A program to promote growth in economically strapped areas has become a significant source of funding for local public-safety staff. So when the state froze the statewide Urban Enterprise Zone program in February, it froze North Wildwood’s hopes for seven new police officers.
The budgetary move has also raised fears of police layoffs in other enterprise zone communities.
All four enterprise zones in this region — the Wildwoods, Pleasantville, Bridgeton and Vineland-Millville — have used UEZ sales-tax revenue to fund local law-enforcement, public safety or crime reduction.
The UEZ program allows certain businesses in the zones to charge a
3.5 percent sales tax rather than 7 percent. Almost 90 percent of that tax revenue is returned to local governments to fund economic-development projects. The program provided more than $3 million locally in police and fire salaries last year. That’s money the cities say they would not have found elsewhere.
Gov. Chris Christie suspended the program in February, freezing accounts, and then proposing to route cities’ UEZ revenue to Trenton next year. As a result, projects around the state, such as North Wildwood’s plan to expand its force, are jeopardized.
Now, Christie’s budget proposes pulling administrative funding next year, leaving no staff either locally or in Trenton to administer money moving in or out.
Mayors and police chiefs in urban and tourist areas alike say they have been blindsided by the possible loss of law-enforcement and public-safety staff.
Pleasantville’s police chief said he relies on UEZ funds to pay for four officers — a small number, but 9 percent of his police force.
Patrolling on bicycles, two officers work by day and two by night, pursuing suspects along alleyways and between buildings where cars can’t fit.
“We don’t know how to replace those funds — and I can’t say I know how to keep those jobs,” said Chief Duane Comeaux.
How did a program designed to stimulate business districts end up paying for cities to put more police on the street and firefighters atop ladders?
Under UEZ rules, as much as a third of a town’s sales-tax revenue can fund municipal services, including salaried positions and associated benefits. Cities match 20 percent to the 80 percent from UEZ funds.
To those on the ground, the use of business-development money to fund law-enforcement feels like a common-sense fit. New police jobs can be created and funded this way, if the officers patrol the designated downtown commercial zone.
Sandra Forosisky, economic development director in Vineland, says the plan solves the puzzle of how to help businesses in blighted areas. “Why does that make sense? Because the major complaint about downtown is that it hasn’t felt safe,” she said.
Forosisky says the allowance for salaries was expanded in 2006. Now, the joint UEZ zone for Millville and Vineland provides enough revenue to the towns to bolster police and fire — with 21 police officers and one firefighter in Vineland, and four police officers and three firefighters in Millville.
Statewide, 21 of the 31 Urban Enterprise Zones have embraced public safety as a goal: For fiscal year 2009, they used zone-assistance funds to support public safety projects such as police, fire and public safety equipment, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs.
In the city of Wildwood, local leaders used enterprise zone money to buy an emergency vehicle which had long been on local officials’ wish lists.
“All summer, we have events on our beach,” said Lou Ferrara, who administers the Wildwoods’ zone. “Boy Scouts’ Jamboree, fireworks every Friday. Our town’s population swells to half a million in the summer.”
But having an ambulance on standby for those events was overtaxing city resources, he said. “Our fire department always worried what would happen if there was an accident while an event was on.” For $140,000 in UEZ funds, the town bought another ambulance in May 2008.
The zones have made some ambitious purchases too: Last year, in North Bergen, the UEZ funded about $3 million annually in police, fire and public works salaries, as well as traffic lights, security cameras and road improvements.
Millville city police spent $265,000 in November 2007 on a specially designed incident management vehicle, to be used mainly as a crime deterrent during the Christmas season. The van includes a telescoping camera with a 20-foot mast that enables police to monitor and record activity over a wide area, such as shopping malls.
UEZ funds have also allowed a whole rethink of public safety priorities, said Ferrara.
“During the last big fire we had on our Boardwalk, when Morey’s Piers was badly burned, the fire trucks couldn’t reach the pier,” he recalled, thinking of the blaze in 2008. “Firefighters had to park them on the street, and try and fight the fire from there.”
But Wildwood city officials have plowed over $4 million in UEZ funds into rebuilding the Boardwalk, and will unveil the completed phase two on April 9. According to Ferrara, “Now, you’ll be able to drive a fire truck on there.”
Cuts may come
In the UEZ equation, some purchases and improvements will last for years. But not salaries.
City staff who dispense funds said they can offer no certainty — not even to local police or fire departments asking if they can rely on money for staffing budgets that are already squeezed by municipal belt-tightening.
“It suddenly feels unstable and really disturbing,” said Ferrara, who assembled the application for funding for at least five of North Wildwood’s possible seven officers, but said it had been halted by the governor’s freeze.
In Bridgeton, John Barry, director of the UEZ, said Christie’s policy change in February had immediate effect on the town’s police force.
“We had to cut one full-time officer and three class II officers, after we were told at the last minute that funding had been seized,” he said.
A state Fraternal Order of Police spokesman did not return calls for comment about the UEZ cuts.
One mayor with a law-enforcement background said the biggest realization has been that helping police through UEZ funding may have moved their fates out of municipal hands.
“Law enforcement would normally be my number one priority,” said Robert Romano, mayor of Vineland, who went to Trenton to hear the governor’s budget address in March. “I can’t imagine approving deep police cuts in our municipal budget. But if the UEZ goes away — well, those benefits to the town that come through that, we can’t control.”
He added, “I have to look at layoffs as a last resort.”
“I don’t think, when we talk about UEZ, that people know how far it goes to provide city services,” said Sen. Jeff Van Drew, whose district includes Vineland-Millville, Bridgeton and the Wildwoods UEZs. He plans to hold a public hearing on the cut.
Towns such as North Wildwood, meanwhile, wait for news on their few extra officers — the seven hires that would normally work the summer tourist season.
“We won’t hire until we’re certain we could get the funds,” said police Chief Robert Matteucci. “But we’d need to decide soon. Police academy starts May 12. Will we know by then? We don’t know.”
Money for police and firefighters
Here’s what the UEZ towns received back this year from their sales-tax revenue to pay for public-safety staff:
Wildwoods: Application for $70,000 frozen by state
Contact Juliet Fletcher: