More than four months ago, officials decided the city’s efforts at code enforcement in the Tourism District were so dismal that CRDA money should be used to supplement the Department of Licensing and Inspection’s manpower.
Today, however, even with that money available, additional building inspectors have yet to be hired. A request for proposals for contractors to provide services was advertised for one day in local newspapers — and returned no responses. State officials question what is taking so long.
Some officials are suggesting that if the city is unable to address the problem soon, legislative action should be taken in Trenton to turn over code enforcement to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, stripping the city of yet another responsibility.
“As you know, this is a serious issue for the district and has been identified by elected officials, the business community and casino leadership as one needing attention,” CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri wrote in a June 7 letter to Mayor Lorenzo Langford. “Can you let me know what you are doing to find suitable candidates for this important Tourism District service? Time is of the essence.”
Months of discussion with the city took place before the CRDA allocated $130,000 to hire two additional full-time building inspectors or four part-time inspectors assigned solely to the district.
CRDA officials have publicly criticized the city, saying it has been unwilling to pay attention to deficiencies such as rusted signs, crumbling buildings and piled trash in the state-run district, where code enforcement is one of the few functions still controlled by the city.
The municipality, meanwhile, stressed that its problems with enforcement in the Tourism District mirrored the problems in the rest of the city. An understaffed department has led to less than ideal enforcement, officials said.
Langford said the process the city went through to seek inspectors or a contractor is no different than any other request for proposals the city issues, calling it “completely transparent and above board; nothing more, nothing less.”
The city solicitor’s office is preparing to reissue the request soon, city officials said. Meanwhile, the city moved forward earlier this month with the hirings of three part-time inspectors assigned throughout the city. And since the Tourism District positions will be funded through the CRDA on a temporary basis, the parties decided it would be more efficient to hire a contractor for the work.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said to him it’s clear the city will never make code enforcement in the Tourism District a priority. If progress is to be made, the CRDA needs more power, he said.
“To continually rely on the city of Atlantic City (government) means you will continually be disappointed,” Levinson said. “As long as lip service is given, and as long as John Palmieri and the CRDA accept it, this is what they’ll get. It will dawn on them soon enough that they’re going to have to do it themselves, and they’re going to have to do it through legislation.”
Langford, however, promised he would oppose any plan to turn over code enforcement to the CRDA. Turning over another responsibility to the state would only “advance a path that perpetuates a tale of two cities.” he said.
“Code enforcement in the Tourism District is not any more important to the CRDA than code enforcement is in the neighborhoods to the residents,” Langford said. “Certainly I would reject and vigorously oppose any effort to further usurp our authority and sovereign right of self-governance.”
The city currently has eight full-time inspectors and three part-time inspectors. An ideal number would be 20, Anthony Cox, the city’s director of licensing and inspections has said.
“If they’re looking for rogue code compliance, they’re not going to get it from me,” Cox said. “We get caught up in timeliness because of our staffing restrictions. It really comes down to dollars and cents.”
State legislation approved two years ago turned over planning and zoning functions within the district to the CRDA. Early drafts of the legislation would have made the CRDA responsible for code enforcement as well, but that provision was later removed along with a plan that would have had State Police patrolling the district after state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, raised concerns that residents outside the Tourism District might be shortchanged by the arrangements.
Drafted legislation would have required the city to pay for those functions without managing them. The CRDA would also have had the power to manipulate the municipal budget if the city said funding wasn’t available. Under the current arrangement, the CRDA can’t enforce codes, but it can provide funding to the city to do so.
“You can blame the state legislators for dropping the ball,” Levinson said. “No one has ever given me a satisfactory answer as to why this wasn’t included. The unfortunate part about it is yet another season has gone by without the assurances of more code enforcement.”
State Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he’s tired of the finger-pointing that has ensued in the months since the city’s code enforcement has been discussed. For now, he said, the city needs to take responsibility for hiring the Tourism District inspectors to enforce the codes.
“I am tired of issues that affect all of us being framed as us versus them. We are all in this together. In order for us to succeed, our codes need to be enforced. That’s the bottom line,” Brown said.
The issue has taken on renewed importance with the announcement that the Miss America Competition will return to the resort in September. The competition, which will be broadcast on ABC, has traditionally taped footage of the competing women in various parts of the city.
Whether any progress can be made by September remains to be seen.
“Creating a better image of Atlantic City is important, especially since we have a five-year window to show progress,” Brown said. “We have a great opportunity to do so during the upcoming Miss America (Competition).”
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