The Hoboken City Council failed once again to pass a municipal budget for the 2013 calendar year at their meeting Wednesday night, despite claims of willingness to compromise from both factions on the divided council. A budget amendment proposed by Council Vice President and chair of the Council Finance Committee Jennifer Giattino seemed momentarily as if it might gain critical support from Fourth Ward Councilman Timothy Occhipinti, which would have broken a 4-4 stalemate, but Occhipinti refused to vote for the amendment.
The proposed $104 million budget was introduced in March and covers city spending from January of 2013 through December.
The lack of a final working budget, now six months into the calendar year, has pushed the city to the brink. The council was forced, just like they have at recent meetings, to pass emergency appropriations that would allow the city to operate within the nonexistent budget.
Wednesday night’s appropriations, which amounted to around $2 million, would only be enough to cover the city’s current pay period, said Business Administrator Quentin Weist. Without the vote, the city might not have been able to pay its employees.
On Thursday, Mayor Dawn Zimmer blasted Occhipinti for what she alleged was a misrepresentation of his willingness to compromise on the budget issue. Occhipinti is one of four members of the council opposed to Zimmer, but has sometimes worked with the pro-Zimmer side on various issues.
“I feel like we made some compromises [with Occhipinti], we came to a like-minded idea of how to pass the budget, and then in the meeting, he turned around and didn’t support it,” said Zimmer. “It was very disappointing.”
“Why should [city employees] have to worry about whether they’re going to get their next paycheck?” - Mayor Dawn Zimmer
Occhipinti and his allies have been making requests to cut spending from the approximately $104 million budget, which has a $900,000 shortfall because of pay owed to retired firefighters. Zimmer and Giattino introduced at the meeting a plan to cut around $450,000 from the existing proposed budget, and make up the rest of the $900,000 by increasing the tax levy. The measure would not change the tax rate, they said. (The levy is the total dollar amount to be raised via taxes, and the rate helps each taxpayer figure out what he owes based on the property he owns.)
Occhipinti, along with 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, and 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, continued to demand that rather than add $450,000 to the levy, the amount be taken out of the city’s surplus.
Zimmer’s allies have argued that the surplus, which currently amounts to around $1.3 million, is important to maintain for emergencies and to give the city a fair shot at improving its credit rating, which has been low in recent years.
Zimmer said on Friday that, according to state regulations, the council was obligated to pass a budget by April 26. She reiterated her past statements that the council is failing in its most important capacity, passing the budget.
“It’s not fair to our city employees,” she said. “Why should they have to worry about whether they’re going to get their next paycheck?”
She also noted that she met the state’s deadline for introducing the budget by a little more than a week in March.
“They say all the time that I need to be held accountable and what not, but the fact of the matter is that I met my deadline and they did not,” she said.
The budget vote was one of a handful on Wednesday that ended in a 4-4 tie, a familiar sight since October, when the council began operating with an empty ninth seat. Zimmer allies have tried to put in resident Jim Doyle, but litigation brought by the opponents has prevented that from happening.
Asked whether she could step in as a potential ninth vote on important matters such as the budget, Zimmer replied that she “had asked [herself] that question many times,” and was almost sure that legally, she cannot.
“But we have done everything we can do to [seat Doyle,]” she said. “We’ve been in contact with the appellate division and could have a decision any day now.”
The appellate division will rule whether Doyle’s seating would be in line with municipal law. In the meantime, there is little hope for any agreement between the two sides. On Wednesday, the council even failed to come to a consensus on the rules and procedures for its own meetings, voting down a resolution that would require meetings to be adjourned by midnight (they regularly continue into the early hours of the morning).
1600 Park problem solved
Open space advocates in Hoboken’s north end scored a major victory on Wednesday when the introduction of a $200,000 from the U.S. Soccer Foundation offset concerns over unforeseen costs in the construction of 1600 Park. That park will be located between the Willow and Park Avenue bridges near the Weehawken border.
