Saying the city faces some sobering economic times, Mayor Mark Smith gave his State of the City address both at the packed monthly Chamber of Commerce breakfast in March and later in the evening at a live TV broadcast.
“Our great city – the city that we all love – is in peril and we must act swiftly…” – Mayor Mark Smith
“Our great city – the city that we all love – is in peril and we must act swiftly, decisively, and cooperatively if we are to preserve all that is good about life in Bayonne,” he said.
He said the city cannot afford to ignore the fact that it spends more on municipal operations than it receives in tax revenues and aid.
“Each year, our budget contains a persistent, structural deficit that has grown to exceed $30 million,” Smith said. “Unless we talk about it, unless we drag it out of the closet and confront it directly, we will never be rid of it.”
Since taking office in November, Smith said his administration has focused on examining municipal operations in an effort to find ways to consolidate municipal government, cut spending and increase efficiency.
“We are fully engaged in this process and I am happy to report that we are making steady progress in reducing city spending,” he said. “The job isn’t easy or pleasant to do, but if we are to restore our community’s vitality, this work must be done.”
Smith said he knows these changes won’t make everyone happy. But he also invited the public to provide him with other ideas that might help the city.
One of the most immediate problems looming over the city when he took office last November, Smith said, was the “intractable litigation between the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”
“The BLRA and the Port Authority were entangled in a year-long, hostile lawsuit that threatened to go on for many more years and paralyze all attempts to redevelop the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor for the benefit of the entire community,” Smith said. “I knew that, if we were to have a chance at moving forward, a solution must be found to end the litigation.”
To help solve the problem, Smith said he contacted key people, including Susan Bass Levin, deputy executive director of the Port Authority; Rep. Bob Franks, assemblyman; State Democratic Chairman Joe Cryan; the governor’s Chief of Staff Ed McBride; and PA Chairman Tony Coscia.
“It was clear from our discussions that the logjam would benefit from some new faces at the table,” Smith said. “That’s one of the reasons why I suggested that Chris Patella assume the role of executive director of the BLRA. Chris’s experience as a trial lawyer and mediator would ultimately be of great value in resolving our differences.”
In March, the Port Authority dropped its lawsuit.
“The end of the litigation means that we can now complete the sale of the Maritime District to Ports America, Inc.,” Smith said. “It does not mean we are rich and it does not mean all of our problems are solved.”
Smith said the city would not continue to raid the BLRA treasury to fund municipal operations or rely on the sale of real estate or one shot revenue gimmicks.
“Now more than ever, we must continue the work of shrinking our structural deficit and restoring fiscal discipline to our government,” he said. “Our overarching, guiding principle has been that the people cannot pay more in property taxes.”
Smith said the city needs to make Bayonne an attractive place to develop, growing the tax base that will bring new tax revenues to city coffers.
“Unfortunately, the perception of Bayonne as a place to do business has not been favorable,” he said. “They don’t feel welcome in Bayonne, that it’s too difficult to navigate through the bureaucracy, and that they find it easier to do business elsewhere. That is why my administration is developing a comprehensive approach to development that will assign a single point of contact for all developers. This business liaison would serve to assist developers in cutting through the red tape and clearing the hurdles that slow business development and hurt our community.
He added, “By making it easier to reach a decision point, we can only help businesses who are seeking to build in Bayonne. Once the community has approved the application through a public hearing at the appropriate board, we should support the project until it is completed.”
Smith described current financial times as “perilous,” similar to those faced by Americans in the 1930s.
“Tough times demand tough leadership and difficult decisions,” he said.
Smith, however, said he had many good things to report as well, such as the grand opening of the Alexan at Bayonne Bay, the first development at the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor this summer, and the Omni Bayonne Nursing and Rehabilitation Center slated to be constructed on Broadway and 29th Street.
As an addendum to his evening speech, Mayor Smith brought the owners of the Bayonne Energy Center Project to speak about a construction project and its benefits to Bayonne in jobs and taxes.
Smith also arranged for a presentation on the long-awaited Bayonne Crossing Shopping Mall, which is finally expected to break ground in the spring, despite the sagging national economy.
Smith also noted that the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system continues to be ahead of schedule in the construction of the system extension to West Eighth Street. He also pointed to the reconstruction of the Shop Rite and plans for Global to work with the Port Authority for a modernization of the container port. Also slated to break ground is the off-track wagering facility on Route 440. Smith also celebrated the continuing operation of the Bayonne Medical Center.
Smith said he has gone to Washington, DC to meet with legislators there and has taken other actions to assure needed funds flow into the city.
But he noted the real work starts here in Bayonne, where he is going to streamline city government in order to make it more efficient. This includes getting all agencies connected with development to work together and an overhaul of municipal government.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.