Why new container ordinance in Newark could increase costs for businesses everywhere

There’s an old adage: if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. Intermodal companies based in Newark can attest to the truth of that statement, thanks to a new ordinance being pushed for final passage Wednesday that will increase their costs exponentially.

You may be thinking: “So? This won’t affect me.”

Guess again. The new ordinance will apply to virtually all types of businesses that have a container placed on the property. And, if Newark succeeds in passing it, other municipalities in New Jersey will be quick to follow suit.

Picture this: You go to dinner at a local restaurant — it’s gotten pricier than other places, but you’ve been eating there for years, and you’re a loyal customer. As soon as you sit down, however, the waiter hands you a bill for $1,000. You’re confused, because you haven’t eaten anything yet, and this is way more than you’ve ever been charged before.

“Oh, it’s a new policy,” he says. “In addition to billing you for what you actually eat, we’re also charging based upon the amount of food you could potentially stack on your plate throughout the meal. A large dinner plate can hold two filet mignons, a couple of porterhouse steaks, steamed lobster and some sides, not to mention caviar and the other appetizers you can pile on your bread plate. We assume you’ll be pairing your meal with a couple of bottles of fine wine, ordering multiple desserts and finishing with a 15-year single malt Scotch.”

You try to object, but he holds firm. Despite being a loyal customer, and supporting this establishment for decades, you’re told those are the rules — and you need to pay up.

This scenario may sound outlandish, but it is comparable to the city of Newark’s new plan to charge businesses that handle freight containers. The current container storage ordinance — adopted by the city barely seven months ago — has been rewritten to calculate Container Storage License fees based upon the potential number of containers that could be stacked on a property, regardless of how many are actually there, resulting in businesses paying up to 10 times more than before.

Daily fees are also increasing. While the existing ordinance assesses storage fees only on containers that have been on site for 30 days or more, the new one charges fees on all containers placed on the property for any length of time — even for just a few hours or minutes.

City officials said the new ordinance will increase safety, yet there appears to be nothing in the new version that accomplishes that goal. The drastic proposal was first introduced in April, without any input from businesses that will be most affected by its passage. Since then, it has been deferred four times, after strong objections from beleaguered intermodal companies, which — already taking a hit from Newark’s payroll tax, annual gas tax increases and toll hikes — cannot possibly absorb the exorbitant expenses being proposed. These new fees will put Newark businesses that handle containers at a disadvantage to those based elsewhere in the state, jeopardizing thousands of jobs, a substantial number of which are held by Newark residents.

It’s been argued that the city’s existing container ordinance is unconstitutional, since in-service freight containers are deemed Instruments of international traffic and are not subject to taxation under federal law. Newark’s latest attempt to raise quick cash off the backs of already-struggling business owners is sure to result in numerous lawsuits, something the city of Newark can ill afford.

We urge Newark’s top elected officials to pull the ill-conceived container storage ordinance permanently and show their support for the loyal businesses that contribute jobs and revenue to the city of Newark.

Lisa Yakomin is the president of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, a nonprofit organization representing intermodal companies that move freight at the Port of New York & New Jersey.