Monday, March 16, 2020

Councilman Phil Cohen - community updates

Official release:

Please note this release from Councilman Phil Cohen came on Friday prior to additional City of Hoboken actions handling the current emergency situation.

 
Dear Neighbors,

There’s a lot of news and updates to share. I try to be concise, but I include more details here than usual on important issues like the Coronavirus and our budget, so thanks for hanging in there with me. 

Coronavirus Update
As of March 12th, the Hoboken Office of Emergency Management declared a state of emergency in Hoboken due to the Coronavirus. All non-essential City-run events and meetings are canceled until further notice; all City-run recreation programs are canceled; and the Hoboken Public School District and the Hoboken Charter Schools (Elysian, HoLa, and Hoboken Charter) will close on Monday, March 16 for two weeks.
Hoboken continues to closely monitor the latest developments regarding the Coronavirus to keep the public informed. Over the past days, Mayor Bhalla’s office and the City Health Department have been in close contact with Governor Murphy’s office and the New Jersey Department of Health receiving regular updates. Also, the City has formed a Coronavirus task force consisting of members of the Hoboken Health Department, Hoboken Police Department, Hoboken Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management, Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the Hoboken Public School District, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the Mayor’s office. 
According to the New Jersey Department of Health, the best thing residents can do is to stay home if you are sick. Symptoms of the Coronavirus could include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, which could appear in as few as two days or up to 14 days after exposure.
The following steps recommended by the NJ Department of Health to prevent the spread of the flu and the common cold, which can also help prevent the Coronavirus:
-Wash hands often with soap and water. If not available, use hand sanitizer
-Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
-Avoid contact with people who are sick
-Stay home while you are sick and avoid contact with others
-Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing
-Receive a seasonal flu vaccine (while the vaccine can’t necessarily prevent the Coronavirus, it can minimize the number of residents with flu-like symptoms)
-Review and follow all of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) travel advisories when planning travel. If you become ill after returning home, call your healthcare provider before going to a doctor’s office or emergency department of a hospital.
You can read more about Hoboken’s response to the Coronavirus here as well as the declaration of a state of emergency here.  You can also follow me here on Facebook and Twitter as I am sharing current information and links to resources on this public health issue that merits everyone’s careful attention. 
$14 Million in FEMA Grants for Our Northwest Resiliency Park
February 24 was a great day for Hoboken and the 5th Ward! 
Senator Menendez and Mayor Bhalla announced we are receiving 14 million dollars in FEMA grants to help finance the 5th Ward’s 5-acre Northwest Resiliency park — presently under construction — protecting us from chronic flooding and making our lives better every day with beautiful recreational facilities and passive green spaces — and no impact on our municipal budget!
When complete, our Northwest Resiliency Park will be a national model for combating climate change and stronger, wetter storm events. With an underground water detention system holding nearly 2 million gallons of stormwater, our park will reduce sewer overflow events in Northwest Hoboken from 4 times a month to 4 times a year – a 90% decrease! Combined with amenities including a multi-purpose athletic field, landscaped green spaces, an ice skating rink, playground equipment and more, Hoboken’s biggest park will provide game-changing quality-of-life improvements for the residents of the 5th Ward and all of Hoboken.
Congratulations to Mayor Bhalla and his hard-working directors, especially Director Jennifer Gonzalez and Director Caleb Stratton for their tireless work culminating in securing these extremely competitive grants. Thanks to our Federal, State and County partners, especially Senator Menendez, NHSA Director Wolff and our NHSA commissioners, and County Executive DeGise, without whose assistance, neither this park nor the FEMA grants would be possible. Finally, thanks to Mayor Zimmer for her vision and determination that led to the acquisition and creation of this park. 
You can learn more about the FEMA grant awards here!

Carryout Plastic Bag and Styrofoam Ban
Hoboken is a national leader in environmental sustainability.  As of March 8th, the City has officially banned ALL commercial use of styrofoam containers and carry-out plastic bags. The updated bag ban has been implemented as a part of Hoboken’s Climate Action Plan. You can read about the action plan here
Ban on All Carry-out Plastic Bags
• All carry-out plastic bags, including “reusable” plastic bags, are prohibited at all retail and food establishments as of March 8, 2020. 
• Retail and food establishments must still make paper bags available to customers for a fee of 10-25 cents per bag. All proceeds from the fee will continue to be collected by the retail or food establishment to offset the costs of the paper bags.
• The following plastic bags are still permitted with no fee: produce bags; product bags (packaging); bags for frozen foods, meat, fish, flowers, plants, or baked goods; pharmacy prescription bags; newspaper bags; laundry or dry-cleaning bags and packages of multiple bags, including pet waste bags.
Styrofoam Ban
• Single-use products made with expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly known as styrofoam, will no longer be permitted for sale at retail or food establishments in Hoboken as of March 8, 2020.
• Single-use products that consist of EPS including cups, containers, lids, closures, trays, plates, utensils, napkins and more will no longer be permitted for sale at retail or food establishments.
Read more about the ban here
 
Holding the Line on Taxes In a Challenging Fiscal Year
I have been appointed to six Council Subcommittees: Rebuild by Design (which I Chair); Zoning; North End Redevelopment; Environmental Services; Public Safety; and (most relevant for the purposes of this newsletter) Budget and Finance, which is responsible for working on the introduction and consideration of Mayor Bhalla’s municipal budget for Calendar Year (CY) 2020. 
 
Over the last 10 years, Hoboken has held the line on taxes, while our Hudson County tax rates have doubled. However, shortly after I was sworn in, I learned that 2020 will be a particularly challenging fiscal year for the City. The unfortunate reality is that we will have a tougher than a normal municipal budget year due mainly to rising fixed costs. 

