Atlantic City financial rescue plan on Christie’s desk
Atlantic City’s financial rescue, or perhaps the path to a state takeover of its local government, is one step away from being put into motion.
Gov. Chris Christie’s signature is all that remains before a plan to avert New Jersey’s first municipal bankruptcy since the Great Depression becomes law. The Legislature passed the contentious plan on Thursday, with about three-fourths of lawmakers in favor of the package.
The bills were amended Thursday in ways meant to tie up technical errors and confusions in the legislation, but Christie indicated Wednesday he would review the changes before committing to sign the bills. He said he would decide quickly, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney predicted the same.
“So I would think that he’s going to move quickly because we want to get the clock started,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “We want Atlantic City’s elected representatives to get moving and start to fix this thing. We’ve wasted too much time.”
The package provides Atlantic City with money needed to close a deficit in its 2015 budget and reduce one in its current budget. This year’s budget will require additional cuts, as well, and the city will have until around Halloween to come up with a balanced 2017 budget and a five-year financial stability plan.
Christie preferred an immediate takeover, and it remains to be seen how the Local Finance Board and state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees municipalities for the state, works with Atlantic City as officials try to make the cuts needed to keep their autonomy.
“We have to work together. Clearly they could make it impossible for us,” said Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian. “But we’re going to be moving forward that this is a project that we’re all working together in cooperation.”
Guardian said the city will invite its state-appointed monitor and the head of the state Local Finance Board to sit as members of the committee of city officials that will meet to identify spending cuts. He said if state officials decline, the city will summarize each meeting for them.
“And we’re going to be asking them what they want in that plan,” Guardian said. “We’re going to try to deliver that plan for them.”
Atlantic City’s 2016 budget currently has a roughly $100 million deficit. The package before Christie provides $45 million in redirected casino taxes, and the city hasn’t yet found out whether its state aid will be more, less or the same as last year’s $38 million.
An outside monitor hired by the state estimated the city faces a $300 million deficit over the next five years. While the package guarantees a level of funding from casinos that won’t be shrunk by property tax appeals, other revenues gradually shrink, and the city will have to again start paying the state its obligations for pensions and health benefits, plus repay $44 million in skipped payments, plus interest.
“State takeover is still possible, but it’s really in our hands,” Guardian said.
Sweeney said he’d prefer that the city fix its own finances, rather than have the state take over.
“I’ve thought from the very beginning that it’s extremely doable, and it’s just a matter of having the will to do it. You know, they didn’t want to do it,” Sweeney said.
“The good news is it’s fixable,” he said. “Let’s see if they have the courage to do it.”
The package consists of two bills. The one setting out the timeframe and potential takeover passed by votes of 32-5 in the Senate and 60-12-1 in the Assembly. The one directing casino funds and taxes to the city passed 33-4 and 61-12-1.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, was among the opponents.
“I see this bill as enabling mismanagement, profligate spending,” Cardinale said. “And yes, there were some other conditions that helped put Atlantic City into the space where it is today, but I see this as enabling that mismanagement to continue – yes, for a limited period of time, but a period of time.”
Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, raised concerns about civil rights and voting rights and suggested he would continue to speak out on the issue. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has suggested the bill might be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge if a takeover usurps local decision-making.
“This does not give credit for progress,” Rice said. “And so if you’re asking for 100 percent within this short defined time period and it’s not reached – if you reach 95 percent – this bill says that the state can go in and take all the authority and disperse the assets and do whatever they want. I have a problem with that for a lot of reasons.”