Atlantic City's elected officials could be stripped of their power to make financial decisions under a bill expected to be introduced this week, relinquishing such authority to the state as the city teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.
But will that bill, which could be officially unveiled Tuesday, be less of a state takeover than a measure introduced in January?
Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who provided the Press of Atlantic City with a draft of the new bill, said Friday that the previous measure was closer to a “total” state takeover, rather than one limited to just the city’s finances.
The original bill gave “any of the functions, powers, privileges, immunities and duties” of the city’s government related to finances to the state’s Local Government Services for 15 years.
The new draft bill lasts just five years and spells out 21 specific powers the city could relinquish to the state. But while the new bill is more detailed, it still contains the nearly identical broad language in the beginning, meaning the state would not necessarily be limited to those 21 powers.
“The original bill was very broad in terms of all the powers the Local Government Services would have had,” Whelan said Friday. “Now this is really concentrated on the financial stuff.”
The previous bill could have theoretically given the state operational powers, such as choosing how many police officers are in a respective unit or shift, Whelan said Friday.
On Monday, Whelan acknowledged some of the language in the new bill was still broad, but said the language was needed in case something unforeseen happens. The intent of the new bill would be to follow the 21 powers spelled out “and have that be it,” he said.
“When you articulate specifics, you’re trying to define the actual things that would be done,” Whelan said. “The reason you would continue to include the broad language, there are things maybe unanticipated that come up and it is not in the list of 21 things.”
Under the draft bill, there appeared to be at least two major financial decisions where the city would still have input: filing for bankruptcy and dissolving the city's municipal utilities authority.
While the state could file for bankruptcy on behalf of the city, it would still need consent of the city's council, though that consent “shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed,” the draft bill said.
And the city would have one year to “maximize the value” of its water utility, an asset at the center over the state takeover debate. But after that year, the Local Finance Board director could sell, convey, lease, monetize or dispose of the utility if the city failed to generate substantial revenue from the asset.
Other than those two decisions, the extensive list of powers granted to the state in the draft appeared to leave no stone unturned, as it included purchasing goods and services, amending or terminating contracts, and even filing lawsuits on behalf of the city.
Powers not taken by the state would remain with the city's governing body, the draft bill said.
Council President Marty Small said giving the city's government a year to make a decision on the water utility is not a victory for the city.
“The reason we’re getting a year is because of what’s going on in Flint, Michigan,” Small said, referring to the Flint water crisis where drinking water was contaminated after a cost-cutting measure. “They’re counting on the Flint crisis to die down in a year.”
Small also questioned the timing of the bill’s leak to the media, which happened Friday in the midst of a holiday weekend for government workers. He said it was “insensitive” to leak a document of such magnitude, especially since the city’s elected officials had not seen it.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who saw a draft of the takeover bill Monday, said the measure lacked a specific plan for what the state will do once it assumes the financial-related powers.
“Since the city is broken and the state is broken, without a detailed plan that is fair to all of the hardworking families throughout the county, not just a handful of party leaders and power brokers, it's simply the blind leading the blind,” he said.