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Raise taxes or cut cops? Camden, N.J., to decide

By Aaron Smith, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The city council of crime-ridden Camden, N.J., is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to increase property taxes to rehire dozens of laid-off police officers and firefighters.

Last month, Camden laid off 160 police officers, nearly half the force, as well as 60 of its 215 firefighters. The proposed tax increase would be used to fund the rehiring of 47 of those police officers and 13 firefighters.

To pay for the rehires, councilors will consider a 21% tax levy increase proposed by Mayor Dana Redd. If approved, the taxes for property owners would increase by an average of $160 per year, according to mayoral spokesman Robert Corrales.

"We're trying to minimize the overall effect," he said, noting that the increase would be from $2.55 to $3.08 per $100 of property value. Considering an average property value of $27,000 in Camden, this would add more than $4.1 million to city coffers for fiscal year 2011, he said.

"This wasn't the mayor's first option," said Corrales, noting that the city hasn't increased property taxes in 15 years. "We've exhausted just about every other option."

One of those options might be paying off at the last minute. The mayor's office announced late Tuesday that a $5.1 million dollar federal grant administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in the pipeline, and will be used to rehire some of the firefighters laid off last month.

The FEMA money is intended only for fire departments and can't be used to re-hire any of the laid-off police.

It was not immediately clear how the grant would affect the tax hike vote.

Located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden is no stranger to crime. It used to have the highest violent crime rate in the country. Last year, Camden slipped to second place, just behind St. Louis, according to CQ Press, a publisher focused on government policy and business.

Of course, increasing taxes is one thing; getting residents to pay them is another. Corrales said the city currently has an 89% success rate for tax collection.

Al Ashley, president of the Camden Fire Officers union, said he owns several properties in the city and believes the tax rate is "pretty low," though he said taxes should be increased only as a last resort.

He said the city should improve the fiscal situation by selling off all the boarded-up abandoned properties in Camden and ramping up tax collection efforts against delinquent property owners.

"Whether you pay taxes or not, you're still going to get 100% of the services," said Ashley. "We go to businesses that don't pay taxes. But everybody needs to contribute. Everybody's got to have some skin in the game." To top of page

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