Tough words today in the battle to keep Atlantic City financially afloat, even temporarily. The city moved a day closer to shutting down non-essential services because of a cash crisis. The mayor said if the city goes bankrupt, blame the governor. The governor said AC’s troubles are self-made and state lawmakers need to act. NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron joined Correspondent Michael Hill from Atlantic City.
Aron: We’re outside City Hall where Mayor [Don] Guardian held a press conference this afternoon to explain the mechanics of this city government shutdown. He said that police and fire will work for free or for deferred compensation during the three-week period, that the rest of the 950-person city workforce will work if they wish to for deferred pay or they can go on unemployment. But before he explained all that, he launched into a fairly bitter critique of the governor on all this. Here are some excerpts.
Guardian: There are a lot of issues that I agree with our governor. But taking over Atlantic City is certainly not one of them. He’s dead wrong. Are we going to run out of money? Absolutely. That’s with the PILOT bill being vetoed or not vetoed. That’s with the takeover bill passing or not passing. We will run out of money and it will be on April 8. We will absolutely run out of money because the governor has withheld $33.5 million. No one else to blame here. Thirty-three and half million dollars this city was forced to put into its budget and the money is coming from casinos — not from state taxpayers, from casinos. And yet the governor has decided that he’s not going to allow us to have that money. He’s going to withhold it. In effect, he is absolutely shutting us down. … You keep on wanting to compare us to other cities and you want to talk about only 39,000 residents living here. But we have 40,000 people that work here. And we’re not an eight-hour city. People don’t come here at 9 and go home at 5. They work 24 hours a day. And we have 300,000 people that come to party on Saturdays and Sundays year round and just about every day that it’s warm. So base us on 300,000 or 400,000 people a day and your numbers disappear. … The takeover bill from the very beginning, we understand the state’s going to help get us money from casinos, give us some subsidy. They want to have a lot of control over the finances. We get it, we accept it. But to take over all the other duties, we’re saying that doesn’t make sense. There should be reasonable benchmarks that we get to different steps that haven’t anything to do with finances. And if we fail — me as mayor, city council — if we fail, then we understand the state’s going to take more direct action.
Mary Small, Atlantic City Council President: He’s more concerned about being a celebrity groupie for Donald Trump than serving the citizens of Atlantic City and making sure that this situation could’ve been avoided.
Guardian: Why the governor is picking on Atlantic City and the people of my city, I don’t know. I’ve done nothing to provoke the man.
Aron: Now there’s a pretty serious political standoff going here with the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney on one side, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Mayor Guardian on the other. Prieto held a State House news conference today to address the question. Christie took questions on it later. Prieto makes the point that under state law, the governor and the state already have most of the powers he’s seeking.
Prieto: Title 52, where he has the powers, the memo from OLS talking about that, it’s all here. You can take a copy of it. I’m not making things up. I’m not saying sound bites. I’ve said this. We need to get into a room. If you want a bill, I’m more than happy to give you a bill, but it’s got to be a bill that’s negotiated. To tell me and dictate to me that you’re not going to change one word? I said that’s preposterous.
Christie: Let’s make it very clear. If Atlantic City’s finances go down the tubes, there’s only one person to blame, and that’s Vincent Prieto. The fact of the matter is this. I negotiated a bipartisan agreement with the Democrats in the New Jersey State Senate. It passed overwhelmingly. This morning, his own majority leader — Majority Leader [Lou] Greenwald — announced that he’s canvassed his caucus and spoken with Assembly Minority Leader [Jon] Bramnick and said there are enough votes to pass the takeover bill in the Assembly. The speaker refuses to post it because he is playing public sector union politics on behalf of his political boss Steve Fulop and on behalf of his own political ambitions. It’s unacceptable. … Anybody who’s concerned about this, go to nj.gov/governor. Right there on the splash page we’re going to put Vincent Prieto’s office number. Call him and ask him why he’s messing up their family vacation. Ask him why he’s messing up their convention. Ask him why he’s messing up their meetings. Ask him why he’s putting the interests of the public sector unions ahead of the interests of the people of Atlantic City, Atlantic County and all those people who go there.
Hill: Michael, tell me what are the sticking points in this plan? What’s the holdup?
Aron: Well the mayor says that a takeover disenfranchises the people of Atlantic City, which is largely a minority city. The speaker says collective bargaining is sacrosanct and that the takeover would break collective bargaining agreements. Those are the ostensible sticking points, but really there’s a power struggle going on here. The motivations aren’t entirely clear. Some think that Christie is continuing to play against the public employee unions because he likes to and that Prieto is conversely courting the public employee unions.
Hill: And why won’t Speaker Prieto schedule a vote, post this in the Assembly?
Aron: We heard Christie say it would pass the Assembly, quoting Lou Greenwald, but the speaker won’t accept the bill as it is. He wants some changes. He wants the collective bargaining provision out of the bills so the collective bargaining would stand. There’s privatization of the local water authority in the bill. He wants that out of the bill. It was said by somebody this morning that a game of chicken is being played here and although Prieto says he’s not playing chicken, that’s kind of what it looks like.
Hill: There’s a lot at stake there. Michael Aron, live for us tonight in Atlantic City. Thank you Michael.