Camden Rebirth: A promise still unfulfilled
The Promise and the Price: How the biggest municipal takeover in U.S. history - $175 million - cost residents their rights for little in return.
Raw sewage seeped into Jackeline and Eduardo Gonzalez's basement, through its bathroom, hallway, and bedroom.
The fumes forced the family to eat outside and sent 1-year-old Eduardo Jr. to the emergency room three times with respiratory problems. The toxic flow burned holes in walls and ruined clothes and a sofa. The mold ended Grandma's visits from Puerto Rico.
The sewage comes from a collapsed pipe at the end of their block, on Cherry Street in Camden. How does the city respond? For three hours, three days a week, a bored employee uses a noisy machine to transfer waste from the busted sewer into one that works.
This jury-rigged solution has been in place for more than a year.
Camden is so broke, so unable to perform the basic functions of government, that the obvious solution - repairing the century-old brick sewer system - is almost impossible to achieve, fiscally and politically.
Life in Camden wasn't supposed to be like this. Seven years ago, New Jersey rolled out a revitalization plan that brought with it the biggest municipal takeover in American history.
After years of being subsidized by state taxpayers, corrupt and crumbling Camden would be taken over, repaired, and put on a path to self-reliance.
Then-Gov. Jim McGreevey gave Camden $175 million in bonds and loans, plus a one-time $7.5 million appropriation from the state budget, in exchange for an appointed chief operating officer to run the government and for gubernatorial control over the school board. His plan would create jobs, improve the quality of life, decrease crime, demolish all unsafe vacant buildings, lure new businesses, and, yes, mend sewers.
Five years later, when the recovery effort was first scheduled to be completed, the Gonzalezes bought a small rowhouse with money earned cleaning offices in Cherry Hill. But their odorous problem has now forced them to put that house on the market for the price they paid, $69,900.
So far, no buyer is interested.
Unknown to the Gonzalezes - or their neighbors who have cleaned black muck from their own basements - Cherry Street's sewer was labeled an "emergency" with a purple dot in an April 2003 capital-improvement plan.
The state spent $145,570 on that plan as part of the recovery, but nothing to solve the problem.
Cherry Street tells the story of Camden today. A 13-month Inquirer investigation has found that with notable exceptions, the state takeover has failed.
Goals not reached
Officials say an impoverished place with such intractable problems cannot be turned around with just $175 million and in just seven years; the renewal has only begun.
"Is Camden better off than it was before this process began?" asked Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., a law sponsor and city resident. "I think without question."
The takeover's first chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., said he believes that the money was a "downpayment," and that no one can expect Camden to fully come back "until the state of New Jersey deals with the issues of race, class, and poverty."
"You can't put all the poor in Newark, Camden, and Atlantic City and expect those places to survive."
Besides, the recovery has benefited the city in visible ways: a larger aquarium, a better-looking downtown, and a growing presence of higher-education institutions. Residential projects in several neighborhoods were undertaken, including a new senior-citizen complex and the redevelopment of a notorious drug alley. Some money was directed to social services, like community centers, a soup kitchen, and buildings for job training.
And with funding for two expanded emergency rooms at two expanded hospitals, Camden has better access to health care than ever before.
In paying for a piece of all these projects, the architects of the takeover say, they "leveraged" more private and public dollars, even in a tough economy, for Camden's revitalization.
But measured by the standards of the recovery law itself - rather than an outsider's ideal of urban transformation - politicians and officials still failed to meet their goals.
These are the investigation's findings.
"Countries we invade have more rights than we do," former school board member Dwaine Williams said.
The law also said New Jersey would "provide the necessary level of funding to allow for the demolition of unsafe structures," but more than 1,500 such buildings remain, as drug dens, fire hazards, and eyesores. Gov. Corzine said that razing some vacant buildings would imperil the rowhouses connected to them, and that the vacants posing the greatest crime risk had been demolished.
Funding priorities were set by a state board that has never had the legal number of representatives. The board comprises 11 voting members. One other seat was never filled, while two more members showed up for one meeting each and never returned.
Originally intended to be spent in three years, the $175 million has about $16 million - including loans that have been repaid - left over. But applications from residents and community groups are no longer accepted; the board capped funding for "public-purpose projects," like community centers, at $7.5 million.
