Camden City Council voted unanimously Thursday to begin handing out layoff notices to municipal employees even as union leaders and city officials restarted negotiations in an attempt to save some of the 383 threatened jobs.
After emotional and angry pleas from residents, business owners, firefighters, police officers and government workers, Council voted, 5-0, to eliminate nearly half 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 workforce are not uncommon, and employees told Council that the loss of jobs would put many at risk of homelessness.
But by the end of the day, Mayor Dana L. Redd and John Williamson, head of the police officers' union, said in a joint phone call that talks between the city and public safety unions had picked up steam.
The sides plan to meet over the next several weeks to discuss concessions that would save public-safety jobs in what was recently rated the second-most-dangerous city in the United States, the mayor and Williamson said.
"We will not do any more [public] discussions about what's going on other than when we reach an agreement, if we reach an agreement," Williamson said.
Added Redd: "We're just going to buckle down for the next several days."
The thaw in the bitter relations between the city and unions failed to lift the cloud over City Hall, the Fire Department, and police headquarters, where hundreds of workers began to receive layoff notifications Thursday afternoon.
Redd would not say how many people had received notices, but the layoffs approved by Council would affect a quarter of the city workforce effective Jan. 18.
"Jan. 18 will be the worst day in Camden since the 1971 riots," said Karl Walko, president of the Council 10 union representing nonuniformed employees. "It's essentially the end of government as we know it, and for many people in the city, it's the end of hope."
Walko said 40 percent of the police dispatch unit would be dismissed along with 42 percent of the clerical staff in the courts. He said 25 of the city's 40 laborers would be let go, a loss he said could paralyze the city in a snowstorm.
Council President Frank Moran asked for concessions from the police and fire unions while putting the blame on Gov. Christie.
"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."
The state kicked in $115.6 million toward the city's proposed $138.8 million budget, $5.5 million less aid than last year.
Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said in a statement that "levels of funding in prior years - together with the costs of generous contracts and benefits - simply could not be sustained in the middle of a recession like this."
Christie last week provided more money to Camden - $69 million - than to any of the other cash-strapped municipalities that were given so-called transitional aid, Drewniak said.
Moran did not respond to a request by Walko for Council members to reduce their own benefits. Nor did he address a criticism from Walko that the mayor's staff was slated to lose only one aide in the layoffs.
Before the vote to begin distributing layoff notices, a police officer and Camden mother of two, Maria Rivera, spoke passionately to Council members about what it would mean to lose so many cops on the streets.
"When I'm lying in my bed and I hear gunshots, how am I going to tell my son, 'You're safe, baby'?" she asked.
Another officer described a sort of production line at the police headquarters Thursday afternoon as officers were handed layoff notices and some received word they would be demoted to fill resulting vacancies.
Most of those at Thursday's Council meeting were firefighters.
"The results are going to be self-evident" if the city lays off 67 from the department, as planned, Fire Chief David Yates said afterward. "We're dealing with 40 percent less of our operating force, so, yes, response times are going to be off. It wasn't done based on any kind of impact study. It was done on fiscal compliance."
The city has noted that none of Camden's six firehouses would close, even if several of the 11 companies could be out of service simultaneously.
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a leader in the electricians union, acted as a mediator at Thursday's morning and afternoon meetings between city officials and the four fire and police unions.
Norcross said that, if asked, he would continue to help with negotiations while trying to wrest more money from the state budget.
"The good news is that both sides came to the table this morning fully understanding what's at stake," he said.