Open tax abatement meetings sunk by council Members object to mayor’s control of board, lack of public input

The prospect of holding public hearings on developers’ tax exemptions was torpedoed by the City Council Wednesday. Some members disagreed with Mayor Bret Schundler’s proposal to appoint the 12-member board that would hold the hearings and to subsequently restrict public comment on the exemptions.

Robert Cavanaugh, the Ward A councilman who had originally pitched the idea to have hearings, was unable to see the vote, as he was home recovering from emergency gall bladder surgery.

The vote was just part of an evening that saw about 100 people from the now infamous Metropolis Towers (formerly Gregory Park) show up, only to leave early when they learned no new action would be taken on a measure that could increase some tenants’ rent by over 100 percent. The council agreed to vote on the measure at the next meeting. And yet another ill-fated ordinance pertaining to dogs in the parks went down to defeat, dragging the debate out into its fourth month.

And Macy’s, after some wrangling over parking, is officially coming to Jersey City.

Usual opponents

Observers were quick to note the tax abatement measure gained support from those normally opposed to Cavanaugh, and conversely, got opposition from usual Cavanaugh supporters like Ward C (Journal Square) Councilman Arnold Bettinger. “I think the whole thing is a sham,” Bettinger said.

The measure arose because many developers have been granted tax abatements so that they can pay a fixed amount to the city each year rather than municipal taxes. Abatements are an incentive for developers, but they have their critics.

The opposition arose after Schundler’s idea to appoint the members was discussed in front of the council by one-woman city watchdog Yvonne Balcer. The mayor has total authority in organizing city committees. Balcer asked who would fill the “resident of the city” appointees mentioned in the draft ordinance. One member would be Jersey City Redevelopment Agency head Paul Hamilton, she was told.

“Hamilton and who else?” asked Balcer, a former member of the city’s ethics board. She said Hamilton’s vote would be nothing more than a “rubber stamp.”

Coming to the defense of the JCRA director, Councilwoman Melissa Holloway noted that Hamilton sees many of the projects that eventually get tax exemptions.

Holloway, however, eventually voted against the measure.

The public’s actual participation in these meetings was brought into question. Language in the proposal seemed to indicate that while the public had a right to “be present at and observe” the meetings, they would not be allowed to speak at the proceedings.

Chief of staff to the mayor Tom Gallagher was quick to agree to change the proposal to include public participation.

As it now stands, tax abatements are voted on by ordinance. This allows public comment and discussion on each and every abatement. Had the committee measure passed, however, the abatements would have come to the council in the form of a resolution. With a resolution comes less public comment, Balcer pointed out. This did not sit well with some council members.

“We wanted to give more opportunity for the public to comment,” said Holloway in a later interview. Tax abatements, or payments-in-lieu of taxes, are a hot issue in a town. Some on the City Council believe the city could be squeezing more money from developers now flocking to the city. Mayor Bret Schundler and his council supporters disagree, saying that if developers did not receive relief from the city’s tax code, they would likely skip over the city and relocate to the suburbs.

Joining Bettinger and Holloway in the dissenting vote were Downtown Councilman Mariano Vega, Westside Councilwoman Mary Donnelly and Councilman-at-Large L. Harvey Smith.

Do goes down, too

Another council meeting meant another dog defecation ordinance defeated.

This newest version, proposed by the mayor, would have provided “pet zones” (commonly referred to as “dog runs”) in parks, with the consultation of “community organizations.”

But Downtown Councilman Mariano Vega voiced concern that the ordinance would prevent dogs from entering parks until the runs were established.

Corporation Counsel Sean Connelly hotly disputed this assertion.

“I don’t read any possible interpretation that would prevent dogs in the park,” he said. “They’re allowed in the park.”

But Vega and others worried that an ordinance allowing dogs in the park, yet preventing them from relieving themselves, would amount to a de facto ban on their presence.

Vega, Bettinger and At-large Councilman L. Harvey Smith voted against the ordinance. Holloway abstained.

Mall parking: fifty cents, not free

Acquiescing to pressure from the city, Newport Centre Mall agreed to lower its parking rates to 50 cents for the first hour. Originally, the mall had agreed to a free first half-hour, but at the previous council caucus, council members complained that would allow precious little time to merely get in and out. After the first hour, rates go to $1.25.

The council had threatened to hold up a tax abatement for Macy’s if the parking situation was not altered. The 15-year abatement, valued at approximately $344,786 annually, passed 8-0.


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