WATCHDOG REPORT: Atlantic City's public payroll eclipses those in other, bigger cities - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Press

WATCHDOG REPORT: Atlantic City's public payroll eclipses those in other, bigger cities - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Press

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WATCHDOG REPORT: Atlantic City's public payroll eclipses those in other, bigger cities

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Posted: Sunday, May 9, 2010 11:15 am | Updated: 3:06 pm, Mon Sep 13, 2010.

ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City, with a dwindling population, employs many more workers than cities almost three times its population. The city also pays some of its public officials much more than officials in comparable — and sometimes much larger — cities.

A Press of Atlantic City analysis of a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau survey on government staffing shows Atlantic City has one of the highest rates of workers to residents in the nation.

The Press analyzed data on 1,376 municipalities with 2008 populations of more than 20,000, and Atlantic City ranked 30th-highest among them, based on a city population then of 39,684. The city employed 43.6 workers per 1,000 residents, a rate higher than major U.S. cities such as Philadelphia (20.9 employees per 1,000 residents), San Francisco (38.1), Boston (34.2) and Baltimore (42.3). The figures are the most recent.

Bryant Simon, author of “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America,” says today’s payroll problems are a result of the city’s history of patronage — from the Republican machine doling out jobs to supporters to highly competitive Democratic races forcing politicians to maintain support through the government work force.

“Atlantic City has long had a city government that worked as a patronage machine,” said Simon, also a professor of history and director of American studies at Temple University. “Historically, it’s just gotten reproduced again and again and again.

“It used to be, what could the machine deliver if it couldn’t deliver jobs? As it becomes less corrupt, in some ways now it’s like, what’s left if not patronage?”

The city’s work force is a fluid number that changes depending on the season: higher in the summer, lower in the winter. According to city payroll records, the work force was as high as 1,847 employees during the summer of 2008 under Mayor Scott Evans. At the end of last year, Atlantic City employed 1,513 government workers and spent $92 million on salary and wages.

Biloxi, Miss., another city with casino gambling, has a population of about 45,670 residents, about 6,000 more people than Atlantic City. But Biloxi’s municipal government employed 773 fewer employees last year and spent $62 million less, 2009 payroll records for both cities show.

Comparisons made by The Press with some other payrolls at cities that provide the same level of services as Atlantic City include:

Wilmington, N.C., a popular college town with more than 100,000 residents, employed 408 fewer workers than Atlantic City last year and spent about $43 million in salaries and wages — half as much as Atlantic City.

Green Bay, Wis., where the population exceeds 101,000, pays 526 fewer employees than Atlantic City and spends almost $50 million less on its salaries and wages.

“Atlantic City is significantly overstaffed,” concluded a December 2002 study of the city’s payroll commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey. And by the measure of payroll to population, the city’s municipal labor force has grown.

The Casino Association review found that Atlantic City’s 1,596 employees at that time meant the resort had 394 employees for every 10,000 city residents. Norfolk, Va., one of the cities identified as closest to Atlantic City’s staffing, employed just 189 people for every 10,000 residents. The report suggested reducing the work force by 200 employees to save an estimated $15 million. The reduction still would leave the city with 1.8 to 6 times more than comparable towns.

Instead, Atlantic City’s ratio of employees to population has swelled since the study. In July 2008, at the peak of Atlantic City’s tourism season, the city employed 465.7 employees per 10,000 residents, almost 72 more employees than the rate in 2002. In its offseason in December 2008, the city still employed five more employees per 10,000 than it did at the end of 2002.

Mayor Lorenzo Langford, through his spokesman Kevin Hall, attributed the size of the city’s work force to its public safety employees and generally “does believe there still may be some fat that needs to be trimmed.”

“There are about 700 public safety employees,” Hall said. “They are among the highest-paid people on the payroll.”

Some have accused Langford of contributing to the problem by continuing to hire even after City Council imposed a hiring freeze last year.

