TRENTON - Five years of a state takeover is not enough to turn around America's poorest city, Camden's former overseer yesterday told lawmakers who are considering a renewal of the 2002 bailout act.
Melvin R. "Randy" Primas, Camden's chief operating officer until November, said his four years in the post lacked the citizen engagement and the large-scale job creation the city still needs, but did bring development and positive attention that could be lost if the state gives up now.
"There are those who thought that in five years Camden would be turned around, and I don't think that is practical," Primas said at a Statehouse hearing. "But I do believe we have made giant steps."
In 2002, former Gov. Jim McGreevey signed legislation that poured $175 million into Camden projects and created Primas' $175,000-a-year state-funded position, which was due to expire this year. It has sweeping powers over elected officials, including veto power over City Council.
Gov. Corzine has supported extending the position for another five years, launched a national search for Primas' replacement, and appointed retired judge Theodore Davis as interim chief operating officer. But the Legislature must decide whether to officially extend the authority.
There is no discussion now of adding to the $175 million in special funding, said Democratic Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, who lives in Camden.
About $120 million of that has been spent on hospital and university expansions and waterfront and neighborhood projects, officials said.
"My view is we need a full accounting and full understanding of money spent so far to make sure it's been spent properly," said Roberts, who also supports extending the chief operating officer's job. Camden will continue to receive regular state aid to fill its annual budget gap.
State Sen. Ron Rice (D., Essex), who cochaired yesterday's meeting, said he too favored renewing the position, but "there need to be additional checks and balances put in place."
Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose (R., Sussex) said she was "troubled" by the millions the state was sinking into Camden each year. She has asked the state attorney general to investigate the floating of state bonds for the $175 million, alleging it involved higher-than-normal fees, particularly to underwriters who may have had no role in the deal.
"I don't doubt anyone's commitment to the city of Camden. But something has gone wrong in the city of Camden," McHose said.
Replied Primas: "$175 million is a lot of money. But in terms of revitalizing a community, it is a drop in the bucket."
Hospital and university officials said the money given to their expansion projects improved Camden's downtown and was creating a city housing market for employees and students.
Critics cited the neighborhood outcry that killed a massive Cramer Hill development project that would have displaced hundreds. The project is being reworked.
A critic of the effort, affordable-housing advocate Peter O'Connor, said the 2002 takeover resulted in a number of "fruitful" development projects but had little impact on the city's recovery.
Middle-income people were unlikely to move into a city with high crime and troubled schools, and the little affordable housing available elsewhere in the region made it hard for lower-income people to move out of Camden, said O'Connor, founder of the Fair Share Housing Center.
Camden's elected mayor, Gwendolyn Faison, lost much of her power to the chief operating officer under the act. But she said yesterday she was nonetheless happy with the results.
"Baby, we've come a long way," Faison said. "Maybe I have 48 problems. But when I started, I had 148."
Read former chief operating officer Melvin R. "Randy" Primas' final report at http://www.camconnect.org/
Read earlier coverage of Primas' report at http://go.philly.com/primasEndText