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N.J. increases port payment to Camden

The State of New Jersey has quadrupled an annual payment it makes to Camden, drawing criticism from some lawmakers who say they were bypassed at a time when state aid to other municipalities is being slashed.

State Sen. Phil Haines said his first reaction was shock.
State Sen. Phil Haines said his first reaction was shock.Read more

The State of New Jersey has quadrupled an annual payment it makes to Camden, drawing criticism from some lawmakers who say they were bypassed at a time when state aid to other municipalities is being slashed.

The $8 million payment will go to the city through South Jersey Port Corp., a quasi-governmental, tax-exempt agency that runs the port on Camden's waterfront.

The payment in lieu of taxes represents a $6 million increase over previous years and will help close what was projected to be a $24 million deficit in the city's 2009 budget.

The deal was reached by state treasury officials - who helped Camden craft its budget this year - and the state-appointed overseer of city government, Theodore Z. Davis, who requested the additional money. It was made public when City Council held a hearing on its proposed budget last month.

That has some Republican legislators concerned. They said that if the Corzine administration wanted to increase funding to a state agency or to a city, the request should have been vetted and approved by the legislature.

State Sen. Phil Haines (R., Burlington) said his first reaction was shock.

"And that's followed by indignation at the way the administration has treated other municipalities in New Jersey, cutting millions of dollars in municipal aid," he said.

"We didn't have any money for rural state police patrol. That's public safety. And now, all of a sudden they have $6 million?"

Through a spokesman, Gov. Corzine referred questions to the Department of Treasury.

Treasury spokesman Tom Vincz said the increase was approved because the fair market value of the 285-acre port was $300 million and taxes on such a property would equal about $8 million.

"It's based on sound real estate and financial principles, and is being used for the purpose of providing the city fair payment in lieu of taxes," he said.

Previous payments from the port to the city have fluctuated wildly. According to the Treasury Department, in the late 1990s the port paid the city nothing, then followed that with $6 million in 2001 and $2 million every year since, except for 2004, when it gave nothing again.

Haines believes an approved formula should be applied. Having city and state officials get together and come up with a number is "seat-of-the-pants kind of governing from the administration," he said.

He said that he was open to hearing why Camden deserves more money for the port but that the matter should be dealt with at budget hearings and put up for a vote.

"This all just goes to transparency," he said. "That's our responsibility to the millions of people in New Jersey who are putting up these dollars."

Vincz said the $8 million payment would remain in effect after this fiscal year.

"This is about the state crafting a holistic plan to get out of Camden and help the city become self-sufficient," he said.

By law, the Treasury Department is allowed to appropriate more money from the current budget for the port, Vincz said.

If the state wanted to increase municipal aid directly to Camden, however, the legislature would have had to get involved, he said.

Assemblywoman Alison McHose (R., Sussex) said she is writing a letter to the state treasurer asking why "back-door" increases are being made in such dire fiscal times. She also wants to know why the associate deputy state treasurer, Charles Chianese, spent months in Camden working on the city's budget, not the state's.

"How is this going to stop?" McHose asked, describing Camden as an "endless money pit."

"We can't just keep saying yes to them. It's almost like they're addicted to the money. We have to make them stop this addiction to state money."

Statewide, overall municipal aid this year fell by $162 million - or 8 percent - according to state budget documents. Camden is slated to receive $115.8 million this fiscal year for its $172.4 million budget, compared with $125 million last year.

That's more aid than any other municipality in the state, but the city also has many state properties and institutions that don't pay taxes. Only two small towns have a higher percentage of tax-exempt properties, according to state data.

Camden is also the state's poorest city, and it can't raise taxes on the properties that are eligible because the 2002 recovery law forbids it.

That's why city officials say their fiscal challenges are structural and there's only so much they can do. Camden's proposed 2009 budget eliminates 26 municipal jobs and cuts overtime for the Police and Fire Departments.

The budget is slated for final approval by Council in two weeks.

Councilman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, who has lobbied the state for more money from the port for years, is relieved that the city is finally getting its share.

"With everything else being dumped in Camden - state prison, county jail, trash-to-steam [incinerator], sewage plants - I don't see anyone else in line coming to take those off our hands," Wilson said.

"So when people from the state start complaining about what Camden is getting, have them come here and take some of the problems that Camden has."