PATERSON, NJ – Speaking at community meeting attended by more than 70 people Monday night, Mayor Jeffrey Jones said his goal is to produce a municipal budget this year with no tax increase.
During the two-hour session sponsored by members of the Brothers of Paterson Inc. and the BAND 4th Ward neighborhood group, Jones answered a variety of questions from community organization leaders. The mayor expressed his frustrations in dealing with the city’s chronic crime problem, saying Paterson was working with federal and state authorities on crackdowns. He also discussed his efforts to get a hotel built in the city and to revitalize the Paterson Armory.
Several questions focused on the municipal budget, which currently has a $5.9 million deficit. Once the deficit is closed, an additional $5 million would have to be cut to avoid a tax increase.
“The intent is zero tax increase,’’ Jones told the crowd at the Paterson Room at Passaic County Community College. “That’s the goal.’’ But the mayor did not provide details on how that might be achieved.
“We have cut to the bone and we will continue to cut to the bone,’’ Jones said. “We have been as aggressive as anybody can be.’’ He added, “Without question, the citizens cannot afford any kind of tax increase.’’
Jones’ chief of staff, Charles Pettiford, had said last week that the community meeting would be closed to the media. But reporters were allowed inside.
Reaction to the meeting was mixed. “I was satisfied with what I heard,’’ said community activist Quincy Battis, one of the organizers of the forum. “It was a fruitful meeting. My main concerns were crime and economic development. That’s what I wanted to hear about. I also need him (the mayor) to listen to the community. We want jobs and public safety as the top priority.’’
“I’m more confident than what I was,’’ said City Council President Anthony Davis, “now that I heard he has a plan to get us on the right track.’’ Davis said it was important for Patersonians to get involved in solving the city’s problems and he challenged critics “to come on the bandwagon instead of throwing darts.’’
But Marc Lazarus of the Eastside Neighborhood Association said he was disappointed by the mayor’s comments on the budget, saying, “He didn’t address the mechanics of how he intends to get it done.’’
During his remarks to the crowd, Jones reiterated a common theme of his public comments as mayor, saying he was blindsided by the problems he inherited when he took office. He also said the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has enforced its conditions for providing Paterson with transitional aid - $21 million this year - more rigorously than it did prior to his taking office.
“The rules that apply to this administration surely did not apply to the previous one,’’ the mayor said. “That’s a good thing and it’s a complicated thing.’’’
At one point, Jones called the DCA “Big Brother” because of the state agency’s oversight of Paterson’s finances. In the past several months, the DCA has ordered Paterson department heads to return their flood overtime checks, threatened penalties because of the city’s travel spending, rejected a proposed severance deal with Police Chief James Wittig and denied requests to rehire police officers and evening program recreation workers.
Many of the people at the meeting were concerned about Paterson’s crime problem, especially after this past weekend’s violence, which included a double homicide and the wounding of a 14-year-old. Jones acknowledged shootings and armed robberies were on the rise in certain city neighborhoods. He also criticized city officials who speak openly about the fact that Paterson laid off 125 police officers last year, saying they were tipping off criminals.
Jones said the city police department – in cooperative arrangements with county, state and federal law enforcement authorities - has had success cleaning up some areas. But, he said, criminals simply resurfaced in another part of the city. Jones declined to provide details on the law enforcement initiatives, saying they needed to be kept confidential “for reasons you could understand.’’
When asked about economic development, Jones said the new national park eventually would attract tourists and create jobs. He also said he expected that Paterson’s meetings with local government officials from China would result in new manufacturing plants being built in the Silk City. Moreover, the mayor said he was making progress on a hotel deal.
“By the end of March, I should know exactly where our first hotel is going to be,’’ he told the audience.
Jones was particularly enthusiastic when he talked about his “dream” for the Paterson Armory. He invited people in the crowd to examine preliminary plans that the Paterson Parking Authority had drafted for the Armory. They featured a full-size competitive track, basketball and volleyball courts, a bowling alley and restaurant. Jones said he also would like to see a swimming pool added to the proposal.
Jones said The Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a national nonprofit group, had picked Paterson’s Armory plans as one of eight projects from around the country that it would assist this year.