The largesse did not, as promised, trickle down to poor people, or many neighborhood blocks. Officials now say $1 billion would be needed to do just two things the law promised - level dangerous abandoned buildings and modernize the sewer system. "To do everything we wanted to do in the city we would need billions and billions of dollars," said Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D., Camden), a law sponsor.
Like the Gonzalezes, Maritza and Ezequiel Rivera have damage to their home caused, they say, by governmental negligence.
The Woodland Avenue family has asked "100 times" over five years to have the long-abandoned house next door knocked down. Frequented by drug users, the "'bando" is caving into their home, flooding the basement, and damaging the ceiling. According to a letter from the city, the house next door has 13 code violations.
"We'd like to fix our house real nice," Maritza said, "but we can't."
Msgr. Michael Doyle, a longtime advocate for Camden's poor, supported the recovery at first because he thought the state "would take responsibility for Camden," and its progress would be "on somebody's report card."
"It didn't work out that way," he said. "It's very sad."
Officials see success
Not one leader of the recovery takes responsibility for its failings.
From Corzine to Caren Franzini, who oversees the Economic Recovery Board; to Roberts, the Democrat who sponsored the law; to Primas, the first Camden chief operating officer; to George Norcross III, an influential political player: All say any delay in Camden's recovery is the fault not of the political establishment, but of the recession and the state's unprecedented fiscal constraints.
The $175 million was never intended to fix all of Camden's problems, they say. In fact, although improvement has come slower than anticipated, they say, the state takeover of Camden has succeeded.
"I know more about this damn thing than almost anybody," Corzine said in an interview two days after he lost his race for reelection.
As to 17 provisions of the law that haven't been followed, he said: "I can tell you that the themes that the thing was built on - jobs, public safety - we've been dedicated and focused" on.
Corzine said the recovery-funded expansion of Cooper University Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center had meant jobs for Camden residents.
Most of all, he said, his four years as the de facto leader of Camden have laid the "foundation" for improvement in public safety.
Statistics show no improvement in crime control during the takeover. But this year, since a Corzine-led reorganization of the Police Department, arrests for drug-dealing and gun possession have gone up, and homicides are falling.
Yes, the number of officers has decreased, contrary to a stipulation in the law. But those working the streets, instead of sitting at their desks, have increased, Corzine said.
He described Camden as a "50-year problem" that won't be fixed in seven: "It's not like we're sitting around with huge pools of money to do anything we want."
Corzine cited smaller successes, like new community gardens and the hiring of a new schools superintendent. And he said the city's fiscal house is finally in order, even if the current year's budget has yet to be introduced.
"It's not perfect," he said. "I'm not trying to say it is."
Problems like Camden's are "why I got into government."
"It is a hard thing to go and hear legitimate frustrations of the public when you know you're working on something and you know you're not going to be able to satisfy all their needs in four more years."
Mayor Gwendolyn Faison was a 75-year-old councilwoman when she came to office in 2000 to replace Milton Milan, the third Camden mayor in two decades to be convicted of corruption. When the recovery plan came up for a legislative vote in 2002, Faison didn't want her "constitutional rights" taken away, she said, but with an annual city budget of $118 million, she couldn't turn down the $175 million in state money, either.
At the signing of the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act, she literally sang, "Good things are happening!"
Camden ministers in attendance shouted amens. State Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, who'd crafted the law (and was later imprisoned for unrelated corruption), called it "liberation."
The people in the room had long memories of Camden, beginning with its heyday in the early 20th century, when RCA Victor produced phonographs for the world and trucks of tomatoes rolled down the streets to the Campbell Soup plant. Ferries linked commerce to Philadelphia, and a population of more than 120,000 in 1950 - 70 percent greater than today's - filled what are now huge tracts of vacant land.
Then manufacturing left. Riots, white flight, drugs, and crime followed. By the end of the century, the tax base was nearly obliterated, and the city's criminal culture had infiltrated City Hall.
Weary of dishonest leadership and hoping to wean Camden from the state dole, legislators gave a governor-appointed chief operating officer the mayor's powers, from hiring to redevelopment to finances, plus veto power over City Council and city agencies. The laws the COO introduces pass if Council takes no action.
