Monday, June 10, 2019

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher: Correcting the record on the budget and reducing the mayor's tax increase

Official release:


 
Dear friends and neighbors:
After weeks of working with the Administration and the Department of Community Affairs, last week the City Council voted 5-4 to adopt the Amended Municipal Budget.  Although we will have an increase in the municipal tax rate for the first time in several years, we were able to keep the increase to 1.66%, down from the 2.81% originally introduced by the mayor in late March.  
 
As I stated previously in my May 15th newsletter, this is the year the City needed to tighten its belt and show that it can do more with less.  The Adopted budget reflects financially responsible reductions in excess and wasteful spending yet still provides adequate funding for all of our valued municipal services, wage increases for our lowest-paid employees, and support for our seniors and public safety teams.  On June 5th, the DCA concurred and notified us that they approved the Council's amended budget.  Below you will find a description of the final amendments that were made.
 
Although we agreed many of the reductions with the Administration, we did not reach agreement on all.  And instead of moving forward together, at the end of last week the Mayor and the City’s Communications Director took to email, and once again the City’s Nixle alert system, to send out political attacks in an attempt to discredit all of us who worked hard to deliver the lowest taxes possible.  He manufactured crises where none exist and specifically used fear mongering about topics like Monarch and our Constituent Services Office that are important to Hoboken, and to 2nd Ward voters in particular, to get you to vote against us in the upcoming election.  I ask that you please consider this perspective as you read on.  In this era of “fake news” becoming reality if unchecked, I feel compelled to correct the record below.  
 
$641,529 in Net Savings Achieved on $117.5M Budget!
 
This is the most exciting and important part of this email!  Getting to these savings involved the efforts of many including nine budget workshops, many discussions with members of the administration, reviewing in detail approximately 90 budget line items, and a trip to Trenton with Council President Jen Giattino to meet with the Division of Local Government Services within the Department of Community Affairs.  As a result of all of this, the approved budget includes:
  • $788,600 in reductions in 16 different budget items.  
  • $120,000 of additional funding to 5 line items, including $90,000 to our Fire Department.  
  • $27,071 of non-discretionary adds made by the Administration for prior period charges and County imposed, court-related expenses.
There are two broad categories of “controllable” expenses in our budget:  “Other Expenses” (OE)  and “Salary and Wages” (S&W).  Changes made in the amendment process are to specific line items in these categories.  Once the budget is set, the Administration can only change a line item at the end of the year via a budget transfer where they transfer amounts from unused budget line items to categories that may need more.  And this requires City Council approval.  In most cases, the savings we found in OE were typically where historic spending levels were much lower than amounts budgeted.  For S&W, we found similar situations as well as savings from unfilled positions and reducing excessive salary increases (10-30%) to a more supportable level.  Here is the detail:
 
Council Reductions
 
  • $220,000 reduction to $4,993,000 in Sanitation OE – Carting contract came in $300K lower than budgeted.  
  • $95,000 reduction to $1,020,000 in Special Counsel OE:  Budget is 9.9% higher than the 5 yr. historic average and the City’s year-to-date spend is only at 29.5% of this amended number.  Includes a $30,000 increase as agreed with the mayor to restore funding of the tenant advocate which he had recently cut.
  • $85,000 reduction to $329,950 in Mayor’s Office SW:  Restores costs of mayor's office to closer to Mayor Zimmer’s levels at end of her term in 2017; 
  • $75,000 reduction in Police Acquisition of Vehicles OE:  Delay purchase of replacement motorcycles (agreed by Chief Ferrante).  
  • $63,000 net reduction to $3,306,241 in Parking Utility OE:  amounts in this line item are estimated; amended budget (with 1.9% decrease) would still be $540,000 greater than what was spent in 2018 and still provide full funding for all essential projects. 
  • $50,000 reduction to $506,460 in Business Administration SW: No back fill of Assistant BA position vacated in February.
  • $47,500 reduction to $125,500 in City Clerks Elections OE: Reduces excess budgeted amounts.  This is double the 5 yr. historic average and still 2.26x the amount spent in 2015 which is the last year there were ward elections (without runoffs). 
  • $40,000 reduction to $4,662,258 in Parking Utility SW:  Highly transitional staffing levels less than 100% supports this minor .85% reduction. 
  • $35,000 reduction to $1,234,249 in Municipal Court SW:  Reduces excess budgeted amounts.  Amended amount is 20% higher than 5yr average and 7% higher than last years spend.
  • $30,000 reduction to $568,445 in Police OE:  Reduces excess budgeted amounts relative to historic spend.
  • $19,950 reduction to $673,672 in combined Corporation Counsel, Zoning, and Planning SW: Reduces proposed, excessive salary increases to more moderate increases.
  • $17,400 reduction to $156,600 in Streets & Roads OE: Use of Snowplowing trust to offset expenses.
  • $7,500 reduction to $211,725 in Tax Assessor OE: Reduces excess budgeted amounts relative to historic spend.
  • $3,250 reduction to $714,040 in Finance and Revenue SW:  Reduces excess budgeted amounts.
Council Additions
 
  • $90,000 increase to $16,325,566 in Fire SW: Increase for new Fire Chief and amounts to add capacity to engine teams (either new firefighter or overtime).
  • $15,000 increase to $526,518 in City Clerks SW: Increase to compensate for level / responsibility changes.
  • $7,000 increase in HPU Down Payment on Improvements:  Originally contemplated 10% down payment for new HOP bus that would be funded via debt, however down payment not required within HPU; amounts remain and will go toward surplus regeneration. 
  • $6,000 increase to $426,000 in Capital Improvement Fund:  10% down payment for new ADA compliant van for senior medical transport. 
  • $2,000 increase to $13,000 in Senior Citizens OE: Restore to 2017 levels to deliver more programming to Hoboken Seniors.
 
