A City Council minority prevailed last week in voting to not pay city workers or municipal bills in order to make a point.
On Wednesday, Councilpersons Theresa Castellano, Beth Mason, and Michael Russo voted against temporary emergency appropriations, a measure that makes money available to the city until a time that it has an approved yearly budget.
The city runs on a July 1-June 30 budget year. Each year, it has been late in approving its budget. City budgets have topped $100 million.
Councilpersons Ravi Bhalla and Nino Giacchi were absent from the meeting, leaving only four votes in favor of the appropriations: councilpersons Dawn Zimmer, Peter Cunningham, Carol Marsh, and Dave Mello.
“I want to know where it is, when we’re going to see it.” – Beth Mason
By voting down the measure, Castellano, Russo, and Mason are trying to make a point to the new administration that the council wants to see a budget for analysis and hearing as soon as possible.
The city has shut down in the past from this sort of maneuvering, but that was before state-appointed, council-approved Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi came to town.
On Thursday, Tripodi overruled the council’s decision not to allocate money for city operations, according to city spokesman Paul Drexel.
Just as the meeting began, Mason interrupted the proceedings to ask why the council wasn’t holding budget hearings and why a budget hasn’t been introduced.
“I want to know where it is, when we’re going to see it,” she said. “I don’t understand why…[we] can’t get a draft or something.”
Zimmer said the introduction of the spending document is hinging on labor negotiations and operational audits that she expects will be concluded soon. But even Cunningham, her ally, said he was “in favor of the council having some access to the negotiations.”
Finance department Director Nick Trasente told the council the budget is “three-quarters” complete and will be ready for introduction possibly on Oct. 21 or more likely on Nov. 4, one day after another mayoral election.
After public hearing and council approval, he said an adopted budget could be finished by December at the earliest.
The 2008 budget was introduced in December 2008 and adopted in March 2009. The city fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.
Mason and others are concerned because the amount of temporary emergency appropriations indicates a bottom line approaching last year’s $123.8 million budget.
Most officials agreed last year that the budget was extraordinarily bloated to make up for the 2007 budget debacle. Many agreed that this year the budget would most likely be reduced to between $90 and $100 million.
After the vote failed, the Reporter asked Russo if he expected the city to shut down on Thursday. Cognizant of Tripodi’s past saves, he said, “[The appropriations] were passed.”
When asked if he thought it was presumptuous of the council to expect Tripodi to automatically pay city workers, he said, “I still have my vote.”
Does Tripodi consider the “no” vote an abdication of the council’s responsibilities?
She said she doesn’t understand the council’s motivation, Drexel said, but she is charged with acting in the best interest of the community, which means keeping the city running.
Last year, Zimmer and Cunningham were on a different side of this issue, but it was also much later in the budget year. At the time, the council was sorting out the remnants of an underfunded 2007 budget and awaiting a 2008 budget crafted by Tripodi. A council majority that included Castellano, Russo, Mason, and Councilpersons Dawn Zimmer and Peter Cunningham voted down temporary emergency appropriations several times, only to have Tripodi to overrule their decision in order to keep the city running.
As acting mayor, Zimmer is defending her right to work with the budget before the council gets their hands on it. She claims that ongoing negotiations of six city labor agreements are hampering her ability to present a balanced spending guide.
And now that she’s in the driver’s seat, how does Zimmer feel about her council colleagues pulling the same move she was party to in the past?
“I understand that technique,” she said in an interview. “It is what it is.”
Paying for eroding piers
She noted that $400,000 in special expenses to secure the eroding pier at Sinatra Field were part of the appropriations and critical to the safety of residents and the protection of the piers.
“We’re paying for the neglect that happened since 1995,” Zimmer said. “[Mayors Anthony Russo and David Roberts] ignored it. It’s going to cost more now.”
Zimmer said a preliminary estimate put the price tag between $3 and 6 million, although that may change.
The city has applied for $900,000 in emergency aid, and Zimmer said she is still reaching out to other agencies for financial support.
In the meantime, she said, the city is moving soccer games from the field to the Hoboken High School field and Weehawken’s waterfront fields.
But city engineers may allow games to continue at Sinatra Park beginning next week, she said, once they are confident no more damage is imminent. If cleared, engineers will do weekly inspections to ensure safety going forward.
● A special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 6 to allow council members to interview Zimmer’s new directors was cancelled at the last minute due to scheduling conflicts.
On Tuesday, Mason called for those appointments to be put on hold until a new mayor is elected in November.
At the Wednesday meeting, Carol Marsh, who chairs the council’s ad hoc Appointment Review Committee, let the council decide whether they wanted to reschedule the meeting or just allow the directors to keep working in an acting capacity.
The council decided to wait and not begin the interview process until after the November election.
● The council approved the conversion of the Parking Utility to the Transportation and Parking Utility, with a surprising vote in favor coming from Russo.
The restructuring allows the new department to oversee things such as taxi licensing, traffic signal management, and the operation of the Crosstown Bus.
After Director Ian Sacs addressed some council concerns – satisfactorily to most – the council voted 5-2 in favor of the restructuring.
Russo said Sacs convinced him the move was good for the residents, although Castellano and Mason still voted against the measure. They both cited concerns with the city budget.
Resident critics, like Lane Bajardi, said the restructuring was done in order to conform to Sacs’ resume. Bajardi said that without the expanded scope, Sacs would not have been qualified to run the utility, in his opinion.
● The city is restarting the process of creating a redevelopment zone in the southwest. They passed a resolution ordering the Planning Board to complete a study of the area to see if it qualifies as an area in need of redevelopment. If so, the council can take over zoning control of the blighted area and offer tax abatements to entice development.
In this case, the city is intent on providing open space along with any redevelopment there, based on a grass-roots plan for a 6-acre park.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.