Big Gamble: Lawmakers Give Atlantic City 5 Months To Get Finances Under Control

John Reitmeyer | May 27, 2016 | Politics
Resort will get some financial help while officials work out balanced budget, five-year plan

poker cards chips
When it comes to the future of Atlantic City, it’s now Gov. Chris Christie who’s holding all the cards.

State lawmakers sent Christie two bills yesterday aimed at helping the resort through significant fiscal problems that have brought the city to the verge of bankruptcy, providing a bridge loan and other financial help.

But the rescue legislation also sets a 150-day deadline for the local government to draft a balanced budget for 2017, and to establish a five-year plan to stabilize its finances. If it can’t, the Christie administration would then be able to come in and assume control, with the power to rip up current labor deals and spin off city assets.

The rescue legislation also gives Christie, through the state’s Local Finance Board, the ability to judge the soundness of the fiscal plans the local government offers. His administration or that of his successor would also have the power to step in and take over the city if it determines the local government isn’t living up to its promises over a period of five years.

During his monthly radio show on NJ 101.5 FM radio this week, Christie signaled he would likely sign both bills passed by lawmakers yesterday. Those votes followed a compromise that was struck among leaders in the Senate and Assembly earlier in the week. One measure establishes the 150-day deadline, and another sets up a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan to help stabilize the city’s casino revenues along with other financial help, including a bridge loan.

And Christie — who previously pushed for an immediate takeover — said during the radio show that the new rescue legislation would still give him “all of the authority that I would need” to fix the city’s finances if local officials can’t do the job themselves.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, also praised the final passage of an Atlantic City rescue package that at one point appeared to be in danger of never coming together thanks to bitter political disagreements.

On one side was Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who like Christie initially preferred legislation authorizing an immediate state takeover. On the other side was Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson), who wanted to give the city up to two years to resolve its problems. Prieto also couched his opposition to an immediate takeover as an effort to protect the civil rights of city residents and the collective-bargaining rights of its workers.

There were also political undertones to the feud, with Sweeney expected to run for governor next year in a Democratic primary that is also expected to involve Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Prieto ally.

After both bills cleared the Senate yesterday afternoon, Sweeney said he was ready to move on.

“I’m glad this is done,” he said.

Prieto also looked to the future while speaking about the bills after they cleared the Assembly.

“This is something that now the administration of Atlantic City can roll up their sleeves with their workforce, and I think we’re giving them an opportunity to again be the jewel of New Jersey,” he said.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and Council President Marty Small were also in the State House yesterday to show their support for the compromise legislation, with Guardian saying he’s now ready to get to work. He also offered a last-minute plug to those looking for something do over Memorial Day weekend.

“Atlantic City and the rest of the Jersey Shore is open for the weekend,” he said.