In Elizabeth, politics pays incredibly well

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The highest-paid mayor in Union County may be looking at another raise of his already-sizeable salary.

The Office of Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, which brings in a higher salary than the mayors of all 22 municipalities and cities in Union County, has been collectively allotted a $10,000 increase, according to the 2017 Elizabeth municipal budget. Along with the increase in wages and salaries for the mayor’s office, several other top administrators and officials in the city have also received raises.

Although an ordinance has not yet been passed designating Bollwage’s annual salary for 2017, Elizabeth’s 2017 municipal budget shows a line item of wages and salaries for the office of the mayor, along with his staff, of $278,221, an increase from the 2015 amount of $268,187. In addition, a look at both current and past ordinances and financial documents shows that politics — at least in Elizabeth — pays.

According to documents obtained through the Open Public Records Act, Bollwage earned a personal salary of $139,182 in 2013, which increased in 2014 by 1.5 percent for a salary of $143,562. In 2015, he received another 1.5 percent increase for a salary of $148,062. Currently, Bollwage earns a salary of $154, 062.

A look at Elizabeth’s municipal budget since 2013 suggests that Bollwage may receive the biggest raise to date for the fiscal year of 2017.

In 2013, the municipal budget allotted $252,844 for the salaries and wages for the mayor’s office, which includes the mayor’s staff. That year, Bollwage earned $139,812 of that.

The following year, in 2014, the budget shows a $5,000 budget increase for the mayor’s office, with Bollwage earning another $3,750, for a personal salary of more than $143,000. 2015 and 2016 show the same, but in 2016 a hike of more than $7,000 allotted to the mayor’s office translates into a $6,000 raise in salary for Bollwage that year.

This year, however, shows the biggest increase in budgeted allocations for the mayor’s office with a $10,000 increase, according to documents.

City council members have also given themselves a raise, along with various city officials, including the city’s chief financial officer, tax assessors, municipal court judges, and others.

Financials between 2013 and 2016 also show a marked increase in salaries of various department heads, including the directors of Policy and Planning, Health and Human Services, the police and fire departments, public works, recreation, as well as the city’s business administrator and attorney. On average, these salaries increased by about $13,000 in three years. The average 2016 annual salary in Elizabeth for these positions is more than $135,000, with the city’s business administrator earning close to $150,000.

The average median income for Elizabeth residents is $31,000, according to 2015 data.
Elizabeth residents expressed outrage, not only at Bollwage’s salary increase, but because many feel that their taxes — which have been raised by approximately 11 percent for the 2017 fiscal year — are not going to improve and increase services in the city.

Residents point to exorbitant property taxes, a failing police department, a continuous spike in crime, and under-budgeted schools.

Residents have also taken issue with the fact that the municipal budget was released on Nov. 9 — the day after the election.
A look at the 2017 municipal budget shows an increase of more than 11 percent, which will translate into an average of $600 per resident in residential property taxes.

A spokesperson for Bollwage did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.
Elizabeth resident Alex Geovanny Mendoza admonished the city’s administration for first releasing the municipal budget the day after the election. “The action that our city council and mayor took giving themselves raises the day after the election is an insult to the residents and taxpayers of our city,” said Mendoza in an Elizabeth residents’ Facebook forum. “Of course they waited until the day after election, typical dirty politicians move. Most of the council doesn’t genuinely care about their constituents, more what we can do for them. It’s sad. It’s too bad we’re stuck with them for a few more years. Time for change.”

Another resident accused Bollwage of milking Elizabeth residents dry while they live high on the hog. “We pay too much taxes and have nothing positive to show for it,” said Arturo Pantoja Maldonado on the forum. “We are being taxed out of our homes. Residents that own homes here can’t afford the property taxes based on our wages. The medium salary out here is $30K, which is nothing.”

Data shows that 19.2 percent of Elizabeth’s residents are living below the poverty level — approximately 5 percent higher than the state average of 14.1 percent living in poverty.

Elizabeth resident Karla Santana said that she wants to know where her tax money is going. “Where is the money from the tax increases going to?” she said. “Who’s having vacation every month, who’s remodeling their kitchen every year, who’s paying the best private schools to their children every semester? Who? And while almost every single resident in Elizabeth is under the level of poverty? Better yet, why hasn’t the FBI taken control of this city and make an internal audit?”

Elizabeth resident Tony Montes said that taxes and crime are his issues with Elizabeth, but that trying to talk to council members is a waste of time. “They blow money on non-essential projects and meanwhile the city is under attack by gangs and criminals.” Said Montes in the forum. “I don’t feel safe in Elizabeth anymore. You see homeless people everywhere begging for money. Drug dealers and gangs on my block operating freely.
Prostitution on 1 and 9. Things are getting worse everyday. I worry for my family, for myself and for my neighbors. I work hard just to make it. The people should vote whether elected officials get raises. It’s a joke that they vote it for themselves.”

Even the highest mayoral salaries in Union County pale in comparison to Bollwage’s earnings. In 2015, Bollwage earned more than double the salary of the second-highest paid mayor in the county, Rahway Mayor Sam Steinman. Linden Mayor Derek Armstead’s salary comes in at third, followed by the mayors of Plainfield and Union.

The mayors of Fanwood, Summit, Winfield, and Westfield take no salary, while many other mayors take in a token salary of just a few thousand dollars annually.

While some residents expressed a desire to see Bollwage impeached, other residents feel that the office of the mayor should have term limits. “I have lived in Elizabeth for 54 years,” wrote one resident on social media.
“There have only been two mayors in my lifetime. There is something clearly wrong with this. No one can tell me that being in an elected office in charge of a large urban city is not the breeding ground for corruption.”

COMMENTS

2 Responses to "In Elizabeth, politics pays incredibly well"

  1. Sonya   December 15, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Do you realize that Tony Montes is a fake Facebook profile?

  2. John Z   December 16, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Regarding this article on a 3% increase in the Mayor’s office budget: it’s probably not a very good justification to call the city a “breeding ground for corruption.” This is the sort of hyperbole that works well in Facebook rants, but doesn’t advance any logical argument. That’s why real reporters don’t copy/paste Facebook rants into articles. But the Local Source decided that this was such an important point of view that it had to be included – even without attribution – to sum up the story.

    This is otherwise a trainwreck of a budget article. None of the claims it makes have any context and the angry, wild claims in it have nothing to back them up. Is the Local Source is too busy to track down reasonable people to talk about Elizabeth’s budget? How much IS the total budget? What percentage of the budget does the mayor’s office take up? Which department heads had increases and how much were those increases? Could you have put this in a spreadsheet and made a little chart?