The City Council rejected mayor Andre Sayegh’s $283.6 million introduced budget early Friday morning.
Council members rejected the budget in a 5-4 vote at 1 a.m. Many cited the 2-percent property tax increase to vote against the budget.
“The services are low to none,” said council president Maritza Davila. She said every year the municipal government increases taxes, but homeowners receive little in return in the form of services. “I promised my taxpayers and to all that I will no longer support any increases – none.”
Some of Davila’s colleagues argued the Sayegh administration hasn’t made “tough decisions” to reduce spending.
“The taxpayers want to know where are we going. We should have seen an overall reduction,” said Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman. He said the administration is increasing spending by $13 million. But, administration officials disputed Jackson’s claim. The city is filling a $8.6 million gap from the last fiscal year, said administration officials. Disgraced mayor Jose “Joey” Torres created a surplus through property lien sales as he prepared to run for re-election last year.
“We inherited Joey Torres passing the buck,” said Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman.
Business administrator Vaughn McKoy, who gave a PowerPoint presentation of the introduced budget, told council members the administration has defunded close to 200 vacant positions to produce $5.9 million in savings. He said the administration has imposed a non-emergency hiring freeze and is creating a layoff plan.
Flavio Rivera, councilman at-large, chairman of the finance committee, had urged the administration to prepare to issue 45-day layoff notices to employees to avert a mass layoff in case of a big budget crunch.
Rivera’s suggestion has been taken the wrong way by some employees, who thought the councilman was calling for a general layoff, he said.
“I never said layoff people,” said Rivera. “When you wait too long to make tough decisions instead of laying off one person you have to lay off two.” In the past, the city has waited until much of the fiscal year had passed to propose layoffs, by that point much of the money had been spent.
Sayegh said the administration looked at laying off employees. 60 layoffs will generate a paltry $1 million, he said.
Rivera said the city is “gambling” with people’s lives if it does not receive the extra $13 million in state aid.
Sayegh is seeking $40 million in transitional aid. Last year, the state provided $27 million. Some council members worried the state will not provide the entire amount and that will lead to a big tax increase.
“We’re dealing with a different administration,” said Sayegh. He said the Phil Murphy administration will look at the city’s request in a more favorable light. “Without an increase there won’t be transitional aid.”
Some of the mayor’s allies on the council argued the taxpayers are being asked to boost their contribution by $3 million (2-percent tax hike) to receive $13 million more from the state.
“If you want state aid, you have to have some skin in the game,” said Al Abdelaziz, 6th Ward councilman. He is willing to be lenient with the current administration, which has been in office since July, to give them time to prepare for ways to increase revenue through economic development.
Prior to the business administrator’s presentation, the mayor said his administration’s budget is “responsible” and “flat.”
“We decided to hold the line. We didn’t increase the burden on homeowners,” said Sayegh. Except, he secured the council’s approval for a 2-percent tax increase in July. “We cannot cut our way out of the hole.”
The mayor received criticism from Jackson and William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, for his opposition to tax increases over the past decade. Sayegh would vote against any slight tax increase while on the council.
McKoy hearkened back to the mayoral campaign when Sayegh and his allies battered the 3rd Ward councilman for voting in favor of budgets that had tax increases. McKoy has defended his past votes as being responsible to keep the government open.
“I took a lot of beating for that,” said McKoy. He had been a reliable affirmative vote on the budget for previous administrations.
Council members McKoy, Jackson, Shahin Khalique, Maritza Davila, and Flavio Rivera voted against the introduced budget while Abdelaziz, Ruby Cotton, Lilisa Mimms, and Velez voted in favor.
“We’re just backed up against the wall,” said Cutton.
Some council members said they have heard the mayor talk a great deal about economic development, but have yet to see anything tangible.
“We are willing to sacrifice, but we want to hear a plan that sacrifice is going to pay a return and would allow us to live better tomorrow,” said councilman McKoy.
After the vote, the mayor said his administration will have to regroup and re-present the introduced budget to the council.