Camden, NJ braces for deep police, fire cuts
City has the second highest crime rate in U.S.
By Geoff Mulvihill
CAMDEN, N.J. - Yet another crisis is upon this burdened city, among the most impoverished and crime-ridden in the country.
Deep layoffs of city workers go into effect on Tuesday -- cutting up to 383 jobs, or one-fourth of the city's employees.
The exact number depends on whether public workers' unions make last-minute concessions. In any case, the cuts are likely to be deep - and could be a blow to the quality of life in a city where more than half the 80,000 residents, mostly black and Hispanic, live in poverty.
Worst case, the layoffs could slash half the police force and one-third of the fire department for this city just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Practically every other job in the city is likely to be affected.
"The fear quotient has been raised," said the Rev. Heyward Wiggins, pastor of Camden Bible Tabernacle in a rough neighborhood on the city's north side, who constantly hears from his congregants about the layoffs.
His Fellowship Choir of adults from their 20s to their 50s, used to practice on Thursday or Friday evenings. Now, Wiggins said, he's moving rehearsals to Sunday after worship services because members are afraid of being out after dark when the police force is cut.
Camden, rampant with open drug-dealing, prostitution and related crimes, was the nation's second-most-dangerous city based on 2009 data, according to CQ Press, which compiles such rankings. Camden ranked first the previous two years. The FBI said that in 2009, the city had 2,380 violent crimes per 100,000 residents -- more than five times the national average.
Police Chief Scott Thomson has not made details of the cuts public, but has said the department will be reconfigured so that patrols won't be reduced. Other police agencies, such as the county sheriff's office, have agreed to help in the city.
A police union, meanwhile, took out a full page advertisement last week in the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill, warning that Camden would become a "living hell" if layoffs were not averted. Unions have been meeting with city officials, but no job-saving deals have been announced so far.
The anti-crime volunteer group Guardian Angels also says it will patrol Camden, as it has Newark, where there were major police layoffs in November.
The fire department, meanwhile, has already been relying on help from volunteer departments in neighboring towns. Interim fire chief David Yates, who retired Jan. 1, has warned that that layoffs will increase response times.
It's not just the public safety jobs that are being hit.
Garnet Grant, a city worker for 22 years, ensures that no one is inside vacant houses before he puts plywood on windows and doors to keep the homeless out.
Sitting in a big yellow box truck labeled "Board Up Crew," Grant says he knows he's not being laid off -- but will likely have to do the jobs of several people in what's already a losing battle to board up homes. "We need more help," Grant said.
It's the struggling cities like Camden that could bear the worst of the fallout from the Great Recession as governments at all levels slash costs. Congress has signaled that it will allocate less money to states. And New Jersey, facing its own fiscal crisis, has begun cutting how much money it gives to cities. Camden, where 80 percent of the budget in recent years has come from the state, has the most to lose.
Howard Gillette, a Rutgers-Camden historian who wrote a book about the city's woes, said the layoffs are another setback for the long-suffering city.
"It adds to the burden of trying to get out of one of the deepest holes any city has fallen into in the postwar period," he said.
Three of Camden's past seven mayors have been sent to prison for corruption, including one who was convicted while he was still running the city.
Camden's troubles don't just revolve around bad governance.
During the generation between 1967 and 1990, all the city's major factories, including a shipyard and plants for RCA and the Campbell Soup Co., closed. Much of what's gone on the prime land they once occupied is at least partially tax-exempt.
Camden was afflicted by race rioting in the 1970s, decades of losing middle-class residents to the suburbs, and an epidemic of drug-related violence. The schools have been partially under state control.
So dire is the budget crisis that officials threatened to shut down the entire city library system. That was averted, but only partially. One of three branches has been closed, a second is set to close next month and the county library system is taking over the third.
In recent years, the state has given unprecedented aid - $175 million to upgrade old sewer lines and expand the city's aquarium, a hospital and university campuses - hoping to lure developers and generate tax money. Little private development has resulted so far.
The layoffs themselves may be putting some smaller-scale investments at risk. The coffee shop Ron Ford opened across from City Hall eight years ago might close soon. City employees worried about their jobs aren't coming in as much -- and next week, there won't be as many of them. "I'll ride it out until tax season," he said. "But it's been a nightmare."
The state government, facing its own financial difficulties, is reducing aid even though the city depends on it more than ever.
Camden received $121 million in state aid for fiscal 2010; it currently gets $115.6 million, of which $17 million is being withheld by the state until the city demonstrates that it's complying with reform promises.
Its budget for fiscal 2010 was $185 million. The spending plan for the current year - which has not been adopted - is $138 million, a cut of 25 percent.
More than half of what Camden gets from the state is in so-called "transitional aid" subsidies to force more self-sufficiency. Republican Gov. Chris Christie says he wants to phase that out.
Rutgers' Gillette says the city may be able to shift resources to weather the layoffs in the short-term, but that isn't the city's only problem.
"The larger issue, which is the most frightening and disturbing, is a governor of the state who tells the city of Camden, 'You have to get your house in order and in four years, you have to be self-sufficient,'" he said. "The idea that Camden could pull itself up by the bootstraps, that can't happen."
Kelly Francis, a local government watchdog and president of the city's NAACP branch, says the city should have been shedding its staff for decades.
He says, for instance, that it was a mistake to use federal grants in the 1990s to bulk up the police department as the city's population shrunk. The federal funds eventually dried up, leaving the city to pay costs it couldn't afford.
"It seems to me there's an entitlement mentality in the city of Camden," Francis said. "It's been at least 40 years that the state's been bailing out the city."