ATLANTIC CITY - With casinos folding like bad poker hands in this ailing Shore resort, Gov. Christie said Wednesday he would consider a proposal to create an emergency manager for the city - drawing a sharp dissent from its mayor.
Don Guardian, who became mayor in January, called the emergency manager position unnecessary, because a state monitor was already assigned to review and report on Atlantic City's finances.
"So the concept of a different title I'm kind of lost on. All of that exists right now," Guardian said in a phone interview Wednesday night.
Guardian, a Republican, said he was taken by surprise by the manager proposal, which Christie announced after a closed-door meeting at the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority in Atlantic City.
Christie said he had not decided what steps to take to help stabilize the city's finances and revive its prospects after the casino closings.
But he said an emergency manager was "chief" among the initial recommendations from a report by Jon Hanson, whom Christie appointed early in his tenure as governor to lead a state advisory commission on gaming.
Other recommendations Christie listed included a public-private partnership for Atlantic City; changes to the city's tax, school, and pension systems; and a shared-services agreement.
"I am not necessarily invested in any of them," Christie said. But "there clearly are some I will enthusiastically endorse." He didn't specify which.
The report may be made public Thursday, a Christie spokesman said.
It wasn't clear how a manager might be chosen, or the extent of the powers the position would carry. Christie said the role would represent "an expansion of the current statutory fiscal oversight we currently have in Atlantic City and other cities in New Jersey."
The need for a manager was endorsed by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who told reporters, "We can't afford what we have done here anymore."
Sweeney said the proposal wasn't a reflection on Guardian, who he said had "done a great job."
"But when you're talking about some of the dramatic things we have to do - I wouldn't question the mayor would not want to do it," Sweeney said. "It's just, sometimes, it's easier when someone's not worried about running for an office to make decisions."
Guardian questioned whether Hanson was aware of the state monitor's responsibilities. For four years, the state Department of Community Affairs has assigned a monitor to report on whether Atlantic City has money to keep operating.
This year, the DCA approved a $19.7 million transitional aid/essential-services grant for Atlantic City to help plug its budget shortfall for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Guardian said the monitor, Ed Sasdelli, already had control over contracts, purchasing, hiring, firing, and raises - "all of the powers."
He also objected to remarks he said Hanson made during the closed-door meeting that the city needed to look to regionalize and privatize services. The city already meets with the Governor's Office weekly to discuss that topic, Guardian said.
"I'm guessing that the staff we talk to, that Jon had not had a chance to speak to them," Guardian said, "because we're doing exactly what he asked for."
State Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic), who attended the meeting, said that he wasn't yet sure the manager proposal was a good one, but that a "revolutionary" approach was needed.
Christie said that some of the recommendations in Hanson's report would require legislative approval, but that he could carry out some through executive authority. He did not specify which.
The governor said proposals Sweeney announced this week to stabilize the city's finances also warranted consideration, along with ideas from the other legislative leaders.
According to a lawmaker at the meeting, Christie also discussed demolishing the closed Trump Plaza to make a more accessible pathway to the Boardwalk, and to create a medical district.
The latter proposal ties into Stockton College's announcement Wednesday that it had signed a letter of intent to buy the Showboat.
In his public remarks, Christie said another meeting would be held in January. But he said there would be "executive activity" before then. Sweeney said he hoped to take legislative action within 90 days.
Four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos have closed this year, leading to an estimated 8,000 job losses. A fifth, Trump Taj Mahal, is in danger of closing, which could leave an additional 3,000 out of work.
The city's assessed value plunged from $20.5 billion in 2010 to $11.3 billion this year. The casino closings are expected to further shrink the tax base. In addition, several casino tax appeals since 2007 have drained the coffers of property-tax revenue, forcing residents to pay higher property taxes.
Lawmakers said they were encouraged by the discussion.
"It's heartening to see that everyone agrees the focus must be on reinvigorating Atlantic City and, in turn, Atlantic County," said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D., Atlantic). "Cutting costs, creating jobs, and controlling taxes must be our shared goal."
Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R., Atlantic) said, "Part of the long-term solution is still to allow Atlantic City to fully transition into a destination resort before even considering expanding gaming to North Jersey," alluding to a move Christie and Sweeney had said they were considering.
As Christie and lawmakers met privately, people who gathered outside the CRDA building voiced frustrations.
Marvin Williams, an unemployed casino dealer, said officials weren't doing enough to help. "You can't get a full-time job now," said Williams, 50, of Pleasantville, who said he began working in the casinos in 1982.
Thuy Do, 50, a buffet server at Caesars who lives in Atlantic City, said she was worried her taxes would rise on top of other financial pressures. She used to get 40 hours of work a week, she said, but now gets 24 to 25.
"I can't live like this."