The Star Ledger: Steve Lonegan received state bailout as mayor of Bogota

By. David Giambusso

NEWARK — He opposes government bailouts. He chides Cory Booker for relying on aid from Gov. Chris Christie. And he boasts ofhis fiscal leadership as mayor of Bogota.

But every now and then, even Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan needs a little help from his friends. Even if those friends are Democrats.

In 2006, Lonegan asked former Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration for a $500,000 bailout to balance Bogota’s books, according to documents obtained by The Star-Ledger. And he asked for Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s help to get it.

In a letter to Weinberg (D-Bergen), Lonegan said increasing costs in pensions, utilities, insurance and salaries had left the Bergen County borough short.

"If granted, this extraordinary aid request will allow the Borough of Bogota to maintain its strong position and it should not be necessary to request similar aid next year," Lonegan wrote.

He only got $250,000 that year. In 2007, Lonegan needed more aid. That time he got $100,000.

When asked about the aid Monday, Lonegan said that with the money the borough’s residents paid in income and sales taxes, along with rocketing costs mandated by the state, Bogota deserved the aid and he’d do it again.

"I would be totally negligent and remiss as a mayor for not doing anything I can to get my taxpayers’ money back," Lonegan said in an interview. "I’m absolutely proud of what I did as a mayor."

Lonegan’s requests and the e-mails and letters accompanying them emerge as the conservative Republican wages a fierce campaign to beat Newark Mayor Cory Booker in the Oct. 16 special election to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.

Lonegan denied that the aid contradicts his hands-off approach to government, but it does contrast his routine attacks on Booker’s leadership as mayor, where the city has required similar aid for many years.

"Cory Booker cannot govern Newark without the governor’s help," Lonegan said recently. "When I was the mayor of Bogota, I didn’t rely on the governor like that."

Weinberg, whom Lonegan thanked profusely in 2006 and 2007 for helping his application along, noted the irony.

"He said Mayor Booker needed Gov. Christie to govern Newark," Weinberg said. "I guess Mayor Lonegan needed Senator Weinberg for Bogota."

It wasn’t easy for Lonegan, who prides himself on self-reliance, to ask for the assistance.

"I don’t like being in a position where I even need to apply for this," he wrote to a Weinberg staffer in August 2007. "Unfortunately the (Bergen Counties Utilities Authority) continues to hammer local municipalities."

Still, Lonegan was grateful to Weinberg.

"We know your assistance was ‘key’ to receiving the much needed aid to our taxpayers," he wrote in a 2006 letter.

"I want to thank you for all your help during these past years," he wrote in 2007.

Weinberg said the warm exchanges were a good example of bipartisanship.

"Obviously a large government unit can help a smaller government unit," she said. "I think it proves how much we can all help each other."

Lonegan has attacked Booker’s leadership of Newark as a central issue in the Senate campaign. In a recent commercial, the Lonegan campaign said Newark was almost totally reliant on state taxpayers.

"Nearly all of Newark’s budget and city agencies are funded by our tax dollars," an announcer said in the ad.

While Newark’s state-controlled school district is largely funded by state taxpayers, the city itself is not. The city received roughly $101 million in normal state aid out of a budget of $640 million in 2013. That aid is standard to all municipalities for property tax relief as well as returns on income tax and energy credits.

But Newark has relied on the same "extraordinary aid" Lonegan requested. In 2011 and 2012, the Booker administration received a total of $32 million and $10 million, or 5.2 percent and 1.6 percent of the city budget, respectively. The aid received by Bogota constituted 3.5 percent and 1.4 percent in the borough’s $ 7 million budget approximately in 2006 and 2007.
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