Residents Take Atlantic City Bailout Fight to State House

By David Cruz

The only thing that everyone seemed to agree on at today’s Senate Budget Committee hearing is that Atlantic City is on the edge of a fiscal cliff. How to walk back from the edge of the abyss? Well, that sparked much of the heated debate at today’s meeting. On the agenda: two bills. One to create a tax payment system for casinos and the other, more contentious so-called Atlantic City takeover bill.

“The seeds of this disaster go back 30 years,” testified Local 54 President Bob McDevitt. “They go back to the dawn of the casino industry. The largess, the patronage, the nepotism, all the things that have ruined the city have been from one administration to the next, to the next, to the next. And we’re at the end of the line now.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney sat in on today’s committee hearing, answering questions and criticism with equal parts patience and exasperation.

“First off, I do not blame the mayor or the council for losing two-thirds of the ratable base,” said Sweeney. “I want to make that very clear, but the realities are that we have a government that costs $262 million for 38,000 people.”

The so-called PILOT bill — which would set annual payments in lieu of taxes for the casino industry — has broad support, but Senate bill 1711, the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, gives the state almost unfettered powers to sell off, dissolve, ignore, break and generally deny the city whatever it deems necessary to restore financial order. That is proving too much for city leaders to take.

“They want to parade around the state or to any microphone that will pick them up and talk about how bad Atlantic City government is, when the truth of the matter is that we have had a fiscal monitor from the state since 2010 that has been controlling hiring, firing and everything else,” noted Council President Marty Smalls.

Skeptics like Republican Jen Beck, who voted against the bill, cautioned that — rather than safeguarding against Atlantic City’s or any other town’s bankruptcy — the bill will allow the state to take over any city it deems to be in financial stress.

“The way it’s written now and as I am projecting forward as to what could be the future of municipalities in my district and around the state, it raises concerns to me,” she told Sweeney, to which he responded, “If bankruptcy happens and you allow Atlantic City to file bankruptcy, why would you deny other communities in the same fiscal crisis? You know what I’m saying?”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said the state was overreaching. “The bill, if signed into law, will be the statutory blueprint for how the state can take over any city in the future,” he warned. “If local and state elected officials who represent cities like Trenton and Paterson and Passaic and Newark aren’t gravely concerned over the provisions in this legislation, they should be.”

The bills moving forward today are admittedly imperfect, and while a takeover may accomplish the short-term goal of forestalling bankruptcy, it has hardened opposition, and critics say — today’s vote not withstanding — they will continue to fight against it.