No more police layoffs in Newark: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on August 15, 2014

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka had barely sworn his oath of office when he was confronted with a financial crisis, a $31 million hole in this year’s budget of roughly $800 million. So he is asking the state for help, knowing that he’ll need to cede control over city finances as one of the strings.

That, no doubt, is painful for Baraka. He has long protested state control over the city’s school system, to no avail. He recently had to accept federal oversight of the police department, thanks to a pattern of civil rights violations. And now this.

But the new mayor is proving to be pragmatic. His most important goal is to protect public safety, and that means no more police layoffs. The force is down to about 1,000 now after the city tightened its belt with a series of layoffs and a fateful decision to leave vacancies unfilled. At its peak long ago, the force had nearly 1,700 officers. The sharpest drops came under Mayor Cory Booker’s administration, when the city was pounded by the Great Recession and dramatic cuts in state aid.

Not surprisingly, the murder rate has gone up as the police force has shrunk over the past few years. These savings, in effect, were paid for with blood. Those are the stakes in this budget fight.

No doubt, many people in New Jersey have Newark fatigue and would say no to this plea for help. The state pays the bulk of the city’s school expenses already, and provided $101 million in aid to the city budget this year. Remember, too, that the state is wrestling with its own ferocious budget crisis.

So why help Newark?

One reason is the city has already tightened its belt by several notches. During his years as mayor, Booker shrunk the city’s work force by about 25 percent, while raising taxes even more. Is there another city or town in New Jersey that can match that record?

Another is that New Jersey’s heavy dependence on property taxes leaves a city like Newark in an impossible jam. Similar to Camden and Paterson, the city simply doesn’t have enough property to tax. In Newark, Baraka notes that about three-quarters of the property is tax-exempt, including government buildings, religious institutions and nonprofits. The game is rigged against poor cities.

Still, given the state budget crisis, it’s not realistic to expect Trenton to write a check this big. And that brings us to a second solution: allowing the city to impose its own new taxes.

Again, New Jersey is unusual in this regard, and gives the state final say. Newark was allowed to impose a tax on rental cars at the airport, but it would need new permission to impose new taxes on shipping containers at the port, for example. If the state can’t afford to help, it can at least get out of the way.

As for the state supervision, that is welcome, even if it does irritate Newark. The city still wastes money. It would be a relief to see the state order reductions in the ridiculous salaries and benefits of city council members, along with their big staffs.

The imperative is to prevent police layoffs. And that means answering Newark request for help, one way or the other.

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