ATLANTIC CITY — There will be no shortage of obstacles as Atlantic City’s governmental structure is drastically altered, but preparations already began before Gov. Chris Christie’s visit Tuesday.
Officials with six state and city bureaucracies set to either gain power or lose much of their authority have held various meetings with each other to assess the extent of the red tape and complex processes that lie ahead. From mundane procedural details to burning questions about who will be running the state agencies involved in the near future, there appears to be more questions than answers.
“There are a myriad of issues that have to be ironed out,” said Thomas Carver, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “There are complexities to this thing that, frankly, no one has addressed and that have to be addressed. I don’t even know if I’ll be here.”
Christie mentioned during his news conference Tuesday that he is working to establish “new leadership” at the CRDA, which is being reshaped into a superagency controlling the newly designed Tourism District. The statement was a sign that Carver, a Democratic holdover, has little time left with the agency.
Regardless of the uncertainty, Carver said he will move forward with CRDA’s top priority: officially establishing the Tourism District.
Part of the legislation sets default borders of the Tourism District, which can be altered by the agency that controls the zone, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, in the next 90 days. Carver says setting those boundaries is the authority’s No. 1 task, but he needs some important input first.
The director wants to meet with residents from all six city wards before outlining the state-run zone. Meanwhile, he said he has already met with Jeff Vasser and Don Guardian, respective heads of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and the Atlantic City Special Improvement District, both of which will become divisions within the CRDA.
But a grueling process lies ahead, Vasser predicted, with many intricacies that must be handled before the agency is absorbed by the CRDA.
“I think that it’s going to take longer than most people realize because it is a very complex set of circumstances,” he said.
Vasser pointed to plans to separate the ACCVA from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which started two years ago.
“We still have yet to complete that process,” said Vasser, noting the arduous task of getting consent from bond trustees and transferring ownership of assets. “I don’t think this process will take two years, but certainly several months.”
The governor tried to temper concerns about the lengthy process ahead, noting that his office had started meeting to coordinate the massive transition before the legislation was signed.
“We’re getting to work — starting last week,” he said.
The state also has to deal with a volatile city government, which is not intending to sit quietly while the CRDA takes over about half of the city.
“It ain’t over,” Mayor Lorenzo Langford said Tuesday, declining to discuss his previous threats to sue the state. He did say, however, that no action would be taken until after the authority draws the district’s official boundaries.
City Solicitor G. Bruce Ward said he met with the governor’s chief counsel, Craig Domalewski, on Monday to discuss legal issues, but that the conversation did not extend to the city’s threats of litigation.
“It was more about establishing a communication structure,” he said. “We want to know who we should be talking to when we have a concern.”
Ward said he raised several concerns about the day-to-day management of the Tourism District and what types of services for which the city would still be responsible. He asked rhetorically Tuesday about who would respond to traffic lights going dark on Pacific Avenue, or whether the city or the CRDA would get sued if an individual injured themselves on the Boardwalk.
“They acknowledged that there are potential legal issues and operational issues embedded in the language of the legislation,” Ward said. “Our effort is to stay connected at our level and point out operational issues.”
Carver also agreed there are many gray areas in the legislation that need to be addressed in the coming weeks.
The governor has tried to give the CRDA a clean slate to work with, most notably with his sudden veto Monday night of a collection of minutes approved by the ACCVA, including the agency’s 2011 operations and marketing budgets.
The ACCVA approved the resolutions at its meeting Dec. 15, at the height of negotiations between state lawmakers that was sure to end with the agency’s loss of autonomy. The governor said he viewed those approvals as the agency’s attempt “to try to jump ahead of what I was doing today. I don’t want CRDA to be hamstrung in any way,” Christie said.
Vasser said he understood Christie’s decision to veto the minutes, but regretted the governor’s implication that the ACCVA was doing anything to undercut his efforts.
“Needless to say, I’m sorry that the governor feels that way,” Vasser said. “We were just doing what we normally do. We had no indication of what was going to happen, what the legislation would say, when the governor would sign it.”
Discussions regarding the transition of the duties of the Casino Control Commission also commenced prior to the governor’s visit.
Linda Kassekert, chair of the CCC, said members of her staff have already started the process of meeting with members of the Division of Gaming Enforcement and the Division of Taxation to play the “orderly transfer of regulatory and tax collecting functions” in the next 90 days.
The commission is losing much of its regulatory authority to the DGE, which will absorb all of the CCC’s regulatory powers and limit the commission to deciding casino licenses, registrations and certificates.
“The commission has a very dedicated and very talented staff, which will take every step necessary to see that the transition is accomplished as efficiently as possible and with the least disruption to ongoing gaming activities,” Kassekert said in a prepared statement. Kassekert also said other commissioners have met with the first assistant attorney general to determine how the changes will be made.
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