Frustrated Clifton Residents Demand Accountability as Budget Talks Continue


City Council met for its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, May 2 to discuss several important issues - most importantly, the city’s budget issues. An ordinance to raise the appropriations cap was introduced for a first reading. There is a tax levy bank and a lesser-understood appropriations levy. Councilman Joe Kolodziej, who is employed as the Chief Financial Officer in the township of Maplewood, explained that municipalities can create an ordinance that allows them to raise taxes by 3.5% if the cost of living increase is 2.5% or less and then bank the unused portion. “The law recognizes there will be good years and bad years and it's designed to promote a use-what-you-need approach,” he said.

Clifton passed this ordinance last year, like every other municipality in New Jersey, to provide needed flexibility in spending. This proved to be vitally important as the banked overage from previous years was used to pay for the increased garbage expenses and to maintain services in the city. Without the appropriation banked in prior years, the city would have been restricted from increasing the budget to cover the new garbage contract and would have had to cut spending in other parts of the budget to balance the increasing cost of garbage collection.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Bill Gibson voted no to this ordinance, as did Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula. Councilman Tony Latona and Councilwoman Rosemary Pino both abstained, citing the need for more time to fully read the ordinance. Kolodziej, Councilwoman Lauren Murphy, and Mayor Ray Grabowski all voted yes. The motion failed and the ordinance was not adopted. It can be brought up again in a future meeting.

In a six-to-one vote, Council approved the creation of a new position for a Comptroller. While the Chief Financial Officer is responsible for the overall fiscal health of the city, the purpose of a Comptroller is to ensure that there is a set of eyes dedicated to specific fiscal tasks, such as monitoring all of the bills that come in and how they are being paid. At a prior meeting, Council discussed how spending the money for this position now would ultimately save the city money. Sadrakula offered the one objection, saying that she thought the job should be done with existing personnel.

City Manager Nick Villano announced that city inspectors are now going house to house and issuing summonses for unkempt lawns. He implored residents to cut their grass to avoid being fined.


Nearly a dozen residents came to speak to the Council on a variety of issues, many of them related to the looming budget. Lily D’Amato spoke again on the importance of using performance reviews to ensure accountability. “We have to stop putting the accountability on the taxpayers. We elect people who hire people to do that,” she said. She also reminded the Council that allowing cannabis businesses to operate in the city would provide significant revenue, taking some of the budget burden off of the taxpayers. Maplewood, for example, brought in more than half a million dollars in just one year with only one dispensary operating.

Chris D’Amato, who came in eighth place in the 2022 election for City Council, narrowly missing out on winning a seat, also brought up the issue of performance reviews. He questioned Mayor Grabowski’s comments at a previous meeting which suggested that budget meetings are televised for the community to watch and learn from but not for eliciting input or questions. D’Amato said that the purpose of televising the meetings should be to encourage engagement so that people watching could prepare a response and prevent a negative outcome before it happens.

Avraham Eisenman, another former candidate, and Gary Perino both addressed the county’s Allwood Road project. Although they acknowledged that it’s a county road and a county decision, they both suggested that the plan was a bad one for Clifton and implored City Council to issue a strong objection to the county before any work commences. The county’s plan, covered HERE, is to put a section of Allwood Road on a “road diet” in order to address the high number of traffic accidents there. Eisenman also mentioned the circulating petition to put on the November ballot an option to change Clifton’s form of government to one with a directly-elected mayor to increase accountability. He clarified that signing the petition does not indicate agreement with the plan; it only ensures that it will be included on the ballot, allowing voters to make the decision in the November election.

Ray Robertello announced the 2023 Pride flag raising for June 17th at 11 am and invited the community to join him at City Hall. “Support of this event has not been as relevant in 40-50 years as it is right now,” he said. “If you believe in diversity, please come out.”

Other topics covered included the city’s apparent choice to unevenly enforce the sidewalk ordinance, a request to allow call-ins to municipal meetings to increase transparency, information on the bill that would reimburse the city for tax payments returned to disabled veterans which seems to be going nowhere, questions about enforcement of Certificates of Occupancy and whether the city is doing all it can to collect that extra tax revenue, and gratitude for the Mayor’s and the City Manager’s roles in the Israeli flag raising.

