'We're on the plantation': Newark council blasts state over budget oversight

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on October 07, 2015

NEWARK – Members of the city's Municipal Council on Wednesday blasted the state for unilaterally approving a budget that will force a 9 percent tax increase onto Newark residents.

The city's executive body unanimously passed a resolution introduced by East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, expressing their displeasure with the state's Local Finance Board, which oversees as part of an agreement that brought $10 million in aid each of the last two years. Members said they were upset that they were not allowed input on the $766.25 million plan prior to the board's Sept. 22 vote.

"Are we under state monitoring, or are we under state control?" said Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins. "I know we're on the plantation, but we sure are sharecropping."

Much of the council's critique centered on the state's refusal to approve the use of $13.3 million in revenue from a settlement brokered with PSE&G. Many noted that the decision all but eliminated any benefits of state aid, and that the funds would have significantly reduced the tax hike needed to balance the budget.

"$10 million is a pittance when you have a $670 million budget. I believe we are not being treated with equality. I believe, moreover that we are being treated unfairly," said At-Large Councilman Carlos Gonzalez.

Members also took issue with the amount of aid sent to communities such as Kearny and Atlantic City, as well as the state's continual intervention efforts in Newark, which they said had produced middling results. South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James cited its struggles to revive Atlantic City and the American Dream at the Meadowlands complex, as well as its involvement in the city's school system.

"The Newark Board of Education has been a failure. When they came in it had a (budget) surplus, now they're facing a deficit," he said. "Continually, Newark is treated as a stepchild."

Before approving the budget last month, the board made several adjustments to the city's initial proposal, including cutting the PSE&G funds, reducing the budget for Mayor Ras Baraka's office by nearly $1 million and removing three assistants from the business administrator's office.

The approval came despite a lack of major cuts to city council spending, something the state insisted upon when it agreed to provide transitional aid last year. The overall council budget was reduced from $11 million to $9 million, though that was due solely to the lack of expenditures related to municipal elections in 2015.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Local Finance Board Chairman Tim Cunningham said that he and his colleagues approved a plan they felt presented the best path for the city away from transitional aid. He added that some decisions, such as the rejection of the PSE&G settlement funds, were due to attorneys advised them were significant legal issues regarding their proposed use.

He also stressed that the board worked closely with Kelly, Baraka and other members of the city's administration leading up to last month's vote.

"I reject any implication that we don't attempt to work very collectively with the city of Newark," he said.

Cunningham declined to directly respond to some council members' comments that the state was treating the city like a plantation, saying that racially-charged rhetoric was "unproductive" and "out of balance."

"The only black and white issues that I see in regard to the city are the numbers that are on the page," he said.

Council members also had harsh words for its state delegation, who they said had failed to present tangible opposition against the Local Finance Board's decision, and Kelly's office, which did not send a representative to Wednesday's meeting.

Council President Mildred Crump and Chaneyfield Jenkins each accused members of the office, who normally attend regular council meetings, of "hiding."

Crump also voiced her displeasure with the state, and urged city residents to organize and echo the council's criticisms.

"I would rather give the $10 million back and say no thank you, because what comes with it are strings that they can manipulate this system," she said. "Its time for us to protest, to come together....it's time we told the state to stay in Trenton."

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