WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
This week Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced that due to multi-million dollar budget gap and an impasse with the city's police union, he had no choice but to layoff off 167 police officers. Booker is not the only New Jersey mayor facing hard choices.
There was barely room to move in the packed press conference in Booker's City Hall office. This time reporters were not there to hear about yet another charitable gift that Booker had received for his struggling City.
"Last night 167 sworn officers, people dedicated to the city, Newark residents, were laid off," said a solemn Booker. "This was an unfortunate situation that was entirely avoidable but now we must move forward. We will continue the fight against crime in our city."
Booker, at 41, has long been touted as a rising national star. He tried to put a brave face on what was a very public admission of a setback. After five years of expanding the ranks, 12 percent of the Newark police force had to go.
Booker tried to reassure the city, saying a restructuring in the police department would guarantee anxious Newark residents that patrol strength would be cut. This is not a small point given Newark's history.
On Booker's watch, shootings had been down each year by double digits, though last year there was an uptick in homicides and shootings are currently on the rise. Right after the rapid fire press conference, Booker and I darted into a City Hall utility room to talk one on one.
"Early on did you ever think you would have to lay off police officers?" I asked.
"No. I think that we were doing everything possible to avoid this from ever happening," Booker said. "And, if fact, when I first came in we were starving other city departments to push more resources into the police department to actually start hiring more police officers and to have this day come it is very sobering and very disappointing."
"For municipal governments across New Jersey, this is a significant moment of truth. What are hearing from other mayors?" I asked.
"There is a lot of pain," said Booker. "There is not a mayor that I bump into that does not have stories of real crisis about trying to find ways to balance their budget because revenues have fallen off dramatically. State aid has fallen off dramatically across the board — you just have to make difficult choices and that is going to put us in a bind."
"Newark has some unique characterisitcs," I suggested. "You are like Washington DC in that much of the land here belongs to non-profits, governmental entities. Give people a sense of how much of the city's land isn't part of your tax base."
"Upward's of 70 plus percent of our land cannot be taxed, is tax exempt," conceded Booker. "And so that is all of the federal buildings, the state buildings, the county buildings, all of the churches. It is all of the prisons that exist in Newark. It is the Port Authority that has a lot of our land. There is just a tremendous amount of land we can't tax. And Newark has an even bigger burden because we literally have hundreds of thousands of people coming into our city everyday who need city services."
I asked Booker about how cities will cope with the prospect that with the Republicans winning the House, there most likely won't be additional federal aid to work with.
He said cities would have to find ways to do better with less, but he conceded there are limits. "America has to decide what it needs to invest in," he said. He said there were at least two critical areas where federal policy could make all the difference for cities.
He said continuing to invest in higher education was critical.
A more enlightened immigration policy that encouraged the world's best and brightest to come to America was also essential. "Where would have been if Einstein had not been able to move here?" he asked.
Outside City Hall despite a cold driving winter rain, Newark native Andre Berry to stop and share his very local concerns.
"The more cops you layoff the more trouble we are going to have and I would hate to see what is going to happen," he says.
He says his concerns go beyond personal security.
"We are in a recession and if we layoff anymore public workers, we are doomed," Berry warned.
Newark is not alone. This week state officials signed off on plans in Camden to lay off half of its force, and in Jersey City, cops turned out to protest proposed layoffs as well.