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The Mayor’s Corner: We Are Being Forced To Tighten Our Belts & Do More With Less

“We were the only town of our size in the State of New Jersey that had more Firemen than Police Officers”,  Mayor Bill James

Is Gloucester City any different from other communities in the State of New Jersey as it relates to The Mayors Corner the impact of the recession and the Governors cuts in State aid?

The answer is no, we are not.

Recent newspaper articles and television reports have made it clear that the only alternative to steadily increasing

property taxes is cuts in services. With budgetary spending caps, prohibiting by law, the past practice of handing out generous pay raises and health benefit packages to public employees, municipalities across the state are being forced to tighten their belts and do more with less and in Gloucester City it is no different.

By instituting a 4% cap upon any increase in the budget, the Governor’s Office, in an

effort to combat the highest property taxes in the nation, has restricted municipal governments from issuing pay raises, hiring additional personnel, working on much needed Capital improvement projects and from retaining their present compliment of employees. As costs of every aspect of normal governmental operations increases by alarming percentage rates, and previously negotiated contracts guarantee benefits that uncontrollably multiply every time any additional salary award is given, municipal governments are forced to make the most difficult decisions of their political careers.

In a small town like ours, these decisions become increasingly more difficult to make. It seems this way because in most cases we know the affected people personally and in some cases we have worked directly with them over the years. My concerns are with those who are about to lose their jobs but our governments responsibility is to the people they serve, the people who pay for the services provided and who are also suffering the effects of job loss, home foreclosure, escalating costs of food, gas, health coverage, insurance and other things necessary to survive. This group of people will also face the Governors wrath by not receiving the deserved Homestead Rebate Check they so much depend on. Seniors will also lose the protection of the Senior Tax freeze program which has also been eliminated and the school tax and County taxes are also increasing. Mayor and Council of Gloucester City are committed to making up for these loses by introducing a budget that might reflect a minimal to no increase in property taxes this year and we have done so through a lot of hard work and difficult decision making.

In order to appreciate the dire need to make the tough choices, one has to understand that we were already ¼ of the way into our fiscal year when the Governor’s Office advised us that we would be receiving $650,000 less in State Aid then we received last year. This deficit would have to be made up for in the remaining 6 months of our fiscal year because of Department of Personnel regulations and the timeliness of the layoff notification process. This directly meant that we had to cut at the very least $1.2 million dollars from our existing budget so that we did not have a similarly catastrophic situation next year. We also infused a onetime only $514,000 settlement into the budget to avoid a 17 cent per $100 of assessed property value tax increase even after all cuts were made.

We are all are living in and experiencing firsthand, times similar to those of the Great Depression and we must all share in the sacrifice to reach the end goal, which is a more stabilized economy. As I conduct my weekly walkabouts in neighborhoods throughout our community with police and housing representatives, the evidence of struggle is overwhelming clear and through interviews of citizenry, we have identified more and more properties that people are walking away from in the middle of the night because they cannot pay their mortgages and or their taxes. As of May 20th this year 620 property owners have not yet paid their 2nd quarter water and sewer bills and there presently exists over 200 vacant properties in town and the list continues to grow. With this downfall in economy and housing, comes additional costs to the city to maintain these properties on our dime and then to litigate with banking institutions for reimbursement, all the while no taxes are being collected.

When we started this year we had 34 firemen/EMT’s and 29 Police Officers, we were the only town of our size (2.8 square miles) and population (11,500) in the State of New Jersey that had more firemen than Police Officers, and who also had a 24 hour seven day a week fully staffed paid fire department.

Some examples of other paid departments are: Collingswood had 17 firefighters and laid off 3 this year. Friday nights and Saturday nights volunteers run duty crews from 5 PM to 6AM and all other calls after 6 PM Sunday to Thursday are handled by volunteers. During the week they have 4 firemen working per shift. Woodbury has 4 fulltime fire fighters and 7 part time firefighters otherwise all volunteer response, Pennsauken has 18 firefighters for 35,000 people in 12 square miles, their department runs two alternating shifts of one lieutenant and 4 fire fighters 6 AM to 6 PM out of one centralized station, 3 remaining firefighters rotate between other volunteer stations and Volunteers respond to calls for service 6 PM to 6 AM Monday through Friday and all weekends. Deptford has 21 firefighters for 30,000 people and 17.3 square miles, Washington Township has 16 firefighters for 47,114 people and 23 square miles, they staff 6 firehouses with career department Monday thru Friday 6 AM to 6 PM otherwise volunteers respond, and Winslow Township has 19 firefighters covering 58.1 square miles with a population of 39,000.

Other than Gloucester City, Camden City, Cherry Hill which has 70,000 people in 24 square miles no one in the area supplies 24 hour paid coverage. Of the above mentioned jurisdictions, time of paid protection runs between 12 hours and 18 hours of paid personnel coverage with volunteers handling the off hours and most weekend duties. All towns not mentioned in these examples run with volunteer only fire departments, such as Brooklawn, Bellmawr, Mt. Ephraim, Haddon Twp, Barrington, Runnemede, Audubon and the list goes on from there.

In these times we have to be realists and at the same time not make arbitrary decisions before performing due diligence. Fire Chief Hagan is preparing a fire response plan in preparation of any layoffs and Mayor and Council as well as the Fire Committee and the Mayors Public Safety Committee will be reviewing the plan as it relates to fire response and officer safety. In closing it should be noted that any layoffs will not affect the present 24 hour a day seven day a week ambulance response.

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