ATLANTIC CITY - Mayor Don Guardian has released his own recovery plan for his ailing city in response to recommendations submitted by key lawmakers after two days of summit meetings here led by Gov. Christie.
While the mayor's findings largely mirror those of the summit - including reducing the municipal payroll, stabilizing the tax rate for casinos, and finding alternative revenue sources for the Atlantic City School District - Guardian is adamantly opposed to having an emergency manager and lukewarm to regionalizing the city's police force.
In the 26-page report, released Friday night, Guardian said: "Property taxes are the major obstacle for progress in Atlantic City."
To no one's surprise, Guardian, a Republican who is about to complete the first year in his first term, is "100 percent" against having a state-appointed "emergency manager" installed - a key recommendation by State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Jon Hanson, head of the New Jersey Gaming, Sports, and Entertainment Advisory Commission, after last month's summit. The move would undoubtedly undercut Guardian's own powers.
Last week, Christie signed an executive order to extend the life of the seven-member commission that advises him on casino and sports development projects to Dec. 31, 2015. Atlantic City's fate is the subject of multiple studies by the panel.
On the hot-button issue of having an emergency manager installed with broad supervisory powers, Guardian said the city had already been working closely with a state fiscal monitor, Ed Sasdelli. Sasdelli, he said, works for the Department of Community Affairs and has been in place since Jan. 1, when Guardian took over as mayor.
"Although other plans have called for an emergency manager, our plan requires the state monitor to remain in place and continue to approve all hiring, firing, expenditures, and budgets, contracts with an override of both the mayor and City Council," Guardian said.
The mayor also said he wasn't convinced that regionalization of the Police Department was the best course for the financially struggling city.
The summit panel had recommended that the city's police force be trimmed from 330 to 285 officers by March 2015 to save the city $7 million, while the Fire Department was to be reduced by 25 firefighters, from 210 to 185, to achieve cost savings of about $2.75 million. In addition to the 25 layoffs, there are 51 firefighters whose salaries are paid for by a federal grant; those officers would not be replaced when the grant expires at the end of 2015.
"Simply choosing one department over another does not make sense," Guardian said in his report. "Nor does it make sense for a department that agrees to meet all the financial requirements and provide good services be disbanded simply for the sake of regionalization."
One way Guardian recommended that the Fire Department staffing be reduced was to extend the workweek to 54 hours from the current 42.
The suggestion drew an immediate reaction from Christopher Emmell, president of the Atlantic City Fire Fighters Local 198, the union that represents firefighters.
"The savings in salary and pension costs projected from this change in working conditions could very well be far offset by a large increase in overtime costs, and the longer hours could also result in fatigue-induced decreases in efficiency," Emmell said in a statement Monday. "Cutting the basic public services that will help the city recover financially is not the way to go, especially when staffing levels are already cut to the bone."
Similar to the summit report, Guardian favors disbanding the Atlantic City Alliance, which is behind the city's DO AC campaign, and diverting the $30 million it receives annually to market the city to go toward reducing the city's debt service.
Guardian cited his long-term goals as reducing poverty, improving education for children, creating jobs, and enhancing business and housing opportunities.
"However, none of these goals will be possible without substantial tax relief," Guardian said. "We need to stabilize property taxes."
Property taxes are the city's primary source of revenue to fund services. But successful casino-tax appeals - costing the city more than $300 million in refunds - as well as thousands of appeals by residents and businesses to lower their property taxes, have significantly reduced the city's coffers.
A second hit has been the four casino closures this year that wiped off an additional $2 billion in the city's assessed value. Atlantic City's total assessed value had already been pared by nearly half, from $20.5 billion in 2010 to $11.3 billion this year, because of plunging property values. It is projected to be about $9 billion in 2015.
The city has eight remaining casinos open, but the Trump Taj Mahal could be the next to close, taking with it 3,000 jobs, if its owner and union fail to reach agreement this week.
While Guardian hopes to tackle poverty, reducing hunger was on the radar of a leading lawmaker. State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D., Union) wrote Christie on Monday asking that the issue of hunger be included at his next Atlantic City Summit meeting next month.
"With the closing of numerous casinos and nearly 10,000 employees losing their jobs, families in the Atlantic City area are finding it more difficult to put food on the table," Lesniak wrote. "Hunger is a crisis in New Jersey and it is especially acute in Atlantic City because of the economic problems in the casino industry."
Lesniak said more than 1.5 million people in New Jersey were reportedly "food insecure."
"It's important to get people back to work and to improve economic conditions," he said, "but we can't allow people to go hungry in the meantime."