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Camden, N.J., cuts 335 public safety workers

| Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

CAMDEN, N.J. -- In a solemn display, laid-off firefighters and police officers lined up yesterday to turn in their helmets and badges -- symbols of deep budget cuts that were destined to further erode the quality of life in one of the nation's most impoverished and crime-ridden cities.

Nearly half the Camden police force, including civilians, and about one-third of its firefighters lost their jobs as city leaders sought to balance the budget amid falling tax revenue and diminishing aid from the state.

In all, the city laid off 335 workers -- about one-sixth of its employees.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall, 82 police officers lined up their work boots to show how many officers would be taken off the Camden streets, where many neighborhoods have rampant drug dealing and violence.

As officers staged the display, a woman riding by in a car yelled out the window that she was worried about the safety of her granddaughter, who catches a school bus before dawn, and her grandson, who doesn't get out of basketball practice until after dark.

"I'm 52 years old and scared to death," she said. The woman wouldn't give her name, saying she didn't want to be a target.

Mayor Dana Redd said many of the layoffs could have been averted if police and firefighter unions had acknowledged the dire economic situation and agreed to concessions.

"Instead of protecting and serving the city, the residents of Camden, they're choosing to protect their high salaries," she said.

Union leaders have been reluctant to agree to givebacks, saying they couldn't get assurances that doing so would save jobs now or in the future.

The mayor said most of the laid-off public safety employees could still be brought back if concessions are made.

Members of the main police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, were scheduled to vote on givebacks today. The mayor declined to give details of the proposals or say how many jobs could be saved.

Yesterday, police and firefighters gathered at the F.O.P. hall to fill out paperwork appealing their layoffs and lament their abruptly ended careers.

Before the layoffs, the police force had about one employee for every 210 residents. That ratio is in line with nearby Philadelphia and lower than New York City or smaller high-crime cities such as East St. Louis, Ill., or Benton Harbor, Mich.

After the layoffs, the ratio will climb to about one employee for every 380 residents -- worse than in all those places.

Redd said the combined salary and benefits for each rank-and-file police officer or firefighter cost the city an average of $140,000 per year. The salary packages of superior officers in both departments come to more than $200,000, she said.

Firefighters wore their helmets and coats as they marched from the F.O.P. lodge to the fire headquarters nearly a mile away.

Some said the fire department no longer will have enough crews on duty to deal with more than one fire at a time.

"They're playing dice. They're playing games with the citizens' lives," said Kenneth White, a Camden native who was in fire training about the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was among those laid off.

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