Mayor Steven Fulop’s third State of the City address on March 16 highlighted changes he has made in the city since taking office in July, 2013. The 24-minute-long speech highlighted government efficiency, public safety, crime reduction, development, job creation and diversity, and projected a vision for a tolerant and inclusive metropolis.
“I have always championed the notion of ‘One Jersey City,’ where every resident, from the Hudson to the Hackensack, has the opportunity to build a safe and happy home for themselves and their families,” Fulop said. “We have continued to work hard to prove that the best things about our city do not start and stop at the waterfront, and that regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or income, every resident will be able to live a healthy, productive life here in Jersey City.”
“Those of us who live here understand Jersey City is truly a community of harmony,” Steven Fulop
‘A community of harmony’
“As we hear about Jersey City at a time of divisive national presidential politics, those of us who live here understand Jersey City is truly a community of harmony,” Fulop said.
This allusion to the divisive rhetoric of Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump followed Fulop’s launch of a web petition demanding that Gov. Christopher Christie resign for spending so much time out of state running for president and then endorsing and continuing to campaign for Trump.
Trump once claimed to have witnessed many Jersey City residents celebrating on Sept. 11, 2001 as the World Trade Center Towers fell.
Fulop recalled Jersey City’s immigrant past.
“This is the place that peacefully greeted thousands of immigrants from foreign lands,” he said, rejecting Trump’s xenophobic stance. “This is the place of endless potential and boundless dreams. And this is the place that, today, is pushing government to new frontiers of innovation.”
Fulop connected his administration’s efforts to increase diversity and tolerance with initiatives to increase accountability, efficiency, and development growth. He noted improvements to transgender rights and the city’s successful resumption of control over its school district from the state.
“We also delivered on our promise to increase accountability and efficiency within our administration through the consolidation of the Jersey City Incinerator Authority within the city’s Department of Public Works, saving millions of dollars for our taxpayers,” he said.
The administration has consolidated several departments.
“Our economy has continued its unparalleled growth over the past year, and the progress we have made has been remarkable,” he said. “The city has added over 3,500 jobs, opened over 300 new small businesses, and reduced unemployment to a 25-year low of 4.1 percent, all within the last year alone. In 2015, we had nearly 7,000 residential units under construction – more than anywhere else in New Jersey and a record for Jersey City itself.”
He said development was not confined to already wealthy neighborhoods or to the waterfront. He boasted of new affordable housing as well as seen development in areas such as Journal Square.
“We have also begun construction on Jersey City’s first veteran housing project – something that is particularly close to my heart,” said Fulop, a Marine veteran of Desert Storm. “As a city, we have signed on to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, and I am proud we are moving forward on projects that provide for our veterans.”
Parks, development, jobs
The mayor also cited improvements in city amenities and recreation development. The new CitiBike program, he said, has seen nearly 75,000 rides since its inception last September, and in the spring, the city will be opening Berry Lane Park, the largest park in the city. He also noted that the city – in conjunction with the Jersey City Medical Center – established a volunteer first responder program, the first city in the nation to do so.
Fulop said one of the keys to other successes is in public safety. He said in almost every area, crime has gone down significantly, and predicted if people feel safe they will move to and invest in Jersey City.
“We have had a double-digit percentage decrease in violent crimes since I took office, as well as impressive reductions in nearly all crime categories based on the statistics,” Fulop said. “Assaults are down 17 percent and aggravated assaults are down 14 percent. Robberies are down 23 percent and burglaries are down 16 percent. There have been fewer shootings since the beginning of my term, and last year we recovered over 200 guns, representing a 13 percent increase in guns recovered from the previous year.”
But he said statistics do not always coincide with public opinion.
Indeed, there have been several high profile shooting deaths in Jersey City in the last few years, including at city businesses in the middle of the day. Most recently, a woman was shot in the middle of the street during the morning rush hour.
Fulop said the city has hired more police and increased the number from an all time low. Fulop credited Councilman Richard Boggiano – a retired police officer – with spearheading a move to reestablish a police academy in Jersey City, allowing the city to hire and train more cops.
A different interpretation
But the JC Civic Committee issued a statement with different interpretations of Jersey City’s growth in the past three years.
“The best thing that can be said about the Fulop mayoralty to date is that it has managed not to totally derail Jersey City’s steady growth,” their statement charged. “When you scratch past the superficial PR veneer, you see the real Fulop record: higher taxes, higher crime, [and] incompetent political appointments.”
The group cited several recent resignations or terminations of top aides in the last year. Some of key people who were fired or resigned included Fulop’s former chief of staff, the former police chief, and the former recreation director.
“Steve Fulop has had to fire or compel the resignation of five of his top appointees — and a couple more are holding on by the skin of their teeth, largely because the mayor realizes that if he continues to dismiss directors and high-level appointments, it will become even more obvious what a comedy of errors his administration truly is,” the statement said. “For example, the mayor fired his chief of police, whom he appointed primarily – if not exclusively – due to the chief’s political support, after the chief was on the job less than a year.”
The group suggested the mayor hire “competent and ethical” people to run the city’s department.
The JC Civic Committee said that as councilman, Fulop belittled the lowest homicide rate in the city’s history in the year before he became mayor, but now tries to explain away higher homicide numbers with excuses.
JC Civic is made up of a group of people that include disillusioned former Fulop supporters such as Yvonne Balcer, and officials associated with Fulop’s political opposition in the past such as former City Attorney Bill Matsikoudis. The group successfully sued last to force the Fulop administration to change language in a referendum that would move the municipal elections from May to November. The group has been credited with forcing the City Council to introduce a second referendum on the move that will appear on this November’s ballot.
How to deal with public safety, shootings
In his speech, Fulop also noted that he sought to increase the diversity of the police department. When taking over as mayor, the police force had only one person of color above the rank of patrol officer. Now, there are more.
He also said the fire and police departments were combined into a Department of Public Safety. The city hired a public safety director and last year a new police chief.
“While these facts are indisputable, I know we face the sobering reality of gun violence in our community,” he said. “For example, we recently made 12 gun arrests in one weekend – half of which were juveniles. Clearly, there is a breakdown in society when so many young people have access to guns. However, this epidemic isn’t unique to Jersey City. It is affecting communities throughout the nation.”
He said he often gets feedback from people as he walks the streets, which is helpful in assessing the city’s programs.
He said the public can access information about the city through the Jersey City Open Data Portal on the city website: http://www.cityofjerseycity.com/government.aspx. He credited the Police Department’s Cease Fire Unit with rapid investigations and arrests that reduce the potential for more violence after a shooting has taken place.
To assure an accurate account of events on the street, the city is also equipping police officers with body cameras.
Progress in development and jobs
Fulop said making the city safe has lead to other successes. He said safety can be achieved in other ways such as providing people with jobs. The city has “incentivized businesses” to invest in neighborhoods by providing financing for small businesses, including the $10 million dollar Jersey City Fund program, which offers entrepreneurs even more flexibility to succeed.
“It is no coincidence that we also have the lowest unemployment rate of any large city in the state,” he said. “According to the most recent figures, Jersey City’s unemployment rate was 4.1 percent, representing stronger job growth than anywhere in the region. We see the link between increased economic opportunities and decreases in crime.”
He said the newly-formed Office of Innovation is focused on revitalizing neighborhood business districts outside of downtown, specifically targeting MLK Drive, Ocean Avenue, Monticello Avenue, West Side Avenue, and Central Avenue. The aim is to bring businesses and jobs back to these once booming commercial hubs by creating vibrant main streets that welcome visitors and deter crime.
“Earlier this year, the City Council passed an ordinance creating the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in order to encourage minority- and women-owned businesses as partners in city contracts,” Fulop said. “The Office will provide training, seminars, and workshops aimed at giving these business owners the tools needed to become city vendors and service providers.”
The city has also been implementing programs to engage children and teenagers.
Question of taxes
In his state of the city address, Fulop said taxes have been flat for three years. Last month, the City Council introduced its 2016 CY budget with no increase in taxes.
The JC Civic Committee contends Fulop actually orchestrated a sharp increase in taxes the year before taking over as mayor.
“Mayor Fulop should not be cheered for keeping city taxes flat; he should be chided for artificially raising them, then politically profiting off both the revenues and the false optics his excessive tax hike engineered,” the statement said.
The group also blasted Fulop for canceling the city’s property tax revaluation and burdening taxpayers with the cost of it. The stalled process is currently in litigation.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.