The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has approved almost $157 million in Atlantic City projects over the past three years. They range from widening streets and renovating piers to building parks and major casino additions.
But determining unsuccessful CRDA project applications in the same three years is virtually impossible. There is no record of the CRDA denying any project application over the past three years, the authority recently said in response to an Open Public Records Act request filed by The Press of Atlantic City.
"Given the cost and effort associated with filing a formal application for financial assistance with the authority for a project, most, if not all, such requests are vetted through pre-application meetings," CRDA Chief Legal Officer Paul Weiss wrote in a letter to The Press. "As such, the authority has examined its files and does not maintain such records."
As a result, the only project applications that remain on file with the CRDA are successful ones.
Walter Luers, president of the New Jersey Foundation on Open Government, said pre-application processes for financial assistance aren't unusual, but he knew of no other examples of agencies that don't document those processes in a traceable way.
"It's important, because there may be politically favored projects getting pushed through while the nonfavored projects are squelched," Luers said. "These projects are something that the taxpayers have a vested interest in knowing about. There should be a formal process, even some rudimentary documentation."
The CRDA's practice is not common practice for other government-run agencies with similar missions. Both the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the U.S. Small Business Administration deny project applications. The EDA does keep denied applications on file, said Erin Gold, a spokeswoman for the authority.
Applicants to the SBA's Guaranteed Loans program are somewhat different in that they are approved through local lenders and, therefore, aren't kept on file with the SBA, said Harry Menta, a Newark-based spokesman for the agency.
CRDA officials insist the process is not meant to elude public scrutiny. Interested parties meet one-on-one with various CRDA officials depending on the scope of the project and discuss plans prior to the application being filed. Those discussions can save an applicant from needlessly filing time-consuming paperwork and paying the $500 application fee, CRDA officials say.
Susan Ney Thompson, CRDA's deputy executive director who has spent 24 years with the authority, said pre-application conversations allow staff to redirect those without adequate business plans to the Small Business Development Center at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, or to connect the parties with other resources. Some parties attempt to seek CRDA funding without having first secured a site or having adequate cash flow.
"Lending is tricky. It's not like we have a big line of people that are coming to the authority. For us, it's easy to manage this way," Thompson said, adding the authority's practices do allow for transparency.
Projects require three votes by the 16-member CRDA board before funding is disbursed. After the preliminary determination is made, there is a public hearing in which a CRDA hearing officer introduces the project and comments are taken. Board members generally do not attend.
In public board sessions, the board allows for public comment prior to each resolution, unlike some public boards that hold all public comment until the end of a meeting. By the time an issue makes it to the full board, there's often little public board scrutiny, as concerns are discussed in committee meetings. Most measures pass by unanimous votes with a few abstentions.
Still, Thompson acknowledged that applicants simply might not want details of their projects prematurely disclosed to the public.
"It's not that we're trying to keep anything away from the public view, but it is somewhat sensitive," Thompson said. "We wouldn't want to air somebody's dirty laundry - if you want to characterize it that way. I'm sensitive to the fact that they might feel somewhat exposed if there was an issue of bad credit, or a proprietary concept, or if someone simply wasn't ready."
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, said OPRA is meant to address only what documents the public should have access to. It doesn't require the records to exist.
"If there are no records, there are no records," Paff said. "The thing is, it's just a little hard to believe that there's literally not a single record of any of this. It's conceivable that they have calculated that they're doing this precisely so there are no records kept - without ever having to explain to the public that a project was denied."
The CRDA's project application is a 22-page document requiring a business development plan, a financial summary of the project and information on the development team. Applications also must include various other documents, including resumes of the development team, project maps, tax information, three years of financial statements, site control documents and market information. A 26-page financial disclosure statement is also required.
That's not unusually rigorous compared with other financial assistance programs in the region. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority requires 10 years of tax revenue projections, market or feasibility studies on project sites, two years of financial statements, budgets and permits, among other materials for its Economic Redevelopment and Growth program applications, one of the state programs most closely resembling the type of funding the CRDA offers. The application fee for an ERG grant is $5,000 - ten times the amount of the CRDA's application fee.
Thompson characterized the CRDA's application process as lengthy and said the authority wouldn't stop a party from putting in an application without a pre-application meeting, but the CRDA does encourage applicants to come in for guidance before they apply. She pointed to Ventnor resident Jason Forslund as one successful case. Forslund approached the authority with an idea for a skate park in Atlantic City. His idea allowed the authority to pursue construction of the park while Forslund has provided guidance.
But Forslund, 26, is an anomaly. Unlike many who approach the CRDA for funding, Forslund has not shied away from talking publicly about his idea, often attending CRDA meetings and accepting requests for interviews with the media.
Earlier this year, the skate park project was deemed eligible - the first of three steps before funding is disbursed. But board members expressed concern about the park's potential location near The Walk outlets, and other locations are now under consideration.
Though infrequent, such projects may receive initial approval but never see funding disbursement. Yet those projects are never denied.
The CRDA's website documents what kinds of projects are eligible for funding and has a downloadable application. Nowhere does it make note that a pre-application process is completed before filling out an application.
Paff said the situation points to inherent problems with OPRA. He referenced other situations in which members of a municipality's governing body have been told not to correspond via email so that their conversations will not be subject to the records law.
"The laws unfortunately aren't perfect. They're intended to deal with governing bodies that have a general respect for the underpinnings of the laws," Paff said. "There are ways to suppress information simply by not creating the records."
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What the CRDA funds
According to state law, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority can fund projects that benefit the public at large and focus on those of low and moderate incomes. Acceptable funding uses include:
•Promotion of the tourism industry through creation or improvement of recreation and entertainment facilities
•Housing for people of low, moderate, median and middle incomes
•Projects that aid in the operation of public transportation
•Convention halls, offices, commercial facilities, community service facilities, parking and hotel facilities that draw additional tourists to the resort
•Projects that will increase opportunities in manufacturing, industrial, commercial, recreational, retail and service enterprises that will create new employment opportunities
•Planning, development or preservation of new and existing small businesses
•Employment training, particularly for the unemployed and underemployed
•Projects that address pressing social and economic needs of residents, including schools, supermarkets, commercial establishments, day care centers, parks or community service centers
•Projects that are part of a comprehensive plan to improve blighted areas or areas in need of redevelopment