States and municipalities around the country are struggling to tighten their fiscal belts, but few cities face as stark a choice as the hard-luck southern New Jersey city of Camden. One of Americas most dangerous cities, Camden seeks to close a $26.5 million budget hole by laying off one-quarter of its city government workers -- including half of its police force. In an austerity plan that went into effect last month, the city laid off 180 uniformed officers and 20 police dispatchers from its 375-strong force.
Camden expects to save $14 million, but there is growing alarm that the city, one of the countrys poorest and most violent, will wind up paying a much higher price for its budget savings. Camden residents, already afraid to venture out after dark, worry that the city will become even more hospitable for criminals.
“Theyll be coming into the houses,” one fearful resident recently told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “They know you cant call the cops. There wont be any cops to call.” The local press has reported on drug dealers openly relishing the prospect of a diminished police presence.
Camdens Democratic mayor, Dana Redd, has held firm on the budget cuts. Echoing Republican Gov. Chris Christies tough talk about fiscal responsibility, Redd has insisted that Camden has no choice but to “live within our means.”
Redd has also adopted Christies confrontational stand against public-sector unions. She has placed responsibility for the layoffs -- not implausibly -- on the police union, which rejected her plan to save 100 police jobs through a pay cut in the form of unpaid furloughs.
The average salary for a rank-and-file police officer in Camden, after benefits, the mayor points out, is around $140,000 a year -- in a city where more than half of the residents live below the federal poverty line. Camdens police chief, Scott Thomson, vows that the city can absorb the cuts by restructuring the police to focus more on violent crime and on street patrols. (New Jersey has also supplied state police officers to help patrol Camden for years.)
Behind closed doors, though, the mayors office is clearly worried. Thats evident from Camdens application last fall for transitional state aid for 2011 (over and above all of the other state aid that Camden regularly receives).
Signed by Redd, the application raises a concern that the mayor is reluctant to state in public: “It is anticipated that the reduction of sworn officers within our Police and Fire Departments will result in a severe public safety crisis affecting residents, workers and visitors.”
That concern is well justified. Statistics show that violent crime has been on the rise in the city. There were 37 murders in Camden in 2010, compared with 34 in 2009. Shootings have spiked by 20 percent in the past year; the citys streets are a firing range.
Camdens violent crime rate is five times the national average, according to the FBI, while its overall crime rate is three times the national norm. A recent national survey ranked it as the countrys second-most-dangerous city.
But few practical proposals, apart from union concessions, have been put forward for how Camden might avert layoffs. As for the citys usual bailout in state aid, it wont save Camden this time.
Christie approved the citys transitional aid application, granting $69 million in special aid -- more than for any other city in the state. Most of that money, however, will go to covering a host of basic services (like solid-waste removal) as well as pension costs. Redd asked for an additional $8.3 million to prevent layoffs, but Christie granted only $1.5 million.
Unless the police union makes real concessions, there seems little chance that laid-off officers will be rehired -- and Camdens overstretched force will be even less equipped to patrol the citys increasingly deadly streets.
Original Source: http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2011/02/manhattan-moment-poverty-ridden-camden-nj-faces-police-cuts-amid-increasi