Newark began 1979 looking to the state and federal government for help to overcome new fiscal problems that have led to the layoff of hundreds of police, teachers and other municipal workers, and which have brought threats of a general strike.
Layoffs of 441 city employes, including 200 police officers, took effect with the new year as part of Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson's effort to reoganize city administration to cope with the loss of $10.8 million in federal anti-recession aid Congress did not reenact. The police force was left at 1,241.
In a parallel but separate problem, Newark's teachers union, reacting angrily to layoffs of 1,000 full-time and 700 substitute school employes, planned for this month, are spearheading calls for a general strike of all muicipal employes and circulating petitions for a recall vote on the mayor. There are 6,300 school employes left.
The school layoffs, mostly of teaching aides, teachers of special subjects and nonteaching employes, come after the Board of Education, which has a budget separate from the city's, ran an $11 million deficit in 1978, partly paid by an emergency transfer of $6.7 million from the city to the schools.
Gibson describes Newark's problems as caused by federal and state regulations.
The city has a surplus of $8.9 million from its last operating budget, but it cannot use these funds to make up for the lost federal aid because of a state law limiting municipalities to a 5 percent annual budget increase. (The lost anti-recession aid was not counted in the annual budget.)
The alternative of raising taxes to avoid the layoffs is not considered attrative in a city that is already suffering from a declining industrial base.
Gibson's plans to salvage the situation hinge on winning approval, after the legislature convenes Jan. 9, for an exception to the spending limit.
"Once we get the time to breathe, we'll be able to find other economies," Bernie Moore, a spokesman for Ginson, said.
Moore concedes, however, that Newark's situation is delicate. "We're doing our balancing act here," he said. "Four blizzards could wipe us out. If we had to pay overtime, that could be $2 million or $3 million."
Others don't think Newark has a chance to keep its balance, blizzards or not.
"All the number are going the wrong way," said George Sternleib, director of the Center for Urban Pocity Researct at Rutgers University. "I wish I were wrong, but asking Newark to turn the situation around is like asking a beggar who has no shoes to pick himself up by his bootstraps."
While federal and state actions have brought the present financial problems, Newark has become so heavily dependent on financing from those quarters, Sternleib said in an interview, that its economy is based on transfer payments.
The key indicator of Newark's economic health for Stenleib is the vacancy rate in office buildings, which runs 25 percent and up. "Newark is an advanced case of the city becoming the owner of last resort as properties fall into its hands," he said.
In addition, the blight has spread to the near suburbs, like East Orange and Irvington, where office space is also going begging, Sternleib said.
As the economy of the area closes down, union leaders cannot afford to be statesmanlike, even if that were their inclination.
The teachers, for example, have no place to go unless they can move long distances. Other towns in the region aren't hiring at the same time that Newark is laying off.
The largest school strike in a major U.S. city ended after 11 weeks here in 1971. "That contract is now catching up with us," said city official. "It's one thing to a settlement, and another thing to pay for it."
Carole Graves, who led the 1971 strike, is leading the push for a general strike later this month if her teachers union court challenge to the layoffs fails. "We're psyching up the entire citizenry. If we have a strike we want to do it right," Graves said. The school layoffs are set to take effect in several phases from Jan. 12 to Feb. 5.
School superintendent Alonzo Kittrels says, however, that the layoffs are not only prompted by financial problems. He and Carl Sharif, head of the Board of Education, say they believe that the "extras" which have come into the school system as a result of teachers' demands and federal or state programs have detracted from the quality of basic education.
They want to eliminate "extras" and force schools to devote more time to reading, writing and arithmetic. The atmosphere in Newark is not suitable for a careful discussion of such ideas, however.
Police spokesman detective Ernest Newby said that administration of his department is being reorganized and the Community Relations Bureau abolished as a result of the manpower cuts. Newark has gone from one of the national crime leaders to 25th, in part because of a declining population.
Newby said taht there have been 91 demotions as well as the 200 layoffs to reduce the police budget, but that street patrols are not being reduced. Rather, officers will respond more slowly to crimes already concluded, such as burglaries of closed stores or unoceupied houses, discovered when people return.