Will Voters Get To Weigh In on an Open Space Tax? Maybe Not.
This week’s City Council meeting, held on Wednesday, August 2, 2023, began with an action item to adopt the municipal budget, initially voted on at the last meeting. Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula had some questions before roll call, drawing attention to several line items that had changed since the last presentation of the budget. One point of contention was the increased revenue from interest earned. Allowing for this higher number in the current budget requires State approval and attorney Matt Priore acknowledged that the request had been sent for review but, as Sadrakula pointed out, it has not yet been approved. During roll call, Pino abstained, Kolodziej and Sadrakula voted against adoption, and all other Councilors, including Bill Gibson and Lauren Murphy who attended remotely, voted yes to narrowly adopt the budget with a four-point tax increase.
There was a lot of discussion about the resolution to renew the Bond Anticipation Notice (BAN), a standard move that Councilman Joe Kolodziej explained was necessary to ensure that the city does not default on money already borrowed. Councilman Tony Latona had questions which Kolodziej and City Manager Nick Villano addressed. Sadrakula was the lone no vote. However, during the public session when the vote was finalized, Councilwoman Lauren Murphy, who had been attending remotely as she deals with a serious illness, was no longer present to vote and Councilwoman Rosemary Pino changed her previous yes to an abstention. The vote fell short of the needed four and no action was taken. The result of this failure means that any additional borrowed money will likely be charged at a higher interest rate and the city may not be able to conduct any new capital projects in 2023 without the ability to secure new bonds.
Later in the meeting, Kolodziej moved to vote on the Open Space tax that was unanimously supported during the last meeting’s work session. The resolution would not establish the tax; it would only allow the city to place it as a question on the November ballot so that the voters could decide whether or not they support it. When Kolodziej initially brought this up as a topic for discussion, he emphasized the importance of allowing the voters to choose and implored his colleagues to give them the opportunity to be heard. Covered in more depth HERE, the Open Space tax, which would amount to approximately $1.50 per month on the average assessed home (one penny per hundred dollars of assessed value), would generate revenue that would be set aside for improvements to the city parks and playgrounds, for the establishment of a city museum, protecting the existing farms, building a dog park, or creating a splash park.
During this final vote, Pino abstained and Sadrakula, who minutes earlier had expressed frustration that Passaic and Paterson have made so many improvements to their city parks with the benefit of various grants while Clifton continues to struggle, voted no. Gibson was absent and Murphy, who was trying to call in to vote from home, did not get through in time and the vote concluded without her input. The motion required four affirmative votes to pass and without the missing councilors’ votes, it failed. Because the deadline for submitting a question for the ballot is at the end of this month, there likely isn’t the opportunity to successfully pass this at a future meeting. It would need to be revived during the work session at the next scheduled meeting and then a final vote would have to happen at a subsequent meeting. Kolodziej said that he will attempt to bring this up for a revote at the August 15th meeting and then call for a special meeting to finalize it.
Action item A-13, approval for a Muslim festival, was initially tabled following a concern raised by Murphy. Her concern, she said, was that the festival was proposed by an organizer with whom the Council has no previous relationship and she felt that it was important to learn more about the organizer and the event itself before granting approval. The Council voted to table it and Murphy said that she would make it a top priority to reach out and learn more immediately. During the meeting, Murphy learned that the organizer had been working with the Recreation Department for weeks and is a known Clifton resident, so she asked to revisit the item and it was approved.
There are plans to build a new firehouse on the city-owned property next to Main Memorial Library at the corner of Piaget and Main Avenue, where there is easy access to main roads. This proposed firehouse would replace firehouses #1 and #3, both of which are aging structures and not equipt to handle some of the modern equipment needed. This new building would also be the new headquarters for the Fire Department, freeing up their current property at City Hall for other city business.
The city wants to use 1.75 acres of this property but because it’s classified as part of a ROSI (Recreation Open Space Inventory) plan, designated to remain open space, the city would need to “swap” with another property to replace that lost open space. The swap could be for an equal lot size or up to twice the size; that decision is up to the NJDEP. Villano suggested that the city use some of the existing paper streets (streets that exist on the books as part of original plans but were never built) that go through Albion Park and are already being used as open space.
Sadrakula had several questions about this plan, arguing that although using paper streets might satisfy the ROSI requirements, it would not create any new open space to replace the land that the firehouse would occupy. Those paper streets that are currently running through the park are already being used as open space; using them as part of the swap would change the tax map and protect them from ever being used as roads but would not create any new open space for the city.
The Health Department is looking to develop a resolution that would further regulate vape shops in the city. This would allow the city to conduct inspections and hold these shop owners to additional standards beyond what the state allows. This resolution seeks to address the growing epidemic of vape use among adolescents.
As has been common, many residents showed up to share their concerns and thoughts with the Council. Issues raised at this meeting included an oft-repeated plea for full crossing-guard coverage at all schools located in the city, including charters, and freshly painted crosswalks. One resident asked the Council to reconsider a policy that prohibits rentals of fewer than 30 days, citing the need to keep pace with current trends and technologies and the increased tourist revenue if Airbnb listings were permitted. He proposed taxing these short-term rentals with the same hotel tax those places pay to make it profitable for the city rather than prohibiting them altogether. Another resident addressed the issue of the definition of antisemitism and asked Council why they did not offer some other alternative once they decided not to vote on the definition at all, instead leaving the Jewish community feeling like the recent spate of antisemitic graffiti was not being fully addressed. She referenced one of the many Palestinian speakers at the last meeting who referred to the Jewish community as a “despicable minority” and her disappointment that Council did not address that at all.
Upcoming flag raisings at City Hall include the Ecuadorian flag this Sunday, August 6 at 1:30, the Indian flag on Sunday, August 13 at 12:30 pm, and the Pakistani flag on Monday, August 14 from 6-8 pm.
The City Council next meets on Tuesday, August 15th at 6:30 pm in the conference room. The regular session will start at 8:00 pm in the courtroom..