ATLANTIC CITY — A standing room only crowd at the City Council meeting Wednesday did not stick around to see council giving final approval to a 2014 municipal budget that includes a tax increase of 29 percent.
Despite signs announcing "Taxed Enough Already,” council members — and Mayor Don Guardian, who read a statement supporting the budget and left before public comment — told the crowd that the city needed to approve the budget in order to accept the $20 million in state transitional aid and essential services grants necessary to avoid an even larger increase.
"We can't vote no for this," Councilman George Tibbitt said. "Understand, if we vote no on the budget tonight, your taxes will go up 47 percent. The state's then not going to give you $21 million we're going in front of the DCA for. I don't like this, but it will be a whole lot worse, irresponsible, reckless, if we don't pass this. ... I have to hold my nose and vote for this."
Other councilmen said that tax appeals by casinos and no hotel or luxury taxes coming into the city from the state put the city in this position, and that the city has made cuts and reduced spending.
"The state never comes to our meetings, they never have to face our residents," Councilman Aaron Randolph said. "They say, ‘Don't cut off your nose to spite your face.’ But the fact is, that 21 million, we need that money."
"We did ask for cuts," Councilman Frank Gilliam said of the administration. "What little bit we got, we still wanted more."
But Marty Small and Rizwan Malik said they would still oppose the budget.
"Sometimes you do things that are uncomfortable, the proverbial gun to the head," Small said. "I'm not saying none of you stand for the people, but this councilman is going to take a stand for the people."
"Atlantic City has never faced the situation it faces today," Guardian said as the meeting began. "No municipality in America has ever faced the problems before us today."
Guardian cited losses of $9 billion in ratable value since 2010, but added that the state grants and a federal SAFER grant have helped the city cut $12.5 million from last year's budget.
"Myself and City Council, although we appreciate the state trying to help us, we need to transition out of state aid. We believe we can make this happen."
But not right now, Guardian said. He called on council to approve the amendments to the budget so that the city can get final approval from the state Local Finance Board on Wednesday.
Sharon Zappia, a Republican running for a 5th Ward council seat in 2015, gave one of the most impassioned speeches, saying that "we're all here for the same reasons tonight. We're asking City Council to vote no tonight. ... You've been able to find minor cuts, but nowhere near the cuts needed for residents to maintain property in Atlantic City."
While she warned council that anyone who voted yes would face "recall" to cheers from the crowd, she also castigated the state for how casino taxation is handled.
"We're going to take it from here to Trenton," Zappia said. "We're not going to stop here. We the people are tired of how the city has been run over and run down by casinos."
Others also asked why the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which controls the Tourism District, could not help.
"We didn't need separation, we needed balance," said Linda Steele, former city NAACP head. "They took from us, and now we're suffering."
Added Pearl Running Deer, citing the state's $260 million investment in Revel, "They didn't give anybody else anything. The CRDA can come here and give y'all money."
There was also much anger at Guardian from several speakers from the Asian and South Asian communities, two of his biggest backers in the 2013 election against now former Mayor Lorenzo Langford.
Others simply expressed pure frustration.
"I want to move too, but who's going to buy my house?" asked Mohammed Ahmed. "I cannot go to heaven, I cannot go to hell. I am in between. ... Please, look at us. We are your people. You are our people. We can work together."
Emily Vu, who organized a July 30 protest against the tax increase, asked council, "29 percent - do you know how much that is? My taxes went from $7,400 to $12,000. That is a tremendous increase."
She called for an immediate revaluation and cuts in all nonessential services outside police, fire and trash removal.
"It doesn't matter what community you belong to, let's come out Aug. 12 and demonstrate," Vu concluded.
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