"When you looked at a city like Camden that had distinguished itself by sending mayors to prison, you had to achieve political stability, governmental stability," said Roberts, the Assembly speaker and coauthor of the law. "People had to know there wasn't going to be a complete lack of responsiveness from a changing cast of characters in City Hall."
The South Jersey Democrats enthusiastically backed the extraordinary recovery law. But their ardor was quite the switch from their views in 2000, when they didn't want it to happen.
A Republican, Christie Whitman, was governor, and the Camden County Democrats said her proposal of a takeover would "trample over the rights of our citizenry to elected representation. . . . It collapses the constitutional protections of Camden citizens . . . reducing them to bystanders of their own government."
Writing a joint editorial in a local newspaper, the opponents, three Democratic legislators from Camden County, were "astonished by the blind faith" being put in Trenton even after it "has left too long a trail of poor performance and broken promises in Camden."
"Dictatorship," they sneered.
The legislators were successful. When Whitman joined the Bush administration, her proposal for Camden - economic development and political takeover - died.
A year later, interim Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco had a law on his desk with more than $180 million for Camden, and Norcross, Camden County's unelected Democratic leader, had offered input.
"He had his own ideas about Camden, too, positive ideas," DiFrancesco said.
But when McGreevey won the election in November 2001, the governor-elect instructed fellow Democrats to avoid voting on the proposal until he could assume office. This delay gave him and the party the power to appoint the city's COO - who would hold more power than any New Jersey mayor. Ten of the 14 members of the Camden Economic Recovery Board, which disburses the cash, would also be his appointees.
Six months into his term, in July 2002, a law with bipartisan support and much of the same powers as the alleged "dictatorship" was signed. Three of the sponsors? Sen. Bryant, Assemblyman Roberts, and Assemblywoman Cruz-Perez, the three who had penned that editorial less than two years before.
Who gets the money?
At Corinne's Place on Haddon Avenue, a charming soul-food spot with a wide reputation, proprietor Corinne Bradley-Powers said she had requested recovery money to expand into the long-vacant building next door. The former social worker wanted to create a cooking school for teens, but said she had never heard back from state officials.
Bradley-Powers already hires tough kids, turning their lives around, but she wanted to do more. "You've been fighting and fighting and there's no help nowhere around," she said.
The Economic Recovery Board, made up entirely of elected Democrats and Democratic appointees, favored projects that, unlike Bradley-Powers', had other funding sources. It wanted to leverage money, not be the sole provider.
The board gave a quarter of the money to two intermediary groups with Democratic ties and redevelopment experience - the governmental Camden Redevelopment Agency and the nonprofit Cooper's Ferry Development Association.
Those groups in turn distributed money to contractors, almost all of whom were Democratic donors.
Leaders of both groups deny that pay-to-play had any role in distributing money, even if both entities have ties to leading Democrats.
"Cooper's Ferry Development Association has always administered the public funding it has received through an open, transparent bidding process," the organization said in a statement. "That process is governed by what is in the best interests of the people of Camden, not any political party or interest. Any statement or inference to the contrary would be false and misleading."
At the Camden Redevelopment Agency, which was led by COO Primas, Michaels Development of Marlton benefited from recovery money to support two affordable-housing projects.
Between 2000 and 2008, the Michaels company, chief executive officer Michael Levitt, and his wife donated more than $220,000 to Camden County and statewide Democratic funds.
Levitt also had a business partnership with Primas in the 1990s to build housing in Camden. But according to Primas and a statement from Michaels, that partnership dissolved before their business began.
The recovery paid for $5 million in infrastructure improvements so Michaels and two other builders, all Democratic donors, could build affordable housing in the Centerville section of the city.
Neighbors carp that new sewers and roads are being constructed there even as sewers elsewhere crumble and nearby Charles Street remains a dirt road. Besides, the recovery law stipulated that market-rate housing be built to expand Camden's tax base, instead of low-income housing that concentrates more poverty in the city.
Primas said pay-to-play had nothing to do with the Michaels project. He said that market-rate developers had wanted to come into some parts of town, but that the community had rejected the plans, fearing property would be seized under eminent domain.
