Image: Camden, N.J., firefighters
Mel Evans  /  AP
Firefighters react Tuesday to a mass layoff of municipal employees in Camden, N.J., one of the nation's most impoverished cities.
By
updated 1/18/2011 7:21:12 PM ET 2011-01-19T00:21:12

In a solemn display, laid-off firefighters and police officers lined up Tuesday 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.

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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 slams unions
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 Wednesday. The mayor declined to give details of the proposals or say how many jobs could be saved.

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

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'I'll be vigilant'
Laundry owner Carmelo Villegas walked with his daughter, Belinda Villegas, a police officer for 10 years, as she put down her boots. The younger Villegas says she's been "married" to the city after living in it for all her 39 years.

Her father said he's begun locking the doors of his business, opening them only for customers he knows, out of fear that strangers may take advantage of the police layoffs.

"I'll be vigilant," he said.

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.

Police Chief Scott Thomson said the force is being reorganized to put 92 percent of the remaining officers on patrol.

But that comes at a cost. He said officers will no longer go to car accidents that don't cause injuries or snarl traffic. They also won't take reports on minor thefts or property damage complaints. And most administrative functions are being eliminated.

Thomson said other agencies such as the FBI and the Camden County Parks Police are expanding their roles in the city, too.

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

Some said the fire department will no longer 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 citizen's lives," said Kenneth White, a Camden native who was in fire training around the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was among those laid off.

Kenneth Chambers, president of Local 788 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the reduced coverage won't be enough to keep the city safe.

"The only thing I can tell the residents is be very, very afraid. You're not going to have adequate fire protection from this point on," he said.

When firefighters arrived at headquarters, they laid down their helmets in front of the building, then picked them up to hand them in, along with the rest of their gear. Receiving the equipment was Michael Harper, who was elevated to fire chief just two weeks ago.

Most of the laid-off firefighters brought their gear in oversized duffel bags or trash bags. Arnaldo Gezman, 40, packed his neatly in two suitcases.

He's lived in Camden since his mother brought him and two siblings from Puerto Rico in 1974. He worked as a machinist and at a car dealer before becoming a firefighter seven years ago.

He worked at Engine Company No. 9, just a short bike ride from both his home and his mother's. He said he and his wife of less than a year were planning to try to have a child soon, but that plan is now on hold — just like the career he loved.

"I wanted to do something for the city," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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