The problem of public overspending at the municipal level is illustrated with devastating clarity by the extremely high cost of Atlantic City’s government, according to Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
On the face of it, they have a point: The city spends far more per resident than most municipalities. But a fuller look at per-capita spending in all of the state’s cities and towns provides a more complex picture that may offer a partial explanation of why Atlantic City seems to rank so poorly.
As the governor and the senator have campaigned hard for a state takeover of the financially beleaguered casino resort, they have argued that the city’s large budget despite a relatively small population shows that the mayor and council are unable or unwilling to make desperately needed cuts.
“Atlantic City has 38,000 people and a budget of $262 million,” Sweeney said in a TV interview. “No one spends as much as Atlantic City per person … New Brunswick, which is a well-run city, extremely efficient, their budget is $58 million. They have 60,000 people.”
Christie, meanwhile, said, “Atlantic City costs over $6,600 a person to run the government. (In) Newark, the state’s largest city, it is $2,800 a person to run the government. Never did I think that Newark would be seen as a paragon of fiscal conservatism. Yet if you compare Newark to Atlantic City, it is nearly $4,000 less person to operate the government.”
Mayor Don Guardian responded that the comparisons are unfair because of the large number of nonresidents who require city services. Some 51,000 workers come into Atlantic City daily, working shifts around the clock at casinos and other businesses, and at least 200,000 visitors are in town every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, he said.
On one hand, Atlantic City does have one of the highest per-capita budgets in the state, ranking 18th out of 565. It spent $6,631 per resident in 2014, not including the school budget. It stands out even more because the other high-spending municipalities are small boroughs and towns. The next-highest-spending city of comparable size is Linden, with 40,000 residents and much smaller per-capita budget of only $2,417.
Statewide, the average per-capita municipal budget was $1,466.
On the other hand, Atlantic City is not alone among shore resort towns in having a disproportionately high budget, as noted in a 2014 analysis by Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center. One of the very highest spenders is Avalon, a beach town that counts only 1,334 full-time residents but sees its population swell in the summer. It had a whopping per-capita budget of $19,127 in 2014.
Many of the homes in shore towns are vacant most of the year, or owned by out-of-state residents, skewing the per-capita calculations so much that the figures cannot be fairly compared to nonshore towns, the Bloustein researchers concluded. “Resort communities are indeed a unique class of municipalities that greatly distort the analysis of local government costs,” they wrote.
Atlantic City is very different from towns like Avalon or Sea Isle City, but its special conditions still led the researchers to count it as part of the resort class. They also excluded a few tiny towns with unusual characteristics, like Teterboro, which consists almost exclusively of an airport.
Other special circumstances can also contribute to higher per-capita spending. The authors of the Bloustein report, Raphael J. Caprio and Marc Pfeiffer, noted that the wealthiest suburbs and poorest cities have the highest cost of local government services, reflecting the willingness of affluent taxpayers to pay for a higher level of services, and the greater need of poorer populations for more police protection and social services that are paid for primarily with state aid.
The first list below draws from a ranking of all municipalities. The second list focuses on more typical municipalities, excluding the resort communities and towns with fewer than 10,000 full-time residents. Figures are for 2014 and come from the New Jersey Data Book. They do not include school budgets.
Top 10 Per-Capita Spenders
1. Teterboro, Bergen County
Per-capita budget: $73,426. Population: 67
2. Pine Valley, Camden County
Per-capita budget: $38,841. Population: 12
3. Mantoloking, Ocean County
Per-capita budget: $29,285. Population: 296
4. Tavistock, Camden County
Per-capita budget: $27,647. Population: 5
5. Avalon, Cape May County
Per-capita budget: $19,127. Population: 1,334
6. Stone Harbor, Cape May County
Per-capita budget: $16,588. Population: 866
7. Deal, Monmouth County
Per-capita budget: $16,348. Population: 750
8. Harvey Cedars, Ocean County
Per-capita budget: $12,725. Population: 337
9. Sea Isle City, Cape May County
Per-capita budget: $10,360. Population: 2,114
10. Beach Haven, Ocean City
Per-capita budget: $9,594. Population: 1,170
Top 12 Per-Capita Spenders
(excludes resorts and towns with fewer than 10,000 residents)
1. Weehawken, Hudson County
Per-capita budget: $2,772. Population: 12,554
2. Secaucus, Hudson County
Per-capita budget: $2,707. Population: 16,264
3. Madison, Morris County
Per-capita budget: $2,636. Population: 15,845
4. Asbury Park, Monmouth County
Per-capita budget: $2,566. Population: 16,116
5. Morristown, Morris County
Per-capita budget: $2,544. Population: 18,411
6. Millburn, Essex County
Per-capita budget: $2,542. Population: 20,149
7. Harrison, Hudson County
Per-capita budget: $2,527. Population: 13,620
8. East Hanover, Morris County
Per-capita budget: $2,439. Population: 11,157
9. Linden, Union County
Per-capita budget: $2,417. Population: 40,499
10. Camden, Camden County
Per-capita budget: $2,355. Population: 77,344
11. Newark, Essex County
Per-capita budget: $2,229. Population: 277,140
12. Trenton, Mercer County
Per-capita budget: $2,187. Population: 84,913