Does Jersey City have “hidden” revenues that could offset proposed service cuts in the 2011 budget?
That’s the question City Council members and members of the community asked Wednesday after Business Administrator Jack Kelly noted, almost in passing, that the city is owed approximately $800,000 in Medicare reimbursements from the federal government.
Kelly made the statement during a public hearing on Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s proposed $477.3 million budget for 2011, which the City Council must still approve.
They said they won’t support the budget unless funding cuts to the library are restored.
But the apparent fact that the city has anticipated revenue that was unknown to the council and not reflected in the budget clearly rankled some members of the governing body.
Four members of the City Council – Steven Fulop (Ward E), Nidia Lopez (Ward C), Viola Richardson (Ward F), and David Donnelly (Ward B) – said they won’t support the budget unless the entire $800,000 is restored to the library program.
“The libraries are vital to our communities in need,” Lopez stated in a joint release issued by the four council members. “Knowing now that we have the dollars without raising taxes on residents, we are immediately going to be aggressive and keep these libraries funded.”
“It is sad that the administration would again not be forthright with the taxpayers,” Fulop added. “On one hand they are harboring a secret slush fund not included in the budget, while at the same time dramatically cutting funding for essential functions like the library. Had I not questioned the unreleased revenue they would have never disclosed this information.”
It was a question from Fulop during Wednesday’s hearing that triggered a discussion with Kelly regarding anticipated revenue. This led to Kelly’s admission that the city expected to earn revenue from several sources, including the Medicare reimbursement, and that this revenue was not included in the draft of the budget shared with the council or the public.
AIDS clinic, other programs cut
Cuts to the city’s libraries have touched off a firestorm of criticism since the beginning of the year. Dozens of residents, some as young as 10, have attended council meetings in recent months to show their support for the library program and to speak out against the proposed cuts to the program.
Several library supporters showed up again Wednesday, some this time bringing protest signs that read “Re-fund. Don’t de-fund,” and “I read. And I vote.”
The public hearing also brought out three staffers from the city’s free STD/HIV clinic who were informed on April 4 that their program would be transferred to Horizon Health as part of the city’s proposed budget cuts.
According to clinic staffer Inez Anderson, Horizon requires that patients pay for service on a sliding scale, while the current clinic offers testing and other services for free. Anderson also claimed that the state of New Jersey requires health providers to document infection rates and she questioned whether Horizon will be immediately capable of fulfilling this state mandate.
Councilmember Richardson said she was concerned about replacing a free clinic with one that may charge a sliding fee for service since this may “discourage some people from being tested or seeking treatment.”
According to the Hudson County HIV/AIDS Planning Council, more than 100 people in the county are diagnosed with HIV each year. As of 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, the total number of recorded HIV cases in Hudson County was 4,623. That is up from 4,541 cases in 2007 and 4,439 recorded cases in 2006.
Clinic staffers questioned whether the city has fully explored other funding streams and ways to eliminate duplicative services before deciding to transfer free STD/HIV services to a provider who may charge a fee.
Residents speak out
Others who attended the public hearing on the budget railed against tax abatements.
Resident Johl Smilowski called abatements the “pink elephant in the room,” adding that the city’s past agreements over many years to give abatements to waterfront developments are among the reasons Jersey City doesn’t have enough money for needed programs.
There is some debate over whether the current budget will cause a tax increase. The mayor’s opponents believe there will be a larger increase than officials are saying.
The city has reduced staff to close a large budget gap. According to Healy, for the past two years the city has implemented 12 furlough days. Since 2005, the entire city workforce has been reduced by 15 percent from 3,100 employees to 2,600. Last year, the city laid off nearly 300 seasonal and provisional employees, and a plan to reduce the civilian workforce by an additional 10 percent has been sent to Trenton.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.