Full of the expected platitudes of former and future success, the first State of the State Address of Mayor Steven Fulop’s second term could not skirt some of the most significant and troubling issues of his first term: the impact of the recently-completed revaluation of property and a police corruption scandal.
While both were presented atop a rosy bed of the successes his administration accomplished since he took office in July 2013, the issues remain part of an undercurrent of discontent.
Property owners have seen their estimated taxes jump, and, behind the scenes, cops are unhappy with the city’s doing away with a lucrative off-duty jobs program.
“It is not lost on me that the city is also undergoing a tax revaluation which has proven to be extremely difficult for many residents,” Fulop said. “It is no secret that I opposed this reval every step of the way during the past four years, not because I didn’t think that balancing taxes was important, but rather, I opposed it because I knew it was going to be tremendously disruptive to long term residents and that we could be caught in a place that could force some residents out of their homes.”
New Jersey law, he said, approaches revaluations in a way that provides very little flexibility to homeowners or municipalities like Jersey City.
“Without frequent revaluations, the problem is compounded every year. This is made worse when one mayor doesn’t do a revaluation in a timely manner,” Fulop said. “In our case here in Jersey City, 25 years went by before the topic was even discussed. When that happens, it creates a situation where there is no good choice between doing a reval and not doing a reval.”
He said after 25 years, the city was left with only two “unfortunate choices,” to conduct the reval so that taxes are balanced but long-term residents are forced out of their homes, or not to conduct the reval so that taxes remain imbalanced, but long-term residents can stay in their homes.
“With that said, the choice to undertake a reval was taken away from Jersey City last year when Governor Christie forced us to move forward,” Fulop said.
In complying with the order, the city was committed to doing the reval in the fairest way possible.
“We have made information and data on this process more transparent than any other municipality in New Jersey ever has,” he said. “We are also aware that revaluations could potentially impact property values, and this concern is heightened by the new Trump tax plan that limits state and local tax deductions.”
Fulop said that he will submit a proposal to the City Council to conduct a second revaluation next year in order to account for the impacts to the market that may occur this year.
“I have discussed this with the reval company, and we will be able to do this at a fraction of the cost of the current reval since home inspectors have already been through the initial reval process,” he said. “We will use any changes in the real estate market to balance out taxes next year to a fair level for the entire city based on sales that occur after this year’s drastic changes in taxes. We are doing our best to make this difficult time as manageable as possible for residents because we don’t want any resident to have to struggle.”
Police scandal addressed
Dressed up in slightly less odious terms, the mayor also commented on the police off-duty work scandal that has resulted in criminal charges against a former police chief and 11 police officers. The investigation is ongoing, and could result in charges being filed against additional officers in the future. Over the protest of some police, as well as Councilman Richard Boggiano, Fulop and Public Safety Director James Shea ordered the decades-old program shut down.
“Being mayor also includes making decisions that may be unpopular but are ultimately the best decisions for the city as a whole,” Fulop said. “Recently, I announced that we will be ending the off-duty police program later this year.”
He said every mayor since the 1990s has known that there are serious issues with this program, including the potential for corruption.
“While it was not the easiest decision to end this program, I am confident that it is the right decision,” Fulop said. “For those of you that are skeptical, I’d like you to ask yourself one simple question on the necessity of this program: why is it that our neighbors in New York City can build 100 story buildings in a more densely populated area and not require one police officer be hired as long as they have a safety plan in place, but here in Jersey City we require countless officers be hired for smaller projects?”
He said the cost of these officers on projects such as those done by local utilities companies is passed onto consumers with increased rates.
“The hiring of off-duty officers for these types of jobs is ultimately a backdoor tax on you as a resident,” he said, noting that the city will institute a new plan. “We are going to require safety plans for construction sites prior to site plan approval. We will also set up a program to hire trained community members and use existing crossing guards to monitor these sites instead of off-duty police officers.”
This will root out corruption while giving Jersey City residents an opportunity to work.
“Furthermore, we will be pursuing rate reduction conversations with the utilities companies now that the costly requirement for officers is no longer there, and we expect that you the taxpayers to see rate savings as a result,” he said.
“As mayor, the most meaningful part of my job is having the opportunity to connect with residents on issues large and small.” – Steven Fulop
Focusing on the future
“The state of our city is strong, and getting stronger,” Fulop said. “Every day, regardless of the neighborhood in which you live, you are impacted by the progress we have made during the past four years.”
He said the police department had grown to its largest number in two decades, new businesses have opened, and Jersey City is experiencing a “renaissance away from the waterfront.” There are new parks and recreation programs.
“Our success will not rest on what we have accomplished, but rather, our accomplishments will serve as a blueprint for the future of Jersey City,” he said. “Our goals have not changed. We are continuing to work towards a safer city, one that applauds diversity, encourages innovation, and invites the community to be part of the progress. “
He said in 2017, Jersey City saw decreases in all major crime categories including homicides, assaults, and robberies, and police have removed 23 percent more illegal guns from the street than in 2016.
“During the past five years, we have been hyper-focused on growing our police department with an emphasis on enhancing the diversity of our officers,” he said, noting that the city appointed new police and fire chiefs last year and have developed a number of crime fighting initiatives. This includes a new traffic safety program.
“Earlier this year, I signed an Executive Order adopting the Vision Zero initiative for Jersey City, setting a goal to eliminate traffic fatalities on our roadways by 2026,” he said.
The new year will continue the city’s commitment to creating more parks and renovations of existing parks such as the Leonard Gordon Park in The Heights.
“The increase in the number of parks that are being renovated is directly tied to the open space tax initiative that our administration championed last year,” Fulop said. “With improvements to our parks comes improvements to our Recreation Department as well… Later this year, we plan to partner with the Board of Education to focus on an initiative that is specifically for special needs individuals who are over 18.”
He said the city has received a state grant of $2 million that will provide better bicycle lanes throughout the city, as part of a new Bike Master Plan.
“In just a few weeks, we will cut the ribbon on the new City Hall Annex in Bergen-Lafayette,” he said. “When we move in we will be saving over a million dollars in of rent in year one. It will also be a major change to the Ward F landscape by creating more activity and opportunity…Once we complete the ribbon cutting in March, we will present phase two of this project to the City Council, which includes a second building next door to the current annex that will be used by both the community and city government, as well as a large parking deck to be used by the neighborhood. Our goal is to move a number of important city departments into the adjacent building, including a revamped affordable housing office.”
He said the city is moving ahead with plans throughout the city such as a new parking deck and police station in the Heights, a new police station downtown and a new Jersey City Museum and artist center in Journal Square.
“Later this month, the Liberty Science Center will be putting forward their final site plan with the city to move on a 14-acre expansion of the Liberty Science Center,” Fulop said
Running the city is a community effort, he said.
“As mayor, the most meaningful part of my job is having the opportunity to connect with residents on issues large and small,” he said. “I have continued to prioritize communication and honesty between government and residents, and I hope you feel both appreciated and respected.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.