Acting mayor Jane Williams-Warren’s administration averted a government shutdown by convincing council members to pass a $23.27 million temporary budget that the governing body had rejected a week earlier to fund operations through February.
Council members approved the temporary spending measure in a 6-0 vote on Tuesday night. This after two council members, Michael Jackson and Luis Velez, who had voted against the same exact temporary spending measure last week, switched their votes.
Velez reflected after his no vote last week and concluded a shutdown would not be wise. “Right now, our city is struggling, we have short staff. You imagine if we shut down?” he said.
Jackson criticized the administration for hiring non-city residents. He also lambasted the administration for letting the personnel director work from home. His vote was swayed by the presence of the acting mayor.
“Where I lay my confidence is in you, madam mayor,” Jackson told Williams-Warren.
Both the acting mayor and business administrator Nellie Pou have been lobbying council members behind the scenes to pass the temporary spending measure to avert a government shutdown.
Jackson and Velez were joined by Shahin Khalique, William McKoy, Andre Sayegh, and Ruby Cotton in approving the temporary budget.
Council members Maritza Davila, Alex Mendez, and Kenneth Morris were absent. Velez drew attention to his absent colleagues for failing to take part in a critical vote.
“I want the audience to see who is here,” said Velez.
The vote on the temporary budget was a tough one for council members, who do not to be seen as raising property taxes. Some consoled themselves with the ostensible claim approving the temporary spending measure is not the same as supporting a tax increase.
“This is a temporary appropriation. This is not a tax increase or tax decrease. This is a measure of keeping the government open,” said Khalique.
Sayegh concurred with Khalique. “We’re not approving the budget, we’re just going to pay the bills we are obligated to pay.”
“Let us not kid ourselves,” said McKoy. “We step to that amount [introduced budget of $279.52 million that includes a 2.5-percent tax hike] by approving temporary appropriations.”
The introduced budget increases the municipal levy to $155.22 from last year’s $151.37 million.
McKoy suggested a shutdown could adversely affect the $27 million the city has requested from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA). A final budget will not be presented to the council until the state provides an aid number.
“The state holds the handle; we hold the blade. When you have that situation you gingerly conduct your business so that there’s no tug of war. If you pull you get cut; if the other person pulls you get cut. In either case you’ll be doing the bleeding. That’s little bit of the predicament we’re in,” said McKoy.
Council members have told the administration since the start of the current fiscal year in July 2017 to trim spending. Each department should see a reduction of 20-percent, Morris told the administration several times in the past year.
Khalique asked whether those 20-percent cuts were imposed. Finance director Marge Cherone said those cuts were made. Administration officials distributed a sheet of paper that purported to show the cuts. Jackson described those cuts as “misleading.”
Pou would not provide a copy of the sheet showing the cuts to a reporter.
Council members continued to ask for more spending cuts. McKoy compared it to grocery shopping. “The things we cannot afford, we have to put back,” he said.
Since July, the city has been operating through a series of temporary spending measures. This is the fourth temporary budget that covers some of January and February. At the end of February, the city will have expended $174.47 million through temporary spending – that’s 62.5-percent of the introduced budget, according to Cherone.
Administration officials hope this is the last temporary budget of the fiscal year.
The council did not want to appear dysfunctional as the federal government did with its shutdown. “If we fail to approve this temporary appropriation, we’ll have something similar on the municipal level. That’s a situation we don’t want to put ourselves in,” said Sayegh.
“We have to keep our city open,” said Cotton.
The acting mayor thanked the council for approving the temporary budget. The measure required a super majority or six votes. Any one of the six council members present could have derailed the approval.