TRENTON — Lawmakers rejected $28.1 million in appropriations “primarily” intended to pay bonds and interest due next month, city officials said.
Mayor Reed Gusciora slammed the decision to vote down the temporary appropriations resolution at Thursday’s meeting as “beyond irresponsible.”
That left city officials “scrambling” Friday to find a solution to prevent the city from defaulting on upcoming bond payments, which are due July 15, city spokesman Tim Carroll.
Corporate Administrator Adam Cruz warned council members that failure to pay past obligations for schools, water and sewer could impact the city’s credit rating.
“It’s not for luxury spending. It’s up to us to be responsible, if we don’t want to deteriorate with Moody’s,” he said.
Lawmakers still voted 4 to 3 to kill the resolution. Council members Marge Caldwell-Wilson, George Muschal and Joe Harrison voted for the measure, but were voted down by the faction led by Kathy McBride.
Councilman Robin Vaughn was upset that the city has yet to pass a budget for the 2022 calendar year, calling it “a risky proposition for a municipality in financial difficulty.”
She accused state officials of allowing the city to operate “willy-nilly” without a budget in place.
“That’s how we run the city of Trenton. No wonder the FBI is there,” she said. “I won’t spend another emergency loan, especially when our mayor has five subpoenas filed against him. That’s no way to run a city. We are stewards of taxpayers’ money.
Gusciora proposed a flat-tax spending plan of $226.7 million, which includes an $81.9 million tax levy.
But city officials are at an impasse after Council Speaker Kathy McBride canceled budget hearings due to a rift with administration over the possibility of a budget officer reviewing the plan. spending this year with lawmakers.
Gusciora accused McBride of unnecessarily delaying the budget and called on state officials to bring in a tax auditor to oversee the process.
McBride said Thursday that hearings would likely resume after the June 7 primary.
The administration contacted state lawmakers representing Mercer County and Department of Community Affairs officials to brief them on the situation, Carroll said.
He added that the city hopes the state will temporarily cover bond payments if city officials can’t schedule an emergency hearing for lawmakers to reconsider the resolution before the bill’s deadline.
In other news, lawmakers temporarily iced a $150,000 donation from the city to the Conservatory Mansion to settle legal issues that arose after city officials learned the event venue had filed for bankruptcy and had to its creditors.
Council Counsel Edward Kologi advised lawmakers not to vote on the resolution to instead award the six-figure payout with federal coronavirus funds until the legal issues are resolved.
“We need to revisit some aspects of this. I make no judgment on whether we are going to achieve this or not,” Kologi said.
The city has received over $73 million in money from the American Rescue Plan Act. Part of that sum was to go to the Conservatory Mansion, which has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The late payment upset Vaughn, who alleged the administration discriminated against event venue owners.
She said she would raise concerns with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Office of Inspector General about the city “arbitrarily applying its own guidelines to the distribution of ARPA funds and favoring certain citizens over to others”.
Kologi said the resolution incorrectly referred to the venue as a nonprofit organization and that the resolution lacked a funding certification from the administration showing that the funds are available.
“It’s to protect the council. I don’t want the board to vote on anything that might be legally flawed,” Kologi said.
In the end, council voted 4-3 to withdraw the resolution until a later date, after being told by Chief Legal Officer Wes Bridges that the city needed to make sure the $150,000 actually went to the venue. and are not diverted “to pay creditors”.
And finally, Trenton Animal Rocks suffered another round of attacks as lawmakers passed an ordinance to increase staffing at the beleaguered shelter.
The nonprofit was kicked out of the city’s animal shelter months ago, a day after lawmakers voted against a $375,000 contract renewal.
The organization’s founder, Danielle Gletow, tried to defend her employees after town resident Paul Bethea claimed TAR treated the shelter like a ‘cash cow’.
But it was shut down by McBride, who thundered, “You’re not going to question me,” when Gletow asked the legislative leader why Bethea had been allowed to attack the organization uninterrupted.
The passing of the ordinance saw the hiring of four pet sitters, half of them part-time, who will care for approximately 700 dogs and cats that pass through the shelter each year.
Candidates for the positions do not need college degrees and will earn between $27,773 and $43,441.
The city will contract for veterinary services, which could reach six figures.
TAR has passed off its services as a bargain, and a volunteer this week accused the board chairman of having a vendetta against nonprofits.
McBride showed up at the shelter unannounced last week to apparently berate city workers for not better monitoring who was moving around the premises.
McBride and other council members complained about Gletow being broadcast live from the installation without a kill after TAR’s contract ended, calling it a “liability” issue for the city.
They expressed a desire for trained and credentialed city animal shelter workers to train new incoming employees after some residents suggested in public comments that TAR officials should do the job.
“We don’t need ART,” Vaughn said. “You don’t need an MIT degree to work at the animal shelter.”
Caldwell-Wilson, a longtime supporter of the shelter, chastised her colleagues for the attacks on TAR, saying volunteers continue to care for animals at the shelter out of the goodness of their hearts.