State Oversight of Camden Asleep at the wheel

Posted: June 18, 2008

The much-heralded state takeover of Camden was supposed to put the ailing city on the right course financially.

Nearly six years later, however, the state has not delivered on its lofty promises. In fact, it has done a poor job of managing taxpayers' money pumped into the city for its recovery.

As cash-strapped New Jersey tries to clean up its own fiscal morass, it's becoming ever clearer that it hasn't lived up to its fiduciary responsibilities in Camden.

As part of the 2002 legislation to bail out Camden, the state gave the city $175 million and took over many of the powers of the local government and school board. The state was supposed to do a better job stewarding the city, but that has not always been the case.

Just last week, the state had to open its pocketbook once again to close a $14.3 million deficit in the city's budget for fiscal 2007. That's in addition to the $125 million in annual aid the state already provides.

City officials were generously spending money they didn't have. No one, including the state's monitors sent to watch over municipal finances, was keeping track until it was too late.

The state was supposed to rein in spending and to control the city's purse strings. Instead, it was asleep at the wheel as the deficit escalated.

So much for the sweeping state oversight that wrestled authority from Mayor Gwendolyn Faison and made her mostly a ceremonial figurehead. Day-to-day operations in Camden are handled by retired Judge Theodore Davis, the city's state-appointed chief executive officer. He has said the expenditures leading to a deficit were never approved by him.

Why weren't they? Is he in control, or isn't he?

Just blocks from City Hall, the Camden school board has its own problems after missing a state deadline last week to submit a final budget for the next school year. It is the only so-called Abbott, or special-needs, district in New Jersey that hasn't had its 2008-09 budget approved by the state.

Only after state officials issued a dire threat and imposed a partial spending freeze did the school board reluctantly slash its budget to live within its means.

Like the municipal government, the school district has been under state oversight since 2002. It, too, has a fiscal monitor with veto power and three board members appointed by the governor.

With millions of state taxpayers' dollars and the city's future at stake, neither Camden nor state officials can continue to operate with business-as-usual attitudes. There must be better oversight and accountability to ensure that every dollar is spent wisely.

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