Atlantic City residents want state lawmakers to force tax-exempt resort landowners to pay up in hopes of getting relief from the impending multi-billion-dollar shift caused by recent tax court settlements.
“I think if they pay their fair share, if we compel our legislators to do the right thing, that's going to help,” resident Tom Forkin said. “Many of our seniors and friends and neighbors are being taxed out.”
Forkin, who lives and runs a surf shop in Gardner’s Basin, is leading the petition drive.
By “taxed out”, he means the crippling financial implications of recent tax court settlements on noncasino taxpayers in Atlantic City. Those settlements ordered city to pay more than $143 million in tax rebates — mostly to local casinos — and devalued the local ratable base by about $2 billion. That means other taxpayers would have had to make up about $40 million to support this year’s budget.
Forkin’s initiative targets New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which owns about 600 properties citywide. Most of those holdings are not taxed. If they were, they’d generate about $5 million in annual revenue for the local government.
The document doesn’t get into the numbers. Instead, it stresses the need for state agencies and educational institutions to start paying taxes on exempt landholdings, and for the CRDA to cover half of the city’s public safety costs.
‘Public safety ... (is) 53 percent of the city's budget,” Forkin said. “If the CRDA contributes toward that, the property taxes in Atlantic City would go down substantially.”
That part would be problematic, however, said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.
As an economic development authority, the CRDA faces strict limits on spending on its own operational expenses — let alone those for another agency, said Whelan, formerly mayor of the city and a bayfront resident of its Chelsea Heights section.
The petition is addressed to Whelan, along with Assemblymen Chris Brown and John Amodeo, both R-Atlantic.
None of them had seen the document until asked about it Wednesday by The Press of Atlantic City.
Brown estimated CRDA spending on city infrastructure at $126 million — more than 25 times what their landholdings would generate annually if fully taxed, he said.
He also criticized the anti-CRDA tone of the petition.
“This us versus them attitude? CRDA is us,” Brown said. “The people there ... know their jobs depend upon making sure Atlantic City continues to flourish, so this notion that it's us versus them is ridiculous. We're all on the same team.”
A citywide property revaluation also could work, Whelan said.
City officials are considering that and a targeted reassessment that would affect only some properties. They must decide what to do by May 2013, a deadline imposed by the state Local Finance Board when it authorized the city’s plans to pursue $103 million in tax appeal relief bonds in May of this year, City Finance Director Michael Stinson said.
Whelan also suggested that the CRDA figure out which of its properties hold promise for imminent development — and auction off those that do not.
Brown advocated for encouraging private development of stagnant properties. He also cautioned against setting too-low bid minimums and questioned the timing of the initiative, however.
“They should be put up for auction and developed so that the city and the state can get out of the real estate market and let the private market develop them,” Brown said. “But right now, on a national level and as a city, we are facing tough economic times, so I don't want to see someone buy it at not peak value and hold onto it as well.”
An auction also cannot be legislated but would have to be decided by the CRDA board, Whelan said.
As mayor, Lorenzo Langford gets one of the 15 seats on that board. He did not respond to questions about whether he’d suggest or support the idea.
He did, however, say Wednesday through a spokesman that he supports Forkin’s petition. It’s unclear whether he signed it — or intends to.
So far, nearly 400 people have signed – slightly more than 1 percent of the resort’s 39,000-person population.
Its suggested changes would amend S-11, the law that established the Atlantic City Tourism District and transferred local planning and development authority to the CRDA.
“We are writing in regard to the above captioned matter and to follow up on months of preparation and research as to the misapplication of S-11 and it’s unconstitutional effects (on) … city residents,” the document states. “This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of public service and protection. A law may not have a prejudicial effect even without intent. … S-11 and related legislation produce that discriminatory effect in taxing hard working men, women and seniors out of Atlantic City. Many of (them) are minority residents.”
Forkin, who was city solicitor while Whelan was in office, has repeatedly made the same legal argument while talking about the NAACP’s intent to sue the state government on the city’s behalf.
Two years ago, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs barred the city from using public funds to pursue legal action against the state government.
The NAACP has not taken any legal action related to the Tourism District legislation since then.
NJ NAACP President James Harris expects a lawsuit to be filed by February, however.
First, the NAACP’s national office has to officially support the move, likely by authorizing the organization to pay to handle the case or finding pro bono attorneys to do so, Harris said.
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