LINDEN — It appears the city will eventually pass a budget of almost $99 million for 2013, but in order to eliminate a $5.2 million shortfall, everyone had to give a little. That includes taxpayers and employees.
The final numbers have not been cast in stone, but last week, after the Police PBA Local 42 and City Council came to a meeting of the minds concerning concessions, the council still was left with a $1.2 million deficit in the budget. That left employee furloughs and a taxpayer garbage tax on the table for discussion and those discussions did not go well.
With no other revenue sources to tap and surplus down to nothing, the majority of council agreed there were no other options left except to ask employees to take a one-day-a-week furlough and ask property owners to pay $10 for garbage removal each month. Four members did not agree with that at all, which caused considerable debate and left the City Council somewhat divided. They remained divided on the issue when it came down to voting on the measure on Tuesday, June 18.
The final vote of 7 to 4 in favor of the furloughs and a garbage tax came without the usual fanfare and arguing among council members. In fact, Mayor Rich Gerbounka was taken aback that not one of the four council members voting against the move commented on why they voted against it or suggested other ways $1.2 million could be slashed from the budget.
“I told them I would respect their no vote if they gave us alternatives, but not one of them did,” the mayor said last week, adding that things were very tense at the meeting.
Gerbounka said the City Council actually had to take a recess from the public meeting at one point to ensure they would not compromise the agreement made with the PBA Local 42 last week.
“When it looked like we might not have enough votes for the furloughs and garbage tax, I knew we would have no other alternative but to lay off police, so we recessed and went back to discuss things,” the mayor said, adding, at this point, he was very concerned.
Later, when the council returned to open session, the vote was 7 to 4 in favor, with 5th Ward Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby Hurling, 8th Ward Councilwoman Michele Yamakaitis, 9th Ward Councilman Armando Medina and 10th Ward Councilman Adam Kuczynksi voting against the measure. None of the dissenting voters, however, gave a reason for their vote, which did not surprise Gerbounka at all.
“They each have the best of both worlds. They didn’t want to be the bad guy, but they knew there would be enough votes to approve the furloughs and garbage tax, so they don’t have to take the heat from people in their ward,” the mayor said. That angered Gerbounka.
“I didn’t have to come out publicly about being behind the furloughs and garbage tax, I have no vote on council, but I told our residents that we had no rabbit to pull out of a hat here,” the mayor said, adding he felt things could work now, but council should have been completely together on this move.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” the mayor said, admitting the 2013 budget had taken its toll on everyone.
“Look, three months ago, even Councilman Rich Koziol was against furloughs and a garbage tax, but he saw we had to do it or the city would never have recovered,” he added, pointing out, “This was the best alternative. Anything else would have been devastating for our police and fire and they never would have recovered.”
In an interview with LocalSource early last month, Koziol agreed there were no other options left for the council to explore. He said the last thing he wanted to do was negotiate with the police for concessions or consider employee furloughs and a garbage tax on residents who are strapped for money, but there was no other choice.
“Our job as elected officials is to prepare the budget and there were no other options open to us,” said the 2nd Ward councilman, adding that, if there were any other alternatives, he would have suggested them.
“The police and fire unions are working with us and we really may not have any choice but to initiate furloughs and a garbage tax,” Koziol said. At the time, Koziol was certainly not in favor of taxing residents for garbage, but he said, “If it comes down to that being the only option, we will have to do it.”
Councilman Peter Brown, charged with leading the finance committee this year, remarked that the city was in a financial crisis and the problem was not going away.
“It’s a complex financial problem,” he said, pointing out that one agreement would not solve all the problems facing the city.
Gerbounka said the city should rebound financially in 2014 because, in February, it will be receiving $2.5 million in revenue from Spectra Energy for a 42-inch gas pipeline that will go under the New Jersey Turnpike. Also helping out the financial dilemma will be the fact that employees will begin paying 1.5 percent of their salaries towards health benefits in July, which is state-mandated.
“That should ease our financial problems,” the mayor added.