A frustrated Jersey City school board president says Mayor Steve Fulop is “stonewalling” the board over the city’s payroll tax payment to the district.
But the accusation by Mussab Ali comes as a surprise to the mayor, who says he speaks regularly with the superintendent and has been as forthright as possible.
At issue is the city’s obligation to forward the money accrued through the 1% payroll tax imposed on businesses to the district to fund the school budget.
In an interview Wednesday, Fulop told The Jersey Journal the city has $58 million in collections this year and $7 million from the reserve account. But still, Ali says the board wants a complete accounting of the fund.
“So the reality of the situation is the city has been stonewalling us on information about this payroll tax … fundamentally we are looking for information,” Ali said. “If the city is claiming they can certify $65 million then they should be able to prove just by giving us the numbers.
“We are just looking for them to be transparent about these numbers so that everyone in the public is just aware of what is happening.”
The school board recently gave initial approval to an $812 million budget for the 2021-2022 school year, a spending plan that would increase property taxes for homeowners by nearly $1,000.
The payroll tax, a vital financial tool for the cash-strapped Jersey City school district, is intended to offset slashes made to state education aid.
Prior to the implementaton of the payroll tax, district officials had complained that tax abatement awarded to developers deprived the school system of funding, since the developer made a payment in lieu of annual property taxes for a pre-determined number of years.
Fulop said he has met with Superintendent Franklin Walker and district Business Administrator Regina Robinson repeatedly over the last year and “we have (provided) a path for them to be more fiscally responsible and better in the classroom.”
The district used $88 million in payroll tax funding last year — $58 million in collections and $30 million from the reserve fund. He said the reserve account currently has just $7 million.
“We are certifying the same dollar amount despite the pandemic,” Fulop said. ” I can’t (speak for) the politics of the board of education, (but) we speak to the superintendent and their business administrator regularly … and they ask for financial help regularly.”
City officials have asked the school board to pass a resolution that endorses giving businesses temporary amnesty on late payroll tax payments, believing it would spur more business to make their payments. Walker could not be reached for comment.
Fulop said the district has requested that the city forgive $1.5 million in fees owed by the district, although it was not clear what the fee were for. The district has asked that Jersey City renew its $3 million shared services deal with the district.
“We are constantly giving money to them, but we are not going to write a blank check,” Fulop said “Every time they ask for help financially, we give it to them.”
In February the City Council passed a resolution calling for an audit of the 2019 and 2020 payroll tax collection, but that has gone nowhere, said Councilman at Large Rolando Lavarro, who sponsored the legislation.
City Council President Joyce Watterman said the city council doesn’t need the administration’s approval for the audit, but the council “should be going out to bid or whatever to see how we want this handled.”