The top 5 issues facing the state's largest city

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on January 04, 2015

Newark mayor Ras Baraka held his first quarterly staff meeting in July. The event was open to the press.

 

NEWARK — On his inauguration day Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka ticked off a laundry list of challenges facing the city: high unemployment, a budget crisis, and too much crime, to name a few.

"Years from now when we look back on this day, let us say that this was the day that we all decided to fight back," he told the crowd on that steamy July afternoon.

Six months later, the city is still fighting against those same long-entrenched problems. The Baraka administration has managed to chip away at some of them, but others have stayed stubbornly stagnant.

"Newark faces the same problems that it has always faced and that any major urban area faces," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "They have a tremendous number of challenges that clearly have to be addressed: finances, taxes, crime, education."

Here are five of the biggest challenges facing the Baraka administration in 2015:

1. PUBLIC SAFETY/ After 2013's record-breaking murder spree, crime in Newark has seen declines in most categories. The state’s largest city totaled 93 murders in 2014 — a sizeable reduction from the 111 it recorded last year. Robberies, auto thefts and burglaries have experienced similar declines, while rapes, aggravated assaults and thefts have seen slight increases.

Still Newark's crime problem is far from over. In a city with an estimated population of 278,427, there was a whopping 11,450 reported incidents by Dec. 28, 2014, according to police department statistics. And the impact of Newark's crime problem extends far beyond the immediate quality of life of its residents. The perception of Newark's crime issues among people living outside the city is problematic too because it makes the city less attractive to the investors, tourists and potential residents the city desperately needs, experts have said.

"I think a lot of wherever Newark needs to go passes through the public safety gate," said Al Koeppe a business and civil leader who helped lead Baraka's transition team. "That’s the fundamental challenge."

2. ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT At a Newark auction earlier this year the pictures of the buildings and land the city put for sale showed most depressing scenes of development of Newark: a surplus of boarded-up, foreclosed homes, vacant land and abandoned buildings.

While the city's downtown has experienced a development boom, other neighborhoods struggle to attract the same kind of investment that Baraka has expressed interest in bringing to the city.

Add to that NJ Advance Media reported earlier this month that an audit of the Brick City Development Corporation, one of the city's main tools for sparking development in the city, has produced an uneven track record. Many of the loans the city gave out over the years were written off or became delinquent as businesses struggled to survive.

3. THE BUDGET. Newark's finances became a hot-button issue during the mayoral election, after city leaders were surprised to find out there was a $93 million deficit. Baraka offered up a budget that closed the gap with no layoffs, but pushed a third of the deficit to be paid at a later date. In exchange for $10 million in transitional aid from the state, the city agreed to accept state supervision of its finances and a state monitor.

But the city's budget woes are far from over. State officials estimated in October that Newark would face a $60 million gap in the 2015 budget. And the city has still not solved the fundamental problem of getting the city's reoccurring revenues to match its expenses.

4. UNEMPLOYMENT. Newark's unemployment rate has fallen since its recent high of 15.1 percent in 2010, but it still remains woefully high. This past November, Newark's unemployment rate was 10.2 percent compared to 7.1 percent in Jersey City, 3.1 percent in Hoboken and 5.9 over all in New Jersey, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To tackle the jobless rate in the city, Baraka will need to work on "getting the workforce in Newark trained to (earn) the jobs that may be available at the port as well as the airport," he said. Koeppe added that Baraka has already started to do that.

5. POLITICAL ALLIANCES. To make a dent in any of the previously-mentioned issues, Baraka will need to make strategic partnerships, experts have said. To realize additional revenue sources for the city, Baraka will likely need the cooperation of the state legislature and Gov. Chris Christie. Attracting economic development and jobs, will require courting investors. Tackling crime will require cooperation with state and federal authorities.

"Like anything else building (collaborations) and cooperative ventures, that’s the really best path to realizing those goals," Koeppe said. "I don’t see any political impediments."

What do you think is the most significant problem facing Newark is? Tell us in the comments.

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