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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Insanity of Camden

I'm taking a scene out of the old movie Network - I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!!! The city of Camden topped itself tonight. Just when you think it couldn't be done, the city takes an even more ridiculous action than laying off half of the police force and a third of the fire department.

Yes, the City of Camden has asked for a 23% increase in property taxes, effective May 1. This request requires state approval because Governor Christie this year managed to get a statewide 2% annual cap installed. So Camden needs a 21% exception to the new rule. The increase would cover the $26million budget gap this year. But what about next year? This is an unsustainable solution.

  • The average housing value in Camden is $26,000. Yes, that is $26,000.
  • The average property tax currently paid on that house is $1700. Yes, that is correct, $1700.
  • The city turned the library system over to the county this year to save money - and now residents will be taxed by the county library system.
  • The county has re-valued property this year. And apparently in Camden this does not take into account the terrible market - with terrible schools, half of a police force, and high crime rates.
  • This tax increase will not be applied to currently abated properties that may pay a PILOT. That includes the defense contractor L3 which has a large campus in downtown Camden, the Port Authority, the Aquarium, and the Susquehanna Music Center. Add to that all tax exempt property such as Rutgers, federal buildings, county jail, waterfront baseball park, Camden Community College and you have a huge revenue problem.
The city council members that voted for this 23% tax increase actually stated, there is nothing else we can do. We have to get off of state aid and so we have to raise revenues.

First of all, there are other options besides property taxes to raise revenue for city government.

  • payroll tax would be one option - taxing all the employees that use Camden every day and work for entities that pay no taxes
  • increase fees and sales tax - though this may only shift the burden to Camden residents through other means.
  • cut salaries and services - starting with the Mayor and City Council. Issue snow shovels and end plowing. Go to once a week trash pick up year round and privatize it.
These options are about as popular as a draconian tax increase, but will not kill homeownership and affordable housing in Camden.

I'm a renter and expect to see the tax increase and property re-evaluation in increased rent. I have a very astute landlord who will weigh the market costs and demand before passing this on. Other landlords are not as concerned and will pass it along in full. Renters who can't afford this will look elsewhere for affordable housing or won't pay and evictions will rise. Landlords will begin walking away from properties in larger numbers, leaving the city with even more abandoned housing. Homeowners will fall into arrears and face tax liens and foreclosure.

Perhaps this is the goal - put as much property in Camden into bankruptcy and delinquency as possible and shed the city of most of its current residents. Then the city could start over again and build a property tax base.

Of course, the most realistic and positive way to get out from under the fiscal collapse of this city is to generate economic development. It would not be easy, but could be done. Imagine...the city stops all other activity except for building the economy. Put the mayor and her MBA to work. It would probably raise more money and be more sustainable in the long run than a 23% property tax increase.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Camden - Falling Again

"I see a city invincible" Walt Whitman's words that are etched on the facade of city hall in Camden. Yet no one in Camden believes this anymore. The national media is having a feeding frenzy on the story about Camden laying off half of its police force yesterday and a third of its fire fighters. The doom and gloom rose to a fever pitch when someone compared Camden to Fallujah!

The mayor is warring with the unions on concessions. The police and fire personnel won't give and the mayor won't cry Uncle! So the layoffs occurred and the residents are quoted in the news as being frightened for their safety and lives. The drug dealers see this as a potential stay-out-of- jail-free card and drug sets are appearing with greater frequency, openness, and bravado. It's only a matter of time before gang wars erupt in the finest tradition of capitalism, sparring for customers using gunfire.

Many pundits have suggested that the citizens of Camden arm themselves since the city does not see fit to provide an adequate police force. I imagine the citizens of Camden in that scenario like the citizens of Mexico or the Alamo - neither has a good ending.

Many people criticize the unions for being greedy, but no one has railed against the elected officials for not making ANY sacrifices. Do the Camden Mayor and City Council members take furlough days or pay cuts or make concessions to their pensions? Does Governor Christie do likewise? Is their security detail curtailed in proportion to the layoffs? Doubtful on all counts. The unions have a fat contract and should give. But so should the Mayor and Council. Why do we need parking meter-maids but we don't need police? Lay off the planning staff before the police. If it comes down to a one-to-one decision on personnel, then make it. Trying to make an example of the unions is childish and does not provide leadership. Meanwhile the city will burn...

