Camden's days are numbered

On a tour of North Camden with Rutgers students, Lt. Dan Howard (left) and Felix Moulier, chair for the District Council Collaborative Board, check an alley on Larch Street. (April Saul/Staff)

Maybe it’s time to give up on Camden remaining a municipality.

A failed state takeover barely moved the city closer to being a self-sustaining entity. And new solutions proposed for Camden seem to have little chance of being implemented soon enough to keep it from strangling in debt.

With only a bare-bones tax base, Camden is already little more than a city in name only. Without state support, it couldn’t provide basic municipal services.

Now faced with a $26.5 million budget deficit, the city has already imposed massive layoffs, cutting police and fire protection and scaling back on other municipal services. Residents can expect to lose even more vital services as the fiscal woes worsen.

Mayor Dana L. Redd has proposed a hefty 23 percent property-tax hike, the first increase in decades. If approved, that would add about about $160 to the average homeowner’s annual tax bill. But it would generate only about $4.2 million, a drop in the bucket given Camden’s dire straits.

City Council President Frank Moran wants a smaller property-tax increase to ease the burden on poor homeowners. But a smaller hike would hardly be worthwhile. Even a 23 percent increase is mostly symbolic, since it will bring in only a pittance. But Redd understandably wants state taxpayers to see that Camden is trying to stand on its own feet.

A better idea from Moran is to target delinquent corporations that owe the city money, and to make sure that the companies making payments in lieu of taxes are paying a fare share for the services they receive.

Maybe businesses not paying property taxes should pay user fees for fire, police, and other services.

Camden’s financial problems are mostly due to past city officials’ mismanagement, which led to a seven-year state takeover that ended last year. But Trenton deserves some blame, too. It should have done much more in its seven years of control to bring fiscal stability to Camden.

The best prospect for the city may rest with a movement slowly gaining traction in Camden County to consolidate services by creating a countywide police and fire department. Coverage would be provided for a fee to municipalities that opt into the plan.

That idea has merit, as do proposals to consolidate other services with neighboring municipalities. Indeed, struggling small towns all over New Jersey ought to be considering such moves.

But Camden County officials say getting a countywide police/fire program off the ground could take up to two years. What is Camden supposed to do until then? Beg the state for a bigger bailout? Planned waterfront development should add revenue to the city’s coffers, but that’s also years away. It’s time to explore ways to keep Camden alive without its trying to be a full-service municipality.