Camden gets special status in New Jersey laws, but activists wonder if it's helping residents


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CAMDEN, New Jersey — New Jersey's state government has been giving a lot of attention to its poorest city, but some activists in Camden don't think the help is going to the right places.

In June, lawmakers passed three bills with major Camden-specific components, and officials announced the Philadelphia 76ers would move their practice facility and business offices to Camden, It's the first use of a provision of a 2013 law that makes it easier for companies to get tax breaks for moving to Camden than anywhere else in the state.

"It's like smoke and mirrors to us," said Roy Jones, a retiree and Camden activist who believes that measures aimed at helping the city often do little for residents there. After all, two measures of the city's health — poverty and murder rates — are worse now than they were in 2002, when a bill was adopted giving the state a bigger role in the city of nearly 77,000.

In 2012, nearly four in 10 residents lived in poverty. And last year, there were 57 homicides — more than twice as many as in 2001, the last full year before the takeover bill was signed by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey.

None of the newly passed measures has been signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie, who visits Camden frequently, particularly to tout school and public safety programs; he did events on both in Camden in June. Spokesman Kevin Roberts said Christie's office is still reviewing the latest bills.

One measure would pay pension incentives of up to $12,000 for qualifying Camden teachers to retire, a move that its backers hope will reduce the number of layoffs in the city's cash-strapped school district. In May, 241 employees, including more than 200 teachers, were given layoff notices.

Another would extend the state's Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act for five additional years.

That law was adopted in 2002. It infused $175 million of state funds into projects in the city — much of it matching money to expand colleges and hospitals already there with the hopes of sparking private investment.

In return for the funding, the state took control of some local government functions. Many of those provisions were undone when Mayor Dana Redd and Christie took office in 2010.

The third measure is an update to the state's reworking of business incentives from last year. One part of it clarifies that supermarkets in Camden would be eligible for tax credits. It could benefit a firm that is planning to bring Camden its first new large grocery store in generations.

The 2013 incentive program also included a provision to attract businesses to Camden specifically. Businesses applying for the program elsewhere in New Jersey have to show they would generate tax benefits worth 110 percent of their breaks over a 20-year period; in Camden, they have to show they'll bring in 100 percent of the benefits and get 35 years to do it.

The NBA's Philadelphia 76ers were the first business to announce a deal using the provision. The state is to give the team tax breaks over 10 years totaling the entire $82 million price of the facility the team intends to build on the waterfront.

Critics question how many jobs from the project or others will end up going to Camden residents.

"My problem is that jobs aren't going around," said Mangaliso Davis, a longtime city activist. "Give me something real, give me some jobs."

Jones said money would be better spent on funding local schools or helping Camden entrepreneurs launch small businesses.

76ers officials say they already have about 200 employees but will need 250 to receive the tax credits. Redd said she wants to ensure Camden residents are in line for positions with the team.

Redd, like previous mayors, preaches that better times are ahead for her city. And she's been praising Christie for his help and attention.

Christie strikes a consistently bipartisan note when he talks about Camden. At an event last month to call attention to lower reported crime rates in the year after a new Camden County police department took over patrols in the city, he said the tax breaks for companies moving to Camden would pay off shortly.

"I suspect that I'll be back here a number of times more over the course of the next six months with more important announcements about Camden's economic future," he said.

And some residents share his optimism.

Angelo Drummond, a 22-year-old Morehouse College senior who is home in Camden for the summer, said things are getting better. "I believe that overall they're working toward the major goal of improving the city quality of life in general," he said. "I feel more safe going outside now than I ever did before."


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