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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Time for Ideas and Action in Camden

I posted this on my Facebook and got no response. Let's see if it does any better here.]

This article gives a very chilling perspective of what is happening in urban places in NJ. I don't mean suburbs. I mean Trenton, Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, and of course, Camden. The Governor has cut state aid to cities. Cities rely on property tax. Poor cities don't have a property tax base. The housing crisis has made revenue raising even more difficult. Any student in urban affairs knows the elements of this model and the outcome. Without intervention, there is a death spiral.

I chair a department of Public Policy and Administration at an urban campus of a major university. This department includes Urban Studies, an MPA, and a Ph.D. program in Community Development. I am embarrassed that this campus, department, faculty, and students have not been more forthcoming with ideas, prescriptions, and fostering a dialogue about the future of Camden. politics with a small "p" is part of it - no one wants to step on toes, the University has a unit that is working with the mayor on some reforms but it is dormant at the moment, wouldn't want to make anyone look bad, etc. Politics with a capital "P" is part of it - the Democratic mayor is trying to placate the Republican Governor by doing as he wants and we wouldn't want to get in the way of that agenda or we might never see another dime from the state. Those that control the Democratic party and are state elected officials are strangely silent on these issues. The Mayor is about as tight-lipped as she can be, saying virtually nothing to the press unless it is a tightly controlled public statement with no Q/A. This does not instill confidence in her leadership. But the people of Camden so desperately want her to succeed, and that includes me, that we don't want to take her to task too loudly. We continue to cheer her on, although with more muted huzzah's as time goes by.

I believe the time has come to start the public dialogue. I am doing it from my blog and facebook and not from my position on campus. I do not have the ability to control University politics, but I will share this with colleagues, Ph.D. students, our unit on campus that is working with the Mayor, and the Chancellor who has been a strategist for the Mayor.

I believe that a public dialogue must include interest groups and nonprofits, citizen groups, and individual citizens. Institutions and stakeholders generally have a route of access to power and elected officials. They can weigh in as needed. But often, their agendas will color the dialogue. I think the dialogue has to get started and rolling first, before it gets bent to their reflection.

Strategies to Bring Back Camden: That Should be Openly Discussed

1. Alternative Revenue Streams: the state of NJ can approve a payroll tax for a city. A payroll tax is tax a way to generate revenue directly to the general fund or to a designated service, paid for by those who come to Camden and use its services. More importantly, the bulk of the employees in Camden work for entities that do not pay property tax. It is a way for those places such as Cooper, Rutgers, L3, the county, the feds, the aquarium, to provide direct revenue to the city.

2. Empowerment Zone redesign: currently the Camden Urban Empowerment Zone allows entities within its borders to have a reduced sales tax. This is designed to make goods a little cheaper. However, sales tax revenue goes to the state and then by formula returns to the City (I believe this is how it works, but each state is different). Apparently, other urban places in NJ have a deal where property taxes are assessed in the EZ and the revenue goes directly to the city. EZ development often has tax abatements. I may not have the details nailed down, but this is an area that needs to be redesigned to the advantage of the city.

3. property tax liens: there is an abandoned property law that the city does not use, despite having been given strategies by local CDCs on how this could work for the city. The city sold liens to a private company and received revenue for those sales. The company has had difficulty selling those liens to investors. This is a somewhat complex financial endeavor, but it needs to be reviewed to be sure that the city is using a strategy that will actually get properties back on-line and used, not sitting in lien limbo forever. In addition, the city needs to seek an ability to wipe clear outstanding liens that it holds on its books. In exchange, the city could acquire the property, grant clear title, and move on with the business of using the property. This is an important area in which being stalled is being dead.

4. land assembly and land trusts: If Camden is going to entice outside investment, it must assemble land for that development. Cities are always in a unique position to be able to do this. There is enough abandoned property and hazardous property that the city can begin getting tough on acquiring land. I don't mean doing it by eminent domain of occupied property. I mean acquiring property that has been dormant for 20 years, that is vacant and a hazard, that needs to be torn down because it has been declared unfit to inhabit. Assembling tracts of land is a huge advantage to a developer and can allow the city to dictate the use or concessions for the community from the developer. Much of that part of the equation has been missing in Camden development. Land trusts are means by which the city can guarantee affordable housing prices and make housing affordable right now to people who want to buy homes. The city or a nonprofit owns the land and the buyer purchases the structure. When the owner wants to sell, the land trust has rules about reasonable profit and resale to the next buyer. Portland has done an excellent job with this.

