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Atlantic City Hard Rock, Ocean Resort open early

In a Boardwalk surprise, two new casinos that were due to open Thursday started taking bets from gamblers a day early.

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino both received permission Wednesday afternoon from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement to begin full operations, and both immediately started letting gamblers inside, according to a press release.

The two properties still plan elaborate events Thursday, which along with a weekend beach concert have city officials bracing for nearly one million visitors over a historic four-day stretch.

Jim Allen, Hard Rock International chairman and CEO, told The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday night the grand opening of Hard Rock is still set for Thursday morning “with a few surprises” but they were excited to be open Wednesday night.

“We’re obviously very excited, we were awarded our gaming license this afternoon, so great news, we are now officially open,” Allen said.

As far as rooms for this weekend at Hard Rock, they are at capacity, according to Allen.

“Actually we turned away hundreds of people,” he said.

Ocean Resort Casino owner and Chairman Bruce Deifik was “thrilled” Wednesday night to learn the casino had passed review from the DGE and was able to open to the public.

“I would like to sincerely thank everyone involved in this process — particularly the New Jersey Department of Gaming Enforcement, which has been an extremely helpful and collaborative partner throughout this process — and am excited to now start welcoming guests to the new Ocean Resort Casino,” he said.

The openings are expected to draw visitors both on Thursday and the weekend to follow. Add Sunday’s beach concert, featuring country singer Sam Hunt, and the Police Department is anticipating anywhere between 750,000 and 1 million tourists over weekend.

“You got the perfect storm coming up,” Capt. Randy Lushina said Wednesday from the Atlantic City Headquarters for Intelligence Logistics Electronic Surveillance, or ACHILES.

Both casinos have hired police officers for additional security, including traffic and day/night club assistance.

Lushina, who commands the Police Department’s Tourism District Unit, said that Class II, or seasonal officers, also will be on the Boardwalk and around both casinos.

“We have about 15 officers up on the Boardwalk at any one time,” he said. “Out of those 15, I’ve taken eight and assigned four to each casino.”

Celebrities and officials from throughout South Jersey are expected to attend the openings. Gov. Phil Murphy canceled his appearance at the two events Thursday, citing the ongoing budget negotiations in Trenton, according to his spokesman.

The Fire Department has been familiarizing themselves with the casinos’ layouts and new configurations, Chief Scott Evans said.

“We’ve had an extensive amount of pre-planning leading up to this,” Evans said. “The biggest thing for us is maintaining situational awareness with the amount of activity that’s expected this weekend. It’s going to be a test of our skills, but we’re ready.”

Evans said the department will maintain full staffing levels throughout the city with administrators and chiefs also available. The department will add personnel for the beach concert, Evans said.

The Fire Department also will be on the