N.J. City Plans to Lay Off a Third of its Firefighters

Camden will lay off nearly half of its police officers and a third of its firefighters.

Camden will lay off nearly half of its police officers and a third of its firefighters, while eliminating positions in every other city office, according to a layoff plan approved Tuesday by the state.

The 383 layoffs represent about a quarter of the city's workforce and touch all corners of city government - from 15 courtroom positions to 20 police dispatchers to all four animal-control officers.

The elimination of 180 positions from a 373-member force means more bad news for a poor, violent city that has seen 37 homicides this year. A national survey recently named Camden the second-most dangerous in the United States, although police officials have pointed to some recent reductions in crime.

Camden appears to be in a worse predicament than Newark, which laid off 167 of its 1,034 police officers this week after negotiations broke down between their union and the city. Cities and towns around New Jersey are struggling this year following cuts in state aid, with layoffs in public safety increasingly common.

The Camden City Council will vote on its layoff plan on Thursday, and those affected will be notified by Friday. The layoffs would take effect Jan. 18.

The number of layoffs could be reduced in the coming weeks, according to city officials, if there are retirements and if the employee unions make concessions.

But the unions have indicated no plans to deal, and Camden's Fraternal Order of Police printed 3,000 fliers to be distributed reading: "Layoffs = More Crime, More Assaults, More Shooting, More Murders, Can We Afford This?"

"We are open to discussing concessions," said John Williamson, union president. "What we are not open to is unreasonable demands and having things rammed down our throats."

Williamson called the layoff plan "absolutely unbelievable" and said negotiations with the city "have been kind of at a standstill."

Al Ashley, the president of the union representing superior officers in the Fire Department, said the union was not given any guarantee that concessions would reduce the number of layoffs.

But the city attorney, Marc Riondino, said: "That's not correct. They make certain concessions, those concessions will have a dollar amount that will directly reduce the number of layoffs."

Whatever the final number, the layoffs will be felt by the residents of Camden, where "a great relationship with the police" allows the New Visions Homeless Day Shelter to feed, clothe, and care for hundreds each week, said Kevin Moran, the shelter's executive director.

Every afternoon, crowds of homeless people, many of them drug-addicted or suffering from mental illness, congregate outside the shelter, he said. Police officers are there patrolling the block, "ensuring drug dealing is kept to a minimum outside and that nothing escalates into violence."

"They maintain a safe environment and allow us to concentrate on helping those who need it," he said.

Moran said he had also noticed a recent decline in the prostitution and drug traffic on Broadway since Police Chief Scott Thomson stationed more uniformed officers along the busy downtown corridor.

"People know the police are there now," Moran said. "Their presence has been felt."

Thomson urged officers to agree to contractual changes. "We must take our fair share of concessions to save as many brethren officers as possible for the good of each other and most importantly, the residents!" he wrote in an e-mail to The Inquirer.

Even with layoffs, he said, in the last two years Camden police have grown more efficient through new technology and partnerships with other law enforcement agencies.

Likewise, in her layoff plan Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said the city would be pursuing help from entities like the state police, which already has a presence in the city. The Delaware River Port Authority and 19 Rutgers University officers also patrol the city.

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