PLEASANTVILLE — Atlantic City is entitled to the five years it was promised to turn around, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Thursday, while defending the officials in charge of the Tourism District.
“We made a deal” to give the resort five years to show improvement, said Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, who spoke at an editorial board meeting of The Press of Atlantic City.
That clock didn’t start running when Gov. Chris Christie was sworn into office in January 2010, said Sweeney, who did not set a hard deadline but pointed to Christie signing state Tourism District legislation in February 2011.
“The day he signed the bill, all we heard was we have to move gaming outside Atlantic City,” Sweeney said, adding the discussions depress investment. “We need to be touting the progress, about how much nicer it is.”
An evaluation should consider factors beyond gross gambling revenue, Sweeney said.
State statistics show gross gambling revenue has fallen from more than $3.3 billion in 2011 to less than $2.9 billion in 2013. But Sweeney said nongambling revenue — income from restaurants, shopping and clubs — has grown as a percentage of citywide revenue.
“Those tax dollars count too.” he said.
Overall, state statistics show revenue from New Jersey’s five nongambling taxes that casinos pay decreased 2.4 percent in the 12 months that ended in September 2013.
If voters do expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City, Sweeney suggested, the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park racetrack could be bypassed for cities such as Camden, Jersey City or Newark. He said these cities could benefit from a newly built casino.
Sweeney also said that Internet wagering will help increase gambling revenue, but he criticized Christie with “way over-project(ing)” potential revenue.
“I can yell as much as I want to yell,” Sweeney said, “but he has to certify the figures.”
He also repeatedly praised new Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, saying, “He actually wants to see something happen” and compared him to Philadelphia’s former Mayor Ed Rendell.
Sweeney also pledged to “deal with the tax appeal issue,” which has seen casino after casino win multimillion-dollar awards from Atlantic City because the assessments were based on their declining income. The appeals have cut into city and Atlantic County funds.
The Senate president blamed the Christie administration with placing too many restrictions on Tourism District recruitment spending, which he said have limited the agency’s ability to pursue conventions.
“We’ve really hamstrung that organization,” Sweeney said. “You get what you pay for.”
On the investigation into the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which has attracted international attention, Sweeney said Christie’s office has fought about turning over documents.
“We’re getting stonewalled right now,” Sweeney said. “We get news clippings from the Governor’s Office when we ask for documents.”
He said that patronage and fighting over funding are the biggest problems of interstate agencies, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the George Washington Bridge.
“It’s a war,” Sweeney said. “Both states are trying to get over on each other. Rather than cutting up there, they increase the pie, and that’s when you get Wildsteins.”
David Wildstein was a Christie appointee to the Port Authority who served as the director of interstate capital projects before resigning in December. He is one of several figures at the center of the lane-closings controversy.
Sweeney also touted his bill to drop the state’s property tax cap to zero, essentially banning local increases, which he said would spur on shared services and municipal consolidation.
More local governments are sharing services, but Sweeney said “that would force communities to move quicker.”
He lamented local officials whose shared-service proposals are stymied by small pressure groups who complain at local meetings. “The majority are the people who didn’t show up at the meeting and who elected you to do your job,” Sweeney said.
Noting that “a lot of elected officials don’t have the courage to stand up to the 15 to 19 people” who complain at a meeting, Sweeney said his bill would say to the officials, “you could have saved $50,000. OK, you are going to have $50,000 taken off your state aid.”
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