Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher: 'Doubled Budget Blues'

Official release:

Dear friends and neighbors,
The list of notable news only seems to get bigger in Hoboken, never smaller.  Here is what this newsletter will cover:
  • Tribeca Film Festival Expanding Into Hoboken – mark your calendars for April 15-26 and what we hope will be a number of opportunities to see cutting edge films at the Mile Square Theater and possibly other Hoboken venues.
  • Municipal Fiscal Mess – the problem is almost double what the administration previously shared, our Business Administrator has left, and the decisions around layoffs, tax increases and use of surplus to plug the gap are still in flux.
  • Railyards Development Plan – Improved plan that focuses on the project being commercially anchored; second reading vote coming up tonight (passed on first reading 9-0).
  • Parking Repricing Continues - Meter rate increases on for second reading tonight, with business areas only increasing from $1/hr to $2/hr.  Increase in residential parking permit to $1/week passed and will go into effect in one week and a second vote on reducing this rate for Seniors, Vets and Disabled is tonight.
  • Monarch Update – Settlement plan with new DPW moving forward while awaiting Supreme Court decision.
  • Transportation Alternatives Under Review – plan to upgrade bike and car sharing programs, and determine whether scooter and/or moped sharing make sense for Hoboken.     
  • Road Closed Ahead Signs Coming - to an intersection near you, and one that is two blocks before the actual road closure.
  • 15th Street Safety Improvements – meeting today with City Engineer to discuss near and longer term plans.  
  • Little City Books, Bwe and Park & Bloom now open uptown – Grab a new book, a cup of coffee and some flowers just a few blocks away and support the expansion of three of our local businesses.
Let’s start with the fun news.  Hoboken Girl blog reported yesterday that the Tribeca Film Festival will be expanding its events into Hoboken, specifically using our own Mile Square Theatre as one of their venues.  The organizers of the festival, founded by Robert DeNiro after 9/11 as a way to attract visitors back to downtown New York, stated Hoboken’s long term history as a film set (eg. On The Waterfront) is what made them think about Hoboken.  This will also be a great opportunity to support our local businesses and as a current board member of the new Hoboken Business Alliance, I can say we are already looking at ways to be able to do just that during this celebrated event which happens April 15-26.  More to come…

Where we last left off, our Business Administrator has left, the administration stated publicly we have a projected deficit of $7.4M and I felt the number was potentially much bigger as the administration was not including in its estimate the impact of city’s use of the surplus to balance the budget/keep taxes low over the last two years.  We had a Revenue, Finance and Infrastructure subcommittee meeting with the administration where we agreed that the starting point for the budget gap has to include the surplus impact on the budget and as such, the gap is in fact just under $14M.  
***Clarifying point - we have been using the phrase budget deficit when we should be using projected budget shortfall or gap.

This gap has now shrunk by approximately $1M to just under $13M with the inclusion of increased PILOT payments that the administration did not previously account for in its estimates, the majority which is from the recently opening of 770 Jackson.  To help give you a visual of what the budget gap looks like in the context of the overall municipal budget, below is a historical summary that I put together.  

As I have stated previously, every year I have asked the administration to prepare a five year forecast for the city and each year I was told that they couldn’t do this.  I learned last week that the administration has finally taken steps to prepare one although to do so, it has hired an outside consultant.  I personally am surprised that this is required and not something the administration can prepare on its own.  IMHO this analysis is something that we should always have as a tool that helps drive the policies of the city.  
As mentioned last time, filling any size budget gap can come from a variety of sources including reducing operating costs, layoffs, increasing revenues and increasing taxes.  All of the above is being considered.  We are also working with Freeholder Romano and the County to determine what, if any, support and/or sharing of services the County can provide to Hoboken given the high amount of County taxes we pay.   More to come…

Two weeks ago, the City Council voted 9-0 to introduce the revised Hoboken Railyards Development Plan.  This revised plan returns the project back to being a commercially anchored project at the heart of Hoboken’s business district.  You can read this informative summary for the changes that have been proposed.  
I feel that this plan is significantly improved vs. the previous plan given that the focus will be on commercial development.  Additionally, based upon some feedback we received from members of the public, some late changes were made to the plan that ultimately allows for better future conversations about the public areas around the terminal.
As a reminder – this is just a plan.  Not an agreement to build.  Once the plan is approved the administration and the City Council subcommittee will work closely with all parties on a developer’s agreement for the actual developments so there will be more opportunity for public input along the way.   

How big is the Ravi Bhalla budget debacle? Pt. II

An indicator of the paranoia coming out of the mayor's office is the utter silence and inability to tell the Hoboken public the truth on the pending budget deficit.

That number is more tightly kept locked away than the Iowa caucus votes being massaged in the back rooms of the DNC by a Super PAC app. Yup, there's an app for that but not for Hoboken's current budget woes.

The City Council passed the temporary budget under the normal State rules previously, good for several months leeway. Now comes the painful part. Drastic steps are in the works with plans to layoff dozens of municipal workers. A major tax increase is about to hit the table.

Yet, with all these actions contemplated back to late last year, no one can get an official answer on what the actual pending budget deficit number is from Mayor Ravi Bhalla and his now rudderless mayor's office with nary a business administrator in sight.

No doubt the recently departed Stephen Marks knows the actual red ink figure Hoboken is facing in this year's budget. None of these actions from the mayor's office are being taken in a void. Dead men tell no tales and neither do the recently departed.

So transparency aside, what is the magic number?

Let's say it's right in the ballpark of the Hoboken 2009 budget crisis. Do you remember that mess?

That budget snafu came in at $11.7 million. That's the number that Ravi Bhalla is desperate to avoid see matched let along surpassed.

Politics above everything. That's exactly how we got here.

The answer first to premium members. Everyone else, try not to hold your breath and pass out.

Related: The City Council will make its first vote on the latest iteration of the Rail Yards plan downtown. This time, it's likely to see a vote and pass on first reading with a final vote two weeks out.

Let's see how the public reacts.