Some Atlantic City councilmen accused state officials of grandstanding Tuesday — one day after the introduction of a bill banning publicly funded cars for part-time elected officials.
“If that’s the law, I’ll comply,” said 2nd Ward Councilman Marty Small. “But ... if they want to talk, why not help us out?”
State Sen. Samuel Thompson, R-Middlesex, is sponsoring the measure. The document amends Local Government Ethics Law. It also states that the impetus for the change is Atlantic City Council’s decision to buy three new SUVs against the advice of the state Local Finance Board.
Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Bergen, Passaic, will introduce the companion to Thompson’s legislation Thursday. Neither state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, nor state Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, have said they would sign on as co-sponsors, but all said they’ll likely support the legislation.
Brown also issued a statement condemning City Council for buying more cars upon learning about it 10 days ago.
Small, who drives a 2005 Dodge Durango, suggested a state subsidy for public safety in the Tourism District, where development and planning powers have been transferred to the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority,.
The state also may fund a citywide surveillance system, Small said.
That would deter violence universally acknowledged as a detractor from the resort’s reputation and particularly problematic in Small’s ward.
“That’s (how) ... you can really be a champion for the residents of Atlantic City,” Small said.
The issue isn’t the state’s commitment to Atlantic City, but City Council buying cars “when people can’t afford to pay their rent or mortgages,” Brown said Tuesday.
“Placing another fee increase on the hard-working men and women who travel the (Atlantic City) Expressway won’t solve the problem,” Brown said. “Instead of pointing fingers and finding ways to tax people even more, we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting this budget under control ... (and) providing ... reasonable government that acts responsibly.”
Brown was referring to Small’s suggested surcharge on the expressway toll closest to the resort — or parking fees at garages near the highway’s entrance to the city. Either would help defray the expected $40 million loss in local tax revenue next year, Small said.
That loss stems from an estimated $4.5 billion ratable base devaluation caused by tax appeals settled during the past 18 months.
Problematic tax appeals prompted state supervision of City Hall in October 2010. The state never explicitly prohibited buying cars. Their oversight agreement also didn’t require the city to disclose such purchases or an intent to make them. That would have been “micromanagement,” state officials have said.
But the purchases were criticized Sept. 12 by Tom Neff, director of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Government Services, during a board meeting where the city got approval to issue $103 million in tax appeal relief bonds. The board moved that day to extend financial oversight through 2013.
Others agreed with Small that attention on the cars is misdirected.
“They’re putting attention away from (more important issues),” said 5th Ward City Councilman Rizwan Malik. Nearing the end of his first year in office, Malik drives a 2006 Chevrolet Impala.
Councilman At-Large Frank Gilliam was driving a city-issued Impala until this summer, when 2013 Ford Explorers arrived for him, 1st Ward Councilman Aaron “Sporty” Randolph and Councilman At-Large Mo Delgado. They each cost $21,200.
In Gilliam’s case especially, the expense and time needed to maintain the older vehicles were such that buying a new one made more sense, Malik said.
Cost considerations also are the reason Malik says he drives the take-home car.
Malik and others insist their elected office is a “24/7” commitment between appearances at scheduled events, responding to emergency situations and performing other functions.
The travel involved with fulfilling those duties can be expensive, said Ed Colanzi, who held elected office as a City Commissioner during the late 1970s before the city changed its form of government.
“I had to go to the county seat (in Mays Landing), Trenton, New York and other places. Everyone else (in office in Atlantic City) had one, so I thought, ‘I’m crazy for having this expense.’ And if something went wrong, it was a city car, on city time — (that was) 75 percent of my driving ... because of the hours I was putting in,” Colanzi said.
The 81-year-old resort resident said local officeholders have driven city cars since he can remember taking note 50 years ago.
Contact Emily Previti:
Follow Emily Previti on Twitter @emily_previti