Religious leaders battle Camden layoffs

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Camden Firefighter Damon Truitt holds daughter Amani, 1, outside their home. Truitt and his wife face layoffs in January.

Religious leaders from across Camden called on Gov. Christie on Saturday to meet with community and local government leaders in an attempt to resolve a financial crisis that has resulted in layoff notices to about half of the city's police officers and firefighters.

Two days after City Council approved the cuts and a day after Christie engaged in a verbal clash with some city leaders, members of Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) held a news conference on the steps of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Market Street. They urged all sides to try to find a better solution to the city's fiscal woes.

"We don't know what the solution is," said Pastor Giselle Coutinho of the Bridge of Peace Lutheran Church in the Fairview section of the city. "But laying off half the police force won't help Camden to recover. We're calling on all parties to come to the table to figure it out."

Reacting to criticism Friday from Council President Frank Moran, who said the state had underfunded Camden this year, Christie said Camden's leadership should look inward to find the cause of the problem. The former federal prosecutor blamed a generation of corrupt local government management.

"Camden has to get its house in order," Christie said while noting that last month, the state sent Camden transitional aid totaling $69 million, more than any other city.

Camden, like virtually every municipality in the New Jersey, has seen its state aid cut under Christie's fiscally conservative government agenda.

His financial tough love has had its most serious impact on poor cities that don't have a broad enough tax base to support local services.

Council, voting Thursday on a proposal supported by Mayor Dana L. Redd, approved the layoffs of 383 city workers, effective Jan. 18.

They include about 180 police officers and 67 firefighters, nearly half of the police force and nearly a third of the firefighters. The rest of the job reductions would come from other city departments.

The proposed layoffs come less than a month after one national survey rated Camden the second-most-dangerous city in America.

Redd and the police and firefighters unions have promised to continue to negotiate possible work concessions that could result in fewer layoffs.

At Saturday's news conference, Msgr. Bob McDermott of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral Church called on the unions to "balance their self-interest with the common good."

About 20 members of the CCOP attended the event, which attracted about a dozen passersby in the heart of downtown Camden.

The religious leaders opened the session by singing "Amazing Grace" and ended with a prayer for the city. They said additional prayer sessions will be held Sunday and Wednesday in churches throughout the city.

McDermott said the church leaders intended to ask Christie to meet with them so they could deliver their message in person.

"Our focus," said Pastor Heyward Wiggins of the Camden Bible Tabernacle Church, "is to make sure the safety of the city is taken care of."


Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.