Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford told the resort’s business community Thursday he wants less state control of local affairs during the upcoming year.
But his plans on how to achieve that and the rest of his 2013 agenda will remain a mystery until next week.
“I’m resolved to have the city emerge from state monitoring and vigorously defend its rights to self-governance,” Langford said. “I believe in the city’s fundamental right to control its own destiny — including planning and zoning.”
That, Langford said, has been a strength of the local government.
City and state NAACP leaders have said for more than a year that they want to file a lawsuit on the city’s behalf to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation that established the Tourism District and CRDA control of development there. As of Wednesday, that move was still in the research phase, state chapter President James Harris said.
After his speech Thursday, Langford declined to comment on the NAACP lawsuit and also would not say what exactly he plans to do to restore power to the local government.
Yet he thanked the CRDA, particularly for its partnership in a blight eradication project that removed nearly two dozen dilapidated eyesores in the city — a pet project of Langford’s since he was first elected mayor in 2002.
When asked later about the mayor’s comments, CRDA Deputy Executive Director Susan Ney Thompson said the agency has “received very positive feedback ... and will continue to take our direction from the governor and state Legislature.”
“While we respect the mayor’s opinion, to be clear, he stated that he believes the powers of zoning and planning belong with the city and did not formally state an intention to reclaim them,” she said.
Langford declined comment on what he intends to do in that regard.
Langford spoke during the Metropolitan Business and Citizens Association’s kickoff luncheon at Bally’s Atlantic City, nearly two years after the onset of state laws that created the Atlantic City Tourism District and CRDA development control within it.
Traditionally, Atlantic City’s mayor uses the venue for an unofficial state of the city address to the resort’s business community. And by now, they expect their curiosity to be piqued, said Israel Posner, executive director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism.
“He’s really reluctant to pre-empt City Council, so you have to wait,” Posner said. “This is really unofficial.”
The governing body meets again next Wednesday. At that time, Langford is expected to confirm his campaign for a third full term as mayor. He’ll also reveal more about a pending film festival and loan program for local residents and business. Langford hinted at a financing program during his MBCA address last year, but that was never publicly detailed.
On Thursday, he called 2012 a “challenge” given Hurricane Sandy, which shut down the city for five days, and the poor economy.
In Atlantic City, casinos continued struggling and that directly affected city coffers through property tax appeals that have cost the city about $230 million since 2010. Although that’s half of what gambling companies sought, more than $130 million of it was agreed to during the past year, causing the city to issue the biggest batch of non-capital bonds in state or local history.
Casino tax appeals are among “the most difficult issues” facing the city and the “product of a fatally flawed revaluation implemented by a by prior administration,” Langford said.
Their effect, however, will hit people hardest this year. The cumulative devaluation of the ratable base — about 12 percent during 2012 alone and 22 percent since 2009 — is expected to cause a 25 percent tax increase to property owners who haven’t appealed their assessments.
City officials have been working with state Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Government Services to come up with a plan to minimize that impact. The division’s director, Tom Neff, and its Local Finance Board have said they must see that plan before they’ll consider rescinding oversight, which began in October 2010.
The memorandum of understanding defining state supervision in Atlantic City expired at the end of last year, and a new one hasn’t been presented to City Council, let alone approved by the governing body.
Langford wants to extend 2012 terms until the spring, when he hopes to introduce a 2013 budget that will satisfy Neff and other state officials, and “phase out” their involvement in City Hall, according to his Dec. 26 letter to DCA released by the department earlier this week in response to an Open Public Records Act by The Press of Atlantic City.
DCA officials declined comment about when a draft memorandum of understanding would be ready for City Council consideration.
Today, however, Langford and other local officials are going to East Orange to study that city’s surveillance system in hopes of using it as a model. Public Safety Director Will Glass, Business Administrator Ron Cash, 2nd Ward Councilman Marty Small and CRDA and Atlantic City Housing Authority representatives will make the trip, among others. Police Chief Ernest Jubilee is not expected to attend, nor was he at the luncheon Thursday, because his wife, Barbara, died Wednesday, Langford said.
Meanwhile, the city continues to work to recover from Sandy.
Public Works Director Paul Jerkins said his crews are still dealing with debris — nearly 10 million pounds have been hauled away from city streets and waterways during the more than two months since the storm.
Langford was first elected mayor in 2002, losing the next election to Bob Levy. Levy abruptly left office in 2007, and Langford ultimately won the contests to serve out the unexpired term and the subsequent full one.
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