So to improve some housing in the city, Primas supported the project. "You've got to play the cards you're dealt," he said.
Primas also noted that Michaels is one of the few companies that specializes in affordable housing.
Michaels said in a statement that its donations are not tied to its success in getting money, noting that it had lost bids with the city in the past. It received the recovery money for a project it was already working on with the Housing Authority after winning a competitive bid, the company said.
"We absolutely and totally reject any suggestion that Michaels Development Co. has won jobs for any reason other than presenting the best plan in a competitive bidding process and being the most qualified developer to achieve that plan," the company said. "We believe in being good corporate citizens. This includes participating in the political process."
As soon as McGreevey put down his bill-signing pen, donors were given business. Eight of the 12 firms that handled the initial $175 million bond sale were Democratic contributors.
Even the $45,000 job to print the bonds went to a donor. The company's executive lived in Swarthmore, yet he gave $6,400 to the Camden County Democratic Committee.
Contributions don't influence policy, officials insist, because there's a fair, open, advertised bidding process for most contracts. Yet for some of the biggest donors - law firms, engineers, and other professionals - the Camden Redevelopment Agency approves annual lists of eligible professionals so contracts can be awarded faster. Cost is not a factor for inclusion on these lists, and firms can win contracts based only on experience.
Skeptics believe these arrangements were the point of the takeover.
"What you have is a political machine that has its own agenda. They seek to survive, they seek to expand, they seek the status quo," said Camden school board member Jose Delgado, who could not run for reelection after the takeover because an appointee took his seat.
George Norcross does not use the word machine.
He said he had built an unprecedented bipartisan coalition of people who care about the region. He is proud he has helped long-neglected South Jersey win state resources back from the more populous, powerful north.
"I think it's fair to say we have a prominent seat at the table, and we couldn't say that before."
In a city so dependent on state and federal money, these political ties mean survival, politicians believe. Camden County Democrats even allied with some Republicans to sponsor the recovery law, though not its 2007 renewal.
Norcross said that donors were local residents and businesspeople of all political stripes who agreed with the Democrats' approach, and that most did not do business with government. Considering the hundreds of school boards, municipal councils, and other government bodies in New Jersey, that's difficult to verify.
A Cherry Hill resident and the son of a prominent South Jersey labor leader, Norcross, 53, hasn't been chairman of the party in nearly two decades. But insiders say he still calls the shots, and is one of the most powerful unelected people in New Jersey politics.
His businesses - both at Commerce Bank, where he led the insurance division, and at Conner Strong, the Marlton insurance firm he runs - have collected millions of dollars in governmental work.
Such contracts represent less than 5 percent of his business, Norcross said. And Conner Strong's ethics policy forbids executives and their relatives to contribute to state or local candidates.
Norcross' other role, as chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper University Hospital, where he has presided over a recent financial rebound and physical growth, has put a public face on his backroom persona.
The law, sponsored in part by Norcross' political allies, earmarked $12.35 million - the second-biggest recovery check - to Cooper's $220 million expansion. An additional $3 million was provided for its neonatal unit, and the hospital is in line to receive $9 million toward the construction of a new medical school run with Rowan University. Millions more bought property next to Cooper for future hospital-related growth.
Of the dozens of recovery-funded projects, the work at Cooper has had the most visible impact on the city, improving residents' access to health care, and creating more immediate jobs for residents than any other element of the recovery.
Yet the hospital has also angered residents who fear seizure of their homes under eminent domain. They say their city has become "Cooper, New Jersey."
Lawsuits are pending against a Cooper-driven redevelopment plan in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"It's all about a big takeover," nearby resident Benigno Rodriguez said. "The reason why they want to take over that area is so it can benefit the waterfront, Cooper Hospital, and the higher tax bracket."
Because of the state's recovery effort and one-party control in Camden, residents say, they're excluded from the process. The circle of businesspeople and political operatives who maintain the Democratic organization is tight-knit, and includes two Norcross brothers, both of whom benefited professionally from the recovery.
Donald Norcross, who heads the South Jersey AFL-CIO, was appointed by the Camden County Democrats this fall - after the party primary - to run for a suddenly vacant Assembly seat. He will replace Roberts, a former George Norcross business partner.
