Senate President Sweeney: Atlantic City Should Have Given Us a Plan

There’s another intervention to save Atlantic City from bankruptcy. Senate leaders have submitted companion bills that would give the state sweeping authority over the city’s finances, remove a wide range of decision making powers from the city’s government, allow the Local Finance Board to restructure the city’s debt, dissolve any municipal board, department or commission and even modify or terminate collective bargaining agreements. The bill’s sponsors call it a “cooperative working agreement”. Atlantic City’s council president calls it a dictatorship. Senate President Steve Sweeney joined NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams from Trenton.

Williams: How is this intervention plan different from a state takeover?

Sweeney: The bottom line is Atlantic City is out of money in a couple of weeks. They need to restructure their government. There’s not a willingness to restructure their government, and the only answer Atlantic City ever gives anybody is send us a check. Many municipalities can say the same thing. We just don’t have that kind of money. The mayor just recently, in the Press of Atlantic City, said they could make $9 million from their utility authority, their water authority, but they’re only going to make $5.5 million because he’s not going to let anyone go, even if the jobs are unnecessary and duplicate. That’s what we’re dealing with is people not dealing with reality. They should have given us a plan. They don’t like our plan, but they haven’t offered any solution to basically a $100 million budget deficit. Just saying give us more money every time we speak to them is not acceptable. We have communities like Paterson and other places that struggle, too.

Williams: You and the Legislature have been around the block on this one before. What’s the difference between this new legislation and the last go around?

Sweeney: There’s not a whole lot of difference. We spell things out a little more clearly, but we’ve said from the beginning and I don’t expect Atlantic City to embrace or even say they like it at all. I’ve had honest conversations with the council. I had a closed session meeting with the council, and one of the council people said don’t be mad at the state, they’re only here because we won’t do what we need to do.

Williams: [Atlantic City Mayor Don] Guardian has called these new bills worse than the previous bills, an equivalent to a state takeover that violates residents’ civil rights. The council president, Marty Smalls, said it’s not a partnership, it’s a dictatorship. Will you be able to work with the mayor and the council?

Sweeney: The name calling makes no sense because how are they going to pay their bills in three weeks? Again, no one likes this. I would prefer not to be involved in it at all, but unfortunately Atlantic City’s leadership has not put forward a plan to close a $100 million deficit. Look, I don’t blame them for their rateable loss. They lost two-thirds of their rateable base, but instead of doing something about it they’re not doing anything but complaining. [They’re] saying give us more money and we’ll be fine. Look, there were suggestions of a city wage tax. All they’re talking about is getting more money. Atlantic City has 38,000 people and a budget of $262 million. No one spends as much as Atlantic City per person and when we compared it with like urban areas, Atlantic City said we don’t like that, we don’t think it’s fair. Their city is struggling, too. So, I said OK, how about New Brunswick? New Brunswick, who is a well-run city, extremely efficient, their budget is $58 million. They have 60,000 people. Their population explodes just like Atlantic City’s does.

Williams: And huge rateables from Rutgers University, among others.

Sweeney: But New Brunswick wasn’t always that way. It was leadership controlling costs and making things happen is what turned New Brunswick around.

Williams: Let’s talk about the casinos. Under this new plan the casinos would be required to pay $30 million a year in addition to their PILOT payments — Payment in Lieu Of Taxes. Are the casinos on board with this?

Sweeney: The casinos are going to work with us. Obviously we had negotiated an additional $75 million between the administration and the Legislature with casinos to give Atlantic City more help because we recognized that we have to give them as much help as we can. But what’s their plan? I guess my point is rather than calling names, produce a plan that shows how they’re going to solve their problem.

Williams: You mentioned this at the beginning of this interview that this plan does give the city a year to find a way to monetize the water authority before the state can sell it to a private entity. Mayor Guardian has warned that that would lead to rate hikes, which wouldn’t help. Is it even possible to make money from the water authority?

Sweeney: It really is, and that’s a glaring example of what’s wrong with Atlantic City. If they could have been generating millions of dollars a year, well then guess what, they should have been generating millions of dollars a year. They chose not to. They’re overstaffed. It’s a bloated agency. I think the commissioners on the utility authority are paid commissioners. The thing that stuck out to me more than anything is when the mayor in the press said even if the jobs aren’t needed I’m not going to let anybody go. Now, how do I explain that to my colleagues in the Legislature that you know Jersey City did something with their water company, Bayonne did something with their water company? My suggestion wasn’t going to a private entity. It was going to a very well-run county utility authority which is the Atlantic County utility authority. We want to protect against rate spikes.

Williams: Senator, very quickly, a similar bill package was vetoed by Gov. Christie. What are the chances that it’s going to get vetoed again?

Sweeney: We’re working with the administration. We’re working with the speaker. We’ve all been in a room together, so I expect that when the bills are finalized there will be some tweaking and changing before we actually get them to the governor’s desk, but I expect he’ll sign them because we’ve been working with him.