After running city government on a series of temporary spending measures for the past eight months, the city council adopted mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration’s $278.86 million budget on Tuesday night.
Council members approved the fiscal year 2017 budget in a 7-1 vote while commending the administration for slashing overtime spending and reducing the municipal tax levy. This year’s budget will raise $151.37 million through property taxes which is $5.44 million less than last fiscal year’s $156.81 million levy, according to city budget documents.
The tax levy reduction received praise from Torres’ ardent critics on the council.
“This is one of the most responsible budgets I’ve seen since sitting here,” said Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, who took office little less than three years ago.
Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, commended Torres for reducing overtime expenses. The city has reduced overtime spending in every department by 50-percent, according to Torres’ presentation to the council. Operating expenses were slashed by 16-percent with no negative affect on services, said Torres.
“I heard your cry. We worked and we cut,” said Torres. He said only if similar cost cutting occurred at the Passaic County government and the school district homeowners would have witnessed a bigger drop in their property taxes.
A home assessed at $192,600 will pay $8,210 in taxes in 2017 compared to $8,374 the previous year saving $164, according to Torres’ presentation. A home assessed at $250,000 will pay $10,662 in 2017 compared to $10,870 the prior year saving $207. And a home assessed at $350,000 will pay $14,927 in property taxes compared to $15,218 the previous year saving $290.
The city began the 2017 fiscal year with a healthy $11.4 operating surplus due to tax lien sales that occurred at the very end of fiscal year 2016. Torres said the city also had a better than expected collection rate.
Paterson’s court revenue increased by $450,000, ambulance fees went up by $730,000, municipal services fees jumped by $480,000, construction permit fees went up by $210,000, and employees are paying $1.7 million more in health benefit contributions.
Seeing the increase in court revenue, Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman, asked whether there is segregated data on citations stating which division or department produced the revenue. He wanted to know the amount of revenue the Community Improvement Division has produced through its stepped up enforcement of city code.
It may not be possible to break down fees collected by the city and bucket them by divisions or departments, indicated Torres.
The city also received its full $25.25 million in state financial assistance. Mendez said it would have been a “catastrophe” if the state gave say $17 million instead of the full requested amount.
“Every year we’re getting an allowance of $25 million. What we need is an investment,” said Sayegh. He said he would like the state government do more to spur economic growth in its third largest city as it is doing in Camden and Newark.
The state has been awarding millions of dollars in tax breaks to companies to expand in the city through its Economic Development Authority (EDA). However, with scarce land Paterson will have a tough time attracting big projects.
Torres highlighted some of his administration’s accomplishments like settling 18 labor contracts with a maximum of 2-percent salary increase and retroactive payments spread over two years to reduce budget impact. He also highlighted the new hires in police and fire through grant money and a cadre of inspectors at the Community Improvement Division.
3 full-time housing inspectors and 10 part-time housing inspectors have been hired, according to his presentation.
The city’s biggest expenses are in public safety (fire and police), health benefits and insurance, and statutory expenses like pension and Medicare.
Council members suggested they would like to see a similar lean budget in the next fiscal year which starts in four months.
Jackson was the sole vote against the budget. He said he wanted to see pay increases in the budget for clerks working out of the City Clerk’s Office and the Council’s Office.
Council members Ruby Cotton, Maritza Davila, Shahin Khalique, William McKoy, Mendez, Sayegh, and Luis Velez voted in favor of the budget after a public hearing.Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, was absent.
Four residents spoke during the public hearing Tom Fuscaldo told the administration the city needed to do more to control expenses. “Taxes are unreasonable,” said Fuscaldo. “Somehow we need a freeze on the payroll.”
Haytham Younes criticized Torres and demanded to know why the overall budget went from $275.51 million last fiscal year to $278.86 million. Budget officer Margaret Cherone explained the overall budget number increased after grants revenues were put in.