Two state representatives are calling on Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford to begin cooperating with the state’s efforts in the Tourism District, saying Trenton’s relationship with the city is rapidly deteriorating.
Meanwhile, Langford, who is up for re-election in November, said he remains responsible to city residents and will not allow the state’s agenda, the media, or anyone else to dictate his priorities.
Fueled in part by an ongoing battle over increased code enforcement in the Tourism District, New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Chairman James Kehoe and Vice Chairman Robert Mulcahy said they’re frustrated and stymied by what they call the city’s continued attempts to ignore requests to work with the authority.
Seven months ago, the CRDA began working with the city in an effort to increase Tourism District code enforcement, one of the few responsibilities still left to the city in the state-run region. Yet the $130,000 the authority designated for the city to hire two-full time or four part-time inspectors remains unspent. No deadlines to spend the money were attached to a resolution approving the financing.
It’s a small amount of financing compared to the multimillion development projects the authority has funded in the past year. Yet CRDA officials insist the lack of progress is concerning.
“The government just doesn’t function here. It’s become very tiresome to hear the mayor on TV continually criticizing the state’s efforts, yet he sits there and votes for all these projects,” Mulcahy said. “None of us on this board have to do this. We have no dog in this fight other than a sincere desire to make life better here.”
During a recent City Council meeting, Langford said while code enforcement is important, others are exaggerating the effect two additional officers will have on the overall appearance of the city. Their presence will not “make or break” the city, he said.
“You can criticize and write as many stories as you like, but my priorities will continue to be driven by the needs of the residents first and foremost. Everything else is secondary,” Langford said, pointing to the need to reopen the Ohio Avenue bridge in the Venice Park section of the city before school starts as one of his top priorities.
The bridge was shut down in June due to stability issues. Eddie Lax, an aide to the mayor, said the city had applied to the state Department of Transportation for funding to fix the problems years ago, but it was unsuccessful.
State legislation approved two years ago turned over planning and zoning functions within the Tourism District to the CRDA. Other responsibilities, such as code enforcement and mercantile licensing, have remained with the city, although some have considered pursuing legislation to turn over that responsibility to the CRDA as well. That’s a move Langford has promised to fight, saying the state is infringing on the city’s sovereignty.
The authority has continued to leverage its finances, derived primarily from casino revenue, to spur new nongambling development, including $45 million for a new conference center at Harrah’s Resort, nearly $13 million for the Margaritaville expansion at Resorts Casino Hotel and more than $12 million to bring Bass Pro Shops to the city’s outlets.
As mayor, Langford sits on the 17-member CRDA board, where he rarely has voted against a project or spoken out during the public meetings. He’s been present at half of the authority’s eight full board meetings this year, according to meeting minutes.
“It’s not like we have unlimited time here,” Kehoe said. “We’ve worked incredibly hard to make progress, but we need that cooperation.”
A three-year report on the progress of the Tourism District is due to the state in February. Langford, a Democrat, is running against Republican Don Guardian, executive director of the city’s Special Improvement Division, now a part of the CRDA, in the November election. Atlantic City voters have not chosen a Republican since the city returned to partisan voting in 2001.
“We have funded several things that should be the city’s responsibility because we don’t know how else to get it done,” Mulcahy said. “When the repairs on the Boardwalk were needed, the mayor said the city didn’t have money, so we paid for it. He can’t have it both ways.”
In the past year, the CRDA has approved $1.7 million to repair structural issues with the Boardwalk and $500,000 to replace or repair 100 broken street lights. An additional $3 million to $4 million in CRDA funding is expected to finance the repaving of Pacific Avenue in the fall.
The city hasn’t planned any spending increases in 2013, but a $3.7 billion loss of ratables due to casino tax appeals will leave residents shouldering a 22 percent tax increase. The $249 million budget was approved by the state Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board as required under a state oversight agreement.
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