Langford has managed to drop the city’s pre-summer staff level to 1,480 employees, according to records from March 18. However, the decrease has done little to ease the taxpayer burden with payroll costs actually growing since Langford took office Nov. 12, 2008, to more than $94 million, an increase of more than $4 million. The city’s population has declined to 34,769, according to the latest census survey, resulting in a still-high rate of 42.6 workers to 1,000 residents even if staffing levels don’t increase for the summer.

“Any other year, we would applaud that (staff reduction),” said David Davidson, president of the local Policemen’s Benevolent Association. “But it’s clearly not enough.”

The mayor says the increase in payroll costs are a result of employees’ collective bargaining agreements negotiated before he took office.

Davidson and his union have been pushing the mayor to reduce spending to lessen the resort’s $211 million budget. Yet, Davidson is the same union leader spearheading a fight against Langford’s proposal to lay off 20 police officers.

A 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed police departments nationwide had 2.5 police officers per 1,000 residents. Cities with a population between 500,000 and 999,999 averaged about 2.6 officers per 1,000. Atlantic City more than tripled those rates with nearly 9.5 officers per 1,000 residents.

Atlantic City’s ratio of police also exceeds some of the country’s busiest cities, including New York (4.3 officers) and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (1.8 officers), and major cities in New Jersey, such as Newark (4.7 officers), Camden (5.2 officers) and Elizabeth (2.8 officers).

Christine Petersen, the city’s newly appointed public safety director, said the comparisons are startling, but quickly pointed to how different Atlantic City is from any other municipality.

“There’s no place like Atlantic City,” Petersen said. “I haven’t been here long, but I have learned that ... you can’t compare Atlantic City accurately with any other towns because there’s no place like Atlantic City. Every town has its own needs and problems.”

Police Chief John J. Mooney III singled out the comparison with New York, arguing that an analysis of police staffing in higher tourism areas would likely be “considerably higher.” Because Atlantic City is predominantly made up of tourist areas, city police staffing levels are “at least appropriate.”

“The one factor that cannot be overlooked or discounted is the physical presence of the police in the community,” Mooney said.

The police chief

Although Mooney defends the city’s payroll problem, he also benefits from it.

The chief earned $206,578 last year, more than any other employee in Atlantic City — and more than several other top-ranking police officials in much larger cities.

Philadelphia’s top police official, Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, got a big salary boost when he went to Philadelphia in 2007 from his job as police chief in Washington, D.C., Ramsey earned $175,000 in Washington; his Philadelphia position pays $191,256. Mooney earned $15,322 more last year. Jack F. Harris, the top police official in Phoenix, Ariz., earns $13,200 less than Mooney. And Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy makes about $36,000 less than Mooney, despite managing a police force three times the size of Atlantic City’s in a municipality eight times bigger.

“I would say that based on the responsibilities and the climate in which I have to work, no amount of compensation would be enough,” Mooney said. “It is certainly very difficult to manage a police department when the political leadership offers very little support.”

Mooney also argued that his latest contract includes annual pay raises of 4 percent, the same salary increases the city agreed to give the majority of its rank-and-file workers in 2007.

The resort’s second-highest paid employee is fire Chief Dennis Brooks, who annually makes $39,202.19 more than Newark’s highest-ranking fire official. Mooney and Brooks topped the list of Atlantic City’s 10 highest salaries in 2009, six of which are higher than Newark’s top 10 last year. The pair of chiefs are followed in salary by the city’s four deputy police chiefs, with salaries that range from $160,000 to more than $165,000, and three deputy fire chiefs.

Atlantic City’s 10 highest-paid employees also are all public safety officials, while Newark’s includes only two. Meanwhile, police in Newark have a lot more crime to deal with in a city of about 280,000 residents. In 2008, Newark had six times as many murders than Atlantic City, almost eight times as many burglaries, twice as many larcenies and 13 times as many arson incidents, according to New Jersey’s Uniform Crime Report.

‘Ice money’

But the city’s bloated payroll — either through salaries or overall work force — is nothing new in Atlantic City.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, calls it the “hire-a-vote tradition.”

“They become a little cell and a political structure,” he said of many of the city’s hires. “Then they come back to reciprocate on Election Day.”

