When 6th Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino took the oath of office on Friday morning just before a special City Council meeting, Mayor Dawn Zimmer regained her council majority that had been lost since a special November election.
Zimmer’s allies, including Giattino, now represent a 5-4 majority on the council.
In addition to Giattino, incumbent council members Theresa Castellano, Beth Mason, Michael Russo, Tim Occhipinti, and Peter Cunningham were also sworn in during a ceremony attended by New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagano.
“What happens if a pier collapses?” – Scott Siegel, resident
The council presidency of 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason came to an end as Councilman Ravinder Bhalla was sworn in as the new council president. Councilman Peter Cunningham was sworn-in as the vice president.
No big tax cut after all
Last week’s biggest impact on taxpayers will likely come from decisions regarding the city budget. A budget hearing was held this past Wednesday night before the subsequent Friday council meeting.
Budget amendments submitted by Mason at previous meetings would have lowered the tax levy this year for city residents. Mason wanted to give back more of a city surplus than the Zimmer administration preferred.
Hoboken’s government is required by the state to hold money in a reserve that is untouchable by the city because of the financial missteps of the past. However, the city has been operating with an additional cash surplus, and Zimmer and her allies have suggested that the city keep the money. They want to improve the city’s bond rating, and the money might also help because contract negotiations with the Fire Department are coming up.
Zimmer had said that if the surplus was reduced too much, she could not guarantee against layoffs or large tax increases in the future.
City likely to keep cash surplus
Zimmer had introduced a $101.7 million budget (not including the Hoboken Parking Utility, which has a separate budget) on March 2, shifting the responsibility to the council to make amendments and pass the budget. The budget Zimmer introduced called for the city to keep a $5.1 million cash surplus. After the council accepts the budget, they make amendments and recommendations which must then be reviewed by the state Department of Community Affairs. Finally, after the DCA sends it back with their approval, the council can vote on the city’s budget, ending the process.
Mason and her allies tried to pass the amendments that would give the surplus back to the taxpayers at the June 15 meeting. But the City Clerk’s office informed Mason that the DCA said a proper hearing was not noticed, and they could not approve the budget. The amendments also had other deficiencies.
So Mason scheduled a budget hearing for this past Wednesday, June 29, hoping that the budget would be ready to be approved.
Now, with Giattino sworn in, Zimmer’s allies will have the final say on the city’s budget.
Even though the budget couldn’t be voted on this past week, it didn’t stop the council members from taking a symbolic vote on Wednesday.
“During her campaign for mayor [Zimmer] repeatedly promised to cut taxes 25 percent in her first year in office,” Mason said at the hearing. “Now when presented with the opportunity to do just that, the mayor is refusing to stand up for good government and the rights of everyday people.”
It is unknown if the amendments would have cut taxes by the full 25 percent, and Zimmer has been in office for more than one year.
Mason also pointed out that Zimmer recently vetoed a council ordinance that would have lowered Zimmer’s salary again, as well as those of her directors.
Mason and her ally Councilman Michael Russo believe they were given “the runaround” by the administration, who Russo said should have reviewed the budget amendments to make sure they were properly filled out so the state DCA could return the budget before the Wednesday hearing.
Councilman Ravinder Bhalla, an ally of Zimmer, pushed the blame back to the council majority, who are the ones who drew up the amendments.
Councilman David Mello said the anti-Zimmer majority was “slapping [the city directors] in the face” by criticizing them at the meeting. Mello added that the council would be irresponsible to pass a budget that didn’t save some surplus in case retroactive pay is awarded to the firefighters.
Regular politicos in Hoboken approached the microphone at the Wednesday evening hearing before the council took a symbolic 5-2-1 vote to approve the amendments. City attorney Melissa Longo told the council they can’t vote on a budget that the state has not approved, adding that their vote has “no legal meaning.”
Councilman Tim Occhipinti said the council should have a vote anyway because he wants it to be on the record that he tried to return the surplus to the taxpayers.
“What happens if a pier collapses?” asked resident Scott Siegel. “Thank God [the budget amendments] are not going through.”
Roman Brice, who often criticizes Mason and Russo, told the council to “stop blaming others for your budget incompetence.”
The council symbolically voted by a 5-2-1 margin on Wednesday, with Cunningham absent, and Bhalla voting “present.”
Now, Zimmer and her allies will be allowed to re-introduce amendments to the budget, presumably to maintain a budget surplus.
The Friday meeting
In the annual reorganization meeting, the council did a lot more than just “reorganize.”
The council planned to discuss Hertz Corner Cars and permanent spots for them.
The council also planned to introduce legislation that would strip the longtime residency requirements for city employees.
They were expected to introduce a resolution to stop an investigation called for by Mason to release the e-mails of two mayoral aides and bloggers and members of the press. Mason has said she wanted to see if the two aides were conducting political work on city time.
The meeting concluded after press time on Friday, so more results will be reported on our website, HudsonReporter.com, and in next week’s paper.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com