Philadelphia Inquirer

Corzine's Budget Hits Camden Hard

The plan calls for deep cuts. Residents and city advocates say changes could be dramatic

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Monday, May 26, 2008

By Adrienne Lu

When Juantez Ellis was homeless and unemployed three years ago and needed new glasses, she turned to the Camden Eye Center.

Soon, the nonprofit agency may need help itself. That's because the Corzine administration's proposed state budget would eliminate the eye center's state funding of $250,000 - no small chunk of change in a total annual budget of $1.2 million.

Corzine's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year totals $32.8 billion. The spending plan, which the legislature is debating, would represent one of the largest year-to-year budget cuts ever and calls for eliminating the departments of commerce and personnel and scaling back aid to municipalities.

In his budget address, Corzine acknowledged that his proposal was "not designed to please, but it is a prudent blueprint to meet difficult economic circumstances, correct past mistakes, and lay a foundation for a responsible future."

The proposed plan would affect New Jerseyans' lives in ways large and small.

In Camden, long considered one of the nation's poorest and most dangerous cities, residents and city advocates say the proposed changes would have a dramatic impact.

At the Camden Eye Center, for example, state funding had dropped from $350,000 last fiscal year to $250,000 this year. In the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, its state funding would dry up entirely, according to the proposal.

Last year, the 47-year-old nonprofit treated 10,500 mostly low- to moderate-income patients across South Jersey, offering free and reduced-priced screenings, exams, and other services to people who otherwise might not have been helped.

"The bottom line is, with that cut, we're going to be able to see less patients," said president and chief executive officer Lawrence Ragone, who added that he understood the state is in difficult financial straits.

Based on preliminary figures, Cooper University Hospital stands to lose $2.6 million of $35 million in state funding for charity care, which helps hospitals cover some of the costs of treating the uninsured and underinsured.

But Cooper, which the state considers a "safety net" hospital because of the large number of patients who receive charity care, is relatively fortunate.

Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden is, according to the latest budget information, slated to receive from the state none of the $5.2 million for charity care that it received this year. The hospital's entire annual income from operations is $7.8 million, according to chief financial officer Andrew Guarni, which means such a large cut could would be devastating.

Unless the hospital gets a reprieve, Guarni said, officials there will be forced to look at cutting back on some services. Guarni said, patients may have fewer choices, could be forced to travel greater distances for service, or might face overcrowded conditions at hospitals.

Ev Liebman, director of organizing and advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action, a nonprofit advocacy group, said charity care was especially critical in areas such as Camden.

"In a city like Camden, where you have high rates of unemployment, you generally have high rates of people without insurance who are dependent on hospital emergency care for their most serious emergency medical needs," Liebman said. "Without hospitals being able to cover their costs, they run into more and more problems."

The proposed budget would increase copayments in the prescription drug program for seniors and the disabled from $5 to $6 for generic drugs and $7 for brand-name drugs. Medicaid patients could be charged a $6 copayment for visits to the emergency room and $2 for prescription drugs.

Institutions of higher education are also bracing for cuts.

Camden County College relies on the state for about 20 percent of its revenue. President Raymond Yannuzzi said the college could lose $1.3 million in state aid for its campuses in Blackwood, Camden and Cherry Hill.

"I don't think you'll see evidence of a cut, but we'll have to budget more tightly and look to share services with other agencies," Yannuzzi said. "Students won't notice the difference except they'll pay slightly more for tuition."

At Rutgers University-Camden, a proposed cut of $3 million in state aid this year follows another significant cut two years ago, which resulted in layoffs for 18 people, said interim Chancellor Margaret Marsh. The total campus budget is about $45 million.

If the proposed cuts are enacted, Marsh said, the college's priority would be to protect its academic mission. More layoffs would be unavoidable, most likely in administration. And students might not have as wide a variety of classes to choose from.

Proposed cuts to the property-tax rebate program would also hit Camden hard because so many of its residents are renters. About 55 percent of the city's occupied housing units are rentals, according to the 2006 American Community Survey.

Renters are now eligible for rebates of up to $350, with lower-income renters receiving higher rebates. Under the proposed budget, all renter rebates would be slashed to $80.

Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization, said that homeowners would receive rebates of about 20 percent of their property tax bill but that tenants would get only about 3 percent of their rent back.

"Balancing the budget on the backs of the lower-income renters doesn't make any sense," Shapiro said. "They're effectively raising the property taxes on those who can least afford it. It's backward."

Liebman argues that the bottom line is that cities like Camden would be much harder hit by the proposed budget cuts than others.

"In a city where you already have a lot of people living in poverty and also people living just above the poverty line, these kinds of cuts will force people under the poverty line," Liebman said.

Ellis, who visited the Camden Eye Center again last week, said that with the economy the way it is, people need all the help they can get.

"It's horrible," Ellis said. "People won't be able to make it."

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