In Camden, we’re used to politicians in Trenton writing the future of our city for us – and without our input.
Early in the last decade, Camden was subjected to an anti-democratic state takeover. In exchange for $175 million in funding for community development projects, a state overseer was put in charge of our city’s budget and operations.
As a lifelong Camden resident and advocate, I looked on as tens of millions of dollars flowed to politically connected businesses and flashy trophy projects, like the now-demolished Riversharks Stadium. Meanwhile, blocks away, residents were still forced to contend with raw sewage seeping into their basements and potholes older than myself.
During Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure, the state took over Camden’s public schools, rendering our elected school board essentially useless.
All of these decisions were designed to disempower Camden, taking away our right to self-govern and turning powers over to unelected bureaucrats who have worked to advance the agendas of politically connected corporations instead of longtime residents.
I was not surprised that the Legislature continued this long tradition of disempowering and disenfranchising Camden residents at a recent hearing about a program critical to our city’s future.
This joint hearing of the Senate Economic Growth and Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committees was held in response to a scathing report by the New Jersey Comptroller that found glaring problems with a series of programs authorized by the state’s Economic Opportunity Act.
Politicians in Trenton promised that this law would spark the revitalization of Camden by providing lucrative tax breaks to stimulate development in one of America’s poorest cities.
Yet rather than investing in programs that help small businesses and low-income families, these economic development initiatives were geared toward large, politically connected companies.
The Economic Opportunity Act has allowed wealthy companies to take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to relocate their corporate headquarters to the city – all while providing very few jobs for Camden residents.
While the highly paid corporate employees who now commute into Camden each day can enjoy new steel and concrete structures along a waterfront they have turned into their playground, residents must still contend with extreme poverty and subpar government services.
The $11 billion the state has spent on these corporate giveaways reduced state funding for projects to help longtime Camden residents, like programs to fight blight and help neighborhood businesses thrive.
Our water and sewer systems cannot meet our city’s needs. Our aging housing stock is increasingly unsafe and unhealthy. Our children are forced to attend outdated schools. And Camden’s population continues to fall.
And the comptroller’s report found that even the job growth promised under the Economic Opportunity Act may be illusory. The Economic Development Authority, which is in charge of administering these corporate giveaways, has failed to collect information needed to confirm that the companies receiving these tax credits provide the jobs and investment they promised.
In the wake of this burgeoning scandal, lawmakers in Trenton recently held a hearing designed to whitewash the flaws of this program.
Most of the 20 or so people invited to testify worked at big corporations that have received tax credits – or were there for high-priced financial and consulting firms that help companies apply for state assistance. Very few of the witnesses were from South Jersey, where the program has been focused.
And none of the witnesses were long-time Camden residents who have the most at stake.
In fact, unlike almost any other legislative hearing in New Jersey, ordinary voters were prohibited from testifying.
These tactics designed to disempower ordinary Camden residents need to stop. They do not represent the democracy I swore to protect when I served my country in a foreign war.
Camden’s residents need to be finally given a voice in shaping our city’s future.
It’s time for politicians in Trenton to prioritize our needs – modern infrastructure, safe housing, investments in schools – rather than the desires of big businesses seeking to turn Camden into their playground. Camden still has a chance to rise, but it starts with its residents, not buildings on the waterfront.