Budget whispers, happy taxpayers?

Is $98.7M what it costs to run the mile-square city?

The Hoboken City Council held its first budget hearing last week, and very few residents showed up to question the bottom line.
Unlike the past few years, only a handful of taxpayers spoke up, and the biggest complaint was that the proposed budget wasn’t on the internet yet.
The total budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 is $98.7 million, but the more important number for the taxpayer is $55.6 million. That’s the tax levy, or the contribution needed from taxpayer to fund the budget. The rest of the money comes from state and federal grants, and a bit from permit fees and other revenues.
The tax levy decreased by 8 percent from last year’s $60.5 million levy. How that translates to the tax rate – the amount of money each taxpayer pays per thousands of dollars or property – will depend on the number of taxpayers who are contributing.


“[It’s an opportunity to] find out where the money is actually going.” – Michael Lenz

There were no protests over the budget so far. At budget hearings a year ago, protesters gathered outside City Hall, some tarring and feathering an effigy of former Mayor David Roberts after taxes were almost doubled. This year, the relative silence is likely due to the election in November of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, whom many in the Hoboken Revolt tax group supported.
Fourth Ward Councilman and Finance Committee Chairman Michael Lenz, who had served at one point as Chief Financial Officer under Roberts, is calling it the most “complete” budget the city has had in years.
More tellingly, local budget hawks like Eric Kurta are calling it an honest budget.
Kurta, former president of Hoboken’s People for Open Government, has been doing a 10-year analysis of city budgets and said the document is at the very least more honest and accurate.
Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi and Finance Director Nick Trasente both maintain the city will be feeling the lingering effects of the 2008 budget debacle for a few more years, but that things are getting and will get better. In that year, Roberts presented a budget to the council that was almost $11 million short, which led to the current state control of city finances.
One leftover cost from that administration is $4.2 million the city will have to pay to the state due to an ill-executed voluntary severance program for city employees. The state ruled that the program was invalid, and now the city owes the state money.

State says pay up

The $4.2 million bill may be spread out over years and bonded for in the meantime, State Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi said in an interview on Thursday, and she will recommend that Mayor Dawn Zimmer and the council take this approach.
Lenz made a veiled recommendation at the council meeting on Wednesday that the city should not bond for the cost.
Zimmer said she will speak with both the council and Tripodi and try to find a compromise, for instance, perhaps making a lump payment upfront and spreading the rest of the cost out.
The city is also dealing with a group of 25 employees who enrolled in the severance plan – some of whom began using up vacation days – and were denied retirement after the state nixed it. These employees are considering a lawsuit against the city, according to one former employee.

Next in the budget process

The City Council is planning an all-day budget seminar on Saturday, Jan. 30 that will include questions from the council for each department director and a detailed analysis of possible budget cuts.
Residents are invited to attend, although they must forward any questions they have for directors to their City Council representative beforehand, according to Lenz.
The tentative meeting will go from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., he said.
He said the seminar should provide a venue to have a “real conversation” with administrators about the budget, and allow for detailed information on city spending to be conveyed to taxpayers “in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
“[It’s an opportunity to] find out where the money is actually going,” he said.
After the seminar, the council will put forth one sweeping amendment to the budget; allow the public to view and comment at a second public hearing; then hopefully pass the budget and submit it to the state for final approval, Lenz said.

Other council items: development under bridge; zoning appeals

Also discussed at Wednesday’s Hoboken City Council meeting:
● The council has scheduled a community meeting to discuss the reconstruction of the 14th Street Viaduct, the bridge that connects Hoboken to Jersey City and Union City.
The bridge construction is being handled by the county, but they have planned for a recreation or open space area underneath. The council is reaching out to residents to see what should be built there. The meeting is on Tuesday, Dec. 12 at the Elks Club, 1005 Washington St., from 7 to 9 p.m.
● The council also scheduled hearings on three Zoning Board appeals that have come before the governing body. The council is the body designated to hear appeals of zoning decisions. The council hasn’t heard an appeal in roughly 10 years, according to some sources.
One of the appeals is from Fund for a Better Waterfront, who are opposing the construction of the Stevens Institute garage and classroom space along Sinatra Drive.
Ron Hine, FBW executive director, said he thinks the appeals haven’t come before the council because the past councils may not have fairly heard an appeal.
“In this case, there is a good chance the City Council will say we are correct,” Hine said.
Councilman Ravi Bhalla tried to convince his council colleagues that, along with other issues, the choice of venue for the applicant is legally an unfair practice. Bhalla is hoping to change the ordinance to remove the council as an appellant body after the current cases are completed. The council does not have to act on the appeals; they will go before a judge if the council does not act.
● Mayor Dawn Zimmer made several mayoral appointments by proclamation at the meeting, including adding four members to the Planning Board. Zimmer appointed to the board the following people: Democratic Committee Vice-Chairwoman Ann Graham, Community Development Director Brandy Forbes, political ally Keith Furman, and local architect Demitri Sarantitis. Sarantitis will appear in place of the mayor on the board.
Graham was elected chairwoman of the board in their reorganization meeting, even though she was just appointed.
On the Reporter’s letters page this week, longtime member Hank Forest thanks the community for this time on the board and questions why he was not re-appointed.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at tcarroll@hudsonreporter.com.

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