Newark Mayor Cory Booker began firing 15 percent of his police force today, illustrating the types of actions cities in the nation’s second-wealthiest state are being forced to take to confront lower aid and tax revenue.
The 167 police dismissals in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, come as Camden Mayor Dana Redd seeks approval to cut the police force by almost half, eight days after her town was rated the second most-dangerous U.S. city by CQ Press. Paterson, New Jersey’s third most-populous city, may boost the property-tax bill on a typical home to $6,819 from $3,896, information filed with the state’s Division of Local Government Services shows.
Those municipalities, along with more affluent communities such as Howell in Monmouth County and Montclair in Essex County, are cutting jobs, raising taxes and reducing services such as libraries and pools after Governor Chris Christie cut state aid by $446 million, and property owners won millions of dollars in tax appeals on declining property values.
“I inherited a leaking bag here,” said Joseph Menza, 50, part-time mayor of Hillside Township, who faces a court battle with unions challenging his plan to fire 50 of 330 workers in the community of about 22,000 adjacent to Newark. “We’re not going to make June, that’s pretty apparent. We’re going to run out of money. We don’t collect it as fast as we spend it.”
New Jersey’s local budget constraints have sparked concern at Moody’s Investor’s Service, which has cut credit ratings on 12 New Jersey cities since Aug. 31.
Cities downgraded by Moody’s include the state capital of Trenton; the Bergen County community of Wood-Ridge, whose mayor, Democratic state Senator Paul Sarlo, is chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee; and Seaside Heights, the home base of MTV’s reality television show “Jersey Shore.”
A Nov. 24 Moody’s report on its decision to downgrade the general-obligation bond rating for New Brunswick, the home of Rutgers University, to A2 from A1, cited a declining fund balance, fixed costs for employee pensions and benefits, and this year’s $2.5 million state aid cut.
New Jersey municipal finances also have been affected by caps lawmakers have imposed on local tax-raising since 2008. The original 4 percent limit on annual property-tax increases will drop to 2 percent Jan. 1, under a measure Christie and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature approved in July.
“It constrains revenue-raising capability,” Josellyn Yousef, director of New Jersey city ratings at New York-based Moody’s, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Cities such as Newark and Camden have no choice but to cut personnel costs, which make up the majority of their budgets, officials including Menza say. In Hillside, staff costs account for 70 percent of spending, he said.
Paterson, the city where Alexander Hamilton is credited with founding modern manufacturing, proposes to raise the local tax rate to $1.90 per $100 of assessed property value from $1.20, and to make government workers take 10 days off without pay to address a $70 million gap in the $251 million budget for the year that ends June 30.
The city of about 150,000 has refunded $6.6 million in successful tax appeals since 2009, and faces the potential of $10 million more in appeals losses, according to its application for special state aid.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do,” said Russell Forenza, Paterson’s budget officer.
‘Kiss of Death’
In Camden, where about a third of residents live under the federal poverty level, according to U.S. Census data, pension payments on behalf of police, firefighters and city workers will total $17 million next year, almost as much as the $21 million the city expects to raise through property taxes.
Police cutbacks at the level the mayor has proposed “will be the kiss of death,” John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, said in a telephone interview. “At this point we’re in the position where we’re certainly not controlling crime, we’re just managing crime,” he said.
Marc Riondino, Camden city attorney, said the plan to fire 173 of 373 police officers won’t jeopardize safety.
“Trash will still be picked up, firehouses will remain open and we’re still going to adequately patrol the streets of Camden,” he said. “It all comes down to refocusing our priorities.”
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