PATERSON – When Jose “Joey” Torres was running for his third term as mayor of Paterson in May of 2014, the Passaic County Democratic establishment turned their back on him and, instead, supported Councilman Andre Sayegh. Now, Torres and Sayegh are, once again, butting heads. This time the root of the disagreement is a referendum that Torres put on the November 3 ballot asking voters if they support the levy of a new tax on Paterson property owners to fund an increased recreational services budget.
Mayor Torres—who won in 2014 despite the odds being stacked against him—is squarely in the corner of the levy being a good idea. Sayegh, however, is vehemently opposed.
“This referendum is non-binding,” Torres told PolitickerNJ. “I am taking the pulse of the city of Paterson to see if they would like for me to entertain enacting this levy.”
The levy would cut the $2.4 million currently allotted by the municipality for recreational services. That budget would be replaces with funds generated by a tax of .005 percent for every $100 of assessed property value. According to Torres, that levy would actually save Paterson residents money because of the significant proportion of properties that are owned by “absentee landlords” and the number of renters in the city. The new tax, if eventually approved, would be dedicated to only recreation and is expected to bring in around $3 million, an increase of $600,000 over the current budget.
“Johnny and Susie who live in low-income housing, do their parents have the money to send them to the Boys and Girls Clubs or to the Y? No,” Torres said. “But the landlord is collecting the fair market rate—which is subsidized by the government—to maintain his mansion in Wayne or wherever else he is living. So why shouldn’t a percentage of the taxes that he pays be squirreled away in this recreation trust?”
For Sayegh, however, the timing of the new tax is “atrocious.”
“In the wake of the tax rate almost doubling and the revaluation of commercial properties seeing an almost 50 percent increase on their taxes, we can least afford another tax increase at this time,” Sayegh said. “That is why I am encouraging people to vote no on this new tax.”
On Oct. 15, Sayegh held a forum in Paterson called “No New Taxes” where he aimed to educate Paterson residents about why he feels such a levy would not be beneficial. The forum was attended by hundreds of concerned residents. Sayegh also claims that city council meetings have been packed with those in opposition to the proposed new tax.
“He is sort of coming across as out of touch and tone deaf,” Sayegh said of Torres. “We have had hundreds of people come to council meetings in the wake of receiving their tax bills and they are all protesting. I am hoping that [Torres] has watched the meetings or read the articles. There is a groundswell of opposition to this tax and to any form of new tax considering what the situation is. People are being taxed to death.”
Torres allies point out that when Sayegh wanted his own tax for a special improvement district in the 6th Ward, however, the councilman rammed it through the governing body without going to the voters, while the mayor by contrast seeks constituent support for the recreation tax.
One thing that makes the current Torres/Sayegh dynamic interesting is that, technically, the two are on the same side. Though the Paterson government is officially non-partisan, both Torres and Sayegh identify as Democrats. Both are supporting the Democratic slate for Passaic County freeholder. Even so, is seems that that agreement is not enough to mend the fences between the two.
When the Democratic establishment backed Sayegh last May, Torres was left scrambling. Now, he is working to demonstrate that he supports those affiliated with his party despite that contentious period.
“Even that evening of my victory I did talk about how there was some mending, some healing that had to be done for the greater good of the party,” Torres said. “I believe that conversation has taken place and so I am encouraging the residents of the city of Paterson to support the Democratic ticket on November 3.”
Torres continued: “I feel very strongly in the unification of the party, of all being on the same line.”
With the Assembly being at the top of the ticket this year, the freeholder race promises to be a close one. The inclusion of a levy might spike turnout, especially when paired with the special election in Ward 1 and the School Board election. But that spike may not be beneficial.
According to Sayegh, the question of imposing a new tax might reflect negatively on the current incumbent Democrats Hector Lora and John Bartlett and newcomer Sandi Lazzara. Republican challengers Joseph Cupoli, Joan Walsh and Sami Merhi are promising to lower taxes, not instate new ones.
“What I am doing is going door to door and letting [residents] know that the county portion in Paterson was reduced by $2 million and that is under the current freeholder board,” Sayegh said. “I am hoping that it will drive out democratic turnout.”
Paterson tends to skew heavily Democrat but that is not the case in suburban Passaic County where Republicans can often gain some ground, particularly in a low turnout year like this one.
According to Republican spokesman Thom Ammirato, the freeholder race is winnable for Republicans this year.
“Last year was a low turnout year and we came very close,” Ammirato said. “This year it will depend on voter turnout in some key areas, particularly Wayne. This year there is a council race, which should bring out more people. I think it is very feasible. I know the Democrats are trying to pull votes out of Paterson.”
According to Ammirato, the Democratic slate will continue to “borrow and spend” and increase taxes.
“I think that affects people who own their homes in Paterson as much as it does people who own their homes in Wayne,” he said.
The Paterson city council has also made their opposition to the new levy known. If enacted, the tax would primarily provide recreation services for seniors and youth.