Clifton Faces Budgetary Crisis as Council Clashes
Tuesday night’s meeting of the City Council included short tempers, some indications of progress, and a disappointing vote on the municipal budget, which is now in danger of state control.
The most urgent business of the night was adopting the municipal budget, which is almost two months late after an extension granted by the state. Councilman Joe Kolodziej moved to adopt the resolution on the budget, which calls for a six-point tax increase. This increase, which would amount to approximately $9-10 per month for the average assessed home, is driven largely by a few big-ticket items. The new garbage contract, reworked police step guide, and required pension contributions added more than six million dollars to the municipal budget.
Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula argued that they should be able to remove at least $1,048,000 from the budget since the council denied the CAP bank but Chief Financial Officer Joe Kunz said that she was misunderstanding the situation. “It was not a good thing - not adopting the COLA ordinance,” Kunz said. Clifton has adopted this ordinance in previous years as a standard matter during the budget process. He explained that refusing to adopt it will affect the 2024-2025 budgets. Auditor Jeffrey Bliss, who was in attendance, clarified that approving the COLA ordinance would have allowed Council to put a little over a million dollars into the CAP bank for use in the future. By not creating this ordinance, as nearly every other municipality does each year, Clifton won’t have that extra money available for use in future budgets.
Before the vote, Councilwoman Rosemary Pino said that she might support the budget if they could earmark some money to fix the Fire Department step guide, as they did for the Police Department. Bliss said they cannot do that and have it carry into future budgets, as would be necessary for continued funding.
Mayor Ray Grabowski introduced the budget resolution which includes the proposed 6-point increase. When casting his vote, Grabowski said, “We’re setting ourselves up for failure next year. If this budget doesn’t get passed with a minimum of 6 tax points next year we’re going to have some serious issues.”
Voting mostly in line with their positions throughout the budgetary process, Gibson, Latona, and Sadrakula all voted no. Pino also voted no, despite supporting the budget just last month. Kolodziej, Murphy, and Grabowski all voted yes but fell short of the four votes needed to pass it. The budget, therefore, failed.
Pino immediately asked to amend the current budget to 7 tax points with that one additional point designated solely for addressing the Fire Department step guide for 2023. None of her colleagues offered a second and the motion died.
Then Sadrakula asked for a new budget meeting with the administration prepared to introduce cuts - but not to police, fire, or the DPW, she specified.
Clearly frustrated, City Manager Nick Villano responded, “You just mentioned the three biggest departments. Where am I going to cut from?”
“Figure it out,” the Councilwoman said curtly. “We pay you a lot of money.”
There were some heated exchanges as council members wondered aloud if another meeting would make any difference after months of meetings and no resolution to the budget crisis. The areas which Sadrakula had listed as off-limits account for roughly 70% of the municipal budget. Villano said that he can make some more cuts but “I cannot make four million dollars in cuts.”
Visibly frustrated, Grabowski called another meeting “futile” since they already know that they cannot cut $4 million from the budget. The auditor said that eventually, the state will have to come in and prepare a budget for the city.
Grabowski then asked if it was possible to operate the city with just a 3-point increase, as Latona suggested. CFO Kunz said no; not unless we reduce some major expenses, like possibly reducing garbage collection. Most of the big expenses, like the police raises and pension payments, are obligations that cannot be amended. He warned that 2025 is going to be a “horrible budget year.”
Tempers flared, with Latona accusing Villano of not responding to his emails about the budget and Villano snapping back that he has answered every one of them and had even extended an invitation for Latona to sit down with him to discuss the budget one-on-one. Latona, he said, hasn’t taken him up on the offer. Councilwoman Lauren Murphy tried to appeal to the public, reminding the viewers at home and those in the room that a mere 3-point increase would necessitate losing some services.
Pino reminded everyone that the original budget proposal included an 11-tax point increase. The Council sent it back to Villano, demanding it be lowered, and he brought it down to the current 6 points. “We’re not even raising the taxes enough to keep up with all of the expenses,” Pino said. She explained her motion to support a 7-point increase with one point allocated to restructuring the Fire Department’s salary guide and said that she won’t support a 3% increase because “we can’t run the city that way.”
