Mayor Dana L. Redd offered a budget to Camden City Council on Tuesday that cuts nearly a quarter of funding for all city departments - virtually guaranteeing layoffs or demotions in the Police and Fire Departments while raising taxes for the first time in 20 years.
"The fact of the matter is that no matter what anyone might think, the fiscal crisis in Camden is real and not contrived," Redd said. "But make no mistake. I want to reassure our residents that even during these difficult times, public safety remains my top priority."
Because of continued negotiations with city unions over cost concessions, Redd declined to say how many workers might lose their jobs because of the $14 million cut to the Police Department and $7.5 million reduction to the Fire Department.
"We're going to work with the mayor to preserve jobs," said John Williamson, Fraternal Order of Police president for Camden's rank-and-file officers.
Police officers and firefighters, especially those hired in the last several years, might not know their fate until October, when the governor evaluates funding requests from cash-strapped municipalities. As painful as the mayor's budget is, Camden could get even less state money than the sum included in the budget.
Police Chief Scott Thomson said his department could not afford to lose one officer. The department will reorganize, restructure, and meet with labor officials to look at wage reductions and concessions to avoid layoffs, he said.
"We have a top-flight command staff, and we have extremely dedicated men and women in blue," he said. "For decades, we have done more with less, and will continue to do so."
City Council unanimously voted to introduce the $138.8 million spending plan without asking the mayor questions. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15.
The proposed fiscal 2011 budget already is a $39 million reduction from the 2010 budget that Redd brought before Council in January - a reflection of the city's continued inability to raise revenue and the state's tighter approach to funding impoverished cities.
Redd is asking the state for $54 million in discretionary aid as part of the governor's new Transitional Aid to Localities program. Last year, under a similar program, Camden was awarded $71 million.
Other formula-based state aid is expected to drop from $54.1 million to $46.5 million.
The budget represents a new era for the state's poorest city. It is the first under the highly publicized penny-pinching policies of Gov. Christie, who has not only pledged less money to distressed municipalities but also has mandated that mayors make their own labor cuts to even qualify for extra state aid.
This is also the first budget crafted entirely by an elected Camden leader since at least 2002, when the state took over the city and appointed a chief operating officer to manage its operations and finances.
To balance the last fiscal year's budget, which Redd inherited from state overseers, the mayor started a furlough program for nonunion employees and cut overtime spending. The year before, the state chief operating officer had laid off 23 nonuniformed employees.
To raise money in the fiscal 2011 budget, Redd proposed increasing taxes 3 percent, the maximum allowed, or $56.16 on a home assessed at the average, $26,968.
That would bring in $21 million in total revenue, less than a sixth of the budget, and would mark the first time that taxes have been raised in 20 years, Redd said. From 2002 to 2009, Camden was controlled by the state and forbidden to raise taxes.
Redd also is freezing all nonessential spending and cutting each department by 24 percent, which amounts to a $4 million drop in operating costs. And for five months of the year, twice-weekly trash pickup will be reduced to a once a week.
But with few details of the cuts available at the budget introduction Tuesday, most residents who addressed Council focused on the cut that has so far generated the most publicity: The reduction in funding to libraries by more than 50 percent.
Faced with the loss in funding, the library board was prepared to shut down the system until Monday, when Redd announced a plan for the Camden County library system to take over the city's three branches. The county would assess property owners an annual fee and have the power to close branches.
The prospect of a county takeover filled Council chambers with library advocates Tuesday. In a reference to Redd's repeated proclamation that public safety is paramount, one girl held a printed sign reading, "Libraries protect public safety too!"
Despite the signs and about two dozen speeches, Council unanimously introduced, with one abstention, a resolution to explore joining the county system.
Some residents said all the cuts - from libraries to police - came about because of a reality that has long plagued the city: It is home to wealthy companies and institutions that make negotiated payments to the city instead of paying full assessments.
"If you really want to help us, stop putting money at the riverfront," said resident Nancy Smalls. "It feels like everybody can have their part in Camden except for the people who live in Camden."