Meetings & Information


Monday, May 9, 2016

N.J. fiddles as Atlantic City drowns

N.J. fiddles as Atlantic City drowns


Instead of crafting a desperately needed plan to help Atlantic City, New Jersey's elected leaders are staging a vulgar north-south, bicameral rumble in the Statehouse.
They spent last week promoting dueling bills and holding obnoxious, blame-trading press conferences to distract from their refusal to acknowledge the real problem: Atlantic City needs money.
Two years ago, the city lost four of its 12 casinos as gambling proliferated in Pennsylvania and other nearby states. Now it is lurching toward bankruptcy and likely to run out of money this month or next. This is in spite of six years of state oversight, a significant reduction in municipal expenses, and a city administration frantically trying to stay afloat, even negotiating deferred pay with its employees.
But in Trenton, there's no such attention to Atlantic City's survival. True to form, the state's politicians have larded up the agenda with pet projects like gambling in North Jersey, ulterior motives like looting whatever they can take from Atlantic City, and a proxy war over which Democrat might succeed Gov. Christie - Steve North (Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop) or Steve South (Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County).
If any of these people actually care about Atlantic City, they must act swiftly, wisely, and (gasp) selflessly, understanding that rescuing the resort will protect the state's investment and the region's economy. They must set aside backroom deals to build casinos in the north or handcuff Atlantic City's leaders so they can dole out recovery contracts. And, above all, they're going to have to cough up some money.
Atlantic City has been a cash cow for New Jersey. By rights, it should get some cash back. Mayor Don Guardian told the Editorial Board last week that the city still sends the state $600 million a year in casino, employment, parking, hotel, and other taxes and fees. Surely some of that can be returned to patch up the state's broken piñata.

Competing Senate and Assembly legislation could be reconciled into a single, solid recovery plan. A payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) bill can address a plague of property-tax appeals, giving the casinos predictable expenses and the city predictable revenues. The state also needs to provide strong, credible oversight and assistance to right the city's finances, but it has no justification to effectively undo the election that put Guardian in office just two years ago. Atlantic City's recovery can't succeed without local officials, who rightly cite the state's Camden takeover as a disheartening precedent.
The mayor has followed the advice of state overseers, reduced the city payroll significantly, and looked for more ways to save money. He also understands that no single grand gesture will save his town. He is working to boost long-term revenues by diversifying the local economy. He wants to attract baby boomers seeking second homes by the sea and millennials looking for trendy clubs and live music. He wants to clear the way for a solar farm on an undeveloped island and has started negotiating to bring small firms into town. Overall, he says he wants the resort to be more of a "real city."
It's an achievable goal if the state gets real about helping.

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