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CAMDEN – The room was in a building named after Jim Florio, so it was certainly fitting that the former governor made the most prescient comment of the day.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about tax incentives for business, Florio said. It all comes down to how they are used, and who uses them. In short, you need conscientious people who have a vision that extends beyond their own success.
The city of Camden and many of the new businesses now located there have benefited greatly from tax incentive programs run through the state Economic Development Authority. All that was business as usual until a recent state comptroller’s report said some businesses may have gotten grants – actually tax credits in most cases – improperly.
Gov. Phil Murphy seized on the report and quickly named a task force to examine the program. That has prompted much verbal sparring among the governor, Republican Chris Christie, who was a big proponent of tax credits to spur business investment, and George Norcross, the South Jersey political boss who saw many of the tax credits in question go to businesses to which he is connected.
And so on Thursday, a contingent of Camden officials and business leaders came together at the James J. Florio Center for Public Service to defend the program and to talk about how well Camden is doing.
“Camden Rising” was the slogan of the day.
As the mayor, business executives and former Gov. Jon Corzine spoke, it was easy to lose attention. Interestingly, Norcross wasn’t at the event. Neither were Senate President Sweeney or Christie.
Those who spoke said nothing wrong or crazy. But very little of what they were saying was new.
It’s understood that Camden, once seen as the one of the poorest locales in the nation, has been turning around. Speakers said new commercial construction has meant hundreds of jobs for city residents. Moreover, buoyed by corporate support, the city has been improving its schools, fixing its roads and reducing crime. No one can deny that type of success.
Yet, as speaker after speaker went on, no one mentioned how the EDA program that is helping Camden is under attack.
Except Florio, the last person to speak.
He acknowledged that many reporters were in the room not to attend a pep rally for Camden, but because of the controversy.
The former governor spoke of what he called “whispering, rumors and stories” about the program. What’s important, he said, is to understand the facts free of preconceived notions.
To that end, he urged that the key beneficiaries or “stakeholders” in the tax incentive program get in a room with relevant state officials and hash out what, if anything, is going wrong.
There was no visible politics in the room, but just outside on Federal Street, protesters picketed and chanted in opposition to the tax incentive program.
“All the thieves are inside,” said one. Not too subtle.