PATERSON, NJ – With the possibility of another municipal tax increase at stake, Mayor Jeffrey Jones and the City Council appear headed for a showdown next week when it comes time to amend the city’s 2011 budget.
The council already voted in January to set the maximum amount of city taxes collected under the budget at $132 million, a figure that would keep the property tax bills issued in May from increasing above the most recent ones, which brought a 29-percent hike.
But so far, Jones’ staff has not succeeded in cutting the budget to get the tax levy below $140 million.
“I cannot support a tax levy of $140 million,’’ said Councilman Kenneth Morris, who has urged the Jones administration to bring the levy down as low as $122 million.
“If it’s passed at $122 million, expect the state of New Jersey to come through the doors and they’ll be operating the city,’’ said Jones, referring to the threat of a state takeover if Paterson doesn’t adopt a balanced budget.
The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has mandated that the city amend its budget by March 15 and adopt it by March 28. As those deadlines approach, the sparring between Jones and council members over the budget deficit has become increasingly aggressive.
The tensions were evident at the March 8 city council meeting.
Council members sharply criticized Jones’ decisions to shield high-paying recent appointees of his – including his $105,000-a-year chief of staff - from the impending layoffs, while long-standing, rank-and-file workers stand to lose their jobs. Council members also hammered away at the mayor’s three-man police security detail at a time when the city is planning to terminate 125 law enforcement officers.
“Folks taking shots at other folks – that’s what this is becoming,’’ Jones said. “I’m not going to push back or fight back at that.’’
But minutes after declaring he would take the high road, the mayor called Councilman Rigo Rodriguez “a liar” when Rodriguez accused the mayor of failing to provide the council with a plan for resolving the budget crisis.
During their budget battle that went on for more than an hour, neither side offered any new suggestions to closing the $8 million deficit.
At one point, Jones said he saw ‘a plus” in the city’s fiscal crisis.
“We finally understand we’re at rock bottom,’’ the mayor said. “For years, people were pushing debt forward. We didn’t know it because we weren’t engaged in the process.’’