Good schools, safe neighborhoods, economic growth, and enough money to ensure all of the foregoing is the recipe for the success of New Jersey’s cities, according to three urban mayors.
Speaking earlier this month at the first NJ Spotlight on Cities conference at NJPAC in Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, Eric Jackson of Trenton, and Adrian O. Mapp of Plainfield painted positive portraits of their communities and laid out their priorities for improving life and the reputation of their cities.
“I want to bring about transformational change in our city,” said Mapp, who took office in January 2014, adding that decreasing crime has been a top priority. “There is a perception out there that our city isn’t safe. We are doing everything we can to make sure that we get the word out that Plainfield is a very safe city and that it’s a culturally diverse city … We are making sure that public safety is job No. 1.”
According to State Police data, crime in Plainfield during the first three quarters of this year was down a third from the same time period last year: 1,201 incidents in 2015 compared with 1,800 in 2014.
The crime rate — for the index crimes of murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and theft — per 100 people through September 30 of this year was 2.4 in Plainfield. That was higher than similarly sized Irvington, whose rate was 2.1 per 100, and Bloomfield, with a rate of 1.5. It was lower than larger cities such as Elizabeth, with a rate of 3.5 per 100; Newark, 2.8; and Trenton, 3.5 per 100 through September 30, according to an analysis comparing NJ State Police crime data with U.S. Census Bureau population data.
“Once people feel safe … people are going to want to come in, businesses will be more enticed to become part of the revitalization of the city,” said Mapp, calling the effort a “rebranding.”
Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, the newest mayor, having taken office in July 2014, used the same words in describing his priorities for the state’s capital city: reduce crime, improve education, and boost economic development. He said the community plays a vital role in this effort.
“From the early stages, we want to make sure our community plays a huge part in direction we are going,” he said, citing the city’s Trenton 250 planning effort. “City residents and stakeholders have to have an active role in determining ‘What do we collectively want our city to look like?’ There has to be a shift from political leaders saying, ‘This is where we are going’ to having the community say, ‘This is where we want to go.'”
Baraka is using that approach in Newark, as well. He cited both an improvement in technology that allows residents to better connect with the city from home and in-person community activism through an effort called Occupy the Block, in which residents gather together to talk about problems and socialize in their neighborhoods.
“We need people in the community to have an active role in governing themselves, their neighborhoods, at a grassroots kind of level, to really empower people to help transform the city themselves and we acting as conduit to help that action take place,” said Baraka, elected 17 months ago. “There’s a part everyone has to play. Politics is not a spectator sport. And that is not just the residents; it’s the universities, the business community.”
Improving education is another crucial necessity to boost the state’s cities, but it’s one in which mayors have — and want — different levels of control.
Mapp said transforming the education system in Plainfield is the most important way to “keep our kids within the district and make Plainfield more marketable to people who would like to relocate.” He would like more of a say in the local schools, and said research has shown that mayoral control of urban districts has led to improved student performance.
A 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C., found that students did fare better under mayoral control in a number of cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. That wasn’t the case in all cities, but the center concluded that “in the right cases, mayoral control can be a catalyst for reform.”
Jackson, who already exercises some control by appointing Trenton school board members, is a staunch backer of mayoral control. That way, he said. “I can make sure our education agenda is being met.”
A former principal, Baraka was the only mayor against the idea. He said the mayor should have some influence over the schools, but not control, because there is less continuity of action and “what happens in the school system varies depending on who becomes the mayor.”
Both Baraka and Jackson said bolstering employment and economic development are the most important ways to improve their cities.
Specifically, Jackson said Trenton needs “strong economic development tied to local job creation that puts local folks to work at a living wage, where families can be taken care of and the economy spins itself so dollars can be reinvested in our city.”
Trenton is much smaller than Newark and relies on smaller businesses and entrepreneurs to drive the economy. Jackson is creating a new position of ombudsman to “help sustain businesses and expand and bring new businesses into city.”
Baraka agreed that the state’s largest city has a number of advantages over other cities, being home to Rutgers University and other colleges, having a community economic development corporation, and getting attention from the state that has helped bring $1 billion in projects currently in development.
The New Jersey Economic Development Agency awarded $685 million in tax breaks to fund nearly $1.9 billion in construction in the city between 2010 and 2014. Among the biggest awards were $211 million to Prudential Financial for a new office tower expected to add 400 new jobs and $102 million to Panasonic to move 806 jobs from Secaucus and add 250 new ones to a new headquarters.
But he said also important are the city’s efforts to attract and grow small businesses — from bakeries to boutique hotels — throughout the city. Through the addition of new businesses and the expansion of existing firms, including hundreds of small manufacturing firms, Baraka said the city hopes to add 6,000 jobs by 2020 and reduce the city’s unemployment rate to that of the state. As of August, Newark’s unadjusted unemployment rate was 8.7 percent, compared with the state’s 5.5 percent, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
All three agreed the state needs a comprehensive urban agenda to help the cities and part of that should be increased financial support, which has declined under the Christie administration.