Camden is a victim of circumstance - industry left, people left, and the suburbs continue to dump all the social responsibilities of the region on Camden - drug treatment, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, drug sales - yes, the average drug buyer in Camden is white and from the suburbs...If it weren't for Camden, social ills would creep into the bedroom communities! But the people of Camden do not behave as victims, but more like a captive. They can't get out, they have Helsinki syndrome and are blinded to an exit, and they think they can win over their captors - poverty, unemployment, poor education. It is a crushing blow when people discover reality.

Camden is an entrepreneurial place - people make money as best they can. There is a reason the drug dealers don't go to the suburbs, even though they would be closer to their customers - the cost of doing business is too high. They'd be out of business pronto. In Camden, they have a strong likelihood of staying in business. Meanwhile, the rest of the citizens have to share the streets with these entrepreneurs and hope they are not caught up in their negative externalities a.k.a. bullets. Someone suggested in a comment to a news story that citizens take up crime watch. Do I look like the little Dutch boy? Putting my finger in the dike will not save the town.

So I would like to ask - where are the constitutional officers of this state and why are they not fulfilling their constitutional duty - which is to uphold the laws? If Camden lays off its police force, then why isn't the state or county providing protection? If Camden leaders make bad financial decisions, then why are they allowed to stay in office? They are not fulfilling their oath of office? I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek because I know the answer. But at the end of the day, who is responsible?

Here we are at the crisis that was foretold by all the experts, including me. I don't have a simple answer. I'm not sure I have a complex answer. I can point fingers with the best of them, including the Mayor and the unions. At the end of the day, though, this is not about political rhetoric and positioning. It is about people's lives and children's futures. It is life and death. I guess that doesn't mean much anymore. Kind of like Walt Whitman's immortal words..."I see a city invincible..."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

reflecting on MLK

I've been busy traveling and working on a variety of projects. But my thoughts are never far from this blog. I hope 2011 is off to a wonderful start for everyone. I know it is for me!

It's MLK weekend and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on his legacy and consider how I am living into the dream he had for our country. In the wake of the Tucson shootings, the Tunisian revolution, the political hissy-fit in Washington, and the daily lives we lead - I need to pause, take stock, and rededicate myself to living life responsibly and effectively.

The Tucson shootings created a collective gasp in our country. For those of us who are old enough to have lived through the 3 assassinations in the 1960s, we had that sinking feeling of no, not again. For younger people, who may have lived through the Reagan shooting, Oklahoma City, Columbine, or even 9/11 - I wonder how you view a political act of violence? My view is completely filtered by the Kennedy's and King. But when the news came out from Tucson I knew it would release a firestorm of fingerpointing, blame and fault. Unfortunately, there has been scant attention given to the need to take responsibility for what happened by all of us. The first reactions were that this lone gunman was solely responsible and that to hold anyone else accountable was unfair and unjust. Talk about turning logic on its head!

Then President Obama gave his magnificent speech and reminded us that we are each responsible for the climate in which we live, govern, work, and relate. At least that is how I heard it. He said:
As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

I reread the MLK "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and was inspired by his call for responsibility to the white clergy of Birmingham - holding them accountable and responsible for their culpability in the continuing segregation of the black population. He could have laid blame, he could have chastised them for being accomplices, but instead he said he was disappointed they did not take responsibility. He wrote,
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

As oppressors, we have a responsibility to right the wrongs and bring justice to light. With regards to Tucson we must speak up against the hate-filled rhetoric of the "cross-hairs" and demand civility. With regards to our urban blight and violence that has created a separate and unequal experience of life in the USA we must say, justice delayed is justice denied and not accept those conditions as given.

MLK wrote, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

I believe we must be extremists of responsibility. That does not mean to be vigilantes or to demonize those with whom we disagree. I am often quick to lay blame at the feet of Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck. But instead, I need to take responsibility for what I am doing - how am I sounding the message of extremism for justice? How am I living into the dream of MLK that ours would be a society of character and not color? What am I doing to prevent the next Tucson, the next bobble-head exchange of vitriol, the day-to-day despair of dreams denied by people like me that have more power and position than ever earned?

I hope you will reflect on this, post a response, converse about this with others, and take responsibility for elevating our discourse and our responses to effect change and ensure justice.

MLK despaired in that Birmingham jail,
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.