After it was discovered that much of the soil there may be too weak to support the massive flood lights around the perimeter of the field, the council disagreed as to whether the city should spend around $250,000 more than the original contract or make the case that it the unforeseen costs are the responsibility of the contractor.
The introduction of the grant made it easier for the council to stomach the revised cost, only around $50,000. According to Leo Pelligrini, the director of health and human services, the park should be completed by the end of July.
Rejecting eminent domain for southwest park
Hoboken’s southern residents have no such end in sight when it comes to their battle for open space though, especially after the council failed to pass a measure invoking the city’s right to eminent domain in the matter of “Block 12,” a triangular section of land in Southwest Hoboken that Zimmer has touted as the first step to a full redevelopment of the neighborhood.
The council did vote to make an offer to the property owners for the land, but Zimmer said that without eminent domain, the cost to the city could be much higher.
“We’re talking about millions of dollars in difference here,” she said. “How are we supposed to be able to negotiate if we don’t have all of the tools at our disposal?”
Again, she blamed Occhipinti. Block 12 is in Occhipinti’s ward, and the councilman has been an outspoken advocate for park space there, but voted against the city’s use of eminent domain.
“It was cowardly,” she said.
At the meeting, activists railed against Occhipinti’s vote.
“If you vote this down, I really cannot believe that you are in favor of parks, or acquiring space for them,” said Leah Healey, a co-founder of the Hoboken Parks Organization, to Occhipinti.
Public housing tenants continue protest; still no appointee
Residents of the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) continued to press the case for new affordable housing in town on Wednesday, and expressed support for Barbara Reyes, a Housing Authority resident nominated to fill an empty seat on the HHA’s unpaid Board of Commissioners.
Their protests fell on deaf ears, though, as Reyes’ appointment failed for the second consecutive meeting. The vote, a 4-4 tie, went along its usual with-Zimmer-or-against-her line, but this time, her supporters gave no reasons for their opposition to Reyes.
At the last meeting, Councilman-at-Large Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla was berated by the public after he expressed discontent with Reyes because she had supported Executive Director Carmelo Garcia. Bhalla also recently made a bid to oppose Garcia for the Democratic nod for state Assembly, but dropped out.
Garcia has pushed the Vision 20/20 housing plan, a complete renovation and redevelopment of Hoboken’s housing projects, for some time now, but Zimmer is against it. In recent meetings, it has become clear that her allies on the council will not support any board candidates who support the plan. The original buildings were constructed in 1949.
Zimmer declined to comment on Reyes’ appointment directly, but did say Thursday that she thought the concerns of her allies were legitimate.
“It’s their appointment to make, but I think they realize that the main job of an HHA commissioner is to provide oversight of the executive director,” she said.
Reyes’ appointment was scheduled as the last item on the consent agenda. Occhipinti, Russo, Castellano and Mason, all of whom support Vision 20/20, asked several times that the vote be moved up on the agenda out of concern for residents who had come to speak on Reyes’ behalf, but Council President Peter Cunningham repeatedly denied the request.
Following the vote, which took place just before midnight, Occhipinti accused Cunningham of disrespecting the residents and their needs.
“You knew you were going to vote no,” he said. “Why didn’t we just do it a few hours ago and let these people go home?”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
City to rename municipal garage after Moret, who saved lives during Sandy
Mayor Dawn Zimmer made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s council meeting to present a proclamation to the family of recently-deceased city employee Freddie Moret, who died unexpectedly two weeks ago while on a church retreat to Italy.
Speaking at the front of the chambers surrounded by many members of Moret’s family, Zimmer recounted how “Moret had saved lives” during Hurricane Sandy by driving one of the city’s payloaders through flooded areas picking up trapped residents and moving debris.
The mayor announced that the city would rename its municipal garage after Moret, which his daughter Stefanie described as “truly an honor.”