Mayor Ras J. Baraka presented his first virtual State of the City Address tonight, from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, located on 1 Center Street. The event was originally scheduled for March 16, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In his speech, Mayor Baraka focused on the City’s COVID-19 response; importance of casting votes in the Presidential Election in 27 days; municipal finances; investments in infrastructure and Newark based-businesses; and historic reductions in crime.
In an impassioned speech, Mayor Baraka opened by explaining why Newark is leading the nation and is stronger today.
“Finally, it took this country to get to its darkest moment for the stars to shine the brightest. We, Newark, are one of those stars. And it’s the light from the work that we have engaged in over the years that has made us stand out. It is our light now that shines brightest in the middle of this world pandemic. Our light shines still in the face of deep systemic racism as the world watched as the knee of white supremacy choked the life out of George Floyd,” the Mayor said.
“Our light shone bright as cities burned and the deep pains of inequity burst into chaos in American living rooms. Our light shone bright as we found ways to stay afloat to hold on to one another, as we watched our institutions come together, our neighbors deliver food to each other, make and distribute masks, support our frontline workers, rescue our elders and most vulnerable. Newark stood strong and, I might add, is getting stronger, even in the face of incredible odds and because of that Newark is leading,” he added.
The Mayor discussed six major accomplishments for 2020 and 2019 in his address, in wide-ranging fields:
- On Covid-19 Response:
“We were averaging 200 to 300 positive cases a day with a 68% positive rate. Our death toll began reaching scary proportions. We were in New Jersey, the second hardest-hit state in the country and in Newark, we rapidly moved to the top in the number of cases per day and deaths in the state.
“The Department of Public Safety, along with the Department of Health and Community Wellness began helping us map and track the virus throughout our community. We organized and trained city employees, Newark Public Schools employees, and students with the help of Rutgers Newark and prepared at least 200 contact tracers. We began setting up testing and now have at least 13 permanent testing sites in the city.
“We organized a mask-up campaign to limit the spread of the virus and in the very beginning, we limited public gatherings, instituted a curfew that closed businesses at 8 p.m., and then only allowed essential businesses to open up.
“We signed an executive order for everyone to shelter in place and my favorite: we developed ‘Be Still Mondays’ to relieve pressure off of our essential workers. Not only that, we put a moratorium on eviction and rent increases. We put money together for rent relief for residents and gave grants to local businesses, even home-based businesses. We raised money for arts organizations and non-profits.
“We stood up two hotels for safe quarantine space and used one of them to house over 300 homeless individuals. With the help of NPS we delivered more than 2 million meals and provided virtual space for parents that had to go to work while their children engaged in long distance learning. Our Interfaith Alliance held virtual prayer sessions every night and fasted every Tuesday and are still going strong.”
2. Importance of Casting Votes in the Presidential Election:
“I have to say, Mr. Trump: I’m from Newark. Your narratives are proving false here. We have arrested less people and reduced crime at the same time. We embrace all of our residents documented and undocumented. We believe all Newark families contribute to the good of our community. We are growing jobs yet still fighting for a better, cleaner environment. We don’t shrink in crisis, close our eyes during difficult times. We count on each other. We fall back on our neighbors. We use data and believe in science. And we protect the right for people to love who they want, to see themselves as beautiful, to worship their own faith, and speak multiple languages. We believe in democracy here. I’m not running for your job, Mr. President, but I will surely be voting for the next person to be in that seat on Nov. 3rd. And I’m mailing my ballot in! And making my mark because Medgar Evers died in his wife’s arms! Because Emmett Till’s body still haunts the bottom of the Tallahatchie River and because it is my right and my duty, it is my responsibility to not just those that came before but for millions that will come after me.”
3. Municipal Finances:
“In 2010, we were in financial distress. In 2012, we had a state monitor. Today we control our own finances. Our work helped us to buy city buildings back that we sold to Essex County and leased back in prior years. It allowed us to bond to get new equipment and do much needed capital improvement. It made it easier for us to partner with the county to get $120 million to replace our lead service lines. But more importantly our special tax collection for payroll, parking, and hotels has increased from $54 million in 2014 to $92 million in 2019. We collected $37.5 million more dollars. Why? Because timely billing, efficiency, enforcement, and collaboration with the State of New Jersey on the sharing of information. Newark did not have to furlough staff and Moody’s maintained the city’s positive outlook. The city refinanced its $100 million obligation bonds and managed to save $14 million over a two-year period that will help us recover faster and keep delivering service to our residents.”
4. Investments in Infrastructure and Newark based-businesses:
“It is safe to say that our corrosion control is working! As we have been saying for years now and only a year after we received $120 million with the help of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. We are in the last leg of the race to replace every lead service line in this city. While many cities here in New Jersey and around the country are trying to figure this out, Newark is leading the way. If all goes well by the spring of next year, we will be able to report to you that we are done!
“More importantly since January, the city has tested over 2,000 children for lead and have exceeded HUD’s lead abatement program in homes so much so that we received an additional $5.6 million to continue our progress in that area.
“We have been able to train and put more than 60 Newark residents to work replacing these lines. We awarded 14 contracts totaling almost $130 million, of which an estimated $37 million is dedicated to minority and women-based businesses.
“We have invested more than $200 million in water infrastructure since 2014, not including the $120 million we are now investing in replacing every lead service line in the City. Since I took office, we have increased the annual investment in the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities by 382 percent.”
5. Historic Reductions in Crime:
“The numbers are clear. In a four-year period from 2015 to 2019, we witnessed a 31 percent decrease in overall crime. We entered office with 112 homicides and ended 2019 with 51. The lowest murder rate since 1961.
“And during the pandemic this year, we, along with most major cities in the country experienced a spike in crime and violence, but Newark managed to endure it and push back. Just look at our January to September numbers from previous years and the same time last year. This is still way too high and the work we are doing must increase and be more directed. We have to find more resources to fund alternative strategies to policing or community-based efforts.
“We have begun strategizing with Department of Public Works and the Police Division to begin to identify the areas where we can improve city service around illegal dumping, garbage collection, and abandoned properties that will help make neighborhoods safer. Police officers are beginning to take quality of life complaints and are even assisting the Division of Engineering in counting streetlights that are out to report as it adds to overall safety of our community. We are uniting our efforts around BCPC and received a commitment from the state for an additional $1 million to develop and expand community strategies around victim services, conflict resolution, mediation, and violence prevention.”
Mayor Baraka also noted that Newark is working to complete the walking bridge from Mulberry Commons Park to Penn Station and the Ironbound, which will enable visitors coming by rail to the city to reach the Prudential Center or the East Ward’s restaurants easily.
“The most exciting part of it is that with this funding we will also build a brand new 150-bed homeless shelter and create 100 units of transitional housing for families to help steer them off the road of pervasive homelessness. We will have 100 units using the housing first model for the chronically homeless,” Mayor Baraka said.
The Mayor also made two announcements, relating to national efforts to remove symbols and statues of institutional racism in the United States: the first that Washington Park in Newark’s downtown will be renamed Tubman Square, and a statue of Harriet Tubman will stand where the Christopher Columbus figure once stood, but removed by the city in June.
“This is just not window dressing. Newark played an integral role in the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s journey to freedom led her to our city many times in that very area – in a state that was one of the last to acknowledge freedom,” the Mayor said. During the Civil War, New Jersey was a Union state that still had slaves.
Ms. Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad “Conductor,” abolitionist, Civil War Union scout, and women’s suffrage advocate guided fugitive slaves through Newark to freedom. Abolitionist Newark residents often provided Ms. Tubman and her parties with food and shelter during these dangerous treks. A public school in Newark is named for her.