Hundreds of West New York taxpayers crowded Wednesday night’s monthly Board of Commissioners meeting to protest a recent 27 percent tax increase that came in the proposed 2008-2009 city budget.
“They have the right to be upset,” said Mayor Sal Vega last week. “I understand how difficult it is to deal with this tax increase. Our goal is to go forward and make the situation better.”
Many residents were outraged when they received their February tax bills, which were based on a proposed budget that was introduced in September. The budget covers city spending from last July 1 through this coming June 30, but it has not yet been finalized because the city has not received state aid figures. Still, the city was forced to collect money from taxpayers to keep operations running in the meantime.
In addition to protesting at the meeting on Wednesday, taxpayers also held a rally a week earlier on Friday.
At Wednesday’s meeting
At Wednesday’s meeting, 600 people filled the auditorium to capacity and more were waiting to get in for hours.
Normally, the meetings are held to conduct normal town business, such as approving contracts and new ordinances. This time, several members of the public booed and called out, forcing the mayor to remind the audience more than once that anyone who disrupted the meeting would be removed.
“Once again, I beg you, because … everybody’s watching West New York, and the way we behave is the idea they are going to get of us,” said Vega.
Several TV news stations covered the meeting.
The turnout was quite a change from a November public hearing on the same budget, where no taxpayers spoke. Apparently, receiving their tax bills made the economics hit home.
Presentation in Spanish and English
The town attorney gave a detailed presentation on why taxes have increased that was also provided on paper in both English and Spanish.
Then, residents had a chance to voice their concerns.
Resident Joseph Doria said he was not representing any political group.
“I can not comprehend how you can constantly expect this tax increase to be realistic and not cause additional hardships during this massive economic downturn,” he said. He added that this would not only affect the homeowners but also the renters in town, since landlords might raise the rents because of the increase.
Another resident asked the mayor if any money from the recently passed federal stimulus bill would trickle down to West New York.
“What is happening across the nation is that 80 percent of the municipalities, according to CNN, are having budget problems,” said Vega. “And there’s going to be massive layoffs across the country, and one of the areas is public safety. So, if we can get [federal] money to, say, pay for 10 of our police officers, and this money we can free to do something else, I think that will help us. But, until I speak to [Sen. Robert Menendez], I am not sure how it will impact West New York.”
He added that he would also reach out to Rep. Albio Sires, the former West New York mayor, to learn more.
The town also has extended the deadline for payment of the tax bill until March 13, and reduced an interest charge on late payments from 18 percent to 1 percent.
The meeting had come on the heels of a Friday, Feb. 13 rally led by Dr. Felix Roque, who had announced last month that he wants to recall Vega and run for mayor. On Friday, the group marched from 211 60th St. to Town Hall while shouting “Vega Out!”
In a speech, Roque called for the immediate resignation of the mayor, blaming the current administration’s alleged “incompetence” for the tax increase.
Several residents at the rally said that they support Roque because they believe he will be able to lower taxes as their mayor.
“Maybe he can fight for the people in West New York and help us out, lower the taxes a bit,” said Charles Lombardi. He added that he is on a fixed income and that his taxes have more than doubled.
“It is too much money they are raising it,” he said. “They can raise it a little bit, but not kill the people.”
“The taxes right here in West New York are going higher and higher, and we don’t see any progress in town.” – Geannina Rodriguez
Another resident, Maria Baranda, said she is also afraid she will lose her home.
“I am a homeowner, single mom, going through economic crisis,” she said.
Other residents complained that the town is at a standstill.
“The taxes right here in West New York are going higher and higher, and we don’t see any progress in town,” said Geannina Rodriguez.
“My money was going into somebody’s pocket doing nothing,” said Placido Rodriguez.
In the past, Vega has said that the current $15.5 million budget gap has been accumulating for years. He also partly blamed the town’s suspended chief financial officer. He said the CFO neglected to make payments to the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue and other entities in a timely manner, thus creating more debt for future fiscal years.
City officials have also said that costs have risen, including employee salaries and health benefits.
“The one item that just keeps going up and up and up is health benefits,” said Vega last week.
He said the town is now self-insured, but is currently looking into a state insurance plan that would save West New York taxpayers millions of dollars.
What each taxpayer pays depends on three factors besides just the town’s budget: The value of the property the taxpayer owns, how many other property owners are contributing to the levy, and the size of the school and county budgets, since a portion of each tax bill goes to those entities as well. The West New York budget only affects the city portion of the tax bill. q
West New York Mayor Sal Vega said that due to strapped finances in town, his administration has asked a state monitor to advise town officials on several issues, including possible layoffs.
“We are going to look at trimming the workforce, and we are looking at every possible agency in the town,” said Vega. He added that every town employee will receive a notice, whether ultimately laid off or not. Vega said that this could be about 100 people, depending on how well talks go with union representatives.
“We are going to continue to speak to them over the course of the next month with the intent that the more assistance we get from them, the lower the layoff number will be, because our goal is not to lay off people; our goal is to save the town money,” he said.
He said if there are layoffs, they could be conducted by June.
The state monitor will also examine the methods of the Purchasing Department, which buys rock salt and other items the town needs, he said.
“We have asked for a monitor to advise us on certain issues because we are committed to making the town better,” said Vega. He added that another advantage to having a state monitor is that it increases the town’s chances of receiving state aid.