As recently as 2009, cities used to receive special municipal aid, most commonly called “Distressed Cities” aid. Gov. Chris Christie discontinued that and replaced it with the current Transitional Aid program, which is not statutory and so its payments to municipalities are less certain, and which comes with numerous conditions cities must follow in order to get the money. Trenton got $24.9 million last year, Newark got just $10 million and Plainfield received none, according to the NJ Department of Community Affairs’ website.
A 2011 DCA report on the change in aid programs stated that the intention of the change to the current transitional aid program “was to allocate [scarce] funds to only municipalities with severe fiscal distress that agreed to pursue structural budget reforms and adhere to State oversight.”
“There would be less reliance on transition aid if the state were to just give to municipalities the money it collects from the utility companies by way of the energy receipts tax,” Mapp said, echoing a call the New Jersey State League of Municipalities has been making for years. “The state been keeping that and using it to balance its own budget. That has been flat for the last umpteen years. That money belongs to the local municipalities.”
The original Gross Receipts and Franchise Tax was money paid to municipalities by public utilities based on the value of their tax-exempt properties in each community. Over time, that energy tax was frozen and folded into the Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief program. While municipal aid has remained virtually flat for years, the amount the state collects in energy tax receipts has grown and the state winds up keeping more than $100 million a year to balance its own budget.
Without a growing pot of aid from the state, officials need to get creative in seeking other ways to accomplish their goals.
“The dollars are the dollars, the tax base is the tax base, so you have to find innovative and creative ways to find additional revenue streams that not only are for the moment but are sustainable,” Jackson said. “The core behind that is getting in stakeholders that believe in the mission.”
As part of its creative process, Trenton just formed a new economic development organization called Greater Trenton, whose goal is to help revitalize the city. The nonprofit is a collaboration of private-sector, institutional, and philanthropic organizations that have committed to funding the initiative for at least the first five years.
Baraka said that while new downtown development will bring increased property taxes eventually, the city needs incentives to develop its neighborhoods. So the council recently approved a program that would allow developers to receive a five-year tax abatement for either building new commercial property or developing existing businesses that have been vacant for a significant period of time.
He said the incentives are targeting “corridors where there has been no development in the last 30 or 40 years … so we can begin to attract businesses into areas where there are no business now.”
Baraka said the cities “are rather wealthy” but have difficulty in getting some of that money. He cited Newark’s trouble with collecting a payroll tax.
Newark is the only city in New Jersey with a payroll tax — 1 percent of wages, tips, and other compensation, paid quarterly by employers to the city. To facilitate the collection of the tax, Newark has filed a memorandum of understanding with the state treasurer’s office asking that they collect the tax and turn it over to the city of Newark. Baraka said he has repeatedly called the Department of Treasury to ask about the status of the MOU for months but there has been no action.
“We are unable to collect the full amount of money,” he said. “We have at least $10 to $20 million on the table.”
The current Newark budget estimates collecting $41 million in payroll taxes in 2015.
Joseph Perone, a treasury spokesman, said collecting the city’s tax is not the state’s responsibility but the state is working with Newark on the issue.
“The state is not required to collect Newark’s Payroll Tax,” Perone said. “Newark is responsible for collecting its own tax. We understand that Newark and the State share a common interest in improving collections to help Newark be less reliant on State financial assistance. To that end, the State is working with the City on other efforts that can help Newark do a better job collecting its tax. We are hopeful those steps can be taken in time to support the city’s collection efforts for its upcoming 2016 budget.”
Mapp suggested that banks should pay a fee to the municipalities where they are located: “Every time you swipe [your] card, some portion of that should go to the municipality where the bank is located.”
As for other duties for the state, the mayors agreed New Jersey needs a coherent urban policy to foster growth in the cities.
Jackson said the state needs to “really invest in job training, job creation … so there’s a ready workforce when the opportunities come in.”
Mapp suggested grants “that will entice businesses to move back to local downtowns” and more transit-oriented development awards. Plainfield is one of 30 designated transit villages in the state.
Baraka said the state must fully fund the school aid formula “right away” and he called for tax credits like the ones that have brought new development to Newark to include a requirement to hire some portion of local residents “not just people you bring into the community.” The cities also need help to keep up their transportation networks and public infrastructure, and Baraka said that funding such projects would also put people to work.
While a lack of funds can hinder the cities’ ability to make improvements, politics also can get in the way.
“It impacts all areas of what I think we all do,” Jackson said, specifically referring to state governmental officials. “In my city, it’s a matter of, ‘You are relying heavily on us.’ Folks will use that as a leverage to your decisioning. They will use that as a leverage to opportunities they want you to take or directions they want to steer you in, and you have to be pretty formidable to push back, and certainly I do and I know my colleagues do. But it plays a role almost every day in a real way in everything that we do.”
“At end of day we are just trying to get work done in the community,” Baraka said. “There’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up garbage or pick up snow or do the things that we need to do. Ultimately those things get in the way …If you are resilient you get by it.”