A divided City Council has voted to consider a plan to dissolve the Jersey City Incinerator Authority (JCIA) and fold its current functions into the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW). The proposal, initiated by Ward E City Councilman and 2013 mayoral candidate Steven Fulop, could affect the jobs of almost 300 employees between the two agencies.
By a vote of 7 to 2, the council last Wednesday introduced an ordinance that, if approved, would eliminate the JCIA and expand the DPW to include functions currently done by the JCIA. If approved by the city council and the state Local Finance Board, consolidation would begin sometime in spring 2013.
Various studies commissioned by the city have concluded that taxpayers could save $5 million to $10 million if the two agencies were consolidated.
Despite last week’s vote, final approval by the city council is not guaranteed.
“I look at this ordinance as the opportunity to merge and combine the JCIA and Public Works into one efficient operation and not to dissolve the JCIA,” said Councilman William Gaughan, who backed the introduction of Fulop’s measure. “There is room, in my opinion, for both…to serve a role working together. For example, [the DPW] has expertise in forestry, architecture, buildings and streets, and engineering. [The JCIA] has expertise in environmental compliance, street sweeping, container services, and demolition. Where the real savings can be made is the combining of the duplication of services, such as finance, purchasing, automotive services, snow plowing, and the administrative duties required to run an efficient…operation.”
The ordinance introduced, however, clearly calls for the elimination of the JCIA and some council members who voted in favor of the measure’s introduction might not support its final adoption. In addition to Fulop and Gaughan, council members Michael Sottolano, David Donnelly, Nidia Lopez, Rolando Lavarro, and Peter Brennan also voted to introduce the ordinance. Councilwomen Michele Massey and Viola Richardson voted against the measure.
Hundreds of jobs on the line
Last spring, the City Council passed a resolution notifying the JCIA that the city’s contract with the agency would likely be terminated in 2012. This 12-month notice is legally required before the city can end its contract with the JCIA. With the requisite 12 months nearly over Fulop is now formally proposing the JCIA be eliminated.
But Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy has in the past suggested that a consolidation of the two agencies is the better option.
“Good arguments can be made for consolidating the JCIA into the DPW, or for consolidating the DPW into the JCIA,” Healy said in February. “I am willing to work with the City Council to accomplish the consolidation of these two agencies in a way that we believe is most beneficial to the taxpayers of Jersey City.”
The consolidation of the two agencies, the mayor said, would be a priority this year. Plans to consolidate the JCIA and DPW have been discussed for the past decade.
A semi-autonomous agency, the JCIA dates back to the 1960s when Jersey City incinerated most of its garbage. By the time trash incineration was discontinued in the 1970s, the JCIA had started to perform other functions, including snow removal, graffiti removal, demolition work, and the enforcement of some environmental regulations. But some of its functions overlapped with tasks assigned to the DPW, like street sweeping. The DPW is charged with maintaining the city’s public parks, roads, and municipal buildings.
With 138 full-time employees, the City Council allocated $26.3 million to the JCIA last year, according to Healy. The agency has requested $31.8 million from the city for 2012. Forty-seven percent of the JCIA budget goes toward a $16.9 million contract with Waste Management for trash removal and recycling throughout the city.
The DPW has 146 full-time workers and had a budget last year of $13.9 million. The department has requested a budget of $14.1 million this year.
The city’s 2012 municipal budget has been introduced but has yet to be adopted.
JCIA workers: Don’t dump us
About two dozen JCIA employees attended the council meeting, although none addressed the governing body. Outside council chambers several, however, expressed anxiety about the future.
“No one gives us a full explanation of what’s going on and how all this would happen,” said Clayton Dabney, one JCIA worker. “We never get a full explanation of what direction they’re going in, and when they go in some direction what will it mean for us. We want to keep working.”
“They say we’re a top heavy agency. But we’re not the only agency where they can make cuts and save money,” said Assad Pinkney, another JCIA employee. “There are a lot of other departments in the city that could be cut from and that way they could keep more people employed.”
“I don’t think they can do without the street sweepers and the snow plowers,” said Kelly Washington, a JCIA street sweeper. “Getting rid of the JCIA isn’t realistic. It would cripple the city.”
Fulop later explained that the elimination of the JCIA would not necessarily mean the termination of all its 138 employees. Since the DPW would have to be expanded, some current JCIA workers would be hired by the DPW and would continue to do their jobs.
Cornerstone of Second Chance Program
The JCIA has also been the cornerstone of the city’s Second Chance Program, as Hudson County Freeholder Jeff Dublin reminded the council last week.
Launched in 2001 by the late Glenn D. Cunningham when he was mayor, the Second Chance Program gives non-violent ex-offenders job skills through the JCIA. Since the program was started, at least 60 Jersey City residents have completed the Second Chance Program and have been hired, either by the city or some other employer, according to JCIA CEO Oren Dabney. About 30 to 35 of these graduates currently work for the JCIA, he said; the remainder found jobs elsewhere.
Because of the JCIA’s connection to this program detractors have labeled the agency “a jobs mill.” But Dublin told the council the program “rebuilds the community.”
“I’m here speaking on behalf of those who once in our community did some bad things, but came home looking for an opportunity and Jersey City presented an opportunity, an opportunity to get back into the work force,” said Dublin. As first vice president of the New Jersey Association of Counties, he added that the Second Chance Program is viewed elsewhere as a model program.
Richardson, Massey, Brennan ‘not convinced’
Three members of the council raised other concerns about eliminating the JCIA.
“I’m not quite convinced that this consolidation is going to save $10 million,” said Richardson, one of two council members who voted against the introduction of the ordinance. “I don’t know where these figures are coming from. No one has been able to show me how that would be done. No one has been able to show me how much debt we might incur through consolidation…We don’t have enough information to make this decision. There have been three studies done [on consolidation]. We only hear about one study, the last study. I’d like to see a combination of all three studies.”
A May 2010 study by Eric M. Bernstein & Associates concluded the city could save more than $10 million in personnel costs if the JCIA was dissolved and the DPW expanded. But earlier studies recommended that the DPW be absorbed into the JCIA and some estimates put savings to taxpayers at about $5 million.
Calling the ordinance “premature” Massey also voted against its introduction last Wednesday. State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) has introduced legislation that would allow autonomous agencies like the JCIA to take over some functions they are currently legally barred from doing. Should this legislation become law, the DPW could be downsized and the JCIA could be expanded to take over some of the DPW’s current functions.
Brennan, who supported the introduction of Fulop’s ordinance, said he shared Richardson’s concerns. “I have a lot of questions,” he said. “I’ll vote for introduction but when this comes back if I don’t have more answers I’m not going to vote for it.”
The ordinance is now being reviewed by the state Local Finance Board. The council can’t vote to adopt or reject it until the Finance Board approves it first.
The City Council will take the unusual step of holding two public hearings on this proposal. The first public hearing is currently scheduled for Wednesday, April 25 at 6 p.m. There will then be a second public hearing on the ordinance after the Local Finance Board makes its decision on the measure. That second public hearing has not yet been scheduled.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.