A Share Of Bridge Tolls For Camden? A Councilman Believes A Cut Of The Ben Franklin Revenue Would Go A Long Way Toward Easing The City's Fiscal Woes.

Posted: June 18, 1999

CAMDEN — A city official told the state-appointed Camden oversight board yesterday that a percentage of a proposed toll increase on the Delaware River bridges should go to Camden as a kind of ``host benefit'' for its end of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

The suggestion by Councilman Ali Sloan El came as the board expressed concerns about a $24.7 million deficit in the city's 2000 budget.

Board Chairman Stephen R. Sasala 2d has ordered the city to account for every penny it spends in an attempt to reduce the budget hole, which is nearly double the 1999 gap.

Saying that the figure was unacceptable, Sasala yesterday asked city officials to hand over any computer disks that might be helpful in verifying the budget figures.

``I have a lot of respect'' for city officials, Sasala said. ``But I'm sorry, $24.7 million is not a real number. I'm not going to the [state] treasurer to ask for $24.7 million.''

Sasala said he believed there were places where the budget could be cut.

But city officials said yesterday that after considerable numbers-crunching, they were only able to reduce the deficit to $24.3 million.

``This is what we feel we had [to have] to operate,'' the city's chief financial officer, Richard Cinaglia, told the board. ``The ball's back in your court.''

Finance Director Robert Law added that even if Camden laid off all of its civilian employees, it would still be millions in the hole.

Even residents who frequently side with the board against the city thought the board needed to do more to provide revenues for the city.

Howard Gillette, a historian who is writing a book about Camden, told the board: ``If this board is going to make any difference, it has to talk revenues.''

For Sloan El, the solution seemed simple: Give a percentage of the bridge tolls to Camden.

``I think we need host benefits,'' he said, using a term that normally refers to a discount Camden residents are given in their sewer rates for having the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority's sprawling treatment plant in their city.

If 25 cents from each bridge toll was dedicated to Camden, Sloan El said, it would produce money for development, housing and other purposes.

Under a Delaware River Port Authority proposal disclosed in April, motorists who now pay $2 to cross the bridges into Pennsylvania would pay up to $3, a 50 percent increase. The increase could take effect this year.

Sloan El said he planned to discuss his idea with the authority's executive director, Paul Drayton.

Drayton said it was unlikely that any revenue from the toll increase would be dedicated to Camden.

``To take that step,'' he said, ``we'd have to change our compacts with New Jersey, Pennsylvania [and the federal government]. . . . Our covenant is so restrictive.''

Besides, he said, the authority pours millions into Camden for economic development as it is, through a payment in lieu of taxes for its waterfront building as well as for other projects on the waterfront.

The authority also plans to use some of its toll money to help with Gov. Whitman's proposal to spruce up Admiral Wilson Boulevard, Drayton said.

Sloan El was unperturbed.

``If they can give money for Admiral Wilson Boulevard, why can't they do the same for other portions of Camden?'' he asked.

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