Fight Over Atlantic City’s Future Heats Up

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

The letter to the speaker pleads with him to post the Atlantic City recovery bills for a vote or risk plunging South Jersey into a recession or depression.

It is signed by all 13 Assembly Democrats south of Bordentown, the first signature being that of Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald.

Greeenwald was unavailable for comment today, but two of his fellow South Jersey Democrats downplayed the notion the letter represents a serious break with the speaker.

“As a group we have a collective interest and it was thought that a formal correspondence would be helpful. As I hold the speaker in high esteem. I’m the deputy speaker. We work very closely together, so I think that letter is just part of the natural process,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli.

“The speaker actually represents a body of legislators, and I believe that body of legislators need the opportunity to be able to vote on a piece of legislation. Right now the speaker is the one who decides whether or not to put up a bill and we’re just asking him to allow the legislators to vote,” said Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt.

Prieto and Gov. Chris Christie have been engaged in a war of words the past two weeks over Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney’s desire for a state takeover of the financially ailing Atlantic City government.

After days of jaw-boning through the media, the two men actually sat down together in Christie’s office this morning, but on his way out, Prieto said they made no progress.

What’s his reaction to South Jersey letter? “I take their input and it will be weighed in and we’ll look at all of the options. But again, the options are right now in the governor’s hands that he has the power to be able to help Atlantic City and that’s the bottom line. You can’t really hold hostage a city and say that you know the state be exempt from unfair labor practices. That’s not what Democratic values areĀ  and I tell you I’m willing to compromise. I’m willing to put everything on the table but it doesn’t have to be on day one. If you got rid of every employee there that’s not going to help Atlantic City. It’s going to need a bailout and you know what give it time to get there. Give it time as they have. The police force has been cut 25 percent, $17 millions since 2012. They’ve been trying. They got to get there. It was a marathon getting into this problem because they had a lot of revenues so was it bloated government, yeah, but give them time to get it under control,” Prieto said.

Christie, for his part, ratcheted up the pressure by announcing the state was in court this afternoon seeking to block the city from using funds intended for the local school system.

“Between now and June 30 the city owes the school district nearly $34 million and there is no question that they will not have the money to pay it due to the irresponsibility of the city government. So today at my direction Education Commissioner Hespe has filed a lawsuit to protect the property tax collections that rightfully belong to the Atlantic City school district and the families they serve. The action won’t fix the cities own financial problems, but it will prevent them from making Atlantic City students and their families collateral damage to their reckless financial gains,” Christie said.

Again, he called on Prieto to post the recovery bills.

“I urge the speaker again to post the bill. He’s got a voting session on Thursday. Post the bill. If he wants to get it off the roster and argue against it, do so. If you want to vote against it, vote against it. But the speaker’s irresponsible actions are now putting at risk one of America’s great historical cities,” Christie said.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian responded at a late afternoon State House press conference, saying the state’s own monitor is in charge of school monies and that they will get transferred to the schools.

“We’re concerned about the statements that he made. If he wants to take legal action I guess he would have to ask the Attorney General to take legal action against himself and the staff that he’s put in charge that tells us when to make payments to the school,” Guardian said.

When asked if he’s spoken to Christie lately he said that it’s been since January.

“You’re the investigative reporters. You should find out why this is occurring. Someone is pulling the strings. I think you’re going after Pinocchio. I think you should be going after Gepetto. When you figure out who the Gepetto are in the state then everything else will be pretty clear about what’s going on in Atlantic City. Let’s just go back to correspondence. On my phone right now I have the personal cell phone of both of our federal senators, our congressmen. I certainly have Steve Sweeney and Vincent Prieto’s phone number. Most of the Assembly and the Senators. If I called or texted them they would pick up the phone almost instantly as I would. I don’t have a phone number, never have, for the governor. Neither does anyone else,” Guardian said.

Prieto seems unruffled by the South Jersey members’ letter to him. Of the remaining 39 Assembly Democrats, 21 of them have come out in support of Prieto’s position, like Budget Committee Chair Assemblyman Gary Schaer.

“He’s right because we have contracts. We cannot summarily continue to make them and then break them. It speaks poorly of the state. That’s number one. Number two, the speaker has outlined clearly that in most or many of the past incidences where the state has done takeovers, those unfortunately have not proven successful. Number three, the people of Atlantic City deserve representation by the state coming in and taking over their government, essentially that representation is lost,” he said.

When asked if it concerns him that the South Jersey Democrats appear to be siding with Senate President Sweeney he said, “You know what, like I said I’ll take their concerns into consideration. We are the Assembly and we will make the decision as an Assembly caucus,” he said. “I hang up my ego when I walk in the door. I bring no ego to the table. As you know, Michael, I have not been the first in the airwaves. I don’t negotiate in the airwaves. I have not been disrespectful to anybody. I’ve only been realistic and factual on everything and I only answer when somebody says something that is inaccurate, so that’s part of me. I have not called names to anybody, so you haven’t heard me call anybody names.”

When asked how much he thinks this has to do with the 2017 gubernatorial jockeying he said, “I’ve told you, even off the record, zero. I’m telling you right now. This is something as I said before, interest arbitration two years ago, I took the same stance that we had to negotiate something. So this is not something new for me. This is not a political ploy. This is not something about Mayor Steve Fulop of Jersey City, as other people have brought him into the conversation. This is about my core beliefs of what Democrats stand for,” Prieto said.

How does it end? “Stay tuned,” he said.

Mayor Guardian says the city now has enough money to last until May.

[EXTENDED INTERVIEW] Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto spoke with NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron this morning ahead of Gov. Chris Christie’s press conference about the future of Atlantic City.