ATLANTIC CITY - Gov. Christie may have skipped the annual convention of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities this week, but the Republican's barnstorming first year in office has been the talk of the event.

Former Govs. Brendan Byrne, Jim Florio, Donald DiFrancesco, and John Bennett on Wednesday assessed Christie's rookie year for the convention crowd, hundreds of public officials from all over the state.

"In the first six months in office, I don't think there were many people in New Jersey who didn't know there was a different guy in town," said Republican Bennett, a former state Senate president who served as acting governor in 2002.

Christie has taken New Jersey in a different direction and has been more hands-on than a lot of governors, Bennett said.

DiFrancesco, a Republican who led the state in 2001 and 2002, said Christie had sent a good message about New Jersey during his travels around the country that would make people want to come to here to do business.

"The jury is still out," said Democrat Florio, governor from 1990-94, although he gave Christie credit for "clarifying some of the issues."

"Commendably, he has not been someone to pussyfoot around and try to be risk-averse by blurring up the alternatives," Florio said. "He lays out what he wants to do, and whether those are good or bad decisions remains to be seen."

Former Democratic Govs. Richard Codey and Jon S. Corzine had been scheduled to join the "old-timers" panel but could not make the convention.

Florio called Christie's decision to cancel the commuter-rail tunnel project under the Hudson River economically rational, given the depleted condition of the state's Transportation Trust Fund.

But he recommended that Christie "rein things in a little stylistically."

"When you call Bret Schundler a liar," Florio said, referring to the former education commissioner, "that kind of rhetoric doesn't go away, and you've made yourself an enemy forever. . . . A little bit of nuance might be helpful in terms of dealing with people."

DiFrancesco advised the governor and Legislature to become more engaged with each other to solve state problems. That relationship between the governing branches, as well as New Jersey's high property taxes, dominated an afternoon session led by legislative leaders.

Christie has been holding town-hall meetings around the state to press the Legislature to adopt his so-called tool kit to help local governments keep tax increases below 2 percent, a cap scheduled to take effect in January.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) on Wednesday questioned whether the tool kit was truly a solution to New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes, especially given that Christie slashed aid to schools and towns to close a multibillion-dollar budget gap.

Anyone who says taxes won't go up "because we're [adopting] the tool kit, you're trying to fool someone," said Sweeney, who has been pressing for savings through shared services.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R., Union) expressed frustration that there had been little movement in the Legislature to adopt changes in binding arbitration and civil service.

"It's absolutely irresponsible to say that nothing can be done and try to misdirect attention," Kean said. "Let's get the tool kit done."

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) predicted that the civil service and arbitration measures would pass but questioned what would happen afterward.

"Once we finish those two bills and they are enacted into law, then we really have to focus in getting down to the nitty-gritty of how you reduce property taxes in the state, and these two bills do not represent the panacea," she said.

To show how many days on a flip chart it takes to get the Legislature to vote on a bill, as Christie has done, is "really juvenile," Oliver said.

Several attendees asked the panel when the Legislature was going to adopt the tool kit, while one said he was sick of legislators not working together.

Many municipalities blame property-tax increases on the drastic reduction in state aid this year.

Sweeney said that none of the lawmakers liked cutting aid to towns, and that in doing so, "the State of New Jersey caused local property taxes to go up. We absolutely did."

Christie has said the legislators would be to blame for further tax increases if they didn't adopt the tool kit, but Sweeney put the blame on mayors, saying they had come out in support of the governor's proposals and would have to live within a new tax cap.

Workshops offered to local leaders throughout the convention reflect the state's fiscal condition: "Crime Fighting Strategies in a Time of Shrinking Resources," "Solving Problems in an Economic Downturn," and "Cooperative Purchasing - What Is It, and How Can I Use it to Save Money?"

The convention continues through Friday.

Contact staff writer Maya Rao
at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com.