The Hoboken City Council argued along its usual pro- and anti-Mayor Dawn Zimmer lines on Wednesday night, this time over an ordinance that granted a salary increase to the city’s Environmental Service Director, a position that’s currently vacant, as well as the Finance Director. The city also created the new position of Deputy Municipal Administrator.
The salary ordinance passed by a vote of 5-4.
The increase, one of many approved by the council in the past month, allows Zimmer the flexibility to pay the environmental director, should she decide to hire one, anywhere from $75,000 to $137,500. It sets the same range for the other two jobs.
At a previous meeting, the city increased the salary ranges for a slew of top administration officials, including two who are earning large pensions from jobs in other cities.
The Environmental Services Director position has not been filled for some time. Currently, the duties associated with that office fall to Leo Pellegrini, the city’s director of health and human services. The Environmental Services department does have a supervisor, James Davis, who reports to Pellegrini.
“This administration talks about fiscal prudency all the time, but this is not good government spending.” – 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti
Pellegrini told Russo that he felt the new position would allow him to focus on more important long-term projects, and that his workload thus far has bogged him down in day-to-day matters that could more aptly be handled by Carey.
Russo said he approved of Pellegrini’s reasoning, but still did not support a salary increase for environmental services director.
“If we need to make these changes [in salary and structure], then I’m all for that,” he said. “But we need to do that in the right way.”
Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, an ally of Zimmer, countered Russo. He argued that to leave the position of environmental services director allows the administration some necessary flexibility in its hiring practices.
“The question is whether you’re going to trust the administration not to abuse that flexibility,” he told Russo.
Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, who ran against Zimmer in last November’s mayoral election, said to keep the position on the books was not in the city’s best financial interest.
“This administration talks about fiscal prudency all the time, but this is not good government spending,” he said. “It’s not fair to the taxpayers, and if [the council] votes on this, it is giving up its oversight of government spending.”
Russo speculated that the administration planned to hire someone to fill the position, or they wouldn’t have asked for the salary increase.
“Now that this is going to be approved, they could turn around tomorrow and hire someone and we might not find out about it either, until we get it through the rumor mill or in a memo, or it’s most likely not going to be in a memo,” he said.
On Thursday, city spokesman Juan Melli said that the city has no plans to hire a new environmental services director.
Rent raised on Family Planning
The council also voted to raise the rent charged to Hoboken Family Planning, a nonprofit group that provides sexual health services and contraceptives to low-income residents, for use of a unit in the city’s multiservice center at 124 Grand St. The rent was increased for the first time in 15 years, from $875 a month to $1,500 per month, a rate which Pellegrini said that the group offered to pay.
Though the ordinance that approved the new rate passed unanimously, some council members questioned the merits of raising the rent on a nonprofit organization that aims to assist the city’s poorest citizens. Second Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason and Occhipinti – who represent the affluent 2nd Ward and the city’s low-income 4th Ward, respectively – both took issue with the rent increase.
Pellegrini explained that though the original lease was signed 15 years ago, there was not a hard copy on file in City Hall, and that to sign a new lease was a priority of his when he was hired. He said that the original lease should have demanded a rent increase every three years, eventually bringing it to around $1,500 per month, yet increases were never enforced. Under the new lease, the rent will remain at $1,500 per month until 2016, when it will be raised to $2,250 per month.
Resident collapses during public portion
Onlookers at Wednesday’s meeting were stunned by the sudden collapse of a member of the public who was speaking during the meeting’s public portion. James Waiters, the adult son of Hoboken politico and local activist Patricia Waiters, was discussing concerns over towing during last week’s snowstorm when he suddenly went silent and crumbled over the banister that separates the public from the council.
The Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Squad responded within minutes, and Waiters was conscious, though dizzy, when he walked out of the council chambers on his own two feet.
The meeting was suspended for a 15-minute recess, and by the time it reconvened, the room, previously filled to capacity, was nearly empty.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that a city spokesman had not responded to a request for comment. In fact, the spokesman did respond by press time. This story has been updated to include that response.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org