Thursday, June 13, 2013

Guest of the Stable: Kurt Gardiner tackles HudCo's proposed 10% tax hike for Hoboken


Last week, the spending juggernaut know as Hudco supposedly did Hoboken a huge favor by hosting a Freeholder 2013 Budget workshop meeting in Hoboken's City Hall. Mayor Turner of Weehawken and Mayor Zimmer of Hoboken attended and politely expressed their concern over the tax increase and overall expenditures. They have to be polite since they have to work with the county. As a private citizen I don't have to be so polite so here goes my stance on behalf of the Hoboken taxpayer....

Kurt Gardiner Remarks on
2013 Hudson County Budget
Kurt Gardiner is a potential candidate for Freeholder in 2014

I am writing this as a resident and taxpayer of Hoboken to speak out on the 2013 proposed Hudson County budget first revealed to the public on May 7th 2013. The initial version presented has an approximate tax increase on Hoboken residents of 10% versus prior year or an increase of about $5 million in the levy inflicted upon Hoboken residents. It is time to say enough is enough and that Hoboken in my opinion and that of other taxpaying residents I have spoken to, it has been taxed too much by the County. This is especially true due to the scant level services it receives in return on a levy which in 2013 is projected to be over $50 million raised from Hoboken residents.

Hoboken although considered relatively affluent in terms of property values and income in relation to the rest of the County, it was by far the hardest hit of all the municipalities and is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. A FEMA survey of Hudson County shows Hoboken in terms of the number of properties sustained 97% of the county's flood damages, next was North Bergen at 1.3%. The other municipalities each sustained less than 1% of the total damage to the county. Not everyone in Hoboken is rich and there is still a substantial middle class in Hoboken given the number of affordable housing options and many of them are still recovering. Sandy as storms go really hurt Hoboken and this tax increase is like pouring sea salt into those open wounds. 

As a progressive I don’t expect Hoboken to get every dollar back for the money it is taxed. The County provides many services to the poor and elderly that are disproportionally in other areas of the County than Hoboken and that need them more. I get that. While Hoboken certainly benefits from the County Jail keeping criminals locked up and mental health programs and facilities that amount does not come close satisfying the $50 million plus per year that Hoboken residents put in. 

Mayor Dawn Zimmer, leading by example and and making tough but smart choices has reduced taxes more than 10% in her 4 year tenure but the County has given Hoboken taxpayer a raise of just 10% in one year and an overall increase of around 20% over the same time period. To simply blame the increase on increasing Hoboken property values and on the State Formula is not enough. In a time where local and state governments have all learned to really tighten their belts and show some fiscal restraint, Hudson County still operates in a bubble of zero accountability and as a county jobs patronage mill oblivious to call for a more service based approach. Nothing embodies that more than the recent attempt to hire Anthony Romano political ally Michelle Russo, wife of former Hoboken Mayor and convicted felon into a Custodial Services job for which she had no experience. Thankfully, responsible Hoboken residents got wind of that patronage hire attempt and the county backed off. How many other such County appointments still fly under the radar? Things that make you go hmm.

Other examples of County waste or inappropriate allocation of funds include $12 million for the County Golf Course. In a time with a deep recession an expenditure of this magnitude is unconscionable but spend it the county did. A more appropriate allocation would have been to help Hoboken with the privatization of the HUMC Hospital when it was in jeopardy of closing and plummeting Hoboken into bankruptcy. While Anthony Romano’s allies on the City Council Minority, Tim Occhipinti, Mike Russo, Terry Castellano, and Beth “I’ll sue you and your little dog too” Mason and were obstructing the deal with the only legitimate bidder from getting accomplished, where was the County? Surely since over 50% of the patients at the HUMC at the time were not from Hoboken and the county should have had a vested interest. Right? The answer was the County was nowhere to be found during that time of crisis.

Those are just a few examples from the past.

More importantly: What should the county do going forward? ...

The fact is that there is still much bloat in the current budget and while this can’t all be addressed in one year it is time to start a change in the culture. There is at least one Freeholder, Bill O’Dea that in earnest is looking for both costs savings and realized revenue to reduce the current levy for all Hudson County taxpayers of which Hoboken is just a part. Where are the other Freeholders including Anthony Romano who represents Hoboken in leading the charge to smartly reduce expenditures? Both the executive and the remainder of the legislative branch need to step up and get results.