Whelan’s political experience is not the only reason he understands the ingrained culture as well as anyone in Atlantic City. Whelan wanted to try out for Atlantic City’s lifeguard squad when he was a 15-year-old proven swimmer. Yet, even for someone of his abilities, there were two conditions.

First, he could not earn a spot on the squad unless his mother, a Democrat from Philadelphia, registered as a Republican after his family moved to Atlantic City. Whelan said he also had to join a Republican club for youths in the city’s 1st Ward.

Second, he was told to sign a paper agreeing to hand over his “ice money,” a portion of his Beach Patrol earnings given as a kickback to state Sen. Frank “Hap” Farley’s Republican political machine, which dominated the city.

“I think it was $5 every two weeks,” said Thomas Russo, another former lifeguard who joined in 1952 and served until 1965. “They asked you to sign up, but they didn’t really ask. It was ‘You’re a young kid. You want to sign up, don’t you?’ If you wanted your job you said all right.”

The payments went on for years, but as political pressure slowly built around Farley and his organization in 1969, some lifeguards assembled a “mini-revolt” against the political payments, Whelan said.

“By then, they had more to worry about than lifeguards not paying ice money,” said Whelan, referring to mounting political pressure around Farley’s machine.

The political funding unraveled from there. Soon, police officers and firefighters were also refusing to make payments, and years later Farley lost his state Senate seat.

The mayor’s office

More than four decades later, “ice money” is a forgotten term in Atlantic City. But political loyalty still appears to be a requirement for many of the city’s government employees.

Since Mayor Langford took office Nov. 12, 2008, his administration has hired 53 employees, as of March 18, 2010. Half of the new employees have close ties to Langford.

Twenty-two of the new employees either worked for his campaign in 2008 and/or 2009 or contributed to those mayoral campaigns. One new employee had a relative who worked for the campaign and another had a relative who donated to the campaign.

Of the remaining employees:

Malik Massey, hired as a clerk typist in December 2009, is the nephew of Warren Massey, chairman of the city’s Housing Authority and a strong Langford supporter.

Muhammad Ayub, secretary-general of the Pakistani-American Muslim Organization of South Jersey, was hired as a mayoral aide during Langford’s 2009 campaign. A week after the hire, Langford received endorsements from two prominent Pakistani groups and other community leaders, including Ayub’s uncle, Mohammad Haroon Rashid.

Hall questioned why the new hires who do not have obvious connections to the mayor are not the focus of this report.

“Atlantic City is a relatively small place,” Hall said. “When people saw the refreshing way that this mayor was (approaching this city), they obviously gravitated toward him. ... That doesn’t mean there were any extenuating circumstances.”

Hall, who also campaigned for Langford and went from being a city laborer to the mayor’s confidential aide, added that the collection of connected hires are mostly for entry-level positions.

But those jobs likely created important votes, Simon says.

“Atlantic City has such a small number of registered voters, getting 10 people to vote for you is important,” he said. “The (political) competition breeds a certain kind of desperation.”

Langford is hardly the first mayor to employ those who help with a personal political campaign. Mayor Evans, who immediately preceded Langford in the mayor’s office, began generating rumors that he was building a team to garner absentee ballots for the primary against Langford when he began hiring members of former City Council President Craig Callaway’s family.

Among the hires were Callaway’s sisters, Gwendolyn Lewis and Toni Dixon, and their sister-in-law, Tamika Ross. The family soon set up a non-descript campaign office on Mississippi Avenue to begin working for Evans, even though the then-mayor’s campaign finance reports showed no payments to those working out of the office.

And the political patronage in Atlantic City doesn’t stop at the mayor’s office. Every city politician gets in on the act.

City Hall

If you’re looking for your councilman at City Hall, you’ve got some serious navigating to do.

Once you enter council’s third-floor offices, you’re confronted with not one, but two receptionists to greet you. If you’re lucky, your councilman is in his office. If not, the outer-office secretaries will contact your councilman’s secretary, who traditionally relays a message advising that the legislator is unavailable.

Why are these positions needed? They’re not, according to the Office of the State Comptroller. In fact, New Jersey law says they’re illegal. But council members have been using the positions to provide jobs to friends and family for more than two decades.

