By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Atlantic City government is slimming down. Its new budget is $35 million less than the current one.
“This isn’t a budget that we’re presenting and then fighting with the state. This is a budget that we’ve agreed to as we came in,” said Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian.
Guardian is delighted the budget cuts the local property tax by 5 percent.
“Yeah, taxes is the big one. We can’t find when taxes went down in Atlantic City. We went back 20 years. It hasn’t in 20 years. This is going to be a 5 percent reduction in property taxes for both residents and businesses,” he said.
The city is under state control. Gov. Chris Christie designated his friend and ally Jeff Chiesa to oversee city finances.
Guardian and state officials have already worked out this budget.
“Certainly the Chiesa law firm, the commissioner of the DCA and the director of the Local Finance Board understands and approves of what we’re presenting tonight and we’ve been meeting in Trenton probably since early January every two weeks putting this budget together,” he said.
How is that relationship going?
“Well, no one likes to be taken over and I’m certainly going to look forward to when the city is returned to us. And I know that’s not going to be probably until the next governor takes the oath. But we have to live with that,” Guardian said.
Last year’s fight over the takeover bill pitted Guardian against Christie. Christie won, and said last week the takeover is working.
“So I would say all of the things that the state did for us certainly could have happened without the takeover. They could have just treated us like they treat the Trentons, the Patersons, the Union Cities, the Jersey Cities, the Newark. The governor decided not to do that, but certainly, from the beginning, I have to say we could not dig ourselves out of this by ourselves. The takeover was just excessive,” Guardian said.
Chiesa and the state want to cut back salaries and staffing at the police and fire departments. They’ve been partially successful in this budget.
“Salaries and benefits are definitely cut to the tune of $8 million between police and fire,” Guardian said, adding no positions will be eliminated.
The mayor joined the firefighters’ union in a lawsuit to preserve as many as 100 of the 225 firefighting jobs.
“That would have been devastating for us and that would have been an inability in a reasonable time frame to get to a fire. That would’ve been unreasonable,” Guardian said. He said the state wanted to cut 100 positions.
Guardian describes his relationship with the state as civil, despite calling them snakes and full of poisonous venom on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Yes, that was the state. … Because they ultimately respond to one person, so all of the logic, common sense that I have with so many of the key leadership in the state, they still have to report to the governor,” Guardian said.
So who’s the snake? “The governor,” Guardian said. He’s not still calling Christie a snake, but said, “I’m saying at this point we’re finding some solutions, but he created this difficult situation that we’re in. When we lost a casinos, we asked to be treated like other cities … with some school aid and we didn’t get it.”
When asked if he blames Christie for the city’s position, Guardian said, “No, but he’s part. Just like I gave him credit for the Hard Rock opening, I blame him as part of everyone else for the five casinos closing under his watch.”
Tonight the mayor presents this new budget to city council.
In November this Republican in a Democratic city stands for re-election.
“When I ran the first time, I said I’d like eight years. We’ve gone through four years. I’ve planted a lot of the seeds. Now it’s time to sow those seeds and make sure Atlantic City continues. We have 400 fewer employees, mostly through attrition that is in City Hall being employed by City Hall. We’ve dropped the budget $56 million. We have a lot of these projects coming on that brings in new tax ratables, so to continue a tax decrease in the next four years for the people of Atlantic City and to really get people to want to move down here, whether it’s at a second home or actually come and live here full time is what my goals are going to be in my second term,” Guardian said.
With its tax cut, you could say it’s an election year budget.