OPINION—The Hidden Race to the Biggest

By mantunes

August 2021. A palpable sigh of relief could be heard across the halls of power where the future of Newark is prognosticated and shaped. The release of the 2020 United States Census confirmed what had nervously been debated for the last few years: that Newark remains the largest city in this state. With an official population of 311,549 residents, Newark came just enough ahead of Jersey City—where those of a gambling nature were likely to place their bets—to cling onto the top spot by a mere 19,000 residents.

While being the largest city in a state is a distinction of relatively minor (and arguably dubious) importance, it sometimes feels as if it’s the only honor we have left. Development and demographic change in Newark over the last few decades has been, to say the least, a story of fits and starts, sprinkled with a couple of leaps forward and a few steps back. In fact, walking through the crane-filled and tower-strewn downtown of Jersey City, it sometimes beggars belief that Newark is a larger city than its increasingly popular sister on the Hudson. Jersey City’s astonishing growth over the last two decades from a community of longshoremen and warehouse operators to young professionals and their dog-walkers, and all the new demand for construction that they brought with them, would naturally lead one to conclude that Jersey City’s population is bigger.

Newark isn’t really out of the woods yet. Jersey City grew by an astonishing 18.1% over the 2010–2020 period. Newark’s growth over the same period, while also something to behold, only came to 12.4%. Should these patterns continue—which is not at all guaranteed—Jersey City will basically match Newark’s population, if not eclipse it which is still likely to happen. This will be a great psychic blow to the city, as Newark has been the biggest community in this state since the colonial days when it was the founding settlement of the new English settlement called “New Jersey.” To be just another city would add to the already uphill battle facing Newark, one that it will have to fight without the eminence of being the big brother in the state. 

Hidden behind this battle over population, however, is a far more stark story about the radical transformation that has occurred in Jersey City, one that Newark has failed to mimic. To truly understand a municipality in New Jersey, you have to look at the tables of equalization. Each year, Trenton mandates that the municipalities across the state report the value of all the assessed property within its boundaries, the amount of that which is up for taxation, and the rate at which all of it is taxed. The counties then collect all this information and publish it for anyone who wishes to see it. This is the secret sauce for any town or city in this state. While a budget gives you the actual spend a city commits to year-to-year, it is also clouded with federal and state grants and other random revenue sources like money generated from enforcement of parking laws, rents collected by municipalities (like the one Newark collects for the airport and shipping port), and other special assessments. What the table of equalization provides is the latent spending power each municipality has, what it can spend if it were to stand on its own. This is the determining factor in whether a city is able to, sustainably, spend on what is generally considered discretionary and not necessary—that is, whatever isn’t education, water/trash service, firefighting, and the police. (Think, capital improvements, parks, cultural outputs, amenities, and the like.) To know how much a municipality can do for its residents, take the aggregate assessed value of taxable real property, multiply it by the tax rate, and divide it by the number of residents and you get a pretty good heuristic for the spending weight each resident carries with them.

Here, the difference between Newark and Jersey City really stands out. In 2022, Newark reported $12.4 billion in aggregate assessed value of real property. Jersey City reported $40.8 billion. Newark charges a general tax rate of 3.736%. Jersey City, meanwhile, charges 2.118%. If Newark were to collect on all its assessed real estate, it would have $463,264,000. Jersey City would collect $864,144,000. The average Newarker comes with $1,486 for the city budget. The average Jersey City resident comes with $2,954. While a city never actually taxes all its property listed in these charts, this aligns pretty well with how much money a city collects from its residents.

This difference is regressive in two ways. First is the stark fact that Newarkers have to pay more in property tax for property that is generally valued less. (This includes renters who pay their property tax through their monthly rent charge, which is why the state allows you to deduct this for income tax purposes.) To put it simply, Newarkers pay more as a percentage in property tax, regardless of their income or ability to pay. A Newarker with a house assessed by the city at $300,000 can be expected to pay $11,100 in property taxes, while a Jersey City resident can be expected to pay only $6,300 with the same assessed house. It is also regressive in that Newarkers have so much less money to use locally to tackle a wide range of issues—poverty, crime, education, streets, beautification. Federal, state, and county grants sometimes help to make up this difference, but Newark is largely constrained in what it can do because of this and generally can’t afford to spend as much on general amenities and capital expenditures that other cities take for granted. 

I am close to a person who once led one of Newark’s many legacied institutions. That person was lured away to Jersey City’s analogous institution, an offer which included a much higher salary. That person later confided in me how astounded they were in not only how many more resources were made available to them in Jersey City but also how willing the city’s institutional and political players were to provide even more when asked. Despite this person’s best efforts, the Newark institution continued to contract—despite Newark’s growth and this person’s plans to renew the strength of this institution—during their tenure. The opposite was true in Jersey City. They were given a mandate to expand it and offer more services. 

Those who are familiar with Newark’s politics might be able to guess which institution I am talking about. But I leave it nameless here because this is largely the story of all of Newark’s institutions that rely heavily on city funding and support. Just look at the vastly differing trajectories of NJPAC (a largely state-funded and suburbanite-controlled institution) and Newark Symphony Hall (one that is more closely associated with the city), and you can see this difference of power in action. At the moment, I know another leader of a cultural institution here whose entire institution (and not just the leader themself) is actively being courted by Jersey City, which has basically launched a bidding war over that institution that Newark can ill afford to participate in.

Jersey City has essentially the spending power of a suburb and the growth of its institutions show it. Its libraries are nicer, its roads are better kept, and even its city website seems vastly more functional. It has not been this way. As recently as 2015, the value of Jersey City’s assessable property was less than half of Newark’s. A major and controversial revaluation of property conducted in Jersey City during 2018 officially confirmed the massive increase in value of property in the town, which led to a lowering of the tax rate because Jersey City feared it would be collecting too much from its residents. 

2031—I can’t believe I am even typing this number—will be an interesting year. I would like to be wrong, but it is very likely that you will see the headline: JERSEY CITY COMES OUT AHEAD OF NEWARK, NOW LARGEST CITY IN JERSEY. What those headlines won’t say is how the average Jersey City resident will have 10x the spending power of a Newark resident and how little is being done to level this playing field.

mantunes is a resident of Newark who writes about the city (and other things).