Two state lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled legislation intended to stabilize the finances of Atlantic City, which have been hurt by sharp declines in ratables and casino revenue.
The legislation would implement a plan released in November by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and comes weeks after the second of two summits convened by Gov. Chris Christie in Atlantic City. Those meetings were aimed at finding a way forward for an economy that’s lost four of its 12 casinos, and about 8,000 casino-hotel jobs, so far this year.
The legislation, proposed by Sweeney and Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, is part of a larger Atlantic City rescue effort expected to take shape through legislation and executive order.
A core aim of the senators’ plan is to stabilize casinos’ property-tax payments by pegging levies to gambling revenue.
Property taxes on casinos account for more than 60 percent of the city’s total real estate levy, officials say.
But as casinos have shut or appealed their tax loads in court, that lifeblood has been decimated.
The total assessed value of Atlantic City properties, about $20.5 billion in 2010, has nearly halved since then.
The tax rate has skyrocketed as the city tries to patch a hole in its $200 million fiscal 2014 budget.
Residents have taken to the streets to protest a 29 percent tax increase this year, many still reeling from last year’s 22 percent spike.
Whelan said the plan will inject “more predictability” into the chaos by creating a two-year Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, whereby casinos, in aggregate, would pay $150 million annually for two years.
Then taxes would be pegged to gross gaming revenue, he said Tuesday. “If the win increases after two years, that number would go up. If it goes down, that would go down,” he said, using a trade term for casino revenue.
“Taxes are the overarching problem right now for residents, for businesses, for casinos,” Whelan said. “We’re trying to deal with that.”
He and Sweeney also want the Investment Alternative Tax, which taps gaming revenue to fund local development projects coordinated by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, to be redirected to pay about $25 million to $30 million in city debt annually.
Some of Atlantic City’s highest-profile developments — a conference center planned for Harrah’s, the Bass Pro Shop being erected at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway — are bankrolled, at least partly, with CRDA money.
Whelan said his plan would not impact any currently funded project, and that he’s targeting “uncommitted monies.”
In a statement, Assemblyman Chris Brown said diverting those dollars “is a short sighted, quick fix that effectively eliminates the one program that actually attracts new businesses and jobs.” And he said “any serious legislative package intended to help Atlantic City” should eliminate the possibility of a casino in northern New Jersey.
Sweeney, who did not return a call for comment Tuesday, has said he’s open to holding a referendum to allow a North Jersey casino, which could strip Atlantic City of its decades-long state monopoly on casino gambling.
Stakeholders of all stripes agree, though, that reconfiguring Atlantic City’s revenue stream is only part of the calculus to deal with the crisis here.
Jon Hanson, a top Christie adviser who last month issued a blue-ribbon report on Atlantic City, said the city should be run by an emergency manager vested with supreme authority to create a “new normal” for city spending.
“That person would be the ultimate power on hiring, firing and budget expenditures,” Hanson told The Press of Atlantic City in November.
He said that power would eclipse state monitor Ed Sasdelli, who currently reviews the city’s finances as part of the state’s agreement to give the city so-called transitional aid.
Last month, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said the distinction between “state monitor” and “emergency manager” was “semantics.”
Guardian, who on Tuesday said he appreciated Sweeney’s input, is planning to submit his own plan to the state to rein in spending with widespread layoffs.
Whelan and Sweeney’s plan does not call for an emergency manager.
If the city and its school board can make profound cuts on their own, an emergency manager isn’t needed, Whelan said Tuesday.
But “you can’t do this just a nickel here, a nickel there,” he said. “A hiring freeze isn’t going to do, or a wage freeze isn’t going to do.”
He said the planned closure of Atlantic City High School East Campus is one of many “difficult, painful decisions” on the horizon.
The city has to show the state that it can fix its finances without an omnipotent overseer, Whelan said.
“Hopefully we can demonstrate that the will is here to make the necessary cuts.”
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