ATLANTIC CITY - The bullet came through the office window of Garth Moyle, the deputy executive director of the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority, on Oct. 19.
As if the MUA - the real-life version of the old faucet-symboled "Water Works" on the Monopoly board - did not already have enough to fend off.
In the last year, the MUA has been besieged by attention from: covetous private water companies; "we can do it better" bureaucrats at the county utility authority; "gotcha" Christie administrators seeking to use it as collateral for a bridge loan; and, most recently, city financial advisers, who came up with the idea - lightbulb! - to have the MUA issue $110 million in bonds to buy the city's old airport, Bader Field, to help the broke city pay off its debts.
In some ways, the bullet was the least of the MUA's problems. Unlike five unsuccessful attempts the City Council made to dissolve the MUA, this stray bullet was not actually meant for the authority and only shattered a window.
"Fortunately," MUA executive director Bruce Ward told board members at the Oct. 19 meeting, according to a transcript, "the three ladies hit the floor immediately, upon hearing the shots and hearing the bullet circulate throughout the room. Today our staff will start to call the window company to repair the window."
Sgt. Kevin Fair, an Atlantic City police spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that the shooters "were not aiming for the MUA."
But others - including the state, private water companies, and the county - may yet be.
The MUA-Bader Field idea, the centerpiece of the city's recovery plan, seemed likely to be dead on arrival Wednesday morning, when New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs, which rejected the city's plan Nov. 1, is scheduled to petition the Local Finance Board for a "confirmation of powers" under a vast takeover law.
Meanwhile, Ward told board members at the Oct. 19 meeting that he envisioned selling off Bader Field in parcels and renaming the property Bader Center.
Charles Richman, DCA commissioner, has twice rejected elaborate Atlantic City recovery plans designed to keep the state from taking over city government and assets. It remains unclear what takeover powers the state will now propose.
State Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic), a former Atlantic City mayor, said late last week that he still thought that there was a distaste on the state level for a full-blown takeover.
"It's a rather thankless task to try to come in and run the city right now," Whelan said, dispelling rumors that he might himself be tapped for another go at running the city. But he said that the city's plan was not nearly "draconian" enough and that he believed the state would require the MUA to be run by the county or leased or sold to a private firm.
Those firms, which all lay claim to political connections, one to South Jersey political power broker George E. Norcross III via his lobbyist brother, are itching to buy up any municipal water utilities. Atlantic City's would likely fetch $100 million.
Patricia M. Healy, senior vice president of research at Cumberland Advisors, recently issued a commentary - titled "Crunch Time for Atlantic City" - that captured the skepticism that greeted the MUA-Bader deal. Healy said there has been a trend to use utilities as cash cows to prop up struggling cities, but that is not viewed favorably by Wall Street, especially in cities with aging infrastructures.
"It's not a good thing for the utility authority," Healy said. "They have other needs that they could use that money for, like improving the system. The rates are going to go up for the system."
Atlantic City tried to make the case that the rate increase that would pay for the bond issue would be borne mostly by commercial users, but their plan still showed rate increases across the board. They say a private company sale would result in a more severe increase.
The Bader Field deal, which Whelan and others have called a shell game, is threatening to kill any hope of avoiding a state takeover of Atlantic City.
According to the minutes of its Oct. 19 meeting, the day after the Adriatic Avenue shooting (during which a jitney also was hit by a bullet), executive director Ward said he left the MUA building at 5:13 p.m., two minutes before the shooting. Ward did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
"One bullet came through Mr. Moyle's office window, shattered the window, bounced around into the room, shattered a meter," Ward said.
"That was already broken," corrected Moyle.
"That was already broken, but it hit your blind," Ward said.
During the meeting, Ward talked about the value of keeping the MUA in local hands. "Do we want to not come forward with a plan to maintain our independence or do we want to simply be a foster child of the State of New Jersey?" Ward said, according to the transcript. He said that under the latter scenario, "complaints that city people would have, you have to call somebody in Trenton, who doesn't know what street you live on, who doesn't know much about your local conditions, and that's really the fight we have."
Ward described what he envisioned the MUA doing with Bader Field. "I don't want to call it a field anymore," he said. "I want to call it Bader Center."
He envisioned chopping the 140-acre waterfront property - which once brought an $800 million offer from casino developer Penn National Gaming that the city, with state input, did not accept in 2008, hoping for a better deal.
"If I subdivide it, perhaps then you can begin to carve out the separate interest of different organizations that would be interested in joining a coherent plan," Ward said last month.
The $800 million days "are over and I know that," he said. A recent auction fetched only a $50 million bid for Bader that the city rejected, he noted.
If the state came in, he said, "they'll do whatever they do and they'll bond stuff and put the debt on us and water and taxes will go up." Ward urged the MUA board members to approve the Bader purchase.
They did. But Wednesday morning, at a conference room on South Broad Street in Trenton, the state will have its say.