Donald Norcross is the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351, which wrote checks totaling more than $125,000 to Camden County Democrats and their candidates between 2001 and 2008.
"I've been very supportive of candidates and elected officials who work toward issues of concern to working families," he said.
The law also mandated that unions have a seat on the recovery board, to which McGreevey appointed the president of Donald Norcross' union, William Hosey.
Neither the state nor the unions keep track, but the law created an estimated thousands of construction jobs. Many went to Camden residents, Donald Norcross said.
Residents, however, say the recovery has failed entirely on the job front.
"There were no new millionaires in my neighborhood," said Rodney Sadler, a citizen member of the recovery board. "There were not a lot of people who stepped up the ladder - and that was the intention. . . . It had zip effect on the local population."
Few recovery vendors are from Camden. Another Norcross brother, Philip, is a bond lawyer who signed two contracts for $200,000 so his law firm, political donor Parker McCay in Marlton, could handle real estate services - condemnation, eminent domain - for an infrastructure project at Campbell Soup headquarters.
The Camden Redevelopment Agency awarded Norcross the no-bid contract after his firm was chosen from an annual preapproved list.
A lawyer who has never donated, Vera McCoy, was on that list, too, but never got a call for work. "I wonder if I knew more of the right people I would have gotten a contract," she said.
The two men chosen for the recovery's biggest job, chief operating officer, knew George Norcross.
The first, Primas, a former Camden mayor and Democratic player, was an executive at Commerce Bank with Norcross before McGreevey chose him. He left office after a dispute with the state over his level of control.
The wife of the second COO, former Superior Court Judge Theodore Z. Davis, serves on the board of Cooper University Hospital with Norcross. Joan Davis is vice chairman; Norcross is chairman.
Joan Davis said her husband's selection had nothing to do with political connections.
"I don't do anything political," she said. "Never have, and I'm too old to do it now."
Theodore Davis resigned in August after suggesting that Camden remain under state control until about 2030. Since then, Corzine, who appointed him, has distanced himself from the judge, saying Davis was not his first choice.
State Treasury official Albertha Hyche is interim COO. It is unclear how Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie will handle the takeover.
The takeover's dysfunction lies in its lack of transparency and connection to people. There are almost no issues a city resident can raise in Council that the elected governing body can do anything about.
City government received no funds, and although the state spent $220,000 on a new operational plan for City Hall, none of the recommendations was implemented.
Under the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act, Camden cannot even raise taxes, so when funding is insufficient, workers must go. Last year, the COO dismissed 23 workers against Council's formal objections and in alleged violation of union agreements.
At the school district, which received no recovery aid, the governor has used veto authority over the school board. Together the governor and mayor appoint six of nine members, and the appointees' poor attendance has frequently delayed business of the board.
And at the Economic Recovery Board, the Camden legislators who have sat on the board have shown up to fewer than 20 percent of the meetings.
"It's a wonder why people don't riot. They ought to riot," said Assemblyman Joseph Malone, a Burlington County Republican.
But riot against whom? No single person has a handle on everything happening in the city.
Officials have made misleading or bogus statements - from the number of houses demolished to the specific projects funded. The COOs have failed to file more than a dozen mandated progress reports to the state; Corzine said he thought they had been filed.
Even with state control, the city has yet to approve a budget this fiscal year. Davis had overruled Council and tried to close the deficit by raising water and sewer rates. An elected official, he said, is a "political animal" ill-equipped to take such action.
"You can be elected [mayor] even if you just went to the first grade."
In 2007, Corzine signed a law extending the five-year takeover to 2012, or possibly 2017. No further funding was provided. And no way to measure progress was instituted.
Residents on the Economic Recovery Board, however, have measured the progress from their own backyards. And they say they have seen nothing.
They feel like "puppets," said member Rosa Ramirez, who lobbied for the state takeover through the civic group Camden Churches Organized for People.
"Am I there to speak my voice, make some noise, or do they put me on so they can have someone from the neighborhood?" she asked.
City business owner and board member Robert Milner admitted "some of the things they wanted to do helped the city, yes. But they did not help the people in the city."
