More Cops, Development Signal a New Era in Newark, Booker Says
Mayor also advocates civilian oversight panel for police during State of the City address Tuesday
Newark will wean itself off most state aid in 2013 thanks to robust economic development and should spend the bonanza on hiring at least 50 more police officers a year for the next several years, Mayor Cory Booker said during the annual State of the City address Tuesday night.
The address, his seventh as mayor, also sounded a subtle but unmistakable note of farewell, with Booker repeatedly referring to the 481 days left in his second and final term in city hall and noting that some of the initiatives he outlined Tuesday would be handed off to his successor.
“We’re not counting the days. We’re making the days count,” said Booker, a likely Democratic candidate for US Senate in 2014.
Speaking before a packed house at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Booker did not limit himself to his administration’s accomplishments in the past year but instead highlighted the progress Booker said Newark has made since he was elected in 2006.
“Tonight I want to tell you the story of the transformative change we’ve made,” Booker said. “I remember when I entered office, back in 2006, people were leaving Newark more than they were coming. Our population was declining. Our businesses and those who dreamed of starting business found little support from the city and they were taking their jobs and innovations elsewhere.”
Booker also said crime was “spiking” and the city budget, $118 million in the red, relied on one-time sources of revenue “that would quickly evaporate like water on a hot summer sidewalk.”
Now, Booker said the proposed budget he plans on sending to the Newark Municipal Council sometime in the next few weeks is largely in balance, buoyed by tax receipts from businesses, which will eventually include $1.5 billion in development coming over the next few years. That includes a building being constructed for Cablevision across the street from Broad Street Station, the US headquarters of a French firm and a new office tower near Military Park for one of the city’s longtime corporate mainstays, insurance company Prudential.
About a third of new commercial and multifamily development in New Jersey is happening in Newark, Booker said.
Booker also said the city’s population has grown “for the first time in 60 years,” while crime rates -- which have dipped and risen in the years Booker has been mayor -- are still significantly lower today than when he took office.
Describing his “least sexy” achievement, Booker also said he revamped Newark governance with computerized tracking systems that have provided department heads with more data, allowing administrators to track and better manage employee absenteeism, workers compensation claims and inefficiency, resulting in a better, less expensive level of service for city residents.
“Missed sanitation pickups have gone down 58 percent in the past year....overtime is down 40 percent in two years. Police overtime is down to $5 million from $6 million,” Booker said.
While touting the hiring of additional police, Booker acknowledged in a brief press conference following the speech that the department, at about 1,000 personnel, is still far below its ideal staffing levels. More than 150 police officers were laid off a few years ago for budgetary reasons.
“I don’t have a specific idea, I have an ambition for Newark to have a department that is 50 percent bigger, 1,500 cops. At that level, this city would be in great shape,” Booker said.
Booker also said Tuesday he would be recommending the formation of a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police, a first for Newark that has already won the approval of the state ACLU. Booker also praised council members Ron Rice and Ras Baraka, who have long lobbied for the creation of such an agency.
Booker’s public praise for the council appears to signal a thawing in the relationship between the city’s executive and legislative branches following years of acrimony between the two.
“I feel blessed by my city council. Now that everybody sees with the announcement that I’m not running again I think that also helps to create a better environment. Folks know they want me to be successful because they want to take over the city,” Booker said, adding that his “70 percent approval rating” among city residents has also strengthened his hand with the governing body.
Council President Anibal Ramos largely praised Booker’s performance as mayor, stating the city “is headed in the right direction” but “more needs to be done to create a city that works for everyone.”
Rice’s appraisal of Booker’s tenure was also positive overall, but he diverged with Booker on some issues, including on finding revenue sources other than property taxes.
“I and my colleagues have proposed several revenue generating ideas that have never been seriously vetted, pursued or analyzed by the administration or Governor Chris Christie,” Rice said in a statement. “Indeed, all discussions coming from the Christie administration have focused solely on layoffs, cutting vital services, and forcing cities like Newark to raise property taxes. We want a new discussion with the governor and our legislative delegation in Trenton that focuses on out of the box revenue ideas, municipal autonomy and self-determination.”