Neighbors Say 'No' to Entertainment License for Local Bar
Tuesday night’s City Council meeting started with Legislative District 34’s Senator Nia Gill in attendance. Senator Gill came to Clifton to ask our council what the city’s most pressing needs are and where she should be looking to direct state funding. Council had many thoughts, ranging from requests for a new firehouse to a Clifton museum in one of the City Hall barns, to accessing funding to address the growing homeless population caused in part by tremendous refugee growth. Senator Gill said that she would look into these projects and see which might be suited to available funding.
Councilman Joe Kolodziej asked her about the Energy Tax Receipts Property Tax Relief Act, which he said has shorted Clifton by millions of dollars. “If we were getting our proper share,” he said, “...it would probably provide us with six to eight tax points worth of relief for us.” He asked Senator Gill to keep the momentum going on addressing the issues with the Energy Receipts Tax. She is a co-sponsor on a bill which seeks to provide municipalities with their fair share but which is sitting in the Assembly.
There was a lot of discussion and disagreement regarding action item A-2 - the creation of a Comptroller position in the finance department. Councilman Tony Latona said that the city should have a dedicated position for paying the city bills, a task currently handled by the City Manager. Councilwoman Rosemary Pino agreed and said that now was a good time to bring it up, since they are discussing the city budget. She added that the City Manager should not be responsible for checking every bill that comes in on top of all the other work of running the city. “Someone else should be taking that task,” she said.
City Manager Nick Villano suggested that if the council decides to create this position, they should look for someone with a CFO certificate so that they could take over for the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) when he retires next year. He recommended that the council wait a year to create this position, given the budget concerns they are already struggling to manage. However, he clarified that he would accept the decision of the council.
Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula expressed her disapproval of creating a new position and pointed out that Clifton already employs a Purchasing Agent and a Chief Financial Officer. She questioned why a third position was necessary, given the existing ones. Latona countered that checking over pages of bills was not part of the job description for a CFO and that a dedicated position would ultimately save money for the city.
Kolodziej disagreed with Villano’s suggestion that the council should delay the creation of this position. The budgetary issues will continue next year, he said. “The idea that we’re not going to invest in ourselves or the personnel we need to start to dig us out of this hole…I don’t necessarily agree with.” The motion to create the position of Comptroller was passed with six affirmative votes. Sadrakula was the lone objector.
New entertainment license for La Bonita Restaurante Bar: Raúl Rodríguez, representing La Bonita, is seeking a new entertainment license that would allow the 120-seat restaurant and bar to have a DJ on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 pm-1 am and on Sundays from 4-8 pm. City attorney Matthew Priore asked about sound control, parking, and security considerations. Rodríguez testified that the entire place was insulated to help contain excessive noise and that he provides 22 parking spaces and security personnel.
The conference room was packed with residents from the neighborhood who came out to object to the approval of this license. Linda Recca recounted a time recently when there was ongoing loud banging that caused her windows to vibrate and rattle. She ran outside, where a neighbor was also investigating. That’s when she realized that the noise was coming from La Bonita. Recca said that she is concerned because if this continues, they will lose peace and serenity in the neighborhood.
Ronnie Sanchez represents management for two buildings on Lexington. He said that the bar’s valet workers have been illegally using his lots for parking, forcing him to tow those vehicles. He said that there are fights and broken beer bottles left behind in his parking lots and that tenants are looking to break leases and leave because it’s already too loud. “It’s bad now. With music, it’s only going to get worse.”
Another resident, Wendy Juarez, lives across the street and agreed it’s very loud. She reported that once someone was parked across her driveway when she came home from the hospital with her child and when she went into the bar to get them to move, someone came out of the bar and vomited on her shoes. Another resident said that last year he needed emergency medical attention and cars from the bar were blocking part of the road and making it hard to get past. Andrew Babiak lives a block away and said that the food is great at La Bonita but it’s terrible at night. The music and noise are overwhelming, he said. “It’s not acceptable and it’s been going on since the Covid restrictions have been lifted.”
Rodríguez claimed that whenever the police come, they say everything is fine and the bar is doing nothing wrong. He suspects that some of the problems are coming from homeless people and from other, nearby restaurants. Sadrakula expressed her disappointment that the owner was not taking responsibility for any of the complaints. She then made a motion to deny the application. Pino thanked Rodríguez for coming out and said that the council supports small businesses but that he perhaps needs to step back and form a better relationship with the neighbors first. After a unanimous vote to deny the application, Mayor Ray Grabowski suggested that in six months if the complaint report from the police looked good, Rodríguez could reapply. “If you keep your neighbors happy, you’ll be happy,” offered Councilman Bill Gibson.
The council moved to adjust the ordinance on Realtors’ Open House signs from the allowed two to four. Later in the meeting, this ordinance was approved with two objections, from Latona and Sadrakula.
New business: The first item on the agenda under new business, dealing with the master plan, was skipped due to time constraints. Bohemian Bistro, on Main Avenue, is requesting permission to paint a mural on the side of their building. City Manager Nick Villano reminded everyone of the controversy a few summers back, surrounding the mural on the Allwood Road underpass. He asked Council to come up with an ordinance to provide him with guidance on making these decisions. Councilman Gibson suggested that any ordinance include specific language to ensure that only appropriate art is approved. Councilwoman Pino acknowledged that murals enhance the aesthetics of a neighborhood and proposed bringing this to the newly-formed Civil Rights Committee but Councilwoman Sadrakula disagreed, saying that it belonged under the purview of the council and not an advisory committee. Villano suggested that the Council collect ordinances from other towns that have them to help them develop one for Clifton.
During Public Recognition, the two owners of Bohemian Bistro spoke, thanking the Council for considering their application and sharing the benefits of a colorful mural. They said that not only would it be an attractive addition to Main Avenue but would draw in people from out of town who are looking for fun places to get a social media-worthy photo.
During the regular meeting session, which started a little after 8:00, the city manager spoke about how we credit veterans once they become 100% disabled - reimbursing them their city, school, and county taxes. New Jersey Assembly Bill 3928, once passed, “Makes total property tax exemption for 100% disabled veterans retroactive to effective date of determination of total disability; requires State to reimburse municipalities for reimbursement of property taxes paid to veteran.”
This bill corrects the current situation, in which Clifton has been footing this bill entirely from the city budget, paying out refunds for city, school, and county taxes. Villano explained that Clifton has been going beyond what was required and that this bill would correct this. Latona, who is a veteran himself, said that the state is going to fix this problem so that the city doesn’t have to reimburse on our dime.
You can view the meeting agenda HERE.
You can watch the meeting HERE.
The next City Council meeting is on Tuesday, May 2 at City Hall. Work sessions begin at 6:30 in the conference room and the regular session starts at 8:00 in the municipal courtroom.