The Hoboken City Council on Wednesday voted to support the use of eminent domain to acquire future park land for the 4th Ward, adopted a $106 million budget that includes a tax cut, and moved municipal elections to November.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer, in a memo to council members on Wednesday afternoon, said she hasn’t found any willing sellers while looking for park space. It doesn’t mean eminent domain will be used, but the council’s support, by a 5-4 vote, provides leverage with property owners because it allows the city to condemn property and purchase it at fair market value.
The council voted by a 5-4 margin to move municipal elections to November
Zimmer said with the council’s support of eminent domain she can apply to Hudson County to reallocate $3 million from the county’s Open Space Trust Fund – previously assigned to Sinatra Park repairs – for the creation of a park in the southwest end of the city.
“If you consider yourself a parks advocate, then I ask you to provide my administration with the legal tool that we need to negotiate with property owners from a position of strength,” Zimmer said. “If the city cannot acquire property for fair market prices then we will be unable to deliver on our promises to provide adequate park space to our residents.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti called the measure a “last minute resolution” and called the approval “almost like a blank check to use eminent domain.” However, Occhipinti, who earlier in the week asked the mayor to reallocate the money for a southwest park, voted in favor of the resolution, going across the aisle from his allies to side with Zimmer’s supporters.
Newly-elected Councilwoman and Zimmer ally Jennifer Giattino opposed the resolution. Sinatra Park, which may lose the Open Space grant, is located in her midtown 6th Ward.
Councilman David Mello, a Zimmer ally who lives in the 4th Ward, supported the resolution.
“In short, we need to let the various LLCs that own property in that area know that we are serious about creating a southwest park,” he said.
Councilman Michael Russo opposed the legislation, saying it “pigeonholes” council members into a position on eminent domain.
“When the specifics [of the properties] come about, we can vote on it then,” Russo said.
Before the city can use eminent domain, the administration will have to come back to the council for a vote on the specific properties.
Budget includes tax cut
The council adopted a $106 million municipal budget, which the administration says will provide an approximate 8 percent tax decrease compared to last year.
Councilman Peter Cunningham said the budget, which maintains a 5 percent budget surplus, “puts the city on a sound fiscal basis that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Zimmer’s four council opponents tried to return the entire cash surplus to the taxpayers to provide immediate tax relief, but couldn’t pass the necessary budget amendments before the council balance of power shifted on July 1 toward the administration.
Zimmer’s allies contend that maintaining a surplus will insulate the city from future tax spikes, possible because the city is negotiating union contracts. The surplus also improves the city’s bond rating, Zimmer said, and will allow borrowing at lower interest rates.
An hour-long discussion yielded a 5-4 vote adopting an ordinance to move municipal elections from May to November. Proponents of the change hope that it will lead to larger voter turnouts. Council and mayoral elections will now be aligned with elections in November, when voters go to the polls for state and federal elections.
Non-partisan Hoboken municipal elections have been held in May to separate local politics from other elections, but the May elections often resulted in low turnouts.
“In my professional opinion, this is a good beginning, and you’re going to get a larger turnout,” said Dr. Jonathon Wharton, a political science professor at Stevens Institute.
Resident Hany Ahmed opposed the legislation because of the timing of the run-off elections.
“When’s your runoff, in December?” Ahmed said. He said there might be voter fatigue from the “bombardment of commercials” now that state and local elections are combined.
State law requires any runoff be at least four weeks following the first election. The current council and mayor will also be in office for six months longer than their original four-year terms. Despite concerns from the public, it is legal to extend their terms one time to make the change.
The move also serves as a cost savings, since some elections can cost up to $160,000.
Council President Ravinder Bhalla, the sponsor of the legislation, called the move “a bit of a no-brainer.”
Councilwoman Theresa Castellano voted against the ordinance, saying that it will create “utter chaos” when the local candidates run during a gubernatorial race.
Councilwoman Beth Mason and Russo both called for the legislation to be put out for referendum, and to let the public decide on moving elections.
“Let the people decide,” Russo said.
Controversial campaign finance reform pulled from agenda
An error in the resolution packet caused two campaign finance reforms to be removed from the agenda.
Two pieces of legislation to limit Political Action Committees donations during campaigns were introduced on July 1 and were scheduled for a final vote on Wednesday. One piece of legislation would limit all PACs donations to $500 for candidates, and a second piece of legislation would limit just non-Hoboken based PACs and self-funded PACs to $500 donations.
Currently, state law allows for $8,200 donations from PACs.
After questions about the legality of the legislation from council members and a somewhat lengthy discussion, Bhalla and members of the clerk’s office pointed out that the wrong legislation was put in the resolution packet. The council is expected to revisit the legislation at the next meeting. Bhalla pulled the legislation from the agenda.
Class II cops, Corner Cars, new meters approved
The council unanimously approved the establishment of Class II police officers, which are part time officers often used during peak periods. The Hoboken Police Department does not have to use the new officers, but the Class II’s become a tool for the department.
- The council voted by a 6-3 margin to establish Hertz Corner Car spaces by ordinance. The spaces were previously established by temporary resolution. The city attorney’s office had said operating the program with the spots established by resolution is illegal.
- The council approved more multi-space parking meters. They will replace the meters that collect just quarters, mainly on Washington Street.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com