HOBOKEN — Mayor Ravi Bhalla and his political allies continue to make impassioned pleas on behalf of Administration workers as City Council resolutions move forward to eliminate the Office of Constituent Affairs and City Engineer positions. The council resolution was put forward after municipal employees were laid off [UPDATE: after previously stating that 26 were laid off, the City has asked us to clarify that 11 were laid off, and 15 retired with benefits] in early April, amid a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall that has been looming since it first came to light back in December.
“I’m proud of the incredible service our Office of Constituent Services has provided to our City during the COVID-19 pandemic. From assisting residents with unemployment claims, coordinating volunteers to serve thousands of meals to our seniors in self-isolation, and connecting tenants to the Hoboken Food Pantry for meals due to food insecurities, Caroline Caulfield and Migdalia Pagan Milano have been the heart and soul of Hoboken’s response to COVID-19. That’s why I’m extremely disappointed that the City Council is even considering a law to abolish this office, right in the middle of this national pandemic."
Caulfield assumed her role in October 2018, as Bhalla resurrected an office that had been vacant since a 2009 municipal audit. A lifelong Hoboken resident whose family runs the Fields Development Group, Caulfield formerly served as an aide to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Midaglia Pagan Milano, also a lifelong Hoboken resident, ran on #TeamBhalla last year for a First Ward Council seat, losing to incumbent Michael DeFusco.
"During a crisis, Hoboken residents reasonably expect politics to be put aside to do what is best to keep our residents safe. The City Councilmembers voicing support for this ordinance are not just playing politics with one of the most effective departments in City Hall, they’re undermining our frontline response to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Bhalla. "It’s unfortunate that any Councilmember would want to abolish an office serving vulnerable residents with critical services, at a time they need help the most."
Regarding the City Engineer, Mayor Bhalla maintains a similar stance.
“Kimberli Craft, a professional engineer, has single-handedly achieved for the City six-figure cost savings, by overseeing critical projects in-house as opposed to contracting with outside engineering firms. The City Council’s ordinance to eliminate the office would force the City to expend more taxpayer dollars to hire much more expensive firms at a time we must be saving every dollar possible due to COVID-19." He adds, "This is a nonsensical, politically motivated ordinance to target the very office that keeps projects including the Northwest Park, paving of our roads, and most recently, the business recovery plan supported by Councilman DeFusco, on track and moving forward. Any Councilmembers voting in favor of this ordinance are doing a disservice to Hoboken taxpayers and unnecessarily adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget in an incredibly challenging fiscal year.”
Hoboken’s budget woes stem from a nearly $7.5 million increase in expenditures, which has also met by a projected decrease in the municipal surplus regeneration for 2019 by were previously reported to be as high as $6.5 million. Those numbers were announced well before COVID-19, which will almost certainly exacerbate financial issues faced by the City.
Hoboken City Council Vice-President Vanessa Falco challenges the Mayor's point of view on the resolution.
"It’s astonishing to see Mayor Bhalla take a position on the City Council’s effort to more appropriately fund City Hall since he remained silent when 26 people were laid off or forced into early retirement last month. Many of these employees were lifelong residents of Hoboken and played an integral role in the day-to-day operations of the City." She adds, "All we are doing is simply asking the Mayor to better allocate the funds within his own office. Instead of handing out nearly $70,000 a year in stipends to three political insiders imported to City Hall from his 2017 campaign who already bring home a six-figure salary. We were all elected to office with the responsibility of addressing constituent services, and that’s exactly what will continue to be done until those positions can be better funded in our budget.”
Hoboken Councilmembers Jim Doyle, Emily Jabbour, and Phil Cohen—political allies of Bhalla—issued their own group statement, essentially parroting the Mayor's perception that these cuts suggesting they are personal slights to the Mayor.
“The proposed ordinance to abolish the Office of Constituent Affairs is motivated purely by politics, solely because its creation was one of Mayor Bhalla’s first initiatives. The Office of Constituent Affairs has helped hundreds of residents who are in need as a result of COVID-19, including those out of work and looking for much-needed assistance, and the Office has been instrumental in coordinating hundreds of volunteers to process and deliver food to our seniors, and much more," said the trio. "It is our sincere hope that our Council colleagues will reject this senseless and mean-spirited proposal at this Wednesday’s meeting, because now, more than ever, in the midst of a pandemic, Hoboken residents need help from their City. Further, we urge Hoboken residents to reach out to their individual Councilmembers in advance of Wednesday’s meeting to express the need and support for the Office of Constituent Services. It is time to put partisan politics aside for the good of our community and to reject this senseless proposal.”
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher maintains, “This was never about eliminating Constituent Services or the individuals occupying this office. As taxpayers face a potential $20 million budget shortfall, the City Council initiated steps the mayor should have already taken to reduce administrative overhead which has grown significantly over the past two years." Fisher adds, "In the past, Constituent Services was handled and funded out of the mayor’s office. I urge Mayor Bhalla to do what’s best for Hoboken and keep the constituent services team, who serve so many, when he puts forth his proposed budget next month. I’ve recommended carrying these two ordinances until we can review that budget.”
Hoboken's next City Council meeting is Wednesday, May 20 at 7:00 p.m.
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