to the legal department.

“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, via Nixle.

Says Fisher, “the special counsel budget at $1,020,000 is more than fully funded to address all critical issues facing the City—including Monarch. And to date, less than 30% of this budget has been actually spent.”

Fisher also takes issue with the City’s dissemination of subjective material via the Nixle service.

On February 11, the City of Hoboken received a letter from Eventbridge/Nixle stating that, “per the Terms of Service (http://www.nixle.com/agency-terms-service) Authorized Users must not “(b) use any of the Services for political, commercial or advertising purposes.”

To that, Chaudhuri told hMAG, “The City disseminates information via Nixle pertaining to city updates, and will continue to keep the public updated on important city matters.”

Also weighing in on procedural matters, Councilperson Emily Jabbour wrote to hMAG saying:

Since I joined the council in early 2018, I have had a front-row seat as members of the City Council have repeatedly searched for ways and means with which to achieve political revenge and to hinder Mayor Bhalla from carrying out his promises to the people of Hoboken since being elected. After several brazen, but unsuccessful, attempts in the past year to eliminate specific individuals from within the administration, Councilmembers Fisher and Giattino have now rammed-through an amended budget with little public comment or feedback from the City’s Business Administrator in order to achieve their political objectives.

I attended every budget hearing this year and at no point did Budget Chair Fisher indicate that she wished to make additional cuts beyond the Mayor’s request to keep the budget lean, nor did she engage the Directors to have a discussion in order to take into account their opinions and expertise. I find everything about how this process unfolded to be utterly disrespectful to the professionals at City Hall who keep this City working.

Rather than take the time to provide advance notice or transparency to the public regarding their discussions with the DCA, the proposed amendments or the effect they knew the budget cuts would have on the city, Councilmembers Giattino and Fisher silenced me, Director Marks, and other Councilmembers.

Nevertheless, the budget debate—which has been contentious since its onset in March—has seen it’s share of drama throughout. Most notably was the incident in early May, where Councilperson Fisher and Council President Giattino were removed from City Hall while conducting official business. Days later, Mayor Bhalla announced his slate of candidates to run against his established political opponents on the Council.

The election will be Tuesday, November 5.

***UPDATE: Councilperson Tiffanie Fisher responds to Councilperson Emily Jabbour’s comments:

“I am somewhat surprised by Councilwoman Jabbour’s comments.  She must have missed my excitement during the budget hearings when we found over $200,000 of available cuts in our carting contract or the discussions about using some of the $196,000 in the snow plow trust account to help offset costs.  And I wonder if she somehow forgot that she put up her own competing amendment without contacting the rest of the council or that she reached out to the DCA on her own (without telling the rest of us).   With an almost 3% tax increase in a rising cost environment, this was a difficult budget year but am proud of the work we did for taxpayers.”

Authored by: hMAG