The City Council has overridden mayor Andre Sayegh’s veto of the sewer reforms repeal measure.
Council members voted 6-3 to override the mayor’s veto on Tuesday night, delivering a fresh blow to Sayegh, who has struggled in his job running New Jersey’s third largest city for the past two and half years.
Sayegh issued the veto last Thursday, a week after the City Council passed an ordinance repealing the sewer reforms. He and his team botched the implementation of the sewer reforms, leading to massive increases in sewer bills for property owners. His failure has led to numerous complaints from residents and a protest against the massive increases.
“The residents are losing their homes,” said councilwoman Lilisa Mimms. “The residents put me here and I have to put the residents first.”
Sayegh ran a behind the scenes campaign to win over two council members to uphold his veto, according to sources. He sought to coax Mimms and council president Flavio Rivera. He succeeded in winning over Rivera by offering to analyze the sewer bills, something his administration had been repeatedly urged to do for more than a year.
“I don’t know what is different,” said councilman Luis Velez. He said nothing changed from three weeks earlier when the council repealed the sewer reforms.
Velez joked the mayor kidnapped Mimms and Rivera and took them to Trenton. Sayegh, Rivera, Mimms, and business administrator Kathleen Long met with officials from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) on Monday.
Rivera said state officials acted as “intermediaries” between the mayor and council members.
“We were able to communicate and get some commitments,” said Rivera.
“There was a verbal commitment,” said Velez, who was skeptical of commitments made by the administration. “There’s no written commitment. Words could be words.”
The upshot of the Trenton meeting was that the Sayegh administration would hire a company to conduct an analysis of the sewer reforms, said Long. She said that would take 30 to 45 days.
“Why do you want to do an analysis now? We’ve been asking for two years,” remarked councilman Shahin Khalique.
Sayegh’s administration was not correctly billing a number of school buildings for sewer as late as several months ago. It’s not clear if his team corrected the problem.
Council members have largely lost their patience with Sayegh. They were prepared to rebuke him through a no confidence measure last month until Rivera pulled the measure off the agenda.
“I don’t want the public to be misinformed that I went to a meeting to be coerced or compromised into voting for anything,” said Mimms.
Some political insiders speculated Sayegh had won over Mimms and Rivera after the Trenton trip.
Jackson had predicted on Thursday, just an hour after Sayegh vetoed the repeal measure, that Rivera would switch to the mayor’s side.
“It’s like comedy hour on a Tuesday night,” remarked Jackson.
The mayor’s allies on the council tried to put up a defense.
Councilman Al Abdelaziz argued repealing the sewer would result in property tax increases on homeowners. He said the biggest winners of the repeal will be tax-exempt properties, whose sewer bills will decrease.
The city risks losing $2 million it received as an incentive from the state to enact the sewer reforms. It would also create a $6.5 million gap in the budget because the previous sewer billing system collected less revenue from property owners. $8.5 million may have to be collected in property taxes. An average home assessed at $197,502 could see a tax hike of $273, according to figures provided by the Sayegh administration.
“Same people are paying both bills,” added councilman Shahin Khalique rebutting Abdelaziz’s argument.
“It’s been two years and the mayor did not pay attention to the cries of taxpayers,” said councilman Alex Mendez.
Mendez pointed out many bills skyrocketed by 100 percent or more after the reforms. A laundry company threatened to sue Paterson because it was overbilled by $500,000, according to a legal notice filed with the city.
Sayegh inflicted further pain on property owners by over-billing sewer users to produce a surplus. The reforms created a sewer utility that was supposed to collect just enough fees to make the system self-liquidating not to build surpluses. He touted the surplus in his state of the city speech in January.
Council members again urged Sayegh and his team to devise a new plan to re-create the sewer utility. A new utility would let the administration collect enough revenue to make it self-sustaining. It would also allow Sayegh to avoid returning $2 million incentive the state government gave to create the sewer utility, said council members.
“We have to take a stand. If not, we fall for anything,” said councilwoman Maritza Davila. “The administration has not come back with a plan. I really don’t have confidence.”
Several council members also took offense at Sayegh’s vetoing the repeal measure. They said Sayegh’s move disrespected the council and its nine members.
“The mayor disrespected the council, seven of us voted for it,” said Khalique referring to the repeal vote.
The veto was overridden in a 6-3 vote.
Council members Davila, Khalique, Mendez, Mimms, Velez, and Jackson voted in favor of overriding the veto while Abdelaziz, Ruby Cotton, and Rivera voted against.
Mimms and Velez passed twice before casting their votes.
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Update 8:07 a.m.