Last step in budget adoption; Board of Commissioners meets to vote on final amendments
The first step in ending Union City's budget woes took place last week at an emergency meeting held on Election Day. The five-member Board of Commissioners met to vote on a first reading of the budget amendments that included the $3 million dollar state-issued tax increase and $500,000 in municipal-level cuts. While the board passed the amendments, Mayor Rudy Garcia and his ally Commissioner Ray Lopez voted for the $500,000 budgets cuts, but not for the tax increase. The other three commissioners voted yes to both issues. Garcia blamed the increase on the state budget team, which was brought in at Commissioner Michael Leggiero's request and resulted in the $3 million increase based on promised revenue the city ultimately had to leave out of the budget. "I created a budget in 1998, in 1999 and in 2000 that did not raise taxes," said Mayor Garcia. "I did not want to bring in the state because I knew that the state would raise taxes. They brought in the state and they raised taxes." Commissioner Michael Leggiero lists the mayor's excessive hiring and unwillingness to call in the state budget team for assistance as major causes for the current budget problems. There were 268 new hires made by the mayor this year. However, the mayor explained that 229 of the people hired were filling positions left by employees that had retired. Garcia also points out that 20 new police officers were hired and 19 civilian dispatchers that were paid mostly by state grants. "This is political rhetoric, not reality," said Garcia responding to the accusations that most of the hiring has been made in the Department of Public Safety, which was under his supervision until recently. "All I did was make the streets safer than ever before. Spending in my department has not gone up significantly since I became mayor." Leggiero also said that as a state assemblyman, the mayor should have applied for distressed city aid from the state. The commissioner said that the state has $54 million dollars available for distressed cities. Garcia responded to this accusation saying, "It was Commissioner Leggiero's responsibility as head of the Department of Revenue and Finance to apply for it." The mayor added, "Leggiero has not given one idea [about how] to lower taxes or help the budget as Revenue and Finance chair." Garcia blames the tax increase on interference by Leggiero and others in the transfer of Roosevelt Stadium and the sale of the 27th Street bus depot, which were a part of the mayor's original budget submitted in November. "The residents would rather have the children own the stadium and the state pay for it," said Garcia, explaining that the transfer would have been matched dollar for dollar by the state, taking no money from the Board of Education. "[The residents] do not want a $3 million tax increase." Leggiero countered the mayor's interference argument by pointing out that Garcia failed to apply for the proper approvals from the Board of Education and the Department of Environmental Protection. Donald Scarinci, who was recently re-hired as special council for the city, said that even without the lawsuit filed by Jose R. Franco, a private citizen and restaurant owner in Union City, the transfer still could not go through without the proper approvals. "This was not a Michael Leggiero decision," said the commissioner. "This was a court decision." Garcia also pointed to the limit the state put on the amount of money the HCIA could loan to the city from the sale of the 27th Street bus depot. The city borrowed $3.5 million, while the remaining $4.5 million will be used for the construction of a new public works garage. The budget amendments are scheduled to go up for second reading at the next Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday. If passed, the budget will finally be adopted. "The state basically has fixed the budget," said Leggiero. "There is nothing left to do." When asked why the commissioner petition for state aid on the budget, Garcia replied, "To hurt me."