Atlantic City leaders grapple with state takeover threat
Atlantic City's elected officials mixed compliance with defiance Wednesday as they struggled to respond to a threatened state takeover of the city's finances.
Shortly after a state takeover bill was introduced, Mayor Don Guardian and City Council members said they wanted to work with the state rather than fight it.
But several also warned the city would not be bullied, and Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey cautioned against adopting "a plantation mentality" regarding Atlantic City, where blacks constitute the largest population group at nearly 40 percent.
"There's no fight, no war," Guardian said at a news conference. "We weren't elected as generals; we were elected as diplomats."
"We want to offer an olive branch to the state," added City Council President Marty Small. "But realize that it's a two way street. We're not going to be bullied, and we're not going to be intimidated."
Coursey, an Atlantic County official, said, "It will be a cold day in hell before we stand idly by" for what he called "a hostile takeover."
"Other than giving us some more dollars, what can the state do to get us out of this hole?" he asked. "Everything the state touches turns to crap. Don't come in here with a plantation mentality, and say, `Do as we say."'
State Senate President Steve Sweeney introduced a bill giving the state vast power over most major decisions in Atlantic City, including the right to sell off city assets and land. He said there is "Atlantic City fatigue" in the state Legislature with repeated requests for money.
The bill, which was listed Wednesday evening on the state legislature's web site as having been introduced Tuesday night, would give the state Local Finance Board control of "any of the functions, powers, privileges, immunities, and duties of the governing body."
It would give the board control over governmental and administrative operations, the right to dissolve any municipal board or commission, and the right to sell municipally owned assets including water, sewer, wastewater and storm water facilities as well as city-owned real estate.
Sweeney wants Atlantic City to sell its water company and the former Bader Field airport site.
Small said Atlantic City already has complied with 90 percent of what it has been asked to do by its state overseers, including an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Chris Christie.
"Last time I checked, when you get a 90 on a test, you get an `A'," he said.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said he will review the bill once it is introduced with an eye toward making it more palatable to all involved.
"This is a complex issue, yet also a problem that deserves attention considering the serious problems facing Atlantic City and the impact those problems have on its residents," he said.
Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, an Atlantic City-area Democrat, said city officials should be permitted to represent their constituents, even though he said "seismic cuts" still need to be made to Atlantic City's budget.
Guardian said it is too soon to predict whether Atlantic City would challenge a takeover bid in court.
Sweeney said the city should file for bankruptcy if the legislature does not quickly adopt the measure once it is introduced. Guardian said that remains an option, given that the city remains locked in a dispute with its top casino, the Borgata, over $161 million in tax refunds it must pay due to successful tax appeals.
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