Citing a cycle of tax hikes and lack of future planning by mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration, the nine-member city council unanimously voted down a preliminary tax levy increase in a post-midnight vote on Wednesday morning.
Torres administration sought to increase the tax rate to 4.359 from 4.108 to strike a preliminary levy in order to send out tax bills next month, but the council members saw the increase as less than reasonable.
“The taxpayers are in municipal over burden,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, chairman of the finance committee. Taxes have gone up every year while property values have dropped, he said. “This is an endless cycle,” said Morris.
An average property assessed at $192,500 will pay $8,391 in taxes based on the increased levy, he reckoned. “When the average taxes in the city of Paterson is $8,000 that’s significant, that exceeds the state average. New Jersey is known as the highest property tax state in the union,” said Morris.
Morris said he did not see any plans to freeze salaries or cut expenses.
“This administration continues to tell us to raise taxes, but they’re not telling us how they plan to raise revenue,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman. “We don’t see many new revenue streams being introduced to the city.”
“We don’t see no cuts, but more spending,” added Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman.
Business administrator Nellie Pou presented a detailed list of items that are pushing government costs this year. There are $14 million in additional expenses in fiscal year 2017. There’s a 27th pay check for employees this year which comes around every 11 years, she said.
That 27th pay will cost $4.3 million. Morris said the city should have anticipated the 27th pay. He suggested setting aside small amounts every year for the next 27th pay in the future.
There’s $4.2 million in salary increases for labor contracts. Workers compensation and liability costs have increased to $2.4 million, according to city documents.
The business administrator said the $3 million the city was able to use to fill a hole in last year’s budget by slashing old capital improvement projects are also not there this year.
School tax and county taxes have gone up this year, noted Pou. She said the tax rates are being pushed up by both the schools, county government, and open space taxes.
The city should find a way to hold back the open space taxes, said Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman. He said governor Chris Christie always seems to find a way to selectively pay for obligations.
Even if the city holds back paying open space taxes that amounts to $643, 192, according to city records.
Jackson said taxpayers cannot afford to make payments to support the open space tax.
“We can’t just not pay open space taxes,” said Pou.
“What are they going to do to us?” replied Jackson.
“They can impose interests and place a ban on the municipality,” responded Pou.
Law director Domenick Stampone said there’s no opt-out provision in the open space law. The city receives less in open space funding than it contributes, noted city officials.
Council members said the administration is not doing enough to cut expenses and raise revenue from other sources.
Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman, said code enforcement has been missing. “Laws are being broken terribly in the city,” she said stating enforcement will bring in revenue.
Morris suggested putting in policies to better train employees to reduce workers compensation claims.
Pou said the city’s risk manager Samir Goow has been doing just that.
Morris said the city is also budgeting money for vacant positions. He suggested cutting those.
“How many political appointees are in those salaries?” asked Maritza Davila, councilwoman at-large.
“There’s zero,” responded Pou.
Davila said she vowed not to support tax increases in the new fiscal year after playing an instrumental role in getting the mayor’s budgets passed last year.
Several members of the public spoke out against tax increases prior to the post-midnight vote. Joyce Corbo, a resident of the Garret Heights, urged council members to vote against any levy increases.
Corbo and other homeowners of the Garret Heights were hit hard by tax increases last year as a result of the property revaluation.
Morris urged the administration to present a reasonable budget as soon as possible to get the tax bills out.
“It’s time for the administration to start cutting now,” added Shahin Khalique, 2nd Ward councilman.
“We have to look for drastic reductions in this budget,” said Alex Mendez, councilman at-large.