Passaic Quality Of Life To Go Downtown

19 10 2009



PASSAIC — In the face of declining revenues, the City Council has arrived at a crossroads: Dip into reserves to cover costs or cut spending next year by firing 14 police officers, 11 firefighters and six public works employees.

For now, the council chose the latter, but layoffs could be averted if the state comes through with increased aid in 2010.

It’s essentially the same debate the council faced four years ago. But instead of making the difficult decision to cut spending, the city’s fiscal gatekeepers devised a plan to borrow $2 million to balance its books.

In the process, the council added another level of government with new salaries, took on hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments and created an agency that can survive only by raising parking fees and ticketing residents for parking violations.

The Passaic Parking Authority was created for a one-shot budget windfall that has, and will, cost taxpayers more over the long term.

“It was a ploy and I think it’s going to come back to bite them,” said former Mayor Marge Semler. “It was only a way to cover what was going to be a deficit. They hired more people, added more jobs and at no point did they cut cost of services.”

The council approved the authority in early 2006 so that the city could sell it $2 million of city land. The authority borrowed $2.95 million to complete the sale of seven city-owned lots. Since then, the authority has had to pay $390,000 in interest payments on that loan — mainly through increased parking fees and court fees from violations. Each year, the author-ity must also carry at least $60,000 in new salaries and legal fees, according the agency’s budget.

The authority’s survival depends on how much it can squeeze out of the meters and money from parking tickets.

“Passaic Parking Authority is dependent on meter revenues and fines in order to pay for cost of operations and bond financing,” wrote director Ted Evans in November 2008 to the authority’s board. “Current economic conditions could adversely affect revenues.”

Keith Furlong, the city’s spokesman, said the authority was not as affected by the economic downturn as Evans predicted.

“We found the parking meter revenue has increased and fines and penalties have gone down,” Furlong said. “We’re not finding the economic climate is impacting the revenue of the parking authority.”

The agency expects to collect $1.1 million from parking fees this year, a 17 percent jump from last year — the largest estimated increase since the authority was created.

This week, the council debated how it could still operate a government that has long depended on raising revenues over cutting costs.

Councilman Chaim Munk, elected in 1995, led the discussion, saying it was time to finally make the difficult decision to cut costs — just like the city’s mostly middle-class residents have.

“The bigger question is, is it time to change course, because everyone in this room has had to change course,” he said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “When [families] get hit with a bill … we have to make cuts. Government doesn’t have to make tough decisions, because when we get hit by a bill, like the pension, we just raise taxes.”

The council will create an ad hoc committee to look at next year’s budget.

Council President Gary Schaer, who is up for reelection to his Assembly seat in November, said it was the council’s responsibility to start trimming if it wants a leaner budget.

“If the council wishes to make cuts, it’s the council’s budget. You know what, let’s make the cut,” Schaer said. “I want to join the bandwagon for fiscal conservatism. I just want to make sure the wheels don’t run over our toes in the future.”

Both councilmen voted to approve the parking authority in 2005.




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