Atlantic City compromise seen as possible, but still out of reach
An Assembly committee Thursday passed a revamped alternative to the takeover plan for Atlantic City preferred by Gov. Chris Christie, though it seems unlikely it will be the final word on the issue.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto made four changes to his go-slow proposal, which were endorsed unanimously by committee Thursday. Along the way, backers of the plan issued a clear “thanks, but no thanks” to a compromise unveiled a day earlier by Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said the proposal from Sweeney and allies — which would give city officials 130 days to cut spending 48 percent — is a good sign. The proposal is not yet a bill and wasn’t officially the focus of Thursday’s hearing.
“We only look to it, though, as a committee as something that’s positive because it demonstrates that there’s no longer that line in the sand that had been there when we last got together,” McKeon said.
Prieto said he’s looking forward to more dialogue and is “always willing to compromise even further.”
The version preferred by Christie, Sweeney and other South Jersey Democrats, which has already been passed by the Senate, would immediately grant the state sweeping control over local finances in Atlantic City, where the collapse of casino values opened a gaping budget deficit and left the city almost broke.
Sweeney said Wednesday he’s willing to give the city 130 days to reform its finances – which it defines as cutting city spending from $6,700 per capita to $3,500. The state would issue the city a bridge loan to keep the city running. If the cuts aren’t made in time, the state would take over operations.
A parade of officials and members of the public said that’s an unrealistic and impractical goal.
“In a hundred thirty days, we can’t cut $128 million from our budget. If we laid off every single employee of the city, we still would be $30 million or $40 million from reaching that goal,” said Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican.
“We are not interested in entertaining a measure, though in good faith and compromise, but something that is totally and humanly impossible,” said City Council President Marty Small, a Democrat.
“This is a first step. But to ask the city to cut its budget in half in a 130 days when the state wasn’t able to cut it by a third in over five years is not really realistic,” said Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic. “I would almost say back to Sen. Sweeney: If you want to do all of us a favor, I’d love to see you cut the state budget in half in a 130 days. That would be pretty good as well.”
Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said “the real disgrace here” is that Sweeney’s counteroffer would allow collectively bargained contracts to be torn up on Labor Day, presuming the city didn’t make the cuts that city officials say can’t be made.
“It’s ironic that 130 days brings us to Labor Day, the day that we’re supposed to celebrate labor in New Jersey. That would be the day that collective bargaining and the rest of the workers’ rights that we’ve worked hard for for decades and decades will be terminated, decimated,” Colligan said.
Labor Day is 130 days from April 28, two weeks from now.
Guardian reiterated a point that he has made before: that it’s not fair to judge his city by its resident population of around 39,000 because that ignores the 51,000 people who work in the city and the surge of tourists on weekends and in the summer.
It’s the opposite of a bedroom community where the population is smaller during the day while residents commute to their jobs, Guardian said, arguing that the city’s average population is more fairly described by Stockton University or the local Chamber of Commerce as 128,000. He said that knocks $1,500 off the per-capita spending amount cited by the city’s critics.
Guardian also made the point with a new rhetorical flourish, noting that last year the city transported 21,000 people to the hospital — lots of them visitors.
“Now you may think Atlantic City is unhealthy, but you can’t believe that half of my city needs to be transported to the hospital every year,” Guardian said.
“This isn’t just comparing apples to oranges. It’s comparing a fish to a bicycle,” said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey director for the Communications Workers of America, who called a per capita spending analysis “a cruel joke of an argument.”
Prieto’s plan calls the city to be given a certain amount of time to meet benchmarks developed by a Planning Committee controlled by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. If it misses its marks one year, the panel gains powers such as the ability to sell city assets. If it misses a second time, the panel could break contracts, among other new powers.
Christie says that’s too slow to rescue the city and designed to push the biggest impacts off to a time he’ll no longer be governor.
These four changes were made to Prieto’s proposal that had advanced last week:
A bit over 36 percent of the payments from casinos to the city would be forwarded to the school district. That’s the same share as the schools got last year. Lawmakers forgot to include that in the original bill.
The special master who would be appointed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to oversee whether the financial benchmarks set by a new Planning Committee are being met would be appointed sooner than originally envisioned — within a month.
The Planning Committee would have to issue reports every six months, rather than every 12.
The additional powers that would be granted to the Planning Committee if the city misses its benchmarks in any 12-month period would apply regardless of which year it happens and expand even if a second year of misses isn’t consecutive.
The Assembly didn’t bill get universal praise. Some said it’s unfair to potentially revoke collectively bargained contracts, even on a two-year delay. A few suggested adding more Atlantic City residents to the Planning Committee in order to prevent Christie from having a controlling majority.
“The timeline that you have given is unsustainable,” said Linda Steele, president of the Atlantic City NAACP, who said there should be no further layoffs. “It is a timeline that is designed for failure and so that somebody can feel comfortable and say, ‘Well, we made an effort and we gave them a choice.’”