The city’s payroll includes about $700,000 in salaries for employees who got their start as a council aide. But when the council member leaves office, the aide’s government career continues. Most have or will be transferred to another government job after their council member is unseated. At least 17 current city employees are either former aides who have been moved to other city divisions or active aides who will maintain government employment long after their councilman exits.

The longevity of the Rev. Earl Pierce’s council aide tells the story.

Pierce took his City Council office in 1988. Brenda Harris became his council aide. Defeated in 1992, Pierce left city government. Harris never has.

Nearly 18 years after Pierce’s sole term in office ended, Harris still works in City Council’s offices, now as one of the two outer-office secretaries. She still holds the same title, even though she is not assigned to a particular councilman. She earns nearly $47,000 a year.

Beyond those on the current payroll, the practice has cost thousands more through the long careers of other council aides, who eventually retired. Take Chuck Watson, who spent about 20 years as a clerk at City Hall and watched his salary increase by four times over the years after he left his first job as an aide to late Councilman Arnold Orsatti.

Watson became one of the city’s first council aides in 1983 after a change in the form or government.

“I guess not too many people knew what the rules on anything were,” Watson said from his Delaware home. “Council thought it would be good to have a secretary for everyone. But pretty soon, everyone wanted them.”

Many aides receive their jobs because of who they are or whom they know. Two current aides — Maureen Bender and Cheryl Banks — gained their permanent status through their appointment by blood relatives.

Bender still works for her father, Councilman Dennis Mason. Banks first came on as an aide to then-Councilman Lorenzo Langford, her brother. She later became Mayor Langford’s chief of staff and returned as an aide to Council President William “Speedy” Marsh after Langford was voted out of office in 2005.

The political nature of the position, and the relationships many aides have with their councilman, have also allowed the assistants to get their permanent jobs despite considerable obstacles.

The late Councilman John J. Mooney Jr., the father of city Police Chief Mooney, pushed his council colleagues to exempt his niece, Barbara Dalton, from a residency requirement when she was hired as Mooney’s council aide in 1986. Dalton lived in Somers Point and council agreed to grant her a waiver, despite city law allowing such an exemption only for employees with “special skills and talents.”

A Superior Court judge ruled the move was illegal, contending the job of clerk-typist does not require any such talents. But the decision had no effect on Dalton, who was quickly transferred to the payroll division of the city Police Department.

She remains in the department, earning an annual $57,710, now working as a principal clerk typist in the office of one of the city’s deputy police chiefs. Dalton is Police Chief Mooney’s cousin.

“It creates a significant appearance of impropriety,” Paula Frazese, chairwoman of the state Ethics Commission, said of the appearance of nepotism in Atlantic City. “It’s also a terrible disservice to those never given the opportunity. It hurts the morale of all in the trenches and also hurts the larger public morale.”

City law prohibits a government employee from supervising an immediate relative. Meanwhile, other questionable personnel arrangements go unquestioned even outside council chambers, such as Redevelopment Assistant Austin Clark reporting to his sister-in-law, Community Development Block Grants Division Director Lois Braithwaite, or Boardwalk Superintendent Salvatore Catanese supervising his daughter-in-law, senior clerk Claudette Catanese.

Frazese said nepotism will continue to plague the city as long as its restrictions exist in policy only.

“They need to be harsher,” she said. “They need to ban nepotism through uniform ethics codes. Make a hard-and-fast rule. Rule is a strict statement of obligation. A policy is a preferred practice. Breaking a rule comes with punishment. That could impose a deterrent effect.”

Findings

Atlantic City has one of the nation’s highest rates of government workers to local residents among cities with at least 20,000 residents.

Atlantic City’s payroll exceeds those of towns nearly three times its size.

Some city employees are paid more than individuals in the same positions in much larger municipalities.

Major U.S. cities have a far smaller ratio of police officers to residents than Atlantic City.

Contact Michael Clark:

609-272-7204

Michael.Clark@pressofac.com

© 2014 pressofAtlanticCity.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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