Camden residents don’t trust police to oversee code enforcement. Now the state has questions.

Camden residents opposed to a county take-over of housing inspection and code enforcement rallied in front of Camden City Hall Tuesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Camden residents opposed to a county take-over of housing inspection and code enforcement rallied in front of Camden City Hall Tuesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The details of municipal shared service agreements rarely stir political passions.

But that’s exactly what happened last week when hundreds of Camden residents poured into City Hall to rail against a proposal to shift oversight of city code enforcement to the county police department.

The fury over what elected officials played down as an administrative change that would now affect how inspections are conducted laid bare the deep mistrust many Camden residents feel toward their government and police.

Now, despite the city council’s approval, the state may step in to stop the agreement from taking effect.

The city of Camden first recruited the county’s help for code enforcement in 2016. Code enforcement ensures properties, especially rental units, are meeting city standards. Property owners can be cited if doors or roofs are letting the elements inside or if there is no water or heat, among other things.

According to news accounts from the time, the city’s six full-time inspectors were overloaded battling rampant violations and unsafe living conditions at some 2,000 registered and 4,000 unregistered residential units.

The county bolstered the city’s ranks with about 15 part-time inspectors, to be paid for by the city with additional revenue from the stepped-up enforcement. Importantly, the county health department was assigned to oversee the entire operation.

The resolution approved last week, however, would transfer oversight to the county police. On paper, it does not appear to be a significant change. Law enforcement officers were explicitly permitted to participate in inspections under the 2016 agreement, and city officials at the time acknowledged their participation.

Council President Curtis Jenkins reportedly told residents last week that “Metro,” as the county police are known, would serve only in a supervisory capacity and not be authorized to enter homes to search for violations. Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen stressed the changes were merely administrative.

“There is going to be absolutely no change from the way the service was provided in 2018, 2017 or 2016,” he said, adding that Metro is a better fit to run the operation because it is a tech-savvy, seven-day-a-week department.

But for residents, many of whom are already mistrustful of outsiders’ intentions in Camden, not to mention the assertions of their own elected officials, the proposal was explosive.

Camden residents opposed to a county take-over of housing inspection and code enforcement rallied in front of Camden City Hall Tuesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“If the police department starts running code enforcement, then there’s no limit to what they can do,” resident Ryan O’Neal said. “It’s too broad a spectrum for an officer to come into your home and without a search warrant, under the pretext of code violations.”

Doris Carpenter called the proposal “outright institutional racism” to drive residents out of the city, according to coverage by journalist April Saul on her Camden-based Facebook page. “After you’ve cited them and given them fines they can’t pay,” Carpenter said, “what’s the next step?”

Others expressed suspicion that code enforcement could be used as a tool to retaliate against those who criticize police or city officials.

Amir Kahn, pastor and director of Camden We Choose, led a rally opposing a county take-over of housing inspections in the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

City and county officials say those fears are unfounded. But they are part of a longer history of city and state officials stripping residents of local control.

The city’s police force was disbanded in 2013 amid soaring crime. The county force that now patrols the streets, in O’Neal’s words, “doesn’t reflect the community.”

Around the same time, the state took over the Camden school district. More students now attend Renaissance and charter schools than traditional public schools.

And more recently, residents have soured on the $1.6 billion in state tax breaks awarded to companies to expand or relocate in Camden. Residents say they have been shut out of jobs at those companies, a claim that city officials and business leaders adamantly deny.

Also the state took over running the city entirely from 2002 to 2010, even usurping the power of the elected mayor. That was part of a plan for the state to spend $175 million on revitalizing the city. That takeover ended without the city reducing crime significantly or its reliance on state dollars to fund its budget.

Ironically, it’s another legacy of state control that may block any changes to the code enforcement agreement — or sink it altogether.

Because Camden continues to receive millions of dollars in state aid each year to balance its budget, the state Department of Community Affairs, or DCA, has veto power over municipal legislation with financial implications.

In a Nov. 12 letter addressed to Camden Mayor Frank Moran, Melanie Walter, a DCA official, described the code enforcement agreement as a “failure” that cost the city more than $1 million in 2016 and 2017 without generating the anticipated revenues. Because the city and county did not agree to a budget for the program in 2018 or 2019, she said, the program has expired and DCA would not authorize it to begin again.

“The city’s already strained operating budget can ill afford to reinstate this costly program without changes reasonably calculated to yield different, more successful results,” Walter wrote.

A couple dozen Camden residents gathered in front of City Hall on Tuesday to celebrate the letter. “The bill is dead!” they chanted.

Vance Bowman is a retired supervisor of housing inspections who lives in Camden and is opposed to a county take-over of housing inspections in the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But whether the DCA will block Metro’s oversight of city code enforcement in practice remains to be seen. A DCA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification.

Dan Keashen, the Camden County spokesman, was not aware of the letter until it was sent to him by a reporter Tuesday. He said he expected the city to reimburse the county for work performed over the past two years and that the county would move ahead as planned.

“We will continue to move forward with the agreement as it has been adopted,” Keashen said. “To end this agreement or stop it would undermine the health and welfare of city residents.”

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