The City Council passed a $99.8 million municipal budget Wednesday night by a vote of 7-2 after hearing comments from the public. Councilwomen Beth Mason and Theresa Castellano voted against the spending document.
Taxpayers will see minimal relief this year – less than a 1 percent reduction in the city tax rate – and the total tax levy to be raised from residents is relatively flat at $60.1 million, according to the city. A Hoboken home assessed at $160,000 will owe $3,200 in taxes, a slight reduction of $96 from last year, according to city spokesman Dan Bryan.
City residents may see taxes rise anyway if there are school and county tax hikes this spring, especially since Gov. Chris Christie announced recently that he is slashing school aid this year and next year.
Last year, the budget approved by the council was $123.8 million, but was bloated with $24 million in extra non-recurring costs dating back to a budget crisis in 2008, officials said.
“We fell short again. Sorry.” – Councilman Nino Giacchi
No one on the council seemed proud of the slight cut in taxes.
“This budget, after all the work we put into it, is disappointing,” Councilman Nino Giacchi said. “I thank everyone for their effort, but we fell short again. Sorry.”
Lenz said in a later interview that while the council couldn’t deliver tax relief, they did take a major step toward regaining control of the local government from the state. The state-appointed Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi’s power is dwindling anyway because of a new administration in Trenton.
“[Wednesday night] was the biggest council moment since we called out [former mayor] David Roberts’ false budget and lost home rule two years ago,” Lenz said.
The city budget actually covers spending from last July through the coming June 30. City budgets are often approved well past their deadline, after much of the money has been spent. The council said that they will begin work on next year’s budget starting this week, but such promises have been made by council members before.
This budget was introduced back in December. Wednesday was the final vote.
Councilman David Mello has been pushing for the council to ask directors what a 10 percent cut in their departmental budgets would look like, and looking forward to next year he has the support of several council members, including Mason.
Beth Mason vs. the budget
Several residents allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her council majority attended the meeting to support the budget, while critics did not let Zimmer forget her campaign promise of a 25 percent budget reduction, which she made last year.
“I wish the mayor was here so I could hold her feet to the fire,” Castellano said. “You knew you couldn’t deliver that.”
Keith Furman, a Zimmer ally, confronted Mason regarding her press release last week calling for the council to vote down the budget. “I’d be very interested to hear what budget you would vote for,” he said.
Mason offered no budget amendments. She said in a follow-up interview that she never voted to accept the budget when it was introduced at the end of last year, and she was not going to try to amend it even though it was in her power to do so.
“It’s not mine,” she said. “I didn’t accept it then; I’m not accepting it now.”
She said she had proposed several initiatives throughout the year that could have lowered the budget, like a proposal to root out illegal apartments and collect taxes from the units, but she didn’t get support from the council.
At Wednesday’s meeting, she called the budget process a “charade,” but Council President Peter Cunningham returned fire. “You haven’t been involved in the process at all,” he charged.
Councilman Michael Lenz pointed to what he said were inaccuracies in Mason’s press release, saying it used figures from the 2010 introduced budget rather than the 2009 approved budget, and thus misrepresented a tax levy spike. However, those numbers were in a budget published in a town legal ad in the local daily newspaper two weeks ago.
Lane Bajardi, one of Mason’s most vocal supporters, criticized Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi for promising a tax decrease during the third and final mayoral election last year. He also accused Tripodi and Zimmer of hiding the budget during Zimmer’s campaign.
Scott Delea asked the council to vote against the budget, saying, “It seems like you’re satisfied with a transparent government rather than an [efficient] government.”
Tripodi’s last month?
The city was told last year that four things need to be done before financial oversight by the state will be lifted: pass a budget; complete the annual audit; form a corrective action plan for the audit, and hire a business administrator to replace Tripodi.
Now that the council has passed a budget and advertised for a business administrator, they will wait for the city audit, which is expected in the coming weeks. A corrective action plan will then be developed.
Tripodi’s power in Hoboken has been severely diminished by the new state regime. As of last week, her former boss, state Division of Local Government Services (DLGS) Director Susan Jacobucci, was no longer employed by the state, according to the DLGS website. Former deputy Mark Pfeiffer has been named as acting director, and the DLGS has already taken the city’s labor negotiations out of Tripodi’s hands.
Many of the sitting council members hoping to regain control of the government are the same councilpersons who voted to bring Tripodi here.
Although circumstances have changed since then, Perry Belfiore noted at the meeting, “Mrs. Tripodi is a Frankenstein made by the people on this council.”
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.