N.J. tax break projects hired just 27 Camden residents for construction, analysis claims

New developments on the Camden waterfront, like the American Water corporate headquarters and the 18-story Camden Tower, receive substantial local tax breaks in addition to state tax incentives. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New developments on the Camden waterfront, like the American Water corporate headquarters and the 18-story Camden Tower, receive substantial local tax breaks in addition to state tax incentives. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Residents of Camden, New Jersey, are not getting the jobs they were promised when the state awarded more than $1.6 billion in tax breaks for companies to move to the city.

That’s the apparent takeaway from an analysis released Thursday by the state’s Economic Development Authority, or EDA. Camden officials immediately blasted the numbers as biased and misleading.

The analysis said only 27 of nearly 1,100 construction jobs from a sample of completed tax-break projects went to Camden residents, although it cautioned it may have missed work performed near the beginning or end of projects. 

The sample was the first employment data released by the state since Camden activists began pressing for greater transparency months ago. The figures seemed to confirm some residents’ fears that they’ve been left out of the city’s resurgence.

“Twenty-seven out of 1,000 is barely anything. I mean, that’s ridiculous. That’s a joke,” said Sue Altman, who leads the progressive group New Jersey Working Families and has challenged the rosier job numbers put forward by Camden officials.

“This is the first glimpse into, perhaps, the facts, which is those numbers aren’t right, those numbers aren’t real, and that Camden residents have not benefited through jobs,” she said.

But after learning of the analysis, which was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday morning before it was disclosed at a midday EDA meeting, Camden Mayor Frank Moran disputed the figures in a broadside against EDA chairman Kevin Quinn.

“At the outset let me point to your obvious bias against the City of Camden,” Moran wrote in a letter to Quinn. “I have yet to see you release employment numbers, leaked or official, for any other city in the entire state.”

Moran said payroll data show 174 Camden residents got construction jobs at just five projects. That’s not to mention the “hundreds” more construction and non-construction jobs created by other companies receiving tax breaks.

“While we can and should do more to improve opportunities, the number is six times more than the number you chose to release,” Moran wrote.

Camden’s job figures have emerged as a politically sensitive issue as Gov. Phil Murphy and local activists have ratcheted up criticism of New Jersey’s tax incentive programs, under which businesses statewide have received more than $7 billion in tax breaks since 2013.

Some Camden residents say the spoils have flowed disproportionately to politically connected outsiders, who struck sweetheart deals to move to the city but have not done enough to hire local workers.

Their criticism has been fueled by a task force Murphy convened to investigate the programs. It has uncovered evidence suggesting companies may have misled state officials on their applications for the taxpayer-funded awards.

Murphy has called for a complete overhaul of the tax incentive programs, including monetary caps on how much the state can award in a given year. The Democrat vetoed a bill that would have extended the now-expired programs through next year.

But Camden officials say the tax breaks have spurred a development boom in the city that is benefitting local residents, as exemplified by the city’s 30-year-low unemployment rate of 6.6%.

Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Camden County, also highlighted active job-training programs for Camden residents and other efforts to promote local hiring, including a website launched last month by local nonprofit Cooper’s Ferry Partnership that lists jobs available in the city.

The total number of jobs filled by Camden residents is still a point of contention.

Moran and others, citing a study by Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, assert at least 1,250 residents are working at companies that won tax credits.

Skeptical residents, however, have requested a company-by-company breakdown of those figures and have yet to receive it. They note that many of the newly arrived companies relocated from South Jersey towns and brought their existing suburban workforce with them.

The EDA has asked 130 companies that won tax breaks across the state to voluntarily disclose how many local residents they hired, according to POLITICO New Jersey. The EDA requested the information by the end of the month. The disclosures are not required by law.

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