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City Hall Shutdown, Can it Happen Again?

Back open for business... After shutting city services, City Council passes temporary budget

Back open for business

After shutting city services, City Council passes temporary budget

03/28/2005 HR

City services were re-opened at the end of last week after a stalemate over the city's $72 million budget had forced non-essential services to shut down for two days.

Since the City Council has not yet approved Mayor David Roberts' permanent city budget, which was proposed back in September, they have been passing temporary budgets each month to keep the city running. On Monday, four council members who have been opposing the mayor's spending policies (including two who are running against him for mayor May 10 voted against the latest temporary budget.

Non-essential city services were closed because city workers couldn't be paid. However, police and firefighters continued working, as per state law.

The matter boils down to a disagreement between the council minority faction and Mayor Roberts' administration about how part of the 2004-2005 budget is funded. The mayor wants to sell the city's municipal garage to the Hudson County Improvement Authority, getting $7.9 million to plug the budget gap, and leasing the garage back until it is eventually sold. But the four minority council members say that the city has been relying too much on one-shot revenue deals involving selling city assets, and they say that after Roberts is re-elected, taxes will go up. They say he has not cut spending enough.

However, Roberts has said that spending is up because of skyrocketing employee health insurance costs and other matters beyond his control. He says the council minority is playing politics to make him look bad. For analysis on the budget situation, who's responsible, and how it got to this point, see "How did it get this far?."

Closed for business

As of Tuesday [March 22, 2005], Hoboken City Hall became a ghost town where doors were locked and department were closed; only the press and senior city staffers who were working for no pay were roaming about.

About 12:30 on Tuesday, Roberts distributed a letter to all employees that shut down most of the city's government.

"Based on the actions for four members of the city council who have refused a state order to approve emergency appropriations to fund municipal services, we are forced into a very serious crisis that results in the immediate suspension of services," read the letter.

Whether the move worked out in favor or against Roberts politically depends on whom one asks, but Roberts was armed and ready when the matter came to a head Monday. Roberts and his political consultants were at City Hall that day telling the New York media that the minority was to blame for the shutdown.


The unions speak

At Monday's meeting, several city employees agreed with Roberts, blaming the minority faction of the council for voting against the temporary budget. Others just implored the council to work together.

"[Council members] are playing Russian roulette with the city employees," said Joseph Grossi, the head the municipal employees' union. He added that many of his members are on the lower end of the pay scale and live paycheck to paycheck.

Anton Peskens, president of Hoboken Fire Officers Local 1076, asked the council to "please leave politics out of our paychecks."

Policemen's Benevolent Association Local No. 2 President Vincent Lombardi said that his union is considering whether to file an official grievance, because the shutdown might be against their collective bargaining agreement that was signed with the city. But he did say that Hoboken officers would be policing the street during the political crisis.

"This is a childish game about political ego, and grandstanding in an election cycle," said Lombardi, who said he blamed the council minority.

Sgt. Kenneth Ferrante, president of the Hoboken Police Superior Officer's Association, said the council minority is just fueling their own political ambitions.

Thursday in court

On Thursday morning [March 24, 2005], the state Department of Community Affairs and the city's attorney were in Superior Court in an attempt to get a court order to force the City Council minority to vote for a temporary budget. But Judge Maurice Gallipoli declined to do so.

Gallipoli instead said it was time for the Hoboken City Council roll up their sleeves and agree upon a budget. "Sane people interested in city of Hoboken would not stop working until a budget resolution is reached," Gallipoli said. "But we're making an assumption that we are talking about sanity, not politics."

Since Gallipoli refused to get involved, the council held a special meeting Thursday night.

They vote together

Thursday at the council meeting, the nine council members came together to end the city shutdown by passing a temporary budget.

The council also passed an amendment that the salary of city workers would not be affected by the temporary appropriations for the next six weeks. It was determined that they would be paid through May 7 even if the council had problems resolving the final budget. The measure was an effort to make sure they are paid through election time, to keep politics out of the process.

The crowd cheered at the result of the vote.

After the council called a recess, Mayor Roberts said, "I am happy and relieved that the people are going back to work. The library will re-open, the streets will be cleaned, and God willing, everyone will have a happy Easter." Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Carol Marsh said, "I'm very glad the employees are back to work. I'm sorry it happened in the first place. When and if they decide to sell the garage, I hope it is a plan that makes sense for the community for generations to come."

Garage, or Neumann-Leather building?

But of course, not all the problems are solved. The city is still without a permanent 1994-1995 budget, at the city still wants to sell its garage to the HCIA to get the $7.9 million.

Roberts recently proposed an alternative that, to some, is more dire: up-zoning the area including the garage so the city can sell it directly to a residential developer for a very high price. This could also put a building full of artists' lofts in jeopardy, as the zoning would change for the nearby Neumann-Leather building, and the owner could sell it at a higher price.

A public hearing on this alternative is planned for the Wallace Elementary School for April 6, which could be quite packed and heated, as the artists in the building do not want to be driven out.

So for now, the council has a few choices: Sell the garage to the HCIA, sell it directly to a developer, raise taxes, or somehow cut $7.9 million from the budget in the next two months.

Councilman Tony Soares charged that Roberts, by bringing up the rezoning option, is pitting artists and longtime residents against taxpayers and the council minority. After all, the situation is now that artists could lose their building if the garage/HCIA deal doesn't pass.

A new vote on the plan to sell the garage to the HCIA was proposed at Thursday night's meeting, but the motion was tabled.

At the meeting, 5th Ward Councilman Michael Cricco said that the mayor should be commended, as the garage is an eyesore and needs to be developed.

But Carol Marsh responded, "What are we going to sell next year?"

Mayor Roberts replied that the deficit problem would be solved with the sale of the garage. The matter will come up for a vote at the next council meeting.

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