Budget Issues Still a Hot Topic; No Cap Bank for Clifton This Year


The first item on the Council’s work session agenda was handling a recommendation from Clifton’s Chief Financial Officer, Joe Kunz. Kunz recommended amending the city’s policy on how it uses the Fund Balance, suggesting that an official policy be adopted to specify that the balance would not be permitted to drop below $5 million. In the last few years, Council has used more than the recommended “not more than 50%” of this fund to help balance the municipal budget and the current budget, still in discussion, proposes drawing significantly more at 67%. Drawing too heavily from this fund for the purposes of balancing a budget puts the city’s credit rating in jeopardy, as this is one of the metrics by which the city’s fiscal health is measured.

The most recent S&P Global Rating, from May 2023, indicates a potential dip in the city’s standings directly related to this issue. “We could lower the rating if Clifton encounters budgetary pressure stemming from rising fixed costs, including pension and OPEB costs, resulting in utilization of reserves to bridge any imbalance.”

Councilman Joe Kolodziej said that he was not in favor of this recommendation, as the money used from the Fund Balance should be a percentage of the total balance and not a fixed number. The current policy states that no more than 50% should be used, but Council has used more than this for the past several years. With a split vote among the council members present (Councilwoman Lauren Murphy was participating virtually but Councilman Bill Gibson was absent), the motion to adopt Kunz’s recommendation failed.

Under New Business, Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula brought up the issue of enabling a call-in option, referencing and praising the way the Board of Education handles this for their own meetings. This would allow residents who wish to address the Council but cannot be there in person to do so. Councilman Tony Latona said that he’d like to see how other municipalities handle this and added that he would be in favor but would want the option limited to people with disabilities and the elderly “and not just open-ended.” City Clerk Nancy Ferrigno said that she spoke to IT and there’s an issue with the current phone set-up in the courtroom. Sadrakula commented that she didn’t think the option could be limited to only certain people and City Attorney Matt Priore concurred, saying that “we either allow it or we don’t.”

During the regular session, which started at 8:00 pm, one of the big issues was regarding the creation of a cap bank, which would allow Council the greatest flexibility in raising taxes to meet the city’s fiscal obligations. In prior years, Clifton has adopted this ordinance, as nearly every New Jersey municipality does. When this came up for a vote in May, Councilman Tony Latona and Councilwoman Rosemary Pino both abstained. At this meeting, they both voted “no,” and together with Sadrakula’s “no” vote, the motion to adopt failed.

Several members of the public spoke during Public Privilege, sharing their problems and asking for answers. The topics ranged from flooding on Mt. Prospect Avenue, antisemitic graffiti on Allwood Road, speeding down residential streets, the not-yet-established dog park, creation of a city museum, unequal enforcement of the sidewalk ordinance, and the handling of the damaged Firehouse #1. During his comments, which Council had previously voted to allow before Council Privilege, City Manager Nick Villano responded to the various concerns and complaints. Of particular note, he addressed the flooding on Mt. Prospect caused by the newly paved road not being pitched correctly to direct water away from the homes there. He said that relief is coming from the county, which is going to redesign the entire roadway from Allwood all the way down to the railroad. Passaic County will also pay for this correction, and he indicated that he would put pressure on the county to make sure the project moves forward.

Villano also addressed the graffiti, which was removed twice and reappeared twice. The third time it appeared, less than 24 hours after being cleaned off, it was partially removed by a concerned citizen after the city failed to act. Villano explained that by this point, the state police had been called in as the graffiti was appearing on state-owned property and it was the state’s responsibility to handle it with Clifton simply helping as needed. In his comments later in the meeting, Mayor Ray Grabowski praised Villano’s handling of the situation and made a strong statement condemning the messages that had been scrawled in chalk. “Clifton boasts cultural diversity,” he said, “hatred, bigotry, and antisemitism have no place in Clifton. Everyone has to feel safe here,” he concluded.

During Council Privilege, Pino voiced concern that there had not yet been a response to the issue of a potential mural ordinance and asked for something “of substance” by the next meeting. She also asked that the City Manager draft a letter or otherwise address the issue of garbage on Paterson’s portion of Crooks Avenue.

Sadrakula asked for a discussion on creating a museum committee to be added to the next agenda and specified that she did not want this to be funded through tax dollars. She asked that Council meetings take precedence when they fall on the same night as a Board of Adjustment meeting, as it did this time. The BOA took the courtroom, leaving the Council to meet in the much smaller conference room next door.

Kolodziej spoke at some length about his frustration with some of his colleagues’ refusal to vote for needed tax increases. He said that if Council is going to vote for things like police raises and maintaining the current garbage pick-up schedule, they also need to vote to fund them. “No one’s goal is to raise taxes,” he said, but supporting initiatives and then not supporting a means to pay for them amounts to nothing more than “lip service." He pointed out that the new dual-stream recycling, which Council approved in the hopes that it would encourage more residents to recycle and lead to added revenue, has not yet panned out. “We’ve gotten $0 from selling recycling for the first six months of 2023 yet we budgeted to bring in $100,000. We have to pay our obligations.”

Latona said that he believed “you can have efficient government and provide better services without raising taxes so much.” He suggested that a resolution be adopted to cap the cost of various professional services and require amounts over that to go to the Council for individual approval. He also said that he wants to see greater accountability on developers to upgrade infrastructure components when they build so that the city isn’t left to handle issues like flooding that arise later.

After addressing the graffiti incidents, Mayor Grabowski referenced the idea of a city museum, stating that according to their own rules, two people need to bring up an item for discussion before it can actually be addressed. He talked about the dangerous levels of smoke in the air from the Canadian wildfires and cautioned residents to be mindful of their pets’ health as well as their own.

As they typically do, the Council passed most of the resolutions on the agenda without discussion. There was a heated exchange regarding two resolutions that would have approved two different legal firms as Labor Counsel. Ultimately, neither was approved. Another resolution, to accept and approve the execution of a lead grant assistance program, passed with only Sadrakula voting “no.” During the work session, Latona had been the lone opposition. It was not clear why these two council people changed their votes. This grant would provide financial assistance to the city, which could be passed to homeowners, who are required to have their dwellings inspected for the presence of lead paint. Lead paint is hazardous if disturbed or if paint chips flake off and become airborne dust and children are particularly at risk due to their still-developing brains and nervous systems. Approximately one million children in the United States are affected by lead poisoning, according to the EPA. The Clifton Times reached out to Sadrakula for comment but had not received a response as of this writing.

You can find the agenda HERE and watch the full meeting HERE. The next meeting, at which the Council is expected to vote on the municipal budget, is on June 20th. The work session begins at 6:30 pm in the conference room and the regular meeting starts at 8 pm in the municipal courtroom.

I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified