ATLANTIC CITY - City Councilman William Marsh and Lorenzo Langford, the city's once and likely future mayor, were put on the installment plan yesterday by a state Superior Court judge enforcing an order that the pair repay the city $850,000.

The state Supreme Court issued the order after finding that the two wrongfully received the money to settle a 1998 lawsuit. The pair had claimed that school district jobs they held were eliminated due to political retribution.

Langford, who won the Democratic mayoral primary this month, is the prohibitive favorite in the general election in this Democratic city. Under the repayment schedule laid out by Judge Valerie Armstrong, it would take him about 15 years to pay off his share of the settlement.

But that assumes he is mayor the whole time, and that his salary remains the $103,000 it would be when he took office. Higher salaries, or increased contributions from Langford, could shorten the repayment period.

"You play the hand that you're dealt, and this is the hand we were dealt," said Langford, a former casino dealer who was mayor from 2002 to 2005.

His political opponents unsuccessfully used the issue against him in this spring's primary election, in which he defeated incumbent Scott Evans, and Assistant City Business Administrator Domenic Cappella. But Langford doesn't expect it to go away.

"It's not going to be removed from the political arena as long as Lorenzo Langford is in the political arena," he said.

Marsh did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The dispute began in 1998, when board of education positions held by Langford and Marsh were eliminated days after Mayor James Whelan won reelection by defeating Langford. Marsh was Langford's campaign treasurer.

At the time, Marsh was a $79,000-a-year neighborhood facilities coordinator and Langford was a $30,000-a-year liaison officer.

The men filed their federal civil-rights lawsuit in 1999 against the city, Whelan and others. A federal judge dismissed it, but it was revived by an appeals court. City Council negotiated a $1 million settlement in 2001, but Whelan, who was unseated by Langford in 2001, refused to sign it before leaving office.

As a result, Langford took office in 2002 with the suit pending and City Council agreed to settle it for $850,000. The city ignored a warning by the state Office of Government Integrity, part of the Attorney General's Office, not to distribute the money until the deal's legality was reviewed.

Marsh got $363,784, Langford got $193,784 and attorneys got the rest for fees and costs associated with the litigation. Both men said they spent virtually all the money.

As part of Armstrong's repayment order, Langford must pay $350 a month, starting next month. If he wins the election, a self-executing provision of Armstrong's order would take effect, increasing his payments to 12.5 percent of his gross income, or about $1,073 a month to start.

Marsh must pay 20 percent of his monthly income starting next month, or about $2,063 a month. He earns about $123,000 a year from the Pleasantville Board of Education and Atlantic City Council. It would take him about 14 1/2 years to repay the money at that rate.

Armstrong said the deal had to be cut now, before Langford potentially becomes mayor, to avoid the same pitfalls that caused the settlement to run afoul of the law in the first place. In a nutshell, the mayor cannot sue or negotiate with himself as head of city government, said Deputy Attorney General Ronald Epstein.

The state's government integrity office sued the city, Langford and Marsh in 2002, seeking to invalidate the settlement and asking for repayment of the money. The office said the settlement was tainted by numerous conflicts of interest, including that Langford was chief executive of the city at the same time he was suing it.

If Langford loses the mayoral election, he will continue to pay $350 a month. It would take him 46 years to repay the debt at that rate.

Armstrong had harsh words for Marsh, who, unlike Langford, has not yet repaid any of the money. Earlier this year, Langford returned $26,000 that he had remaining in a bank account.

"Frankly, it is disturbing that Mr. Marsh has paid nothing to date," the judge said. "There is nothing stopping him from doing so."

Marsh and Langford are suing their former lawyers, seeking to return about $280,000 in legal fees to Atlantic City to help satisfy the debt. The judge urged all sides to settle the matter out of court before the election.