By Gordon MacInnes
and David Sciarra
While meeting with students at Camden High School last week, Gov. Christie touted his decision to give an $82 million tax break to the Philadelphia 76ers to build a state-of-the-art practice facility in the city. Ironically, the governor said nothing about the deplorable conditions at the school or his administration's continuing failure to rebuild Camden High, a project on the drawing boards for well over a decade.
The governor must not have read the recently released report by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority detailing the state of disrepair and unfit learning environment that Camden High's 700 students must endure every day. The report on the building, constructed in 1916, found serious defects throughout the building, including its electrical, plumbing, heating, and ventilation systems. The report also found hazardous materials in need of remediation, along with security and fire-safety systems that must be upgraded.
The governor's own school construction agency thoroughly documented what Camden High students and teachers know all too well: The building is woefully inadequate to provide a high-quality education, if not a direct threat to students' health and safety. This documentation is not an idle exercise. The state is under court order to finance and construct all necessary improvements in Camden and other urban school districts to make these facilities suitable for a 21st-century education.
But what does the governor do while in Camden? Instead of announcing long-overdue and urgently needed construction at Camden High, he announces an unprecedented commitment of $82 million in taxpayer dollars to build a facility where millionaire professional basketball players will practice for their billionaire team owner, none of whom are likely to live in the city.
Even worse, of the 250 "new jobs" the 76ers will bring to Camden, 200 of them are already filled. And the cost amounts to an astonishing $328,000 in lost tax revenue per job, very few of which will be available for Camden residents in desperate need of new employment opportunities.
Worse, the payoff for New Jersey from this tax break will be exceptionally low. Let's run through the math.
If the state's economic projections pan out, the project will generate $158.6 million in revenue, more than enough to offset the $82 million tax break. All is rosy, right? Wrong. That $158.6 million is spread over 35 years, yet the team will only be required to stay in Camden for 15 years to obtain the full tax break. At that point, the 76ers are free to take the money and run, which they will do if another, more lucrative tax break comes along elsewhere. When adjusted for the 15 years the team has to stay in Camden, the economic benefit turns into a loss of $14.5 million, as the state's own projections make clear.
The contrast between the high school building Camden children are forced to attend and the glitzy new facility the 76ers will use to practice couldn't be more stark. It's also emblematic of an administration with misplaced priorities.
Corporate tax subsidies to a mere 1 percent of New Jersey's businesses have been given away at a stunning pace - $4 billion since 2010. Meanwhile, schools, transportation, and other infrastructure in the Garden State's cities continue to deteriorate, degrading the learning environments for children, opportunities for young people, and the health and economic vitality of our poorest communities.
In Camden, the governor has decided to sink $82 million into a building project that isn't even guaranteed to benefit the state. Instead, he could have invested that money in a new Camden High - one of Camden's most treasured community institutions - so that the city's children can receive an education that prepares them for productive employment and to become engaged citizens and residents.
Tax money for a half-billion-dollar sports team or for educating the children who are Camden's future? The governor made a bad choice. The outcome of this game is not even close.