CAMDEN, NJ — Local officials in Camden went on the offensive Thursday against Gov. Phil Murphy, claiming the governor is playing politics by attacking businesses that tapped a state tax incentive program to move into the city.

In a joint statement, Mayor Frank Moran, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr., City Council President Curtis Jenkins and state Sen. Nilsa Cruz Perez defended the use of tax credits in Camden.

The elected leaders referred to a task force established by the governor to investigate the tax incentives as "blatantly political leaning" and criticized his administration for its "relentless, unfounded and disingenuous attacks" on city businesses.

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"Perhaps in the age of Donald Trump, the Governor has learned all the wrong lessons of leadership and adherence to the truth," the statement read.

Murphy launched the task force in January to investigate up to $11 billion of incentives approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, following an audit from the State Comptroller that revealed oversight issues in the process of awarding credits.

On Wednesday, a day before the task force's second hearing, two reports published by WNYC and the New York Times shed light on the legislative process that went into shaping the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act, which created Grow NJ and the Economic Redevelopment & Growth Program, and detailed tax credits granted to Camden projects.

WNYC and ProPublica reported that $1.1 billion of $1.6 billion in tax credits issued for investment went to companies managed by or affiliated with South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, or clients of Parker McKay, where his brother, Philip Norcross, is the managing shareholder and CEO.

The New York Times reported that last-minute edits were made to language of the Economic Opportunity Act, co-sponsored by then-state senator Donald Norcross, George's brother who is now in Congress. Many of these changes came from lawyer Kevin Sheehan, of Parker McCay, with the potential to benefit his firm's clients, the Times reported. Sheehan's role was not previously known, and he did not register to lobby for the work, according to the report.

The findings drew reaction from Murphy, who hinted at a "total revamp" of the state's program.

“Until we’ve taken a good hard look at the entire process, I don’t believe we can be sure that all taxpayer money has been properly spent and accounted for," Murphy said. "If there was fraud in this program, I expect the task force will uncover it and those individuals will be held accountable."

Camden officials highlighted inconsistencies in the governor's motives, bringing attention to a planned $5 billion tax break to lure Amazon to Newark for its HQ2.

"His invective has been particularly targeted at Camden companies that have received tax credits under the GROW NJ program...and not companies like JP Morgan, Panasonic, Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Ralph Lauren and Gucci, which collectively received hundreds of millions in grants and tax credits but happened to be located in North Jersey," the statement read.

"We find it surprising and hypocritical that Governor Murphy happily accepted $165 million in tax credits when he was on the management committee at the huge and lucrative firm, Goldman Sachs, and was fully prepared to give away $5 billion to the planet’s richest company, Amazon, but has feverishly insinuated without proof that irregularities exist for tax programs that would help Camden."

But citing a 2018 report by Rutgers University researchers, WNYC reported that the annual total cost of program jobs created through 13 Camden projects would be more than the median household income.

"Camden’s median annual household income hovers around $26,000. Every job created in the Camden (projects) would cost taxpayers $34,000 a year — a staggering $340,000 per job over the 10-year life of a grant, according to the Rutgers study. By comparison, the average cost per job in the program around the rest of the state is about $5,000 per year," according to the Rutgers study.

The statement from the officials did not address the WNYC and New York Times stories, but George Norcross issued a lengthy statement that thanked WNYC for its story "detailing the massive undertaking to help rebuild Camden’s future."

"While much of the story has previously been reported by other outlets, this was the first effort to compile all of the hard work that went into getting the city on its current path forward," Norcross wrote. "The story reported that there is at least $1.6 billion of new private sector investment in a city that was on its good days merely ‘struggling.’ Now, government statistics reveal that jobs and graduation rates are up, while crime, unemployment and poverty are down."

Leaders of local advocacy groups weighed in on the state of affairs.

Kevin Barfield, president of the NAACP Camden County Branch, sees the issue less about the needs of residents and more of a struggle between the local Democrats and Murphy.

"The residents of Camden are caught in the middle. It really has nothing to do with us," said Barfield, who stressed that if the task force uncovers anything in its hearings, members of the community should be the first to benefit.

Susan Druckenbrod, on behalf of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, said that she wants to see the number of new jobs actually created or planned. She noted a common worry of activists: businesses relocating their headquarters from just a few towns over to secure tax breaks.

"They're creating campuses for themselves, so they're really not integrating into the community," Druckenbrod said.

The state's current tax incentive programs expire June 30.

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