Fear of firefighter layoffs sparks urgent community conversation in Camden

A fire truck is parked inside Liberty Fire Station on Broadway in Camden, NJ on Thursday, February  6, 2020. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

A fire truck is parked inside Liberty Fire Station on Broadway in Camden, NJ on Thursday, February 6, 2020. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

The city of Camden may have to lay off as many as 27 firefighters if it can’t find $2.4 million to replace a FEMA grant set to expire this summer.

Roughly a dozen distressed firefighters, along with their families and supporters, crowded a meeting room at the Camden County Historical Society Wednesday night trying to find out what could be done to avoid the layoffs.

Representatives of the firefighters’ union, who have been negotiating with Camden Mayor Frank Moran to eliminate the need for layoffs, were there to answer questions from the community.

Sheilah Green, director of community and cultural events at the historical society, didn’t think twice about opening the doors for the urgent community conversation.

“There was nowhere else for them to go to voice their opinion and to get the information they need,” Green said of the firefighters.

Ali Cooper is the president of Local 788, the firefighters’ union. A lifelong resident of Camden, Cooper has worked for the fire department since 1999. The union president said if the department were to lose only 10 firefighters, it would lead to an increase in deaths.

Vincent Basara, director of communications for the city of Camden, told WHYY that any talk of layoffs is premature. The department is funded until June and the unions have been in direct contact with the mayor, said Basara.

Basara also said the city has not failed to properly plan for funding the fire department once the grant runs out, and emphasized that “most cities depend on grant funding.”

The Camden Fire Department has roughly 160 employees. It had 215 firefighters in 2011, but was forced to eliminate 60 of those positions to help close a $26.5 million budget shortfall.

In 2016, a $5 million FEMA grant allowed the department to hire firefighters for the first time in a decade.

Liberty Fire Station is pictured on Broadway in Camden, NJ on Thursday, February 6, 2020. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

According to William Perez, vice president of Local 788, 13 of the 60 laid-off firefighters got their jobs back due to FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, which ends on June 30.

Cooper and his executive team say they’ve been tasked by the city to come up with $2.4 million to cover 27 firefighters for one year.

“We’re here to make sure the community is safe. We’re not financial wizards,” Cooper said.

Derrick Green, a senior adviser to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, attended the community conversation, which was organized by The Camden We Choose Coalition.

Green stood up and declared to the firefighters, “You shouldn’t have to look for $2.4 million when there have been hundreds of millions of tax incentives downtown!” He may have been referring to the $1.6 billion in state tax breaks have been awarded to companies to relocate to Camden. If you adjust for breaks on city property taxes, the incentives are even larger.

Green claimed that Gov. Murphy is re-assessing the state’s tax incentive program.

“We want to incentivize businesses to come into the state, because they provide jobs. But what you don’t want to do is incentivize them so much so, where only one side is benefitting, which is the corporations,” he said.

Ben Saracco, a 33-year-old Camden homeowner, also expressed concern about the tax incentives.

Fire trucks are parked inside Liberty Fire Station on Broadway in Camden, NJ on Thursday, February 6, 2020. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

“The city needs to figure out a way to still make up for basic services, like the fire department and public schools, because you need these basic infrastructures for a city to work,” said Saracco. “I hope that those in city government can be a little more hesitant and cautious before they approve more PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] payments. They will traditionally give out those payments or tax breaks to companies small and large, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Ronsha Dickerson, a member of the Camden We Choose Coalition, reminded everyone in attendance that the 27 firefighters in question are real people who, believing they’ve secured a good job, have started investing in their future.

“I would be super pissed if I had a baby on the way, I just put some money down on a house, I just got a new car, and dammit I ain’t gonna have no job by June,” she said.

One of those 27 firefighters whose jobs may be in jeopardy is Tomas J. Flores, who was hired by the department three years ago. A lifelong Camden resident, Tomas now serves as a private in the department.

He said he and his colleagues were “smacked in the face” with this news only a couple months ago. Among the newest class of firefighters, the mood is frustration, said Flores.

“We’re asking all of these questions through our union and fire administration, but we’re not hearing anything from the city,” he said.

Sheilah Green, who has been at the Camden County Historical Society for five years, has a special place in her heart for firefighters.

A Camden resident for nearly six decades, Sheilah Green has experienced three home fires and has been rescued each time. Her brother was a firefighter and her nephew is among the 27 personnel whose jobs depend on finding new funding.

Asked whether she would host another community conversation on this issue, Green was unequivocal.

“For the firefighters, anything.”

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