CAMDEN, NJ — During a lively public-comment portion at a recent city council meeting centered on a discussion of the opportunities available to residents, Council President Curtis Jenkins doubled down on his issue with the lack of job-training resources as part of the state tax incentive programs.
A supporter of the now-expired programs overseen by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, he has previously stressed the need for funding to be included to prepare residents for the new jobs expected with the incentivized business relocation to Camden.
At the council meeting Tuesday night, Jenkins brought up the controversial tax credits — a total $1.6 billion doled out to projects in Camden alone since 2013, leaving it in the middle of a political tug of war — after lifelong city resident Ali Cooper expressed a similar frustration about the disadvantages residents face.
“I agree with you because that’s the problem here," Jenkins said to Cooper, who is the president of the Camden Fire Department Local 788 Union. "Like when they talk about these tax incentives. You set up these companies with these tax incentives, sure. But there’s no mechanism for resources to train residents."
“And they (Liberty Property Trust) gave $90,000?" Jenkins continued. "Ninety-thousand dollars is nothing. Ninety-thousand dollars can train about five or six people. We’ve got thousands of residents that need jobs.”
This part of his comments referred to a funding pledge in 2017 from Liberty Property Trust, a former developer of the Camden waterfront, toward training residents in construction trades through the Union Organization for Social Service (UOSS). The program was expected to help 100 people.
The opinion shared by Jenkins, drawing raucous applause in the council chambers, stands out among those of the area's elected officials, many of whom have hesitated to criticize any element of the incentive programs. Messages out of Camden for months have defended a claim of revitalization, as well as George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey power broker who is reportedly linked to $1.1 billion of the tax credits to the city.
This was not the first time Jenkins expressed the sentiment publicly.
He did so a month ago at an hours-long hearing of the state task force, appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, investigating the EDA's awarding of more than $11 billion in credits through the Grow NJ and Economic Redevelopment and Growth programs. It was the first of the three hearings thus far to allow testimony from the public on the incentives.
New Jersey lawmakers passed a six-month extension of the programs in June. Murphy, a vocal critic who sought major reform, said then that he would veto any such legislation, but has yet to take action.
At the council meeting Tuesday night, Jenkins reiterated the message he delivered before the task force in July.
“So when I went to that public (hearing), that’s what I spoke on: if you want to change (the programs), put some language in that generates funds to train our residents," he said. "Because you could have 10,000 jobs, (residents are) not ready to take them.”
Comments from residents during the meeting touched on a larger debate about areas of the city still neglected in the face of the “Camden Rising” message.
Cooper had followed up a number of residents speaking on topics that ranged from a feeling of abuse from the Camden County Police Department to questions on job options to drug problems affecting different neighborhoods.
He said that joining the Camden Fire Department is "one of the only jobs left that our residents can aspire to and be somewhat comfortable, I guess you could say," acknowledging though that they have been out of a contract for almost three years.
Members of the department have offered training to locals in preparation for the job's performance and written tests. Cooper claimed that these practice tests — intended to level the playing field with individuals from other cities who have firefighting experience — has resulted in "pressure" from the city.
“We get pressure saying that we shouldn’t be (offering the training) because it gives an unfair advantage," Cooper said. "Who do we give an unfair advantage to when we don’t have the advantage that others have?”
Following up Jenkins' comments on the incentive programs, Cooper went on to say, "and just remember, Council President, we’re helping those better get acclimated to a job that is among the top five most dangerous in the country. Period."
"What we do, most people don’t want to do. And we want to make sure, going into it, that they have every advantage that we could possibly give them, because we come from here, we still live here, and we want to make sure they have the opportunity, too," Cooper said.
Jenkins gave thanks to the effort being made to help the people of Camden; if the fire department wasn't, he said, "who's going to do it?"
"Outside of here (the council room), that’s being done. They’re preparing their youngsters for the future," Jenkins said, looking at his colleagues on the council. "So we’ve got to do it here."
He once again drew support from the crowd and hollers of “all right, so let’s do it!”
“This is the first city council meeting that actually made some sense. I’m serious,” said resident Gary Frazier Jr., who had come to the podium earlier, from his seat.