Projected Calendar Year 2020 Shortfall
The day after I was sworn into office, I learned of an anticipated $7.4 million shortfall in Hoboken’s Calendar Year (CY) 2020 budget. This $7.4 million shortfall is based largely on the following factors:
-A 7.3% projected increase in employee medical benefits costs for City employees
-A mandated pension bill from the State of New Jersey for 2020 that is almost $600,000 higher than the City’s bill for 2019. 
-Newly negotiated union contracts have added a $3.5 million difference from the previous expired contracts. 
-Increased premiums from the State’s Joint Insurance Fund; reduced fines and fees from our Municipal Court; increase in solid waste disposal costs; revenue shortfalls from investments; and increased expenses for parking enforcement.  
 
The Budget and Finance Subcommittee has been very active, scheduling weekly meetings since mid-January with members of the Administration and working on plans for receiving a proposed budget from the City. You can read Mayor Bhalla’s statement addressing our municipal budget here
 
79 Lay-off Notices to Municipal Employees and March 4th Council Meeting
On February 28, consistent with December 2019 RIF notices issued to our 6 municipal unions, 79 municipal employees received lay-off notices indicating that they could lose their jobs in May, depending upon the state of ongoing labor negotiations.  In response, many City employees and their supporters came to our Council meeting last Wednesday night, sharing their personal stories about the incredible commitment they have dedicated to our community over the years and the stress and anxiety that they are dealing with as a result of receiving the lay-off notices. The City has described the need to follow-through with all 79 layoffs as a “worst-case scenario” contingent on the outcome of ongoing labor negotiations with our unions. 
I appreciate all our city workers and was moved by what I heard in Council chambers. I also appreciate the many friends, family members and supporters of our municipal employees who spoke on their behalf. I am hopeful that continuing good faith negotiations between the City’s municipal unions and Mayor Bhalla’s Administration will achieve significant cost savings and save many jobs that are on the line and, along with newly identified revenue sources, address the significant anticipated CY 2020 budget shortfall.  
At our last Council meeting, the unions and the Administration seemed to agree in principle that health care insurance savings in the millions of dollars could be realized by moving our employees to a State employee insurance program, rather than a self-insured insurance program. The Council unanimously encouraged the parties to resume negotiating to explore this potential cost-saving option. 
Urging My Fellow Council Members to Get Health Insurance From Their Own Employers, Not The City
During our March 4 Council meeting, I introduced, during new businesses, an emergency resolution to generate additional cost-savings for this year’s budget. I urged my fellow members of City Council to forgo the City’s health insurance benefits and instead take their own employer’s health care coverage. This cost-saving measure could save the City an additional $100,000+ annually which, in this extraordinary fiscal year, could save 2 employees’ jobs. Unfortunately, only Councilman Doyle, Councilwoman Jabbour and I thought this resolution was an “emergency” resolution, so the resolution was not considered last week, but rest assured, I will raise this resolution at our next meeting, on March 18.

My Commitment to the Residents of the 5th Ward
I commit to you that every decision I make regarding the budget will be done with the utmost respect and consideration for you, the taxpayers of Hoboken. I am committed to holding the line on taxes and believe it is not only unfair to burden Hoboken’s already over-stretched taxpayers with a threatened massive, double-digit tax increase, but I will never support any such budget. Full stop. 
 
Further, I will not support any tax increase where there are not shared cuts across every portion of Hoboken’s municipal budget.  This includes employees’ salaries and benefits, the biggest piece of our municipal budget. In addition to cutting costs, I am working side-by-side with my Council colleagues and Mayor Bhalla’s Administration to produce smart, realistic solutions for Hoboken’s budgetary challenges in a fair and appropriate fashion. I previously have written to you about sensible changes to our parking policies that I have supported, injecting important additional revenues to the City, while providing substantial discounts for our Seniors, veterans, and disabled residents, including here.
 
Together with Finance Director Linda Landolfi and Director of Operations Jason Freeman, I am confident that Hoboken will produce a budget that maintains our fiscal strength for the long term and minimize the number of municipal employees who will lose their jobs. 
 
Public budget hearings in Council chambers are presently scheduled for March 30, April 2 and April 6 at 6:00 pm. At these hearings, you can listen and learn about the components of our $117 million dollar budget from the City Directors who will present their departmental budgets to our Budget and Finance Subcommittee.  

Stay Tuned for Future Updates
As your Councilman, I am laser-focused on doing my best to protect you from an outrageous tax hike. I am encouraged by the work of the Administration and the Municipal Unions as they try to find long-term structural savings to protect our taxpayers as well as our municipal workers. I pledge to constructively support both the Administration and our City workers as they try to find areas of compromise to protect the fiscal strength of our community.  As we head towards finalizing a municipal budget in May, there will be much more to share. 

PLEASE COMPLETE THE CENSUS!
Hoboken residents, our Census letters are here!  Mine came yesterday. Be on the lookout in the mail for the 2020 Census form this month, and complete and return as soon as possible.
 In order to be eligible for critical funding for our schools, roads, housing initiatives, non-profits, and so much more, it is critical that all Hoboken residents complete the 2020 Census. You can see more about the importance of completing the Census here

If you want to reach out, or I can ever be of any assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact me at HobokenPhil@gmail.com 
 
Thanks, and best wishes to you and your family.  
 
Stay safe everyone!
 
Phil Cohen
5th Ward Councilman
City of Hoboken, New Jersey
HobokenPhil@gmail.com
(862) 234-9053
P.S. You can learn more about me and my ideas for Hoboken on my website,