Camden officials are hoping to double the size of the city's Department of Code Enforcement through a partnership with Camden County that would target deadbeat landlords, unsafe buildings, and other quality-of-life issues.
The proposed shared-services agreement, which must be approved by City Council, would provide up-front funding from the county for an estimated 10 to 12 part-time building inspectors who would work only in Camden, as well as for training, vehicles, and technology such as handheld tablets, allowing inspectors to file electronic reports.
The city would reimburse the county with revenue that officials expect would be generated by the presence of more inspectors on the streets.
County and city officials last week said that they had not determined how much the project would cost in its first year but that they expect to have an estimate in the coming weeks.
County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez said the city's six housing inspectors already work in tandem with the county Department of Health and Human Services, which provides five inspectors who work in Camden.
Luis Ruiz, director of Camden's Department of Code Enforcement, said more workers would help his office take a more proactive approach to addressing safety issues and other property concerns.
"My inspectors run around all day," he said. "They don't take breaks. They are champing at the bit to get this started."
Under the agreement, any new part-time employees would work for the county on a per diem basis, reporting to the Department of Public Safety. Ruiz would continue reporting to city officials as before, and he said nothing would change for his current employees.
Though the proposal went before Council last week for the first time, the idea has been a topic of discussion among members of county government for months. In mid-March the Board of Freeholders passed a resolution that authorized the shared-services agreement and noted that the county and city had studied ways to streamline the city's program.
No formal study on code enforcement has been done by the city or county. County spokesman Dan Keashen said the plan was drafted using the city's data, which illustrated that the city's housing inspectors are unable to closely monitor more than 20,000 properties throughout Camden.
Council is expected to take up the proposal again this week. In last week's meeting, Councilman Brian Coleman expressed concern about approving a project that has no set dollar figure.
"You're essentially asking me to agree to pay for something that is unforeseen," he said. "Does this agreement protect the city in any way? Say we spend $25,000, but we only take in $5,000, then we're on the hook for the rest."
County and city officials say they expect a shared-services agreement would generate at least twice the amount that the city now collects. The city took in about $2 million from code enforcement last year, according to Camden spokesman Vincent Basara, approximately $440,000 of which was collected through housing inspections.
There are about 2,000 registered rental properties in the 77,000-person city, Ruiz said, but officials estimate there are an additional 6,000 such properties that are unlicensed or unregulated. Adding personnel would mean inspectors could make more property checks, take proactive measures, and conduct more follow-up visits.
County officials also are looking into hiring a law firm that could pursue action against negligent landlords and delinquent property owners, Keashen said, which could provide additional revenue in the way of fines.
Camden County currently oversees a number of city programs and departments, most notably its police force, which was created in 2013 after the disbandment of the city's Police Department. Camden County also manages the city's library system, as well as an ongoing project to demolish about 600 of Camden's most dilapidated buildings.