Judging by Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, the city’s new six month budget, introduced by a narrow 5-4 vote by the majority allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, will be the fresh ground on which many familiar political battles will be fought in the next four weeks until its public hearing on Sept. 29.
A standing room only crowd of men and women in bright yellow t-shirts labeled “Stop the Zimmer Police Layoffs!” filled the council chambers. Their spokespersons warned the mayor’s plan to lay off 18 police officers and demote 19 others will expose Hoboken to a greater risk of crime, and was unwarranted when the budget is running a $10 million surplus even after $1.9 million is used for tax relief.
“They do not have the ability to direct the administration to rescind the layoffs. They don’t have that authority.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
During September, the council will amend the budget as needed through public workshops with city directors.
‘A unique community’
Before the meeting, the Police Benevolent Association held a press conference before local TV cameras in the lobby of city hall. The press conference and t-shirt protest were coordinated by the PBA, according to Vince Lombardi, president of the Hoboken PBA. State PBA President Anthony Wieners was on hand for the press conference and for the city council meeting.
“Here in Hoboken, if there are layoffs, crime is going to go up,” Wieners said. “Hoboken is a unique community where the population can triple or quadruple at any time during the day.”
The cuts announced by the administration were recommended by a state audit that said that the police department was overstaffed. Lombardi told the council he believes the state audit is “severely flawed” and there were “many mistakes in it.” The PBA did its own audit, which produced different results.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer does not consider the PBA audit to be a fair report.
“The PBA audit is something funded by the union and it represents their position,” Zimmer said on Thursday. “I don’t view it as an objective source and I don’t believe that the state was coming in with an agenda.”
The layoffs of 18 police officers and demotions of 19 senior officers are intended to save the city $2.5 million.
Chief Anthony Falco of the Hoboken Police Department said he did not believe parts of the state audit were correct.
“There were points I disagree with and points I agree with,” Falco told the council. “I don’t agree with the layoffs and demotions. I’d be willing to sit down with council members to come up with a resolution. I’d like to sit down [with them] because I’ve had no conversations.”
A voice of the affected
One affected officer is Josue Velez, who recently returned from serving in the Army in the Middle East. “I got engaged right before I left [for the Middle East],” Velez said before the meeting. “We were planning for a July 2011 wedding, but now I don’t know what’s going to happen. On Aug. 6, I got a personal letter saying I was being laid off. It’s mindboggling because I’m trying to reintegrate myself to society. The stress is ridiculous. One of the only options I have could be to re-enlist for another tour of duty [in the Army].”
Councilman Michael Russo was one of the council members who disagreed with the layoffs.
“All the members of the public here today are 100 percent justified to be here,” Russo said before the meeting. “To have the mayor increase PR (public relations) salaries and cutting police officers is asinine and outrageous.”
Russo was referring to increased salaries of Mayor Zimmer’s two aides, announced around the same time as the police layoffs. The mayor responded, saying City Communications Manager Juan Melli, who now earns $75,000 annually, agreed to work for a lower salary until the end of the fiscal year. Her confidential aide, Dan Bryan, now earns $46,100 annually, up from $35,000. Zimmer pointed out the individual who held the chief of staff position in the brief administration of Peter Cammarano administration was hired at $125,000.
The mayor said on Thursday the meeting reminded her of how tough this decision is for her.
“It reinforced the fact that this is an extremely difficult decision,” Zimmer said. “I recognize that I’m impacting the lives of each employee and I take that very seriously.”
The layoffs and the surplus
A narrow majority of the council members, allies of the mayor, defended the layoff plan.
“I get it,” said Councilman Dave Mello to the police supporters in attendance. “But tough decisions have to be made. These are extraordinary times.”
Councilman Peter Cunningham applauded the administration on the introduced budget.
“Five hundred municipalities [in New Jersey] will be hit with a 25 to 100 percent tax increase this year,” Cunningham said. “There are less than five that have produced a tax cut.”
The city ended last year with a $20 million surplus, of which $11.9 million is unrestricted funds (a cash surplus), and approximately $8 million is tied up from previous overspending.
The city’s new budget calls for $1.9 million to be used for tax relief, according to Treasurer Nick Trasente, leaving $10 million still unspent.
“If we spend the $10 million surplus, it will drive up the cost of borrowing,” said Councilman Michael Lenz. “We are saving $10 million because it’s the efficient thing to do.”
Councilwoman Beth Mason disagreed.
“A $10 million surplus is not something we absolutely have to have,” Mason said. “But protecting our citizens is.”
A bold resolution
At 11:05 p.m. Mason introduced a resolution to rescind the mayor’s layoff plan. It evoked applause from the jam packed chambers but the resolution was tabled until the Sept. 15 council meeting. After the meeting, Lombardi said the PBA will be back.
“On the 15th, we’ll bring double or triple the people,” Lombardi said. “They [the city] should consider having this meeting at the Meadowlands.”
Zimmer disagreed with Councilwoman Mason’s resolution, saying on Thursday in a press release that it is not the job of the council to change the decision of the mayor, and the resolution was illegal to propose.
“According to Corporation Counsel Michael Kates and Business Administrator Arch Liston, the council has the right to disagree or ‘disapprove’ and state their position, but they do not have the authority to overrule an administration decision or direct the administration to take action.”
“The council, though I respect their views, have every right to voice their opinion,” Zimmer said on Thursday. “But they do not have the ability to direct the administration to rescind the layoffs. They don’t have that authority.”
Mason offered a different description of the resolution on Thursday evening.
“There is no need to debate the semantics of the resolution in question,” Mason said. “The intent of this resolution is to ‘implore’ the mayor not to proceed at this time with her proposed layoffs.”
Since the resolution is tabled, it will be addressed at the next council meeting, according to Mason.
“The words of the resolution are not the issue,” Mason said. “Protecting the community is what matters. ”
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.