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Senator Gordon, Assemblywoman Wagner and Dozens of Local Officials Join Together in Devising Solutions for Ailing Suburbs

As a follow-up to her July visit to the White House to address the challenges facing older suburbs, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) chaired a meeting in Fair Lawn on Monday with over a dozen elected officials from throughout the state to move forward in addressing the intricacies of these challenges at the local level.

Jasey was joined at the meeting by Senator Bob Gordon (D-Bergen) and Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen), as well as representatives from Fair Lawn, Paramus, South Orange, Maplewood, Montclair, Maywood, Bergenfield, Teaneck, Clifton, East Orange, Elizabeth, Roselle, Ridgewood, Bordentown and Jersey City.

Acting as chair of the meeting, Jasey noted, “We need to draw attention to the challenges facing older suburbs as a means to advance communities that are safe, have good schools and are inclusive. These communities reflect the economic, racial and cultural diversity that is important to all of New Jersey, yet they are struggling. I’m hoping that by bringing together a broad coalition of communities facing the same challenges, we can overcome them together.”

“Over time, sprawl and urban revitalization efforts have turned many of our First Suburbs into forgotten communities,” said Gordon. “Hopefully this movement will transform from the sharing of ideas to a shared plan of action.”

“When it comes to the challenges facing our First Suburbs, there is certainly strength in numbers,” said Wagner. “This is a great forum for communities facing the same problems to share ideas and build solutions that will help revive municipalities throughout our state.”

First Suburbs are typically situated between impoverished cities and affluent homogeneous suburbs, and face a number of challenges:

  • A fiscally stressed tax base, burdened with high tax rates and property taxes;
  • Increasing rates of poverty, especially among children;
  • A changing, increasingly diverse racial make-up, including more immigrants;
  • Middle class households that are under intense pressure and unstable;
  • Rampant foreclosures and struggling real estate markets;
  • Crumbling infrastructure, put under additional stress by recent natural events;
  • Struggling school systems; and
  • A weak investment climate.

The New Jersey meeting was a follow-up to a July White House summit entitled the “Forum on First Suburbs, Inclusion, Sustainability and Economic Growth” in which Jasey and nearly 50 other New Jersey officials participated. The summit, in which Jasey chaired the New Jersey delegation, delved into the challenges facing older suburbs to devise a strategy to bring attention to the needs of New Jersey’s “first” or older suburbs to Washington.

Jasey and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, who also attended the summit, helped organize the New Jersey delegation to plan the next steps, which led to Monday’s meeting.

During the meeting, Montclair Mayor Jerry Fried moderated a panel discussion with Fair Lawn Mayor Lisa Swain, Teaneck Councilwoman Lizette Parker, Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca and Bergenfield Council President Chris Tully. The panelists candidly expressed a range of common concerns and frustrations about how policy has lagged behind fiscal reality.

These concerns included the struggle for adequate resources, the fiscal waste produced by political fragmentation, the fact that towns with affordable housing get little benefit from the state for providing it, and the sense that first suburbs do not get their due for being the diverse, inclusive communities of the future.

“The White House made it clear that it wants to hear from local leaders throughout the country about what we need and how they can support our efforts to promote inclusion, rebuild our first suburbs and grow jobs,” added Jasey. “This follow-up meeting generated a great deal of constructive input that can serve as a solid blueprint for addressing these challenges as we move forward.”

Jasey pointed out that among the needs discussed were:

  • Creating a better system of public transportation to foster development and the continued vitality of First Suburbs, including transportation that makes it possible to move between and within communities for reasons of employment, culture and shopping;
  • Addressing the issue of property taxes, which constrains much of what the First Suburbs can do to confront their challenges;
  • The need for the consolidation of services and countering the pressure created by the desire for “home rule”;
  • The importance of affordable housing in the creation of diverse, livable communities, including the political and practical difficulties of requiring the homogeneous exurbs to build such housing; and
  • The fact that the First Suburbs are often competing with each other for an increasingly small piece of the pie, both in terms of government aid and economic development, particularly in a climate with such intense fiscal pressure on municipal governments.

The meeting closed with Jasey calling on participants to take action, including committing to help the First Suburbs movement grow and to organize a statewide First Suburbs meeting. She noted that another First Suburbs meeting was held in Hamilton for towns in that region of the state. She also spoke of the need to work with New Jersey’s Congressional delegation on legislation that would benefit First Suburbs, including the Federal Transportation Reauthorization Act.

Among the other local elected officials on hand Monday were Mayor Victor DeLuca of Maplewood, Mayor Jerry Fried of Montclair, Mayor Lisa Swain of Fair Lawn, Mayor Tim Eustace of Maywood, Council President Chris Tully of Bergenfield, Councilwoman Lizette Parker of Teaneck, Councilor Nick Lewis of Montclair, Councilman Joe Kolodziej of Clifton, and Beth Daugherty, President of the South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education.