Frustrated by what state officials characterize as Atlantic City's unwillingness to enforce building codes in the Tourism District, the CRDA is giving the city $130,000 to hire inspectors assigned solely to the state-run district.
City officials, however, call that description “total and utter nonsense” and insist that inadaquate staffing is to blame for any lapses in enforcement. Instead, they said they need even more financial help to bring staffing up to an acceptable level.
State legislation approved two years ago turned over planning and zoning functions within the district to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Early drafts of the legislation would have made CRDA responsible for code enforcement as well, but that provision was later removed along with a plan that would have had State Police patrolling the district.
Now, however, CRDA officials point to code enforcement issues such as crumbling siding, trash and rusted signs as a major obstacle to moving the district forward. CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri has named code enforcement as one of the top issues that needs to be addressed this year, saying he can't have a district that "looks like hell."
While the CRDA can't enforce codes, it can provide funding to the city to do so.The city currently has eight full-time inspectors with plans to bring in one more full-time and four part-time inspectors. CRDA’s funding will provide for two additional full-time or four part-time officers assigned only to the district, and the CRDA will require monthly reports from the city regarding their work.
Salaries and wages for inspectors in the city’s Licensing and Inspections division were budgeted for $892,852 in 2012. CRDA’s contribution this year would add about 15 percent to that amount..
"We came to the conclusion unfortunately that there is no other way to do this," CRDA Vice Chairman Robert Mulcahy said. "It should be a city responsibility, but the responsibility of running the Tourism District the right way outweighed the difficulties we had here."
Anthony Cox, the city’s director of licensing and inspections, said ideally he’d have at least 20 inspectors working in the city but budgeting hasn’t allowed for that. Staffing is further complicated by a lack of city vehicles, particularly since some were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. That’s left inspectors doubling up on rides into the city. Employees can volunteer to use their own vehciles and be reimbursed for mileage, but there are few volunteers, he said. .
“I would challenge anybody to come along and try to prove we’ve been acting in anything but good faith,” Cox said, adding that the city has been fully cooperative in monthly meetings with CRDA. “I’m frustrated, too. ... I can only hope that all the voices that have come forward will align some resources — as they have on the Boardwalk — to help us improve things.”
The issue has taken on renewed importance with the announcement that the Miss America Pageant will return to the resort in September. The pageant, which will be broadcast on ABC, has traditionally taped footage of the women in the city.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said people who watched the last Miss America Pageant were actually watching a tourism informercial about Las Vegas as the women were featured in various areas in the city.
"Now that it's our turn, we might be hard-pressed to find 50 locales in Atlantic City," Brown said. "Even with the popular and eye-catching attractions throughout the city, there are still too many eyesores."
He pointed to 150 properties recently identified by CRDA as needing immediate demolition or repair. A violations list prepared by the authority includes violations in the Tourism District, such as structural defects, trash strewn across empty lots, signage violations, dead trees, collapsed fencing and unsafe sidewalks, he said.
CRDA spokeswoman Kim Butler said that list was compiled by staff in an attempt to take a look at the depth of the problem in the district. Anything on the list is an observation made by staff standing in public areas, and does not include information from any formal interior building inspection, which would require authority the CRDA does not have, she said.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said a formal list isn't even necessary as a walk through the city would prove to anyone that codes are not being enforced. That has an effect on the entire county as the values of neighboring properties decrease and the equalized value of the property across the county goes down.
"It seems clear to me that there has been a hands-off policy as far enforcing the codes in the Tourism District," he said. "The attitude of Atlantic City is: You wanted it. You asked for it. You got it. Now you take care of it. It's an unfortunate attitude."
Acting Code Enforcement Chief Rick Russo insisted that the city is doing the best it can with limited resources and would not engage in selective enforcement.
"We're currently operating at approximately 50 percent of our staffing needs required by city ordinance," Russo said. "That, coupled with the lack of reliable vehicles and an increased work load brought on by Hurricane Sandy has made our task that much more difficult."
Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica said attempts to make progress in the city are well and good, but the frustration seen by CRDA now begs the question of why code enforcement was left to the city in the first place. Also the owner of Formica's Bakery on Arctic Avenue, he pointed to meetings he had with the state prior to the Tourism District's creation in which he said code enforcement was one of the least functioning areas of the city and the one that would have the most immediate impact.
"The CRDA should be less concerned with hiring additional code enforcement officers and more concerned with getting the authority to execute the enforcement of codes themselves," Formica said. "I'd hate to think they just want to create two more jobs and have that be the end of it."
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