Fact Checking and Correcting the Record
 
The correspondence from the mayor's office was dishonest and misleading.  There is just no other way to describe it.  Here is some fact-checking and correcting the record:  
 
  • DCA did not reject our amended budget.  Although the Mayor’s letter said they did.  Due to a backlog, the DCA did not review our 5/1 amendment until last week and reached out to meet with us as they did with the Administration.  They had concerns about appropriate funding in 5 line items to which we addressed all 5 satisfactorily and provided a revised amendment on 6/5.  The five items were City Engineer SW, Tax Assessor OE, Special Counsel OE, Streets & Roads OE, and City Clerks Elections OE.  The net amount of our changes to those five line items was $112,500.  To quote the Director of the Division of Local Government Services of the DCA in their approval letter: “Please be advised that the budget amendments dated May 1, 2019 and June 5, 2019 are approved.“ and “Thank you all for your efforts to achieve a sustainable budget this year”.  
  • Legal department increased its spending significantly.  Although the Mayor’s letters said the legal department reduced spending by $400,000.  In fact the total amount spent by Corporation Counsel increased from $2.5M in 2017 to almost $2.9M in 2018.  What did reduce was the amount the City over budgeted in the Special Counsel line item, even though actual spending in the Special Counsel line item went up $145,000 in 2018.
  • Made up crisis about funding Monarch.  The mayor’s letter says there will not be enough funding to continue the Monarch litigation.  As noted above, the special counsel budget at $1,020,000 is more than fully funded to address all critical issues facing the City – including Monarch.  And to date, less than 30% of this budget has been actually spent.  Additionally, counsel has indicated that the go forward costs of the litigation relating to the Supreme Court taking the case will be low because it is an appeal of an already fully briefed case.  I have been fighting against the proposed Monarch project since 2011 and I co-founded Hoboken Residents for A Better Waterfront to organize a resident voice to defend our waterfront which now includes Union Dry Dock.  Do you honestly believe I would do anything at all to jeopardize these fights?  I hope you very quickly say no and also consider why the Mayor would allege that I would.  
  • City Council didn’t fire anyone because we legally can’t.  Although the mayor says that we “attempt[ed] to fire someone” and that “the amendment targets his employment”.  Only the mayor can fire someone and he seems to have chosen to do so.  We didn’t decide how he should handle the reductions to his office budget, and we did not target anyone specifically.  We only said it should return to the much lower budget under Mayor Zimmer at the end of her last term.  In fact, our original amendment had a $115,000 recommended cut, but we scaled it back to $85,000 in the final version to give the mayor more options.  
  • Nothing in this budget will drive a reduction in the Office of Constituent Affairs.  Although the mayor says “the budget amendments have the very real possibility of cutting our Office of Constituent Services”.  Notwithstanding what the mayor has alleged, the Council Approved Budget provides for 100% full funding of this office at the levels originally provided for by the Mayor – the Council made no changes to this line item. It would be the Administration’s sole prerogative to eliminate this office if it were to happen.    
  • About those four dissenting votes...  The mayor thanks the four who voted no for “for recognizing the nuances of the budget and opposing Councilmembers Giattino and Fisher’s fiscally irresponsible amendments”.   I spoke with Councilman Russo who changed his vote after previously voting in favor of our prior amendment and he told me it wasn’t our specific amendment he now opposed, rather he would have voted 'no' for any budget with a tax increase including the Mayors.  Regarding Councilwoman Falco, I am not sure why she changed her vote to not support the lower tax rate (she previously voted yes for the original amendment with higher cuts) other than I know she was concerned about the Mayor retaliating against her efforts to expand affordable housing if she voted in favor.  And as for Councilmembers Jabbour and Doyle, they have consistently voted 'no' for the amendments in favor of a higher tax rate.  
 
Are you ok with this?  With the mayor’s office lying to you for political gain?  That your tax dollars are being used for this including the City’s Communication Director and our Nixle system?  With the Mayor running a smear campaign out of City Hall?  Because I am not.  And neither is the City Council when it voted to reduce his office budget.  
 
 
I am very proud of this budget and what we have done to keep taxes as low as possible.  And this did involve a herculean effort by a lot of people including many members of the Administration, the DCA, our auditor, my council colleagues – Council President Giattino in particular - and the public.  Thank you to everyone who helped get this done.  
 
Because the Mayor's megaphone is loud and vast, please forward this to everyone to help me get the word out about the budget.  And as always, feel free to reach out via email, text or phone (201-208-1674) about this or anything else important to you.  And know that I will always fight with and for you.  
 
Thank you,