5. police and fire: there will be no investment, no retail development, no success in higher education if police and fire are not adequate. The city needs to determine how many police and fire personnel it needs and THEN go about figuring out the best financial route to get it. If it means purchasing service, regionalizing service, or rewriting contracts, then it should be done. Dickering about clothing allowances and pensions is a non-starter for the union and the city should walk away. Find an alternative and lay them all off, but don't leave the city vulnerable. That is just folly.

6. lay off unnecessary departments at City Hall. We have a CRA and a Planning Department. We don't need both. We have code enforcement that is not part of the development strategies. Shut it down until it becomes part of the revenue building strategy. Eliminate parking authority and parking fines. The cost of collecting revenue must be considered when determining net benefits and that includes collecting the fines. The bureaucracy that is involved in the court processing could be streamlined. Stop nickel and diming the residents when the net revenue is probably negative.

7. invest in HR, but outsource it. The myriad of labor laws in NJ requires very specific guidance. The City does not have a personnel specialist. Outsource it.

8. Reduce pension and benefits for all non contract employees, including the mayor and council. This may be symbolic, but you can't ask the unions to cut if you won't cut your own. I understand from someone that the mayor took furlough days, but this is not widely known. Has she? Has council? What are the financial benefits to the city

9. Be transparent. The Mayor claims benefit packages increase the cost of a police person to $140,000. The police department union disputes this. Put the figures out there and itemize. Stop playing games for political advantage. Let the facts speak for themselves. Do the same with employee salaries and benefits in City Hall and the fire department.

10. Are there revenues that can be improved from the private water company contract (last I heard there was a dispute that went to court about who owes whom, to the tune of millions of dollars)? Are there revenues that can be improved from any of the developments that were built with Economic Recovery Board money

11. Use federal revenue, tax credits, and other finance vehicles (and the city missed out on a lot of stimulus money) for innovative development deals. There are many options that can be used that don't seem to be used in Camden. We have a friend in the White House and a direct route to federal HUD. USE IT!! Social enterprise could be the best economic development strategy Camden has and it is totally untapped. Let's get Grameen Bank here, let's generate some green businesses, let's try cooperatives. We have generated some ideas on campus and they are ready to be used.

12. Give attention to education. The city needs an education strategy that includes improving the public schools, partnering with the charters, and ensuring that there is an educated labor force. The City has tremendous power over education in Camden and needs to use it.

13. Address drugs with an organized strategy. Drug use, drug violence, drug sales will not end by putting more cops on the street. What else have we got? Other cities have made strides and improvements. What is our end goal and let's get moving towards it. Drug sales will not end, but they can be contained, controlled, and de-escalated as a means to protect the citizens. Right now, it's the wild west

14. Visibility of our leadership: I am tired of hearing that the elected officials in Camden don't really live in Camden. Either they do or they don't. Invite the media to provide proof of your existence as a citizen of Camden. Do you shop here? Do you drive in the city? Do you go to church here? Engage with the people.

This is just a start and by no means a comprehensive list or even the best list. It's just the ideas that I have as someone who has built a career on these issues. I don't pretend to be omniscient on this.

I recommend that there be public forums where the city presents information and options. In lieu of that, I suggest that citizen groups, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and others organize public forums to engage and be strategic. You don't get anywhere with people coming and complaining. You get somewhere when people define what it is they want and then look for the best strategies to get those things. I believe that if the people get engaged, and I don't mean every citizen in Camden, but those who wish to be actively engaged, then the city will respond.

I think CCOP, Cooper's Ferry, CCDA, People United, and other groups should take the lead and make this happen. They may need to be convinced to set down their own agenda for a moment and their own desire to be seen as THE leader and work together. Camden is worth it and this is the time. Complacency on our new reality is about to set in and we can't afford that.

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