Anthony Romano, unlike Mayor Zimmer has yet to speak out to the Hoboken taxpayer against this colossal increase via a letter to the editor or a public statement. So far he has produced nothing. I know Romano is not a big internet guy but not even writing something in the Hoboken Reporter is an insult to the Hoboken taxpayer. Hoboken comprises approximately 7.9% of the population but pays close to 17% of the taxes and would in my estimation be lucky to see 2-3% back in services. I find this to be an utter lack of leadership from my elected Freeholder. Perhaps from his subsidized Marine View Apartment that could go to a more worthy recipient of the middle class, Anthony Romano literally and figuratively looks down on those who foot the bill. That is admittedly speculation on my part. Romano’s silence on this matter is implicit support for pillaging of the Hoboken taxpayer.

Other areas where the County could help Hoboken would be additional grant money for infrastructure improvements like Sinatra Park repairs, park acquisition for the Henkel Site which would produce real ball fields, Washington Street (which is no longer a county road but gets a ton of county use as Hoboken is the #2 tourist destination in the State of New Jersey), help for the Jubilee Center, Hoboken Shelter, and other worthwhile organizations that are struggling for Federal and State funds. Moving monies into these areas in future budgets would help offset that imbalance that I and other Hoboken taxpayers see in the current situation.

Opportunities for further reduction include tighter monitoring of employee overtime and filling of vacancies (aka a hiring freeze or a downright RIF). I honestly wasn’t shocked to hear that 8 employees in the Department of Corrections consistently get tons of overtime very year and they are the same employees year after year. Remember Patrick Ricciardi who amassed tons of OT for years in Hoboken and pled guilty to data theft? This smells of favoritism and needs to be investigated. I liked Bill O’Dea’s suggestions of a committee to review all vacancies as long as he is on it. As the only Freeholder who in my view is a true fiscal hawk (which is Hudson County is actually a good thing) having him the chair would yield desirable results in my estimation. Constituent Services is a redundant department and can be eliminated with improved communication protocols and the adoption of a 311 system. The elimination of that department would not mean everyone would not necessarily lose their job, just be redeployed.

I am perturbed that possible employee headcount reductions were not mentioned as a possible solution to reducing costs to the County taxpayer. The fact the County would take that off the table limits its ability to make more cost savings and shows that it is operating in a vacuum where money seemingly has an endless supply. We all know that is not the case. Employee headcount reductions should be a part of these savings.Having a county job should be a privilege and not an entitlement but more and more the entitlement attitude seems to permeate in Hudson County. It cheapens the whole notion of civil service. 

The other aspect of the equation that hurts not only the Hoboken taxpayer but Weehawken and Secaucus is the implementation of use of pilots. Hoboken and Jersey City were listed as two cities making extensive use of long term pilots is a report on New Jersey Tax Abatements written in 2010 by State Comptroller Michael Boxer. Jersey City in particular stands out as quoted in the 2010 report:

“Jersey City currently exempts approximately $2 billion of property value. In view of the city’s general tax rate of $6 per $100 of assessed value (6%), Jersey City is not collecting approximately $120 million is property taxes on the exempted property. In 2009, Hudson County received approximately 25% of the property taxes collected in the city. Using that as a baseline, the county did not collect approximately $30 million from Jersey City due to the city’s abatements. While the county still receives some amount through it 5% portion of PILOTS it does not make up for that $30 million in lost revenue. Instead, the other municipalities in the county make up for those dollars”. 

This year that would be Weehawken, Secaucus and Hoboken. Just to be clear the PILOTS in Jersey City and Hoboken were not created by the currently elected officials in Hoboken and Jersey City but they have choices going forward about how to handle PILOTS. I know we have a reform mayor reform in Hoboken that understands this and I am hopeful for fairer use PILOTS in Jersey City with newly Mayor. Time will tell.

We know life isn’t fair but something has to be done about PILOTS and the State formulation going forward. Since that is not in direct control of Hudson County, it is up to the county to do their best to help make up the difference. There is a overcapacity built in to our current corrections and juvenile facilities that needs serious examination for example. Operational audits from a respected firm or firms would go along way to finding additional savings opportunities without jeopardizing services. 

Again this isn’t about Hoboken getting back dollar for dollar, it is a about a better balance. Expenditures can be decreased and revenues realized. At the very least a hiring freeze and possible employee headcount reductions should be a part of it. It is high time Hoboken taxpayers stopped getting the short end of the “Stick” and have leadership that will understand the Hoboken taxpayer. I can’t wait for 2014 and it is not just about me necessarily running for office. I just want better representation for Hoboken.