Why you should care about the freeholder race

Two Hoboken residents running to decide county taxes, services

The Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders includes nine members who make decisions about the county budget, personnel, the roads, parks, and the county jail. In the June 3 Democratic primary race for the district covering Hoboken and Jersey City Heights, two Hoboken men – including the incumbent – and a Jersey City woman are running.
Anthony Romano, who has represented Hoboken on the board since 2010, faces an uphill battle for reelection, because Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop have endorsed his challenger, Hoboken-based activist Phil Cohen. The longtime county political machine, the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), has also endorsed Cohen.
Hoboken residents pay taxes to three entities: The county, the city, and the schools. The freeholders oversee the county budget. Wealthier cities like Hoboken, Weehawken, and Secaucus are often hit with the highest rates, as determined by a state formula, because they have so many taxpaying properties. But the county budget, decided each June, also has a big impact.
“The years of hitting Hoboken and Jersey City residents with 15 percent tax hikes must come to an end,” said Cohen in an interview on Thursday.
Cohen is framing his campaign around a plan to lower Hoboken and Jersey City’s county tax rates, including a top-to-bottom audit of each county department.
“I would insist on a top to bottom independent performance audit of all county operations, which would reveal a roadmap for how we can reduce county costs while maintaining county services,” he said. “And I’d hire a budget auditor as my top aide.”
But Romano, who is running on what he calls a successful record of bringing significant county services to Hoboken, says Cohen’s plan is a campaign-season convenience, and that lowering the taxes is next to impossible.”
“He’s going to be in the same dilemma I’m in; what’s he going to do, ask for layoffs? It’s not going to happen. Obviously if we could have lowered taxes, we would have by now,” said Romano. “The city’s [recent] tax revaluation combined with the state formula is the reason that the taxes are high. Hoboken and Jersey City are very successful right now. He’s not going to lower taxes, it’s a state formula.”
Romano said he plans to vote against this year’s county budget because he feels that the board did not do enough to cut costs. But last year, when he was the chairman and oversaw the budget process, Romano said that he had slashed the budgets of every county department by five to 10 percent.
Cohen is an attorney with the New York law firm Greenberg Traurig.
Romano retired from the Hoboken Police Department in 2011 with the rank of captain. He also owns and operates Louise and Jerry’s bar on Washington Street.
A spokesman for the third candidate, Rohena Santiago, of Jersey City, did not respond to a request for comment on this story. A letter sent to the address listed on her election filings was returned to the Reporter’s office.

Other issues

Cohen, who also served on Hoboken’s Zoning Board of adjustment and worked on Dawn Zimmer’s reelection campaign last November, said he’d like to bring new technology to the county, mentioning the county’s website, www.hudsoncountynj.org, specifically.
“The county’s website is not very user-friendly,” he said. “There are ways to use technology to get residents the services they need, and we can start by upgrading the website. By doing that, we can be more cost-effective and benefit Hoboken residents and all Hudson County residents.”
The county website was redesigned before the Super Bowl last February, but some functions fail to work on occasion.
Romano said he would continue to focus on bringing shared services to Hoboken residents, especially infrastructural improvements, in hopes of justifying the city’s high tax rates.
“We’ve been able to do so much for Hoboken during my time on the board,” he said. “We’ve repaved all of the county streets except Observer Highway, which we’ve secured the money for; the city just hasn’t taken it yet. We secured $3 million for the southwest park, $124,000 for the library, $500,000 for Hoboken Cove, and we covered most of the cost of 1600 Park.”

Powerful endorsements

The Hudson County Democratic Organization, which in the past has supported Romano, raised some eyebrows recently when it threw its support behind Cohen. Sources say Zimmer played a significant role in the decision, despite Romano and Zimmer having worked together in the past.
“Obviously this time around they left the pick up to the mayor, with whom I have no governmental differences, so it was a big surprise,” said Romano. “But he’s a big supporter and contributor to the mayor.”
Cohen contributed at least $1,500 to Zimmer’s reelection fund last October. Cohen declined to comment on his endorsements other than to say he was honored to have Zimmer and Fulop’s support.
Zimmer did not respond to Romano’s statement by press time. In her endorsement of Cohen, she said, “As a committed reformer on the local level for more than 20 years, Phil will advocate strongly for change at the county level to reduce spending and ensure services are provided as cost-effectively as possible. He will be a strong voice for us on the Freeholder Board.”

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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