State control of Camden to expire in 2012

    The words “Camden New Jersey” often are accompanied by dubious distinctions. It’s frequently cited as one of the poorest and deadliest cities in America.

    The words “Camden New Jersey” often are accompanied by dubious distinctions. It’s frequently cited as one of the poorest and deadliest cities in America. State lawmakers vowed to guide the struggling city toward better days when they took over Camden’s administrative functions in 2002. State control of Camden is set to expire in 2012.

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    Standing on the Ben Franklin bridge, a few boats glide by on the Delaware River below. To the right is Philadelphia, full of older renovated buildings and shiny new ones. To the left is Camden. The waterfront is row after row of parking spaces. There’s a baseball stadium, a luxury apartment building, not a crowded skyline at all.

    Most of the cars traveling over the bridge from Philadelphia are not headed to Camden. They’re just passing through. But some people are working to change that.

    Tom Corcoran examines the Camden waterfront from his office
    Tom Corcoran examines the Camden waterfront from his office

    Tom Corcoran has a great view from his office.

    Corcoran: From my desk looking west I see the Philadelphia skyline and then before that the Camden Children’s Garden and Adventure Aquarium, and then looking north, in the foreground is a new office building called the Ferry Terminal

    Corcoran is the President of Cooper’s Ferry Development Association. They’re a nonprofit corporation that’s worked on just about every major recent project along the waterfront. He says the waterfront projects are an important piece of the city’s revitalization because they can draw tourist dollars, and can help change perceptions of the city.

    Corcoran says the state takeover was necessary to rebound from a history of ineffective government.

    Corcoran: Part of that though was a surrender of some important aspects of home rule which have to due with the powers of the elected Mayor, and the elected City Council. And that was a price the city had to pay for the state’s fiscal oversight and also the infusion of $175 million of state investment through the city’s Economic Recovery Board.

    Not everyone in Camden is quite so pleased with how state control is going.

    The city looks very different on the two and a half mile drive from the waterfront to the office of Camden Churches Organized for People. Here, there are a lot of boarded-up houses.

    The community organization has been trying to improve conditions in Camden.

    Members of Camden Churches Organized for People
    Members of Camden Churches Organized for People

    Pastor Willie Anderson is the group’s Chairman. He says originally the group supported the state takeover because they thought life would get better for residents. Anderson says he’s disappointed.

    Anderson: If you talk to the political people they’ll tell you that we have to go with our strong points. We have to push our medical facilities and our waterfront, and our colleges. And they do that to the neglect of the community.

    The man charged with overseeing the city while it’s under state control, is governor-appointed Chief Operating Officer Judge Theodore Davis. He says he’s been busy tackling the city’s finances, and getting city department heads to buy into the process.

    Davis: When I came in that’s what I did, no more promotions. I just turned the faucet off. I had to stop the bleeding, where is this money going? Now every employee’s file has performance benchmarks, everybody has to swipe in and out, everyone has had ethics training. It’s to get the city to run in a normal way.

    Davis says a big piece of resuscitating Camden comes down to the greenbacks rolling in from Trenton.

    Davis says of the city’s $168 million annual budget, only about $40 million comes from Camden taxpayers, the rest comes from the state. He says more than 60% of the city’s budget goes to salaries and wages, not leaving nearly enough to push Camden toward recovery.

    Richard Harris is a professor of political science and public policy at Rutgers-Camden. He says under state control there has been progress on some construction projects, and in increasing accountability in city government. But, –

    Harris: The buildings of hospitals and universities and development on the waterfront, while its wonderful for physically remaking the city, all of that construction delivers PILOT payments, payments in lieu of taxes. The tax base for the city is still eviscerated from where it was 30, 40 years ago.

    In November residents will elect a new Mayor.

    Harris says when the state decides whether or not to continue its control, it will take into consideration the new Mayor’s ability to lead the city and the progress that’s been made on accountability.

    State lawmakers may also have to consider their financial situation. New Jersey faces serious budget problems and experts say it’s hard to tell if lawmakers will want to foot the bill for another 5 years of control.

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