Atlantic City’s new mayor has learned a lot in his first three months in office. The most significant thing, however, has been one very large, red number.
“The $10 million surprise,” Chief of Staff Chris Filiciello said of the budget deficit the city was in when the new administration took over.
Mayor Don Guardian will mark his 100th day in office with a public meeting this afternoon to talk about initiatives and changes that have come with the new administration. Department heads will present plans moving forward as the city faces a revenue shortfall that could mean a 47 percent tax increase for residents.
With last year’s 22 percent tax increase and more than $50 million in borrowed bonds, Guardian had expected to come in at least a little in the black. But there it was: $10 million in the red from last year, with a lot more needed to keep things going.
“I had no idea how financially distraught the city was,” Guardian said during a meeting in his office on Day 94. “At no time did we think we were going to be $30 (million) or $40 million shy of what the actual cost of running the city is.”
Candidate Guardian knew that Atlantic City had too many people on its payroll, but he said it could be handled through attrition. Mayor Guardian now says layoffs are not off the table. The cuts are being sought by not filling jobs that are budgeted but vacant, as well as finding and removing those people who aren’t certified for the jobs they hold.
“Those people can’t stay there,” Guardian said, citing Civil Service rules.
Rumors about cuts beyond that worry workers, said Virginia Darnell, who represents the city’s white-collar employees. And what, she asks, will happen if the city doesn’t get the $20 million in transitional aid it has requested from the state?
It’s difficult to find anyone openly critical of the administration so far, although Darnell remains wary. The city has refused her request to see the aid application, and she worries this could be a warning of a continuation of old, closed-door policies.
“Are we getting a change, or are we dealing with the same-old, same-old?” she asked. “It really is a tricky time right now. They can do themselves a lot of good if they share a little bit more.”
The application is with the state, so it’s in their hands now, said Filiciello, who expects it to take a few months to come through. “The mayor is doing everything he can to save jobs,” he said.
Darnell is giving the administration a chance.
“A hundred days is too soon to judge what the end result will be or what we’re going to be facing,” she said. “But we need to know what’s going to happen if we don’t get that aid.”
So far, the mayor seems confident he’s on track to meet the goals he set.
Streets already are being cleaned daily in four of the six wards, and this week he expects to meet with Atlantic City Electric to work out a timetable for getting new LED lighting throughout the city. The city is the first municipality approved by the state Board of Public Utilities to use the lights, which Guardian has heralded as brighter and cheaper to use.
He has his department heads in place, including Business Administrator Arch Liston, who said he has dealt with worse financial problems in other towns.
Solicitor Jason Holt was chosen because he’s a “watchdog with legal contracts.”
And, helping to clear up any personnel issues, is Human Resources Director Doreen Tucker, who is working to set policies and procedures. Work on an employee handbook was approved five or six years ago, the mayor said, but never completed.
Tucker is also working on a policy about hiring those with criminal records, which previously was on a case-by-case basis. Instead, set rules will be in place: a person must have a clean record for two years, pass a drug test and have a history that does not include crimes related to children, sexual assault or violence. Seasonal workers also will have background checks, which has not done before.
“I don’t want people to tell me who to hire and not hire based on whom they’re related to,” Guardian said.
City workers have gotten their promised meetings with the mayor in groups of 15 seen twice each week.
“Even though some employees were hesitant at first, they were happy to be able to express to somebody what they do and their frustrations and everything else,” Darnell said.
“So far, he’s had an open-door policy with us,” firefighter union President Chris Emmell said. “It definitely seems like he wants to move the city forward.”
For their part, Emmell said, the Fire Department has been looking for ways to move things around and save money without losing jobs. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant that was recently extended limits what cuts can be made.
“I think everybody has been working on things, but we’ve just been doing that in different directions,” Guardian said. “Now, we’re all trying to work together.”
Every Monday, he emails a synopsis of the upcoming week to City Council.
Councilman Mo Delgado said he appreciates the mayor’s creative approach to things, and that he hasn’t placed the blame on the previous administration but attributed it to a lack of planning over decades.
“We still have a lot of work to do digging out of this hole,” Delgado said of the money problems.
Guardian said City Council President Speedy Marsh has been very supportive and that, despite hard choices, they have been on the same page throughout his first three months.
“He seems very open,” Delgado said.
“It’s certainly a welcome change,” said Ari Rosmarin, who heads public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union, which doesn’t usually get invitations from Republican mayors to come and share their advice.
But Guardian has welcomed them and has stayed in contact.
“We’ve been very pleased with the openness with which the mayor engages in these conversations,” Rosmarin said. “It’s my impression that he’s excited about the potential to do a lot of important work.”
Police have seen the support as well, PBA President Paul Barbere said, pointing to March 27, when police fatally shot a suspect.
A chase that began in Pleasantville ended with a shootout on Atlantic Avenue within the city’s Tourism District. The suspect was killed, and there were no other injuries.
Guardian was on the scene a short time later, telling the media gathered that the police were heroes who saved lives with their actions.
“This wasn’t a guy saying, ‘I’m going to do something,’” the mayor said. “This was a guy who came out of the car shooting. It was a very, very dangerous situation.”
After leaving the scene, Guardian went to the hospital to visit the officers — both from Atlantic City and Pleasantville — who had been involved in the shooting.
“I told them I was proud to be the mayor of the town they are serving,” he said.
Guardian has been at the scene of other shootings as well, talking to residents. Then, he heads to the hospital to comfort the family.
The mayor said he’s kept pace from 8 in the morning until 9 at night, something he was used to doing when he headed the Special Improvement District for nearly two decades. He is always looking at ways to save money and make things work better, he said.
“Code enforcement, mercantile, building and construction really should be self-financing,” he said. “The fees they collect should be paying for them.”
But waiving construction fees last year due to Hurricane Sandy added up to a loss of $535,000. That is ending, with those still affected by Sandy able to make their case individually.
Guardian doesn’t let the bad financial news dim his view of the city’s future.
He talks of young people aspiring to move to the urban area, where five or six incoming developers will offer the high-end rentals and other attractions those aged 25 to 40 will be looking for.
“We’re not displacing poor people,” he added. “We’re going to build better housing for the poorest that live here.”
But he still wants to bring in 10,000 more residents to help with that tax burden, and stimulate the city’s economy.
A revaluation is also planned to begin, with residents and businesses expected to be paying on their real property values by 2016.
“I think it’s an exciting time to be in the city,” he said.
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