ATLANTIC CITY - Once upon a time, there was a peep-show business that paid taxes.
But the United Adult Book Store at 1826 Atlantic Ave. was bought and torn down by the state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority last year, becoming part of a vast inventory of land tax-exempt under state law.
Hundreds of parcels are land banked by the agency, which is charged with taking a tax from casinos to be an agent of economic redevelopment.
But with the Atlantic City economy tanking, many current projects are stalled, leaving empty lots and millions of dollars off tax rolls.
And, depending on your perspective, the loss of a viable business, albeit a 25-cent peep-show house, whose tax bill in 2014 was $23,894.68.
This year's tax bill: $0.
"They don't pay," says the city's finance director, Michael P. Stinson, of the agency known by its letters, CRDA, or sometimes as "Creeda." "They paved Pacific Avenue. But they hold vast quantities of land and we don't get any money."
As Atlantic City teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, scraping for every last dollar under its Monopoly board, the state's tax-exempt inventory starts to grate on officials trying to plug holes in the budget.
Also off the tax rolls this year: The former Showboat Casino, owned all year in an ill-fated deal by Stockton University, a state institution that also is tax-exempt. (Stockton has an agreement to sell to Bart Blatstein.)
Assessed at more than $200 million, Showboat paid about $8.5 million last year. This year?
"We don't get a penny for it," Stinson said.
In all, the CRDA owns 450 parcels valued at $726.79 million. But even excluding its big, typically tax-exempt holdings like the Convention Center, Boardwalk Hall, the train station, and the Walk - whose operators, Tanger Outlets, pay an annual $948,000 in a court-ordered Payment in Lieu of Taxes - the CRDA owns land assessed at about $210 million - the equivalent of a small casino.
That assessed value - which, like all land in Atlantic City, would be subject to a tax appeal and new evaluation - would have yielded about $7.2 million in taxes. According to this year's tax rolls, CRDA now controls parcels that in 2014 were taxed for a total of about $670,000.
Stinson says additional taxes would lower the city's crushing tax rate overall, not add to the $132 million the city is trying to raise in taxes this year (down from $202 million in 2014) toward its $262 million budget.
"It all adds up," he says. "The city's constantly concerned with the amount of property they own."
John Palmieri, the CRDA executive director, defended the authority's mission and land banking.
But he expressed surprise when told the number of parcels the CRDA owns, and initially disputed the number, available with a simple search on the state's online tax rolls. It was confirmed the next day by CRDA planner Lance Landgraf and attorney Paul Weiss.
Palmieri said the peep-show building and surrounding lots - some deeded over by Caesars - were supposed to be transformed into a $20 million Reading Terminal Market-style amenity. But competing plans for a medical complex put the market idea on hold. Both plans are on hold for now. The site has been cleared and marked with wooden "No Trespassing CRDA-Owned Property" signs.
"We assemble parcels; we do the remediation, related improvements to create a better site," Palmieri said. "It doesn't happen overnight."
He said some parcels are not full lots. "There are little parcels, broken parcels," Palmieri said. "There are baby lots."
Landgraf said total acreage of CRDA lots in the tourism district was 78 acres, about 5 percent of the district.
But some CRDA land stretches for blocks of vacant lots scattered among remaining homes around the city, a veritable real-life Monopoly Board: 31, 33, 35, 37, 22, 26, 28, 36, and 40 N. Vermont Ave.; 5, 7, 11, 15, 19, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 35, 37, 39, and 41 N. Connecticut Ave. (the forlornly named Revel Boulevard). There are 13 parking lots. CRDA headquarters, in a renovated firehouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, is assessed at $2.8 million. Taxes: $0.
Palmieri pointed to many CRDA projects - the Walk, hundreds of homes in the Northeast Inlet, housing developments throughout the city - and said criticism of the tax status and land bank was unfair. "It has to be understood within the context of our role as redeveloper," he said.
Among those to question the CRDA, though, was Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who halted its attempt to take piano tuner Charlie Birnbaum's house by eminent domain - questioning the authority's continued land banking in light of economic conditions and only "broad and hypothetical" development plans.
And numerous lots in that area, in the shadow of Revel, on Pacific, New Hampshire, and Oriental Avenues and others, are off the books and owned by the CRDA.
"We are waiting for the right project to come along," Landgraf said.
Also tax-exempt in town is the South Jersey Transportation Authority, whose South New York Avenue parking garage with a "Signature Smiles" dentist office on the first floor is assessed at $13.9 million. (The Atlantic County Improvement Authority owns a $278,000 parking lot on North Ohio.)
"I've tried to get someone to pay for that and nobody will pay us for that," Stinson said of the New York Avenue property.
Getting taxpaying landowners to pay up is itself a struggle for Atlantic City. The city is in the last days of an online sale of tax liens that has nudged Trump Entertainment ($12.5 million), the Claridge/former Atlantic Club ($1 million), and Revel's rebel owner, Glenn Straub ($4.3 million), to ante up taxes in the last month. All casinos now are paid up. But still available for bidding on $48,065.91 lien with unpaid taxes: The privately owned and struggling historic Steel Pier.
The state's vast tax-exempt holdings stand out because the state spends so much political muscle in efforts to bail Atlantic City out of its misery.
There is a state fiscal monitor. There is an emergency manager, Kevin Lavin. The CRDA controls zoning and planning and operations within a 1,600-acre Tourism District.
The city also is waiting for the state Legislature to vote on Gov. Christie's conditional veto of a package of bills that would divert $30 million in CRDA tax revenue to the city.
Instead, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney on Friday introduced a bill calling for up to two casinos in North Jersey, which would end Atlantic City's state casino monopoly.
With state approval, city officials balanced a budget based on receiving $33.5 million from the state - a line item in their budget affectionately acronymed CRAP - Casino Redirected Anticipated Payments.
Stinson says he also has tried to get someone to pay taxes on the CRDA-owned WAVE parking garage located at the Walk, within the boundaries of the judge's order regarding PILOT payments by the operator, then Cordish, now Tanger. It's assessed at $2.59 million.
The judge's order provided that any future development be subject to a PILOT, but CRDA claims tax-exempt status, and Tanger says it's the CRDA's garage.
By contrast, another development group formed this year - ACDevCo, conceived and controlled by Christie pals Jon Hanson and Chris Paladino - does pay taxes.
Paladino said the nonprofit paid $680,000 on land it bought for the last two quarters. If the CRDA had amassed the land for the Stockton-South Jersey Industries project, no taxes would be paid.
"We'll pay that through the construction period," Paladino said. "We're going to apply for PILOTs for South Jersey Industries and for the student housing."
As for the academic buildings, he said, "Stockton will apply for a statutory exemption."