Camden City Council voted unanimously Thursday to distribute layoff notices to municipal employees as it prepared to cut up to 383 workers - a quarter of the city work force - despite the resumption of negotiations between union leaders and city officials.

Following emotional and angry pleas from city residents, business owners, firefighters, police officers and government workers, City Council voted 5-0 to eliminate nearly half of the police department and almost a third of the fire department.

"We'll start buying weapons because I don't see any choice," said Carmello Villegas, 65, owner of Villegas Laundromat in East Camden for three decades. "We're going to have to defend ourselves, we're going to have to defend our families. I really don't know what else to do."

Two of Villegas' sons and one daughter are Camden police officers; another of his children is a firefighter. Family connections in Camden's work force are not uncommon, and employees told City Council that the loss of jobs would put many at risk of homelessness.

Union concessions by Jan. 18, the date layoffs are to take effect, would prevent some of the staff reductions, city officials said.

City Council President Frank Moran blamed Gov. Christie, who reduced state funds for Camden this year but still is providing $116 million in special and formula aid toward the city's $139 million proposed budget.

"We didn't put a price tag on public safety," Moran said. "Unfortunately, the governor of the state of New Jersey put [on] that price tag."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or