As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to upend our daily lives and routines, our local government has also undergone significant changes. Last night, during an online City Council meeting, the Hoboken Council voted in favor of eliminating the Office of Constituents which was reestablished in 2018.
Councilmembers Mike DeFusco, Vanessa Falco, Tiffanie Fisher, Michael Russo, Ruben Ramos, and Council President Jen Giattino voted in favor of eliminating the office. Councilmembers Emily Jabbour, Phil Cohen, and Jim Doyle voted against it.
Prior to the 6-3 vote, Mayor Bhalla had urged City Council to remove the item from their agenda.
In an official statement emailed to constituents, Mayor Bhalla wrote:
“At a time when residents need help more than ever, Caroline Caulfield and Migdalia Pagan-Milano have gone above and beyond to help the elderly, disabled, and those most in need due to COVID-19. This unfortunate ordinance, attempting to undermine City Hall’s assistance to those in need, will be vetoed so Caroline and Migdalia can continue serving as a vital resource for all Hoboken residents.”
However, Mayor Bhalla announced May 21st that he plans to exercise his right to veto the decision to eliminate the office — though a vote of 6-3 by City Council could override this decision.
The Hoboken Office of Constituent Services was reopened in 2018 after it had been struck from the budget at the recommendation of a municipal auditor in 2009. Mayor Bhalla and Caroline Caufield reopened the office.
What Councilmembers Are Saying
City Councilmembers who have voted for the elimination of both these Offices maintain that municipal costs need to be cut somewhere — and those against, that these positions are a critical need for the community.
“This was never about eliminating constituent services or the individuals occupying this office,” Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher told Hudson County View. “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.”
In a joint statement, Councilmembers Jim Doyle, Emily Jabbour, and Phil Cohen — all of which who voted against the elimination of the Office — said, “That is not to downplay Caroline and Migdalia’s outstanding service during this COVID-19 pandemic. That speaks for itself. But to eliminate this Office because certain City Councilmembers chose to perpetuate a petty, vindictive political fight with this Office as a proxy for their disagreement with Mayor Bhalla is unacceptable. This Office represents the frontline of the City for residents, whether before this pandemic or now. This calculated punishment is exactly the opposite of sensible government, and while it may serve the agenda of certain Councilmembers, it will have a negative impact on residents needing critical assistance during the pandemic and beyond.”
Fisher also added that though the Office of Constituent Services may be dissolved temporarily, Mayor Bhalla has the option of reopening it again when he submits his proposed budget in June 2020. Today, however, he has officially announced that he plans to exercise his right to veto the decision to eliminate the office.
“In the past, constituent services was handled and funded out of the mayor’s office,” Fisher explained. “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.”
Purpose is to not have a separate department for Const Svcs. The entire govt is only temporarily funded right now – including constituent services – because we don’t have an approved budget. We will review all areas for inclusion in go forward budget when it is introduced.
— Tiffanie Fisher, Councilwoman (@Tiffanie_Fisher) May 21, 2020
This vote to eliminate the Office of Constituent Services comes on the heels of a financial crisis in Hoboken, which has prompted an introduction of two other ordinances to reduce municipal costs where they can. The other two ordinances seek to temporarily cut the salaries of all City Council members, Mayor Bhalla, and City Directors by 10% for the rest of 2020, as well as eliminate the in-house engineer position in Bhalla’s cabinet — as well as a potential 5% tax levy increase that was just introduced to the council last night by the administration.
Efforts to reduce municipal costs, of course, come months after the announcement of the city’s multi-million dollar budget deficit — which existed prior to COVID-19 but was only exacerbated by the pandemic and urgent need for additional resources — and weeks after city employees were laid off.
Dawn DeLorenzo, President of the Hoboken Municipal Supervisors Association, expressed frustration with the Bhalla administration’s reaction to the vote, citing the pandemic layoffs.
DeLorenzo told hMag, “How incredibly insensitive and out of touch it is for the Mayor to make such a statement as, ‘I’m extremely disappointed that the council is even considering a law to abolish this office [Constituent Services]’ right in the middle of a pandemic, when he eliminated 30 jobs right in the middle of the same pandemic. I suppose those 30 peoples’ lives are of no consequence, nor do their feelings after reading such a statement matter.”
Other councilmembers have not commented publicly about the cuts, but we will update the article with their statements.
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