Christie, Prieto get face-to-face on Atlantic City crisis … and accomplish nothing
Gov. Chris Christie finally met with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to talk about Atlantic City’s financial crisis, with the city days away from running out of cash.
They didn’t make any progress.
That much, but nothing else, was agreed upon Monday, as the standoff dragged a day closer to the breaking point.
- Christie’s Department of Education went to court to make sure near-broke Atlantic City would provide the school system its share of taxes. The city’s mayor said those payments are going to be made, on the same schedule the state has green-lighted for the last year and a half.
- Christie says Atlantic City owes its schools nearly $34 million by June 30. Mayor Don Guardian says it’s less.
- City officials say a three-week closure of nonessential offices won’t be needed because union workers agreed to be paid every four weeks, rather than every two. Christie says that doesn’t solve the problem, and his administration’s lawsuit might actually block city workers from being paid this week.
- Christie and Prieto don’t even agree on whether the takeover bill would pass if the Assembly were to vote on it. Christie says it would, with Republicans and South Jersey Democrats in favor. Prieto says otherwise.
Christie last Thursday offered Prieto a Friday meeting. After playing phone tag, they finally met on Monday morning. The short version: They chatted about having had a nice Easter. Neither side appears to have budged in the roughly hour-long chat. Christie explained the city’s cash flow situation and that the state would be suing. And that was essentially that.
“The speaker and I met, and all I’ll say about it is we made no progress,” Christie said.
“We didn’t go very far because he is ‘my way or the highway,’” Prieto said.
Christie said Atlantic City won’t have the money to pay its school district its April, May or June installments of property taxes. He said the city just made the March payment on April 1, though Guardian says that’s the payment schedule recommended by a state-appointed monitor.
Christie said the city has $10 million in cash left and intends to make a $3.2 million payroll payment Friday. If it does that, it won’t be able to make the $8.4 million payment due for April, he said, so the state is pushing for a quick court hearing to stop that spending.
“We want to stop that. We want a court to stop it before Friday, so they don’t do away with this money before they can go to the teachers and the school children of Atlantic City,” Christie said.
Guardian said the city has been making payments to the school district on the schedule Christie now criticizes at the direction of the state-appointed monitor for 18 months. He said the monitors for the city and schools, both state-appointed, talk every few days.
"We'll be making our payment in April and May and in June. Now after that, yeah, we're back into the same problems financially," Guardian said.
"I can assure you we're not going to play politics with our kids. We're going to make sure that they're taken care of. It's difficult times, for sure, but we're doing the best that we can," Guardian said.
“To use Atlantic City school children in this battle, that we’re withholding payments so our children won’t be able to go to school, is ludicrous,” said City Council President Marty Small, who said Christie should be ashamed.
The Christie administration's lawsuit would reintroduce an urgency to the issue that was on the verge of somewhat dissipating when unions agreed to be paid every four weeks, rather than every two weeks, which would eliminate the need to temporarily close offices for three weeks, starting at the end of this week.
The delayed payroll would keep offices open until at least June, when the city’s cash flow is projected to go into a long-term deficit unless it receives an infusion of state aid that Christie won’t approve without sweeping new state powers over local governing.
“This isn’t a solution. It’s a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound,” Christie said of the payroll plan.
“The city has come up with a plan that the state clearly doesn’t like about switching our payroll,” Small said. “... This move is a desperate attempt to try to usurp those funds from the city.”
Prieto continues to oppose the bill because of its provisions that would impact collective bargaining, including the power to dissolve union contracts.
“I still believe that the core democratic principles that I believe in need to be upheld. And I’ve been strong about them since I became speaker, whether it was interest arbitration until today,” Prieto said. “I’m calling on the Senate president to come and work on a bill that we can both agree on to put on the governor’s desk that will help Atlantic City in a mindful way that doesn’t have things like the state being exempt from unfair labor practices.”
Christie said the absence of those powers is a reason past state takeovers haven’t worked.
“I have no interest in failing at this. I have no interest in becoming another in a line of governors who engaged in a state takeover and it didn’t succeed. And that’s why I’ve asked for the authority and why the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, have agreed. Doing half-measures will just lead to failure,” Christie said.
Guardian said Atlantic City’s police and fire unions have made concessions through collective bargaining and would continue to do so. He and Small said the city have been under state control for five years and bear responsibility for the city’s financial decisions since 2010.
“For him to come out and say that the city and the city council are spending like drunken sailors, I would say that the state is not only the bartender that we’re drinking from, they’re also paying the tab because those are the ones that are approving any and everything that we have,” Small said.
“You’re the investigative reporters. You should figure out why this is occurring,” Guardian said of the takeover bill. “Someone’s pulling the strings. I think you’re going after Pinocchio when you should be going after Geppetto. When you figure out who the Geppettos are in this state, then everything else should be pretty clear what’s going on in Atlantic City.”
Michael Symons has covered the Statehouse since 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com or @MichaelSymons_ on Twitter.