The city council adopted a $275.5 million fiscal year 2016 budget on Tuesday evening which carries a 5.8-percent tax increase for property owners.
In a 5-3 vote council members adopted the budget after months of struggle with mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration over the municipal levy increase. The municipal portion of the budget inclusive of library spending is $156.8 million, according to city documents, $8.6 million more than last year’s $148.2 million.
The library will receive $2.17 million, according to the budget. The rest of the budget is divided between Passaic County, the public schools, and county open space. $41.1 million for the county, $39.46 million for the schools, and $592,514 for open space.
It would be “irresponsible” for me to vote no after approving the temporary budgets, said Maritza Davila, councilwoman at-large.
“We’re damned if we do; we’re damned if we don’t,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, chairman of the council’s finance committee. He has often said the Torres administration repeatedly presented the council with an “irresponsible” budget.
Torres’ budget contained a 6.1-percent tax increase. Morris reduced the municipal levy by $494,000 which resulted in an equal reduction in state transitional aid resulting in a $988,000 spending cut.
The Chris Christie administration provided the city $25 million in transitional aid. Morris said his reduction is sensible and accomplishes two objectives: softens the tax hit on property owners and begins to wean the city off state financial assistance.
“You have to live within your means,” said Morris. You can’t keep going to your godfather every year for money, he said.
Morris said he would have called for further reductions, but with only three months left in the fiscal year much of the money has been spent.
The council held a public hearing on the budget which brought a dozen speakers to the podium before their vote.
“Why wasn’t there layoffs?” asked city resident Lynda Gallashaw.
Budget officer Russell Forenza said layoffs would impact public safety. To generate meaningful savings the city will have to layoff police officers and firemen which no one is in favor of doing after a massive layoff at the police department few years ago.
“I’m disappointed. Seemingly nothing has been done to get the city off transitional aid,” said homeowner Joyce Corbo. “You should have been looking at it more closely.”
The average homeowner with a property assessed at $192,600 will pay $8,061 in taxes this fiscal year compared to $10,319 last year.
Acting finance director James Ten Hoeve said the average homeowner’s tax burden has been reduced by $2,258.
“The increases are not bad,” said Ten Hoeve.
Property owners whose assessed property values did not drop significantly after last year’s revaluation will see large increases, according to officials. There’s been large demonstrations by homeowners whose taxes have spiked by thousands of dollars after the city completed its property revaluation.
Morris said council members placed themselves in a tough position by approving six temporary budgets over the past eight months.
Council members said the past year has taught them a lesson to think harder before approving temporary spending measures.
“I cannot fix the past,” said Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward councilman, who vowed to vote against future tax increases.
Akhtaruzzaman is under great criticism for voting on three budgets during his tenure which raised taxes on homeowners.
“We’re not seeing a vision,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman. He said the Torres administration failed to capitalize on the city’s assets to create new streams of revenue.
Akhtaruzzaman, Sayegh, and Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward councilman, voted against the budget. Morris, William McKoy, Ruby Cotton, Davila, and Michael Jackson voted to pass the budget.
Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, was absent.