TRENTON — Mayor Tony Mack headed to the White House on Friday to ask for help protecting the state’s capital city, which has laid off a third of its police force, demoted officers to save money, and scaled back on overtime.
“Trenton needs your help!” Mack, a Democrat, wrote to President Barack Obama last month after Trenton narrowly missed out on a federal grant awarded to a dozen other New Jersey cities that will share nearly $21 million from the U.S. Department of Justice to hire police officers or avoid cuts.
His petition was received, and on Friday he was scheduled to meet with the president’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, office, which awarded the grants.
Last month, Trenton laid off 105 officers from a force of about 300, besides the recent retirements of three officers who won’t be replaced.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature have yet to reach a deal on fully restoring $139 million in special aid to distressed cities — money that cities are still counting on to help balance their budgets. Without it, mayors say, cuts to essential services could get worse.
The executive director of the state’s League of Municipalities, Bill Dressel, said these are “white-knuckle issues.”
“Mayors and city officials are at wits’ ends,” Dressel said. “These towns are in dire financial straits. They need some definitive answer as to whether they will get the money.”
Some relief is on the way for five communities that learned Friday night they would receive transitional aid from the state.
The state Department of Community Affairs announced Friday that Camden, Paterson, Trenton, Union, and Lawnside would share $117 million, though the awards are contingent on the Legislature approving the administration’s proposal to make permanent strict oversight and reporting requirements for communities getting such aid.
Camden will get $61.4 million, Trenton will receive $22 million, and Paterson gets $21 million. Union is due to receive $12 million, while Lawnside gets $700,000. Bridgeton had also applied for transitional aid, but that was denied because of the city’s “improving financial condition.”
Christie had cut aid to cities during a spate of 11th-hour budget vetoes because of a tiff with Democrats over how the funds would be administered and overseen. He says Democrats left him no option after they removed a critical oversight clause.
Democrats say the oversight language was never removed but rather adjusted, so Christie’s administration — not the cities — pay for the oversight.
They have yet to come to an agreement on the dispute, but both sides say they expect one to happen, possibly right after the Nov. 8 legislative elections.
“Discussions between the Senate and Assembly are ongoing, and the Senate president hopes to review the issue with the governor in the near future,” said Chris Donnelly, a spokesman for Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland.
A spokesman for Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Esssex, Passaick, said she expected that a solution will be found.
“We expect everyone will work cooperatively on this,” said Oliver spokesman Tom Hester Jr., who added that Democrats believe money from an oversight committee could be used for cities that run into immediate cash flow problems.
Camden laid off 168 police officers, about half its force, in January. It hired back 74 after finding state and local funds to pay for them. It’s receiving a $3.8 million grant from the COPS program to rehire 14 more.
On Thursday, Christie sounded unsure about when help would come Trenton’s way, saying his administration was working “very hard with Mayor Mack to try to get the situation under control.”
“I’m not confident we’re going to be able to help,” Christie said Thursday night on Townsquare Media’s “Ask the Governor” program. “I’m confident we’re going to do everything we can to help.”