To save Newark cops, fix the budget: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on October 16, 2014

The state showed up again Tuesday in Newark to slap the City Council around and give it another fiscal haircut, and it’s easy to understand the exasperation this time.

The state’s Local Finance Board approved the city’s $800 million budget, but not before it pointed out how the city was derelict in collecting the correct amount in health care premiums from its employees. The council didn’t deny it, but in the complicated tier system that has been in place for three years, they didn’t have an explanation for how it happened, leaving the gap – estimated to be roughly $3 million -- to be covered by the taxpayers.

The only positive is that the city was pulled out of another budget sinkhole without police layoffs. But it’s clear the council needs to get its act together because it will face a $60 million shortfall for 2015.

It’s almost a cliché that the nine-member council can start fixing its budget problem by looking in the mirror, because its last reported staff budget ($3.45 million) was six times more than what Jersey City spent on salaries, and $1.4 million more than what the state’s next seven largest cities spent combined.

It didn’t help, either, that the Newark councilmen had overpopulated staffs and perks such as cars, free gas, and a $25,000 budget for “animals and horticultural materials” that nobody has ever explained.

But that’s background music now. The council, once and for all, needs to get serious about its finances, and the state has already proffered some ideas. There is low-hanging fruit such as $10 million in old fees and fines that must still be collected. There are still 1,000 foreclosed properties that clog the city’s portfolio: According to former business administrator Julian Neals, the properties are valued in the area of $132 million. These must be sold off to private owners, because if the city retains ownership, it will have to pay county and school taxes on them.

And the council needs to take attrition seriously – replacing essential personnel, indeed, but recognizing that each council member does not need four staffers.

There will be some contentious debates over the health care system again: The state wants the city to join the state health plan, which could yield savings. But there will be push back from the unions. That’s the sort of obstacle the city council and Mayor Ras Baraka will have to overcome if they are serious about avoiding layoffs next year.

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