Funding applications are cleared in "committee" meetings that the public and reporters are forbidden to attend. Once the proposals get to the full board, in all but one case, they pass. About 98 percent of the board's votes have been unanimous.
Caren Franzini, who oversees the recovery board as CEO of the state Economic Development Authority, said the closed-door policy is standard in New Jersey and done for efficiency, not privacy.
The unique version of democracy practiced by Camden's leaders downtown has had little effect on the Gonzalezes and their Cherry Street sewer.
The block is still surrounded by empty lots of urban wildlife (possums, pit bulls), the skeleton of an old water tower, and a bustling scrap-metal facility.
Across the street, all the homes are long gone, from fires or demolition. Down the block, an abandoned house lives out its days as a reputed house of prostitution. And all around are South Jersey's most environmentally precarious places, including the county sewage-treatment plant, a trash incinerator, and the South Jersey Port.
In other words, everything looks pretty much the same.
The United Water Camden employee responsible for pumping Cherry Street is a former school board member and something of a local revolutionary. He reads to keep himself occupied in his truck, and recently finished a book on New Jersey corruption.
"They told people that Camden was going to be reborn, and all the ills such as the bad water, the problems with the sewers, were going to be taken care of," said Brother Zawdie Abdul-Malik, 68, his gray dreads tucked under a skullcap.
"But they didn't tell them that it would only be taking care of the people at Campbell's, Cooper's, Rutgers, and the aquarium. They don't care about us."
Neighbors George Arroyo, 56, and Lance Merrill, 34, work to clean and clear-cut vacant city-owned property on Cherry Street so ticks don't fester and kids can walk to school on a sidewalk.
"Somebody's got the money. I don't know who," Arroyo said of the $175 million bailout.
He heard an explanation he believes: The money was sent to Camden in an armored truck from Trenton, but the truck got carjacked.
"It got into the truck, but where is it?" he asked, lifting his arms, then shaking his head. "I don't see it."
Evolution of Camden
1828: A group of settlements clustered around ferries forms the new city of Camden.
1869: Campbell Soup Co. is founded.
1892: The city's most famous resident, Walt Whitman, dies.
1901: The Victor Talking Machine Co., later RCA, begins making Victrolas and records.
1926: The Ben Franklin Bridge, then called the Delaware River Bridge, opens.
1952: Ferry service to Philadelphia ends after 264 years.
1963: The Camden Beer brewery closes.
1967: New York Shipbuilding Corp., a longtime source
of jobs, closes
after 68 years.
1971: Riots follow the police beating
of a Puerto Rican motorist, destroying parts of the city.
Angelo Errichetti is convicted in the Abscam federal corruption scandal. He would serve 32 months in prison.
1986: General Electric buys RCA, now defense contractor L-3 Communications.
1987: A 32-acre county wastewater treatment plant opens on the
1990: Campbell Soup closes its factory, eliminating 950 jobs; corporate headquarters remain.
1991: A $108 million trash-to-steam incinerator opens.
1992: The New Jersey State Aquarium opens. The Woolworth store in East Camden,
a vital retail store in the city, closes.
1994: Ferry service between Camden and Philadelphia resumes.
1995: A concert arena, now called the Susquehanna Bank Center, opens.
1999: Former Mayor Arnold Webster pleads guilty to paying himself with school money while mayor. He would serve six months
of house arrest.
2000: Mayor Milton Milan is convicted of accepting drug and mob money and sentenced to seven years in prison.
2002: The state takeover and $175 million recovery plan is approved by the Legislature.
2004: The Victor luxury apartments open in the old RCA building.
2005: An expanded, recovery-funded, privatized aquarium opens.
2006: Camden chief operating officer Melvin "Randy" Primas resigns
after a dispute with state officials.
2007: The Legislature renews the Camden takeover until
at least 2012.
2009: Camden chief operating officer Theodore Z. Davis resigns without explanation. The first new mayor in nine years, Dana Redd,
a state senator and city councilwoman, is elected.
Videos: Reporter Matt Katz on this series, plus a street-level view of the city by Camden Film Project youths. http://go.philly.com/takeoverEndText
Tomorrow: Despite big investments in city institutions, jobs for residents are scarce.