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Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop threw down the proverbial gauntlet last week, telling the Board of Education to stop whining about cuts in state aid and to start doing something about it – such as finally raising taxes.
For the last four years, current and former board members have been warning the city about a potential train wreck, pointing to the fact that politicians elsewhere in the state have become impatient with funding Jersey City schools, while tax abatements allowed the city to fatten its municipal coffers.
Many pointed fingers at Fulop and his generous abatement policies that allowed his administration to hold down municipal taxes while short changing the schools.
Fulop was only the last of a long line of guilty parties in this regard, and is some way like the poor bank robber stuck holding the bag when the cops show up and all the other gang members have split.
In some ways, you can’t blame him or Jersey City for taking advantage of a good thing. After all, if the state was obligated under state supreme court rulings to pay a majority of the costs for education in Jersey City, why shouldn’t the city use abatements to fund other things such as more cops, better fire equipment and more recreational opportunities for kids?
Former Ward E Councilwoman Candace Osborne said she would have disagreed with the abatements if Jersey City taxpayers actually were suffering. But as long as state aid came, the city would be foolish not to use abatement money for other things.
Where it all fell apart was the Fulop administration’s inability to stop this gravy train before it smacked into a financial wall.
Many people warned Fulop and the city council, and eventually, like hitting the tail of a dinosaur with a sledge hammer, the message made its slow way to the political brain.
Three years ago, Fulop slammed on the abatement brakes, but way too late to avoid the negative impact.
Once Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Gov. Phill Murphy – neither one a true friend of Fulop’s – made up their mind to cut aid to Jersey City, the old shell game was over – and cutting abatements or even sharing revenue from new abatements would not make up for the massive loss of revenue.
You have to wonder if the cut in aid to Jersey City may have been motivated by Murphy’s desire to keep Fulop so distracted in school budget woes to keep him from running for governor in the primary in 2021. This would also benefit Sweeney by narrowing the field of Murphy challengers in the chance Sweeney wants to take on Murphy instead.
Budging tricks by previous school board trustees have managed to far to keep the district from massively laying off teachers and significantly increasing class sizes.
But these things are inevitable if the district refuses to seek out the one funding source it has to make up the loss of state aid.
Until recently, the school district hoped to provide a number of alternative quick fixes, such as imposing a payroll tax on companies that employ people in Jersey City – thus reducing the incentive for new businesses to open there, and encouraging existing businesses to seek other places where such a tax does not exist.
But the payroll tax was always too little too late to deal with the massive economic problems the district faces. While school officials hope that the state supreme court will once again intervene to rule that the cuts in aid are unconstitutional, these cases take time to work their way up to the high court, and Jersey City is as short of time as it is funds to balance its budget.
Unable to convince board members who must face reelection to do the right thing and raise taxes through the school budget, Fulop proposed a referendum that would allow his administration to hand pick board members rather than have them elected.
This risks alienating him with the teachers’ union – which currently has a huge influence over the current board after having helped most of them get elected.
Fulop said he would ask the city council to withdraw the proposed referendum if the school board agreed to take those steps necessary to balance their own budget. This means raising taxes and making other serious cuts to spending.
In living up to the old adage about “putting his money where his mouth is,” Fulop laid out a plan of cuts and other changes his administration would under take in order to come up with additional funding from the city to help the schools.
His plan would put on hold a huge chunk of his own agenda for a large police department and other matters in order to make sure the school district’s fiscal train doesn’t run into a wall in June when the school budget must be passed.
Fulop needs to get passed this train wreck this year because even if he chooses not to run for governor in 2021, he will face reelection as mayor. The last thing he needs are massive – perhaps state imposed –school tax increases in an election year.
Better to get the pain over with this year, and then hope to smooth over the outrage of taxpayers during the upcoming year, so by the time Fulop seeks reelection, voters will have forgotten if not quite forgiven him.