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The Trials of Camden and the Jersey Comeback

Joseph Hines

Camden, New Jersey, can't seem to catch a break. Fox News, of all outlets, broke the news yesterday that the city of Camden will disband its police department and transfer half the officers to a new non-union division. The move comes at the tail end of a long fight over workers salaries culminating in the city's action.

“This is definitely a form of union-busting," said Camden Fraternal Order of Police President John Williamson. “This method is unproven and untested, to put your faith in an agency that doesn’t even [yet] exist.” Those police officers that are laid off will be forced to train their replacements.

Not only does the move violate basic fairness, it targets the wrong problem. The city, under the control of the state, has been subject to tough and unfair austerity measures that will only make its problems worse.

This is but one in a long line of government failures for the ailing town. In 2002, Camden was taken over by New Jersey, in hopes that state officials would have better luck governing the town than the residents themselves. It was the most expensive takeover of a town in US history, with the state pledging $175 million in bonds. The state appointed a Chief Operating Officer with the power to veto the Mayor and city council’s decisions.

The gambit didn’t work. In 2009, Camden, New Jersey, was named the most dangerous city in the country, with 2,333 crimes per 100,000 residents. That was one of many governmental failures in a town of only 79,000. Two out of five residents were living below the poverty line. A 13-month Philadelphia Inquirer investigation in 2009 surveyed the damage and declared the takeover a failure.

State officials thought they could solve the town’s woes through good governance alone. Instead, even the market-oriented Economist argues that what Camden really needed was more cash for basic services like hospitals, schools, and, most of all, its beleaguered police department. By not delivering enough money for basic services, the state never fulfilled its promise to the town, with devastating, and predictable, consequences.

Due to New Jersey’s tough economic straits, Governor Chris Christie was faced with a substantial budget deficit. He chose to balance the budget on the backs of workers through spending cuts, rather than by raising state’s unreasonably low (third lowest in the country) gasoline tax rather than completing an already planned tunnel to Manhattan. Even worse is Christie’s premature decision, based upon the expectation of a booming economy, to slash the tax rates for millionaires while eliminating tax credit for low-income residents. Christie’s policies aren’t fiscally responsible, they’re regressive and cruel.

If New Jersey continues its draconian course, Camden will be just the first of many victims of the “Jersey Comeback.”

Hat tip: Travis Waldron at Think Progress