Christie grants Camden $69 million in special aid, but little to avert layoffs

Posted: November 25, 2010

Gov. Christie decided Wednesday to give far more special state aid to Camden than to any other cash-strapped municipality - $69 million - but largely rejected a plea for millions more to avoid layoffs.

Only $1.5 million of the so-called transitional aid would go toward reducing the numbers in the city's layoff plan: 173 police officers, or 46 percent of the force; 69 firefighters; and 43 percent of all other city workers.

Still, coupled with its formula aid, Camden is facing only an 8 percent cut from last fiscal year in total money from Trenton - far less pain than officials and residents had feared from the tough-talking governor.

Mayor Dana L. Redd thanked Christie and his administration for the funding and said she was "marching in lockstep" with his plans for fiscal responsibility.

Camden won nearly half the money in this year's statewide pot of transitional aid.

Of the 28 municipalities that received money, the second-biggest winner was Trenton, with $27 million. Newark did not apply.

With a long-standing structural deficit, and unable to raise enough in taxes and fees to pay for even the most basic services, Camden regularly goes to Trenton with its hand out. This year, though, Christie put struggling municipalities on notice that because of the recession and his unwillingness to raise taxes, the pot of special aid would be reduced by 27 percent.

So Redd's $138.8 million budget is a $39 million reduction from the previous year. Although it raises taxes 3 percent, the maximum allowed, that brings in just $21 million in revenue. An additional $46.6 million came from the state in regular formula aid.

To fund the rest of its budget, Camden initially asked for $54 million in transitional aid, and then sent a letter Oct. 28 seeking $13.5 million more for various unforeseen costs, such as an increase in how much it owes for pensions and solid-waste removal.

All of that money was granted.

But toward Redd's final request for an additional $8.3 million to prevent some layoffs and avoid "a severe public-safety crisis affecting residents, workers, and visitors," the state's Division of Local Government Services chipped in only $1.5 million.

Redd declined to say which city departments would benefit from that money because she needed to work through the numbers with her finance team Saturday.

She said she still hoped to get concessions from the city's police and fire unions, which are in the middle of contract negotiations.

"I don't think they believed the fiscal crisis was real," she said. "I think they thought the state was going to come with a bailout. Now that they know the numbers, they can see we still have a deficit."

Police officers have said Redd's desire for concessions includes furlough days, pay cuts, and the elimination of extra pay for off-hour shifts.

John Williamson, president of the rank-and-file police union, said cutting the department's workforce by 46 percent "would be the kiss of death to the city and its revitalization."

Last week, a national survey named Camden the second most dangerous city in the country.

To receive the entire payout, Camden must sign a memorandum promising to adopt a pay-to-play ordinance that covers political contributions by those doing business with the city.

It also must restrict nonessential spending, submit a plan detailing how it will reduce its reliance on aid, and meet with state officials four times a year to review its budget.

"Our goal is to hold municipalities accountable for the taxpayer funds they receive and to return them to self-sufficiency," Christie said in a statement. "The days of open-ended gifts of discretionary state aid, without oversight and accountability to all of New Jersey's taxpayers, are over."

Redd's options for finding more money to avert layoffs are unclear. Last week, U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.) said no more federal money would go to Camden this year to retain police officers.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Darran Simon contributed to this article.

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