Friday, May 4, 2018

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher: "A lot going on"

Official release:

Dear friends and neighbors:
There always seems to be a lot going on, but this week there seemed to be more than normal including (but not limited to):   
  • Municipal Budget
  • Pay to Play concerns
  • Affordable Housing
  • More fairness for Hoboken’s LGBTQI community
  • Reducing local energy costs
  • Loading zones in residential areas 
  • Hoboken Shipwrecks and 
  • A large, HOT PINK duck  
Read below for more on these (its long, but hopefully the highlighted titles will let you scroll to the topics you find most interesting)…
Amended Municipal Budget
The 2018 Amended Municipal Budget passed with a zero percent increase.  The vote was 9-0 for the 3rd year in a row and 3rd time since 2010.  I have chaired the Finance Subcommittee and have made it my mission to work collaboratively with the administration and the entire council to ensure that the municipal budget weighs and balances the burden on taxpayers while still addressing as many priorities within our city as possible.   Some takeaway points:
  • Total budgeted appropriations (expenditures) actually went up by $4.1M (3.8%) to $112.1M.  
    • Like we are seeing across the country, this was mainly driven by $2.9M in increased healthcare costs.  Group health insurance alone costs $22.8M or 19% of our total municipal budget.  Other large increases include salary and pension ($2.7M) and Debt Service ($600k).
  • Taxes remained flat primarily due offsetting impact of a 2.5% expansion of tax base ($1.3M), increased use of surplus/parking surplus ($1.7M), a reduction in deferred Hurricane Sandy costs ($1.4M) and increased building permit revenues ($900k).
The entire City Council has provided input to the budget since prior to it being introduced by the Mayor, as such the budget now includes the following (and more) because of this input:
  • City Engineer and Construction Manager added to better and more efficiently manage all of our public works, construction projects and technical requirements (including intersection safety) and done so with a better eye on what is best for Hoboken.  These roles will pay for themselves with the reduction in third party engineering costs and IMHO are justified for the next decade given the demands within our community (in original).
  • IT resources to improve, upgrade and automate the Recreation Program and Rent Control records for better access and transparency (in amendment).
  • Traffic and transportation resources for warrant studies for intersection safety, consistent signage at all of our schools, and an analysis for the potential expansion/improvement of the HOP (in amendment).
  • Historic Preservation Design Guidelines that Hoboken has been without and is necessary so we can ensure we are best protecting and preserving our Historic character and properties (in amendment).
  • Expanded park landscaping and incorporation of dog facilities at two parks (in amendment)
  • Restoration of the cobbles for safety and historical purposes on both Court Street and Castlepoint Terrace (in amendment).
  • Expansion of constituent services.  There is city-wide consensus on the need for improvements in this area.  In recent history, it was addressed via the Mayor’s staff and Hoboken 311, but currently there are three additional heads in the budget including the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Mayor and two people who will work in a new department of constituent services.  There remains outstanding clarification on how this will be addressed across the new hires. (in original) 
In my opinion, this is a tight budget with little room for cuts and has some positive, necessary changes that will make our city run more efficiently.  That being said, there will be pressure next year given the reliance on some meaningful yet non-recurring savings/revenues that are in this year’s budget.  We need to continue to focus on efficiencies and revenue expansion this year so we can keep the burden on taxpayers as low as possible while improving the quality of life of our residents. 
Union Dry Dock and Pay-to-Play Concerns
The city continues to move forward on working with all parties to help NYWW find a better location than the former UDD site.  In parallel, NYWW as submitted their application for the Army Corps of Engineers permit, and comments are due May 25th.  
On Wednesday the City Council had to table approving a resolution submitted by the Administration with a last minute change to include environmental firm Prestige Environmental to do work relating to UDD.  Concerns were raised by City Council members about $1,800 in contributions made by Prestige in February and March, listed on the 1Q 2018 ELEC reports for Mayor Bhalla and Team Bhalla.  These amounts are in excess of the City’s contribution limits of $300 from vendors being considered for contracts for professional services.  This is a serious issue, covered in both state and local statutes.  Our local laws carry a penalty if a breach is found of not being allowed to provide any services to our city for 4 years (a full election cycle).  
The entire City Council was focused on how to move forward with minimal delay given the time sensitivity around UDD.  The Administration are expediently investigating the potential breach while simultaneously identifying immediately available replacements so there is no delay - we may have a special meeting to approve the contract / new firm.  In addition to Prestige, two additional firms (directly or through principals of the firms) with existing contracts were also identified that night – Boswell Engineering and Lite Depalma – as having made contributions to Mayor Bhalla in excess of the limits according to his ELEC reports.  Although smaller at $600 each, these are being investigated as well.  
Affordable Housing
Monday night there was a community meeting on affordable housing hosted by Councilwoman Falco, Chair of our affordable housing subcommittee (which I also sit on).  There were a number of speakers from agencies who provide support for residents who are being displaced and/or work on expansion of affordable development.  We have a crisis across our country with affordable housing and within Hoboken, given our attractive location and high land prices, this is even more pronounced.  We have a unique community – our own personal Sesame Street.  And with this we have a great opportunity to potentially show how we can have a community that is inviting to people of all economic backgrounds.  I welcome any thoughts you may have on this topic and if you would like to be more actively involved in this discussion going forward.  More to come…

Commenter on Mayor Ravi Bhalla & ethical government: 'Things have changed'

The following is a comment published on MSV surrounding the Pay-for-Play contract put up by the Ravi Bhalla Administration and rejected by the City Council on Wednesday. If MSV knew who the commenter is, the Horse wouldn't tell. 

While I agree with Mike Defusco and his sentiment that the Ravi Bhalla Administration is ethically challenged it does not escape my memory that Defusco may have violated the spirit of Pay to Play laws during the last election as well as exceeding campaign contribution limits in the last election for PAC contributions.  

But that’s not the point, under the Bhallla administration there seems to be a lack of oversight about this and the blame is clearly on Ravi Bhalla. This should have never made it to City Council for a vote. There is supposed to be a pay to play officer that catches these things. Where is the oversight? Where is the process?  

The problem stems from the fact that Ravi is a lawyer that is still pursuing the commission of government contract work while still being mayor. There were two vendors that bid for an environmental contract with the city and both were conflicted, with Bhalla. Any surprise here with a part-time mayor gallivanting across the state seeking government contract law commissions? Can we find a vendor please that Ravi has not hit up for money?

I can not support a mayor who shows such a lack of judgment and entitlement that he should personally profit from the Mayor’s office. There needs to be more oversight on this because clearly this administration can’t be trusted to police itself.  

Ravi’s statement indicates that he sees this issue as a problem so rather than double down using one of his Ravi bots to disseminate yet another political attack on the messenger he rather adroitly admits there is an issue here. Problem with that is he is asking for a mea culpa after the fact and that is not how good government is supposed to work.  

This never would have happened under Zimmmer. She may have been bad at math but she followed the Pay to Play laws. With Ravi Bhalla we have taken several steps back in how ethics and government are to coexist. 

This is an example of how pay to play is not just an abstraction. We have a Mayor whose craven pursuit of political contributions has led to a potential delay on critical environmental work on Union Dry Dock. Next time Hoboken needs to pick a mayor not on the basis of a midnight flier but one that is no so conflicted across the board.