Residents blast potential tax increase Twenty people give suggestions on $416M budget

Members of the public told the City Council on Wednesday what they thought about the city’s new $416 budget, which is likely to include a huge tax increase.

“The city is not living up to their fiduciary responsibility,” complained resident and private accountant Mia Scanga, as she detailed ways the city could save money.

The hearing drew 20 members of the public, which is a larger crowd than usual.

The spending plan is $23 million higher than last year’s budget, and contains a $40 million gap that must be partially closed via a tax increase.

But the city approved a debt refinancing plan at the same meeting that is supposed to save $26 million in debt payments for this budget year, and a total of $112 million over the next five years. However, it will lead to more spending in the long run.

The council also recently conducted budget hearings with the police and fire departments to try to cut their spending. The police want $83 million, and the Fire Department is asking for $61 million. Both figures are up significantly from last year.Residents’ suggestions

The budget covers spending from last July through this coming June, but budgets in Jersey City are typically late.

Most years, the public hearing on the budget has been sparsely attended, with one person offering comment – 92-year-old Jerome Lazarus, former deputy mayor during the administration of Paul Jordan in the 1970s.

This year, Lazarus had company.

Jersey City Police Officer and resident Sean Connors suggested that the city look at vacant lots, which he said are only assessed at 10 percent of their value, and try to adopt legislation to collect more money from those lands.

He also asked if the city was going to collect large outstanding fines that have been levied on major property owners in the city, such as New Gold Equities, owners of 110 and 111 First St., and the Tawil Family, owners of dilapidated buildings near the Journal Square PATH train station.

Jerome Lazarus told the council that the hefty tax increase will hurt seniors like him. Lazarus estimated that 75 percent of the pending tax increase was reflected in the most recent quarter tax bill due on Feb. 1, a hefty increase for seniors to pay all at once.

“I make a suggestion to the council that they should pass a resolution authorizing the tax collector to accept installment payments over the next three months for … any taxpayer who cannot meet such a payment,” said Lazarus.

The pending tax increase has been projected to raise the overall tax rate from $46.06 per $1,000 of assessed value to an estimated $52.33 per $1,000. This includes county and school taxes. But a final rate has not yet been struck.

Lazarus also complained that this year’s budget contained “one-time gimmicks” that won’t return every year.

“Here in Jersey City, for 15 years, the taxpayers have been dependent on the mayors with one-time gimmicks to avoid tax lightning, and [now] tax lightning has struck,” said Lazarus.

Lazarus cited, as one-time gimmicks, three things: tax abatement payments anticipated from new development projects to be constructed this year, onetime revenue from the sales of city property, and money saved from the debt restructuring plan. Audit the parking lots

Twenty-four-year resident Scanga launched into a 40-plus minute presentation on the ills of the budget, conducting her own limited audit in public view.

Scanga scrutinized revenue sources such as the city’s tax on commercial parking lots, which are assessed at 18 percent, and asked whether or not the city has done an audit on them. The city anticipates $5.14 million in revenues for the 2006 budget, over $200,000 less than what was received in 2005.

Business Administrator Brian O’ Reilly said that the city has not done an audit, but instead checks financial reports that the individual lots provide.

That answer did not please Scanga.

“Considering that it’s a $5.2 million line item to base it on sheer faith on a business that’s predominately cash, and then they know they would never get audited – it’s a joke,” said Scanga. “The city is not living up to their fiduciary responsibility.” Forty-five more cops anticipated

Budget hearings by the City Council were held for the police on Jan. 9 and for firefighters on Jan. 11.

At the police budget hearings, various council members questioned Police Director Samuel Jefferson on how the budget went up from $80 million to $86 million.

Ward F City Councilwoman Viola Richardson asked about the number of new police officers who were coming on the force and the number of officers eligible for retirement.

There are currently 843 officers as of January 2006, with 45 new officers expected to join before the year ends.

There are also an estimated 170 officers who are eligible for retirement this year, as they have served at least 25 years.

The fire department hearings saw questions about the table of the organization in the fire department and why their budget had increased from $54 to $60 million. This was especially curious because overtime costs that were not expected to rise since more firefighters were hired in 2005.

Also, Ward D City Councilman Bill Gaughan was upset at the Fire Department for pushing for the city to accept a new $1.2 million fire boat from the federal government, because even if the boat is free, fueling and other costs may run up bills.

The city council, however, voted to accept the boat by a 6-3 vote at a Jan.11 meeting. Let’s refinance

The city council introduced at their last meeting by 8-1 a debt refinancing plan that would save the city $26 million in the 2006 fiscal year, and a total of $112 million in the next six years.

The plan, created by the Philadelphia financial firm UBS, would according to O’Reilly even out spikes in debt payments over the next 20 years.

The city is expected to adopt the plan at the next city council meeting this Wednesday.


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