EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Candidates for state Assembly and Senate in the 2nd Legislative District squared off in their first official debate of the election Wednesday night.
The forum, held at the Village Grande, featured Republican candidates Chris Brown, Brenda Taube and Vince Sera and Democrats Colin Bell, Vince Mazzeo and John Armato. Brown and Bell are running for Senate, the others for two Assembly seats.
The debate followed differences along party lines when it came to school funding, property-tax relief and tax rates for millionaires in the state.
But all six candidates said they would support legislation asking that Atlantic County receive 13.5 percent of the payments in lieu of property taxes from Atlantic City casinos. The proposal would give the county an extra $40 million over 10 years from the casinos and could help eliminate tax increases for country residents.
The pledge to support such legislation was surprising because Mazzeo sponsored the PILOT bill in the state Legislature without the percentage. Brown and the late-Sen. Jim Whelan also both voted for the bill.
Bell, who is filling Whelan’s Senate seat, opposed giving the county the 13.5 percent during his time as county freeholder.
The fight over the share of the PILOT money has been a major issue for the county since the Legislature passed two bills that allowed the state to take over Atlantic City and took the casinos off the tax rolls.
The county wanted a 13.5 percent piece of the PILOT pie, which reflected the county’s historic share of casino property taxes. But Atlantic City officials said the county should get just 10.4 percent, which is in line with what the county has received recently.
Ultimately, the state made the decision to give the county 10.4 percent.
The county is still receiving about $500,000 more from casinos under the PILOT program this year than it did from the same properties last year, according to previous reports. But the extra money wasn’t enough to avoid tax increases.
Before the PILOT legislation was passed, Gov. Chris Christie promised Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson the county would receive the 13.5 percent share.
But the percentage was not in the final PILOT legislation, and the fight over the money rankled the relationship between Christie, Levinson and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, all of whom are Republicans. Guardian’s relationship with Christie crumbled when he would not support the governor’s state takeover plan.
Christie has said the county didn’t receive the share because the county did not “step up to the plate” and help Atlantic City with shared services.
Brown has consistently said he fought in Trenton to get the 13.5 percent in the legislation but voted yes on the bill without it because it was the best deal he could get after months of negotiating. The original PILOT was supposed to last for 15 years instead of 10, a change Brown said he successfully negotiated, among other revisions.
Mazzeo, meanwhile, has maintained the percentage issue is something city and county had to work out. But with the state controlling the city’s finances, the state would have to sign off on giving the county its desired percentage.
“I’d be more than happy to sponsor that legislation,” Mazzeo said. “But shouldn’t we have cooperation from the Republican county executive, Republican mayor and Republican governor, who all don’t speak to each other? That’s where the issue is.”
Brown has called for the county to get the 13.5 percent since before the bill was passed. He said he is happy to hear Mazzeo and Bell are “now on his side.”
“I’m glad they finally see it my way,” he said. “But it’s election season, and nothing really surprises me.”