ATLANTIC CITY - The mayor of this beleaguered seaside resort stood outside City Hall amid the town's signature background noise of wind and seagulls Monday, and did not mince words about a proposed state takeover.
"Far from a partnership, it was absolutely a fascist dictatorship," Don Guardian said of the state's plan before a crowd of more than 100 city workers, police and firefighters, elected officials, civil rights leaders, water utility advocates, and representatives of the state's black mayors and League of Municipalities.
Guardian, who late last month stood with Gov. Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) in what he characterized as a "kumbaya moment," adopted a far harsher tone Monday.
In fiery rhetoric, Guardian, 62, a Republican, implored legislators to vote down Sweeney's takeover bill, which he said was "an insult to democracy" and a threat to similar cities across the state.
"If you believe in civil rights for all Americans, vote down this bill," Guardian said. "If you believe in home rule and democracy, vote down this bill. If you believe in the rights of working men and women to elect individuals to represent their interests, vote down this bill."
Guardian said the city would propose legislation to create specific benchmarks and goals for a fiscal recovery, and set up an oversight committee of state and local elected officials and residents. The city's bill also would prohibit the state-directed sale of the city's Water Authority or any beach property.
A spokesman for Sweeney dismissed the mayor's alternate proposal as "far too little and way too late," and said the city had failed to make the necessary cutbacks and reforms "to bring finances into line."
"There isn't enough time to form new committees that will eventually come up with new plans," spokesman Richard McGrath said. "We can't just give the city more money, because the results will only be the same."
Guardian noted that more than $60 million in redirected casino taxes, previously earmarked for marketing efforts, has been left on the table for more than a year as legislation stalled and then was vetoed by Gov. Christie, also a Republican. That money, he said, coupled with a hoped-for settlement with Borgata for $170 million in tax appeals, a dispute now in court-directed mediation, would solve Atlantic City's fiscal crisis, which has deepened with four casinos closing and cratering ratables.
A judge allowed Borgata to withhold a $7.5 million quarterly tax payment. Guardian said that if the casino were allowed to withhold another payment, the city, without the promised state aid, would seek to declare bankruptcy.
"This is truly disheartening," he said. "So much time has been lost. The sad irony is, we have a casino industry that wants to redirect their funds to the City of Atlantic City to help avoid these doomsday scenarios."
Christie spokesman Brian Murray called Guardian's statements "political posturing," and said the governor supported Sweeney's approach.
"Atlantic City will either have the money to pay their bills or they will not," he said. "One thing is for certain: The taxpayers of all of New Jersey can no longer be asked to bail out Atlantic City, especially when they continue to tax and spend so irresponsibly."
Guardian, however, said that the city has adopted 175 recommendations made by state overseers in recent years, cut $50 million out of its budget, and reduced the payroll by 300 employees. In addition, the police and fire department union heads said they had opened collective-bargaining agreements and agreed to givebacks and pay cuts.
Sweeney's bill calls for the state's Local Finance Board to be given sweeping power over city government, operations, assets, departments, budget, and contracts for up to five years. It is accompanied by long-sought-after, and promised, aid for the city, including a collective "payment in lieu of taxes" for casinos to quell tax appeals.
Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden) introduced a version of the state takeover Monday. But he told Politico that he might not move forward with the bill unless local officials are on board.
"Unless we can get an understanding with the mayor and council, we may just not do anything," Greenwald was quoted as saying, adding that "we certainly want to work with them and don't want them to feel" that a dictatorship is being imposed.
Guardian urged the state to partner with the city, and noted that the city has partnered with the federal government "in tremendous ways" to fund seawall projects, rebuild the Boardwalk, reduce flooding, and cover the cost of 85 firefighters.
"As we stand here today, the partner missing at this table of recovery is the State of New Jersey," he said.
Guardian said that he had tried to work with Sweeney for a compromise on state intervention but that "in the end, all of our concerns fell on deaf ears."
The city may have gotten a seat at the table, noted community activist Steve Young of Atlantic City, but "we're not going to be at the table, but be the meal."
Guardian said the city will essentially run out of money within two months, depending on which bills, or debt service, get paid.
Lena Smith of the Food and Water Watch said she believes the takeover bill, which allows a sale of the city's Municipal Utility Authority after one year, would be "a huge win" for the private water industry, a way for state officials "to make a quick buck for friends in the corporate water sector."
City Council President Marty Small noted the record of the previous five years of state intervention in Atlantic City: a $12 million shuttered art park being the most emblematic, along with a moribund state-run tourism district and the closed Revel, which was built on the promise of $261 million in tax reimbursements if it turned a profit, which it did not.
"The illustrious tourism district has been an epic failure," Small said. "Where is the redevelopment? Where is Bourbon Street on Pacific Avenue?"