Assemblyman John McKeon also made an appearance, introducing himself as a candidate for Legislative District #27, to which Clifton now belongs. Clifton is the only Passaic County municipality in this primarily Essex County district.


Councilman Kolodziej addressed misinformation about the budget. Pilot agreements for the Roche site and Quest Diagnostics were important because they will bring jobs to Clifton. The city is going to get roughly $25 million more from these properties than if we were just collecting property taxes, he explained.

He also addressed the idea that there’s extra money in trusts that the city is not using to keep taxes down. There were two analyses by independent auditors, he said, which both indicated that they are handling those accounts appropriately. The storm trust, for example, increased because we had a mild winter but only has enough funds to cover two major snow storms. If the city takes money from that account, it won’t be funded if the next winter is harsher. Other trusts lost money last year and the city cannot raid money from a losing trust.

19 of our 20 revenue sources are at the maximum amount permitted by law. The idea that there’s fluff in the budget is a fallacy, he said. “In my opinion, it’s stuff that we’re focusing on because we can talk about how we asked the hard questions instead of making the hard decisions.”

Councilman Latona disagreed with Kolodziej and says there is money in the trust funds that we didn’t need last year and could use to cover some of the budgetary shortfalls now. He said that there were court fees and tax revenue from new homes that weren’t being counted and hopes the Comptroller will save us money. “We overestimate our expenses and underestimate revenue.”

Councilwoman Murphy, addressing one of the public speakers, said that Council “did not jump into six tax points.” She reminded the public that they had spent many hours going over the budget over the last few months. Some questions they raised led to the answer that they could not be fixed without raising taxes. Garbage increases, needed police raises, and rising pension costs all need to be funded.

Councilwoman Pino announced the date of the city-wide garage sale - June 24th. She asked the City Manager why there was no way to get a permit for garage sales online. It is difficult for many people to get to City Hall during business hours to request and pay for these permits, she said.

On the budget, she said that the City Manager did “cut the fat.” The city went from an $11 million deficit to a $4 million one after months of work. She explained that the city survived the pandemic years on gifted money from the government but now has to survive without that extra money. Taxes and Fees are the two sources of revenue for the city and the last council did not support cannabis or the idea of parking garages. “We are in this position because of our own choices,” she said.

Councilwoman Sadrakula asked that the City Manager address the public’s questions before council comments and requested this to be a discussion item for the next meeting. She agreed that all employees should be subject to performance reviews, pointing out that the police and fire departments have them.

On the budget, she said that expenses were overstated by $3 million last year and the city ended the year with a $15 million surplus. She reiterated something she brought up at last week’s budget meeting, that no part-time employee should have health benefits. “It’s a perk that we simply cannot afford,” she said.

She asked to schedule a recycling committee meeting because “I don’t believe people are recycling.” Sadrakula agreed with resident Faith Webb and said that she supports allowing call-ins at municipal meetings.

Councilman Gibson said that most of the things he wanted to speak about had already been addressed and agreed that the community needed better education about the changed recycling rules. Clifton is now operating a dual-stream system. Recycling only needs to be sorted into two categories: paper/cardboard and plastic/aluminum/steel food cans/glass.

Mayor Grabowski thanked McKeon for visiting Clifton. Addressing concerns from some residents, he said that the council was going to send a strong statement to the county regarding Allwood Road. He reiterated some of the reasons they have to raise taxes and reminded the public that introducing a budget doesn’t mean that it’s written in stone; things can still change. He acknowledged that there was still work to do. “No one wants increases,” he said, and he encouraged people to check The Clifton Times for the budget calculator included in last week’s coverage. He said that for a $9,000 taxed property, the increase from the proposed six points would be about $9/month.

The agenda for this meeting can be found HERE and you can watch the meeting HERE.

The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 16. The work session starts at 6:30 and the public portion starts at 8 pm in the courtroom at City Hall.

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