Over the past year, Governor Christie has made it clear he intends to make Camden economically self-sufficient, so the message he has sent in slashing transitional aid that traditionally has been used to meet the structural budget gaps of the state’s most distressed cities is unmistakable. The $69 million he authorized for the past fiscal year wasn’t enough to meet Camden’s basic budgetary needs. When unions failed to make major concessions, the mayor was forced to lay off large numbers of staff, including nearly half the city’s police force. With transitional aid now cut to only $10 million for the whole state, Camden officials are struggling to figure out how to close the yawning gap in its budget for the new fiscal year. Camden’s depressed property values cannot begin to generate the revenues necessary to meet the costs of this struggling post-industrial city. It’s possible, of course, that higher than anticipated revenues to the state will allow the restoration of additional aid for distressed cities like Camden, but Governor Christie has already indicated he’s not interested in following that path. Camden has neither a plan in place for revitalization nor the resources at hand to boost revenues high even to even begin to meet the crushing costs of maintaining basic services. The state is the only entity with the resources to do that. It’s not a crisis yet, but it’s coming, and there’s no sign yet of a roadmap to a sustainable future for Camden or the political vision and commitment to take the city there.
Update: After all that posturing, the state authorized $61.4 million in transitional aid after Governor Christie restored a good chunk of what had originally been in the budget for that purpose. The additional funding was not all Camden wanted or needed, but it raised the proportion of state assistance to the city’s budget from 66 to 68%. Higher taxes are intended to make up the difference in operating costs, along with reductions in pension payments and some further efficiencies in land management. There’s still no long-term plan for the city or relief for its chronic underfunding. For details see the Inquirer report for October 12, 2011.