Jerramiah Healy was still the mayor of Jersey City when a member of his administration, Budget Director and Assistant Business Administrator Robert Kakoleski, stood before the City Council and announced that there was a $16 million shortfall in the 2013 municipal budget. The news stunned Healy’s allies on the council, all of whom would be ending their tenures on the council in a few weeks’ time.
“Here’s one for you; we had no idea Kakoleski was going to do that presentation,” a senior Healy administration member who was at that meeting in May told the Reporter.
But they should have known something was coming.
Eight of the council’s nine members were seated at the dais and Kakoleski was already standing before them when the lithe figure of the council’s ninth member glided into the room and gave Kakoleski a reassuring and conspiratorial pat on the arm. The rest of the meeting, which included hints of a coming tax increase, unfolded like a well-orchestrated strategic military strike.
If the municipal election two weeks earlier on May 14 left any doubts about who was the victor and who was the vanquished, those doubts were extinguished by the end of that meeting.
It would be several weeks before that ninth member, Mayor-Elect Steven Fulop, gained control of the new council, a feat accomplished only after an historic runoff election. Two of his council candidates lost to independents in wards C and D, but it is safe to say that Fulop assumed the role of mayor the day after his election.
Even before he was officially sworn in on July 1, Fulop hired a private firm to search for a new public safety director, ordered the business administrator to suspend the property revaluation started under Healy, announced an end to take-home municipal cars for non-emergency workers, and an expansion of the city’s youth summer jobs program.
A few residents who did not support Fulop’s mayoral bid said they were impressed with some of his initiatives.
He even appropriated the official Jersey City seal and took to sending out occasional press releases under specially created “Mayor-Elect Steven Fulop” letterhead. In an interesting slip, one such release that was sent out prior to his inauguration left off the word “elect.” The mistake was humorous, but was ultimately academic since by that point nearly everyone was already treating Fulop as the city’s chief executive.
Hitting the ground running
“I think we have hit the ground running. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another administration in this state that has come out of the gates as aggressive as we have been,” Fulop said last week.
When asked to list his top three biggest accomplishments in his first 100 days in office, Fulop listed seven.
“The audit of tax abatements [to make sure developments are paying their fair share to the city]. The paid sick leave ordinance [which forces private companies in Jersey City to provide a certain amount of leave]. Our new tax abatement policy. After taking over in a difficult month, I think we’ve turned the corner on some of the shootings we were seeing in Ward F in July. We’ve started the consolidation of the Parking Authority into the Police Department and [consolidation] of the Department of Public Works and the [Jersey City Incinerator Authority]. The expansion of our summer jobs and recreation programs. Our Stop the Drop program [which encouraged people not to litter] this summer was hugely successful. These are all significant things.”
In fairness, the city started doing audits of tax-abated properties last year under Healy’s watch after the previous administration was pressured to do so by tax advocates in the city. But Fulop insisted that the recent audit that recovered $2.3 million in unpaid profits from EQR Lincoln Urban Renewal for the Hudson Point and North Pier developments was during his tenure.
Last week, the city announced that another $2.6 million had been recovered as a result of the abatement audit on top of the money already recovered from EQR Lincoln Urban Renewal.
The administration, he said, is also laying the groundwork for programs that won’t be formally rolled out until next year. This includes partnerships with Jersey City corporations for the 2014 summer jobs program, and the city’s Employment and Training Program’s reentry initiative for ex-offenders, which Fulop predicts “will become a national model.”
With the help of a $400,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jersey City will soon hire four bilingual counselors to help residents and business understand their options under the Affordable Care Act. The grant is another accomplishment of which Fulop is proud. Only six such grants were awarded in the State of New Jersey, according to the mayor’s office. The four federally funded counselors will augment the 10 certified application counselors who were already working in the city’s Health and Human Services Office.
“We’re doing more than any municipality, as far as education, on the Affordable Care Act. We’re being very proactive with that,” Fulop said. “I think that I could point to 20 things that I’m excited about that are visible and tangible for residents.”
Residents weigh in
Predictably, Fulop’s supporters and detractors choose to see what they want. Residents who supported the mayor point to what they see as the accomplishments of the young administration. People who supported Healy remain skeptical of Fulop and the direction he is taking the city.
“I definitely feel the city is on the right track now,” said Joanne Barkin, who lives in the Heights. “I mean, it’s going to take some time before we see some things happen. But I think the city is just more professional now. I can sense there’s a change in attitude and momentum in the city since [Fulop] was elected.”
Barkin said she has seen a heavier police presence in her neighborhood since the new administration came in. When she has had occasion to call city offices, Barkin said, her calls have been handled with more courtesy than in the past.
“We pay a lot in city taxes,” said David Peet, a downtown resident who has also noticed a shift in the way city workers perform their jobs. “At least now I resent it a little less...I feel like the city is working for me and that’s the way it should be. I can feel the city is being run differently.”
A few residents who did not support Fulop’s mayoral bid said in interviews that they were impressed with some of his initiatives thus far.
Of course, some detractors remain.
“I can’t say that I see any difference with this guy in office,” said John Spector, who voted for Healy. “Didn’t he talk about cutting spending? Didn’t he talk about better taxes? The first thing he does when he gets in is raise our taxes.”
Fulop knows the 7.6 percent municipal tax increase that was adopted in July looks bad, given his campaign promises. He said he hopes to introduce a 2014 municipal budget that is either equal to this year’s budget or that is slightly lower, meaning there would be no tax increase next year.
“Tax stabilization is our No. 1 priority next year,” Fulop said.
Among the administration’s first orders of business was the overhaul of the Mayor’s Action Bureau into what is now known as the Resident Response Center, a one-stop office that handles resident complaints and problems ranging from potholes to city-owned trees that need to be trimmed. Feedback on the office has generally been positive, with the office handling resident complaints, often within a matter of days.
But a few residents have said that they have found the Response Center to be more uneven in its performance. For example, in August one resident said she had been to the Resident Response Center and found it to be closed during evening hours when it was supposed to be open. This reporter visited the center several evenings in August and September and found it to be open every time.
Hiring decisions remain a concern
Other residents have questioned Fulop’s hires.
“He used to accuse Healy of hiring his friends to work for the city. Steve’s doing the same thing, now it’s just more transparent,” said one resident who worked for the Healy campaign.
Indeed, several longtime Fulop friends and loyalists have been hired to work for the city, including former Gov. James McGreevey, John Thieroff, Paul Bellan-Boyer, Althea Bernheim, Frank Scalcione, and Pam Andes.
In the early weeks of the administration, Fulop’s team was using a campaign website to field resumes for city jobs, a practice that gave the impression that only the politically-connected were being considered for city jobs. The administration discontinued this practice after use of the campaign website was reported in this paper.
Questions have also been raised regarding whether the city has adequately followed Civil Service laws. Under the law, and under certain circumstances, Civil Service workers who are laid off due to budget cuts are supposed to be given an opportunity to be rehired if their former government employer starts hiring again. Some of Fulop’s critics claim these laws have not been followed.
Several Open Public Records Act requests submitted by the Reporter on July 15 pertaining to hires made since the administration came into office had not been answered by Oct. 4.
City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said, “We are following all Civil Service rules.”
As for state OPRA rules, the city is supposed to respond within seven days to public records requests.
The number of Fulop foot soldiers now working for the city has ruffled some feathers, especially among some longtime city workers who have said that many of Fulop’s new hires naïve and ignorant of basic government protocols and operations. Some have alleged that this has led to confusion and culture clashes between longtime civil servants in the city and Fulop’s people.
But the mayor said worker morale, especially among the city’s rank and file employees is high.
“Morale is as good as it has ever been,” said the mayor. “Every other Monday I have breakfast with 10 employees who are selected at random and we talk about whatever they want to discuss. And I can tell you that they feel valued and appreciated for the work that they do for the city.”
Whatever dissention there is among city workers, Fulop said likely comes from directors, some of whom have been resistant to change.
The mayor said the consolidation of various city departments, which is still in its early stages, is going well.
Last week, Robert Cowan, a 35-year veteran of the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD), was named police chief. Under the city’s new Department of Public Safety, Cowan and the JCPD fall under Public Safety Director James Shea.
Fulop admits that members of the Jersey City Fire Department are lobbying Shea, who comes from a law enforcement background, to select a deputy director from the Fire Department. Fulop said he is leaving this decision up to Shea, who is “going to take his time” before selecting a deputy.
A chip off the old Bloomberg
Fulop is trying to remake Jersey City in ways that go beyond typical government programs. In the tradition of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Fulop last month signed on to the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign and made Jersey City a “Let’s Move” city.
Let’s Move is a joint initiative of the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute. The initiative seeks to reduce childhood obesity in New Jersey. As part of the campaign, the Jersey City Department of Recreation now sponsors weekly “boot camps” at the Bethune Community Center and Pershing Field.
In another nod to Bloomberg, Jersey City will likely ban smoking in public parks and playgrounds later this month.
Fulop’s emphasis on health and fitness has extended into City Hall. The mayor, who is an avid runner who has competed in at least one triathalon – oh, and last week we learned that he skis on top of all that – has invited his staff to participate in a “friendly [exercise] competition.”
Employees who wish to participate get FitBit bracelets that monitor the number of steps they take each day to see who has been the most active among the staff. (Participation is completely voluntary and there is no cost to taxpayers.)
Fulop’s emphasis on health and fitness speaks to the broadness of his agenda and his vision for the city.
“We’ve done a lot,” Fulop said. “We have a lot more to do.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.