“Mayor Torres, how did we get to a $78 million deficit?” asked David Gilmore, city activist during Wednesday’s mayoral forum at the city hall. “How did we get there?”
Jose “Joey” Torres, former two-term city mayor, said the number was cooked up by the current administration. “The $76 million deficit is false, those are false statements made by the administration.”
Torres maintained the state would never approve a budget with such a big hole. Aslon Goow, former three-term city council representative from the 2nd Ward, probed the deficit further asking Jeffery Jones, incumbent mayor, to explain.
“We talked about the tremendous debt that was left that led to the layoff of police officers, 300 other city employees, a shift of $30 million to taxpayer, yet we’re being told by our former mayor it’s not true. How can it not be true?” asked Goow.
Jones confirmed the deficit mentioning the tough measures — laying off 150 police officers, pushing a voluntary furlough program — his administration had to take as a result of the budget shortfall.
“That was a figment in somebody’s imagination,” said Torres of the budget deficit Jones found after taking office. Goow reasoned, if the deficit is an image in a looney mind, why did the city have to cut services and increase taxes.
Jones asked Donna Nelson-Ivy, director of Health and Human Services, the impact the budget cuts had on her department. “It was intense, it was very intense,” said Nelson-Ivy. “That $77 million hit real hard.”
Most candidates, all eight in attendance, mentioned the budget shortfall, allowing for a detailed discussion of the subject. Each candidate was given two rounds of questions for their opponents.
Gilmore’s question had a second part to it: “The check that was masterfully approved how did that happen?”
Torres responded the check went through the council’s finance committee and was ultimately approved by council members. “The check was approved by the finance committee, it was signed by councilman Goow, Rodriguez, and Morris,” answered Torres.
Rigo Rodriguez, councilman at-large and owner of Rigo’s Dayton on Grand Street, waited for his turn to take a crack at the check that his opponent claimed was approved by him by a vote in the council.
“Where is this check under?” asked Rodriguez while sifting through a collection of papers that appeared to be the payment of bills that supposedly approved the payment. Torres discredited Rodriguez saying he had scant understanding of how city government functions.
“You signed as a member of the finance committee,” said Torres. “You sit down with the finance director, the comptroller, and whomever else that comes to the finance committee meeting and they explain everything in the payment of bills.”
Torres owned that the actual check probably wasn’t identified in the payment of bills, but it was inside the disbursements.
Rodriguez asked a variation of the same question to Goow. Those offline checks come before the finance committee after they have been approved, said Goow. “Rarely do they ask the finance committee chairman to sign off on them,” said Goow. “At no time did the finance chairman call and say ‘listen, there’s this offline check that needs to be paid,’ so that was not done.”
Indeed, until recently the offline checks – one of which is the $74,000 that the former mayor snatched before leaving office — were unidentified in the payment of bills document that come through the finance committee to the council for a vote.
“They snuck it in,” said Goow.
Maria Teresa Feliciano, a Passaic County Court administrator, asked Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, why he approved the former mayor’s severance check.
Sayegh, the council president, said he was manipulated as were other council members. “This is a pattern of manipulation on the part of former mayor Torres. He knew the system as far as offline checks were concerned; he knew no one was going to see it,” responded Sayegh.
Sayegh mentioned the smaller check the former mayor obtained through a subordinate while in office which the former mayor has since returned. The council president quoted from a state letter that describes the payment as “grossly inappropriate,” and ought to be returned.
“He hired a lawyer,” said Sayegh, “that demonstrates some level of guilt doesn’t it?”
Torres towards the last few minutes of the exacting candidate forum lifted up a packet from his desk and said the investigation commenced by Scarinci and Hollenbeck, a law firm hired by him a month ago, has completed its report on the severance check.
The former mayor said the firm found no wrong doing, and he vindicated the council members who voted on approving the severance check. “I’m glad to say council members you did nothing wrong,” said Torres.