After a third request from Sadrakula the Council agreed, some begrudgingly, to another budget meeting. That date has yet to be decided.
The Clifton Times sent the same questions to every council member this morning but at the time of publication, only Kolodziej had responded. Asked why he voted to support the budget he said, “I am not happy about such a steep tax increase because of decisions made by the previous Council that have created contractual obligations we have to meet. We awarded a garbage contract that hit us for a $4M increase over last year's budget. We agreed to raise Police salaries for another $1.3M this year. Our pension costs which we have no control over likewise cost us $1.3M more this year. Our health benefit costs are on pace to cost $2M more this year…This is not a best practices budget, but it does begin to pay for what we already agreed to, and it lays the foundation to continue to improve services next year, so ultimately I voted to support the budget despite its shortcomings.”
Kolodziej said that if the Local Finance Board intervenes, he will vote to approve whatever they recommend, as he “took an oath of office to uphold the laws of the State of New Jersey.”
With budget discusses completed for the night, the mayor seemed relieved to move on to a different topic. He read a resolution offering thanks and appreciation to Clifton resident and volunteer extraordinaire Keith Oakley for his decades of service to the city. Oakley is known, among his other contributions, for being one of the original organizers of what is now called the Avenue of Flags. He and wife Michele are moving out of state next month but his legacy will surely live on in Clifton.
Earlier in the meeting, during the work session, Council voted nearly unanimously to authorize a name change for Washington Park Playground. The playground will be renamed for Oakley. Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula was the lone no-vote, citing concerns about setting a precedent and being fair to all other volunteers who also give their time to the city.
During the City Manager’s Privilge, Villano addressed the failed budget, saying that effective immediately, he would stop all overtime except for emergencies. He also indicated that he would start looking at a potential layoff plan. Because these are government jobs, he has to follow Civil Service Procedures for initiating layoffs. The Civil Service Commission will decide who stays and who goes, based on seniority and other things. He said that he’d meet with the CFO to start the process.
Referencing resident Steve Goldberg’s comments, Villano said that he would support adopting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. He also said that he’s keeping a close eye on the antisemitic graffiti that has been appearing in several spots near the Allwood Park and Ride. Most recently, spraypainted swastikas were found on picnic tables near a Jewish day school.
Oakridge Park had a delay due to equipment and steel availability, Villano said. Resident and admin for the Facebook group Clifton NJ Moms, LoriAnn DeSimone had spoken impassionedly about her neighborhood park being under construction since January. The plans, she said, did not indicate any sort of ADA accessibility which her five year old son requires. “Our goal is for all parks to have ADA accessibility,” Villano said in his comments.
Other items of interest during the earlier work session included Sadrakula, following up on an often-repeated request from resident Gary Perino, asking for the formation of a museum committee. Perino has addressed Council many times, asking that they establish a city museum where historical documents, photos, and artifacts would be preserved for future generations. Councilmen Joe Kolodziej and Tony Latona both agreed to participate and Council agreed that members of the public would be invited to sit on this committee, as well.
Sadrakula also asked that Council take precedence for live broadcasting when meetings overlap with other city meetings, as happened two weeks ago. Typically, City Council meets on Tuesdays but earlier in the month that meeting moved to Wednesday because of Election Day. Sadrakula argued that it was more important for the community to be able to see the Council meetings live than a Board of Adjustment or Planning Board meeting, which they could watch once the videos are uploaded to the city website. The motion carried with a 4-3 vote.
City Manager Nick Villano reported back to Council on the results of the dog park survey. 21 residents whose homes surround the proposed location were surveyed and only three were in favor the dog park being built there. Sadrakula said that it was important to listen to the residents, whose lives would be most impacted.
City Council is scheduled to meet again on Wednesday, July 5 at 6:30 for the work session and at 8:00 for the regular session. The date was changed from their usual Tuesday to accommodate the July 4th holiday.