At Wednesday night’s Hoboken City Council meeting, the council got its first look at the proposed 2009-2010 budget from state-appointed Financial Monitor Judy Tripodi. It will cost an estimated $98.7 million to run the city from this past July 1 through next June 30, 2010. The taxpayers will contribute $55.6 million to pay for it, down 8 percent from last year’s tax levy of $60.5 million.
The budget is still tentative and could undergo further cuts or changes before a final public hearing and vote in January of 2010.
The budget also projects a $3 million surplus to roll forward into 2011.
This past week, Corzine announced this week a freeze in New Jersey’s $20.7 million municipal aid program.
Council members had suggestions, too. Councilman Ravi Bhalla advised negotiating with Blue Cross to freeze health insurance rates or shopping for comparable health insurance – a view shared by Councilman David Mello, himself a former Blue Cross executive. Director Trasente pointed out that the city’s Blue Cross coverage is actually a union requirement, highlighting how complex it can be to negotiate cuts.
New 4th Ward Councilman Michael Lenz – who was recently appointed chairman of the council’s Revenue and Finance Committee – conceded that “this is the fiscal monitor’s [Tripodi’s] budget,” but commended the plan. He later remarked on the necessity of raising Hoboken’s bond rating to rein in very high borrowing costs. In the same vein, Council President Peter Cunningham and Councilwoman Beth Mason wondered what would be done about the former consultants who advised the council about costly and perhaps inappropriate bonding that was acknowledged in the new budget.
The council voted 9-0 to introduce the proposed budget. They scheduled a second hearing with public comments for Jan. 6, 2010. The public will be able to attend budget workshops scheduled for the council, starting on Dec. 16.
The budget was a relief to a council that had seen it balloon from approximately $56 million 10 years ago to $123.5 million last year. (Some of last year’s amount was just an accounting for taxes that were going to be collected late, so not all of it represented actual spending.) Tripodi was appointed by the state after the council would not accept a budget proposed by Mayor David Roberts two years ago. Tripodi has said that the recent higher budgets had to make up for years of underfunding.
Harsh words for finance director
While the council was pleased with the proposed budget, sparks flew regarding a temporary budget that is needed to fund spending until the regular budget is passed in January.
The resolution authorizing the Emergency Temporary Appropriation for the 2010 Budget didn’t stand up to the council’s questions Wednesday night. The budget to operate the city through the end of January calls for $13.55 million in spending, plus $414,000 for the Hoboken Parking Utility.
Councilman Michael Russo urged a vote against the measure, saying the appropriation would lock the council into the spending that amount. Councilwoman Mason underscored the objection by pointing out that some appropriations in the submitted budget totaled 70 percent of what they had cost in the entire previous fiscal year, and the budget contained a $640,000 discrepancy.
In response to questions, Trasente had to admit he couldn’t alter the appropriation amount because it was approved by Tripodi.
“I’m being torn in two pieces here,” he apologized. “She’s my day-to-day boss and she’s telling me, under state supervision, not to change the resolution.”
Lenz complained that Tripodi had made it a practice not to attend council meetings. Thus, the council could not question her directly.
The council voted 9-0 to table the appropriation, pending reconciliation of the budget numbers – to applause from the audience – and then went into closed session to discuss ongoing negotiations with the city’s employees’ unions.
To reach Clark Matthews, email@example.com.
Elephant in the Room: Hoboken’s hospital
During Wednesday night’s council meeting, there was an elephant in the room: the precarious funding and viability of Hoboken University Medical Center. The City Council bonded for $52 million three years ago to keep the hospital alive, but continued financial problems have made taxpayers wonder if the city will lose all the money.
Hoboken University Medical Center’s director, Spiros Hatiras, told the council two weeks ago that HUMC probably will not survive without an expected $10.7 million stabilization grant from the state. But that grant, reportedly promised to Hatiras by outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine, has remained elusive and HUMC continues to lose a reported $1 million per month, with no fallback plan.
In a more troubling twist, this past week, Corzine announced a freeze of New Jersey’s municipal aid program, meaning that $20.7 million will be withheld from towns seeking a final installment of aid funding. Hospital aid also may be withheld.
“The Medical Center bonding was arranged by the same former city consultants whose advice is now labeled ‘irresponsible debt management’ by the state fiscal monitor,” remarked Councilwoman Beth Mason during a break. However, the hospital matter was not discussed during the meeting.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting:
The council approved a combined appropriation and bonding for a new fire engine to replace a 22-year old truck.
The council voted to accept the deed to Maxwell Park, an existing park located on the waterfront adjacent to the Maxwell Place Condominium project. The park was deeded from the developers to the city for $1.
A resolution authorizing a contract for design and engineering services to relocate Hoboken’s Sept. 11 Memorial to Pier A was amended on the spot with wording crafted by Councilman Lenz. The memorial was originally proposed as a $4 million project located on its own island, and substantial sums were already spent on engineering and the purchase of some components, according to 9/11 Committee Director Brandy Forbes. The council approved the amended authorization that aims to capture $250,000 in available matching funds for the memorial, which will be built at a much lower cost. – Clark Matthews