Mayors across Atlantic County are gearing up for a fight against the state to get its 13.5 percent share of the Atlantic City PILOT money and avoid a large, countywide tax increase.
“I absolutely support a lawsuit,” Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle said. “It hurts me, because I was born and raised in Atlantic City. I support them as much as I can, but my commitment is to Pleasantville.”
Tweedle said Pleasantville residents are facing an average tax-bill increase of $280 on a municipal level this year, because it recently lost $82 million in assessed value. Another increase from the county would be unconscionable, he said.
On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie doubled down on his stance that the county did not do enough to help the city get out of its financial crisis, therefore the county doesn’t deserve the 13.5 percent he promised them last year. Instead, the county will receive 10.4 percent of the PILOT, amounting to a $40 million loss over 10 years.
“My deal with the Atlantic County executive was that he would get 13.5 percent if the county was an active participant in helping to reform Atlantic City,” Christie said, adding County Executive Dennis Levinson did not step up to the plate when it came time to help the city. “What services has he stepped up and said he’s willing to run?”
But the county has offered to take over several services since the PILOT Bill was passed. The county has offered to buy the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority for $100 million with a later opportunity to reacquire it, take over trash service inside the city and take over its meals-on-wheels and nutritional programs.
The city declined to sell the MUA to the county. The city also chose to privatize trash pickup after a bidding process in which the county submitted a bid.
The county also helped fund the Stockton University campus in Atlantic City through the Atlantic County Improvement Authority, which sold $128 million in revenue bonds in September for the project.
In light of those facts, mayors around the county are asking why the state reneged on its deal to give the county the 13.5 percent share of the PILOT money.
In an emergency meeting last week, the mayors said they want to pursue an amendment to the PILOT bill through state legislators or they will consider suing the state to end the takeover of Atlantic City and void the PILOT legislation.
Another mayor who grew up in Atlantic City, Buena Vista Township’s Chuck Chiarello, said he would hate to do anything to hurt the city in a time when companies, such as the Hard Rock, are starting to reinvest.
But, he said, the mayors were told they would get the 13.5 percent to keep the county whole, only to see that deal voided by the state. Still, he said, he would like to see an evaluation done measuring the probability of winning the lawsuit before officially endorsing it.
Meanwhile, Hammonton Mayor Steve DiDonato is laying blame on the county executive, saying the governor fooled Levinson with a deal that never ended up in the final legislation.
“I think Denny Levinson is out of his league,” DiDonato said, pointing to the fact Levinson has said he doesn’t want to cut the county budget. “I’m sickened by the way the county taxpayer has been treated.”
Levinson later said the county government has no control over the Legislature.
“Steve DiDonato is the last person anyone should ask about budget issues,” Levinson said.
At an April 2016 press conference, Christie promised the county would get the 13.5 percent share.
“It’s in the legislation. It’s part of the bill,” Christie said during the press conference. “Unlike dealing with (Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian), Denny knows that if I say it’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen.”
But the 13.5 percent was not in the final PILOT legislation that was passed by state lawmakers, irritating DiDonato that the county executive would make a deal without it officially being in the legislation.
On Thursday, state legislators representing Galloway Township and Port Republic sent a letter to the state Department of Community Affairs asking Commissioner Charles Richman to step in and help the county.
“Our delegation is reaching out to the department as, frankly, neither legislative action to amend the casino PILOT law or legal action (or threat of) taken against the state enjoy any substantial likelihood of success,” wrote state Sen. Christopher Connors and Assembly members DiAnne Gove and Brian Rumpf, all Republicans. “However, the department has the ability to take immediate action with respect to revenue apportionment, as the sponsors of the casino PILOT law specifically provided for under the law.”