Newark's Mayor and Council Unveil Budget Plans

Friday, 08 August 2014 16:54 Local Talk News Editor


NEWARK - City Council members, as of Aug. 6, were midway through the public and department head hearings for the proposed Calendar Year 2014 Municipal Budget.

Councilman John Sharpe James - who was Acting Council President for the absent Mildred Crump - and Councilman Eddie Osborne have listened to heads of eight city departments or quasi city organizations who have come before them Aug. 4-5.

North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr. Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins, West Ward Councilman Joseph McCallum and Councilman Carlos Gonzalez participated in parts of the Monday and/or Tuesday afternoon sessions here in City Hall Council Conference Room 301.

Mayor Ras Baraka - who did not sit or speak - was present for about 10 minutes midway through the Aug. 4 hearings. He and his administrators have passed their proposed $800 million CY2014 budget into the council's hands just after July 1.

Directors and/or acting heads from engineering, water and sewer, neighborhood services Monday plus finance, administration and municipal judges' offices Tuesday testified on where they are at with their budgets, their three- to five- year projections and what they need from this year's budget. Tuesday's agenda included the Newark Public Library and the Newark Museum but time ran out before hearing from the City Council and City Clerk offices.

The actual or acting directors - whose presentation materials ran from overhead projections and two-inch-thick loose-leaf binders to two-page summaries - were prepared for most council questions. James, whenever what few questions left the heads momentarily stumped, asked them to get answers overnight or by Friday.

An exchange among James, Chaneyfield-Jenkins, Ramos, Acting Business Administrator Michael Greene, Esq. and Purchasing Manager Adam Cruz over two contracts worth an overall $514,000 for translators Tuesday was one such occasion.

One translator contract was for $14,000 and the other $500,000. Cruz explained that the service providers were in transition and that the on-call world language translators also served the police department, municipal court and other city departments.

"$500,000?" asked Ramos. "I remember that we, as a council, voted approval for individual translators for individual languages."
"I want to know if that includes American Sign Language and deaf interpretation," added Chaneyfield-Jenkins. "That works on relay - TTY - through the telephone."

"And I read that the $500,000 contract started May 29, 2013," said James. "This was approved in the previous administration."
James, on Cruz's date confirmation, turned to Greene.

"I know you just came in and that there had been seven BAs or acting BAs - some without business experience - in the last eight years," said James. "I'm glad you've been 'set free' to become administrator, but we need transparency. What has happened in the past shouldn't happen now."

James added how news of this year's $93.5 million deficit surfaced in June as an example.

"I first read about it in the newspaper, not from the BA," said James. "I should be hearing that from you, first. If you've a question or a problem, call us."

"Especially when we're about to have the state looking over our shoulder," added Chaneyfield-Jenkins.

Chaneyfield-Jenkins was referring to the anticipated monitoring of the city's financial operations in exchange for anticipated transitional aid from Trenton. Mayor Cory A. Booker and Gov. Christopher Christie (R-Mendham) have made a similar Memorandum of Understanding for some $40 million in transitional aid in 2011-12. Thomas Neff, from the N.J. Department of Community Affairs' Government Finance Board has since remained in City Hall.

"I don't know how much room we'll have once the MOU has been signed," said James. "What may make sense to us, especially in hiring, may not make sense to the state."

The council was meanwhile scheduled to approve some $47.899 million in temporary emergency appropriations to operate city and water utility functions for August. Municipalities, by state law, are to pass such monthly appropriations until a final budget is approved.

The latest state-city MOU, however, may be before the council as early as September. No such resolution appeared on their Aug. 6 agenda.

The CY2014 Budget has had many administrative hands prior to the council's preliminary adoption. It was composed by Acting Mayor Luis Quintana's administration with some of its data was drawn during the last year of Mayor Cory A. Booker's second term.
(The council appointed At Large Councilman Quintana as mayor Oct. 31 after a majority of New Jersey voters elected Booker to the U.S. Senate Oct. 16. Quintana, who declined running for a full-term as mayor, was re-elected to the council May 13.)

The outgoing council deferred approving CY2014's introduction until after Mayor Baraka and the newly elected council were inaugurated July 1. Baraka and his administrative team, despite having between 32 and 81 days' time, have since put their imprint on the budget.

Department heads who have so far appeared before the council since Monday, for example, have been following Baraka's directive for "efficiency, innovation and revenue generation" in their budget projections and plans.

Baraka meanwhile unveiled a strategy Aug. 4 to evaporate the $93.5 million budget deficit. The mayor, through a Monday press release, is looking to zero out the deficit mainly through increasing tax collection plus enhanced business taxes and facility fees.

"We aim to reach a 40 percent or more collection rate to help close the deficit completely," said Baraka. "We inherited a significant budget deficit from the previous administrations. If it wasn't for the $30.1 million carryover from the previous year's budget, we wouldn't have a deficit at all."

Sen. Booker, in an Aug. 5 statement, said that he had left the city with "a balanced budget and off transitional aid - better positioned than any budget in recent memory." Quintana was not present at either budget hearing.

Baraka was referring to the $30.1 million that has also been called the annual structural deficit. Deducting that brings the $93.5 million gap to $63.4 million.

The mayor intends to "increase the property tax yield to $4 million in additional tax revenue" this year, bringing the city's collection rate back to 96.6 percent. This turning around from last year's 92.4 percent rate factors in the state's two percent property tax increase cap - closing this year's deficit to $43.4 million.

Baraka, by "enhancing business taxes and facility fees," is anticipating "yielding at least $15 million in revenue, bringing the City to an estimated gap of between $28 and $30 million."

Baraka, in his release, cited his directives to reign in use of municipal cars and cell phones plus a widespread hiring freeze for further reducing the deficit.

The mayor said that the foregoing is exclusive of any considered property tax increase and/or layoffs. He said that he will not entertain any "cuts in the police or fire departments - we wouldn't be able to function as a city," should any pink slips be issued.

Departmental hearings are scheduled for 4 p.m. Aug. 7 for the Department of Economic Development and Housing, Health and Human Services and law. The police and fire directors are to appear 4 p.m. Aug. 8. Hearings for City Council and Clerk's offices have been postponed to either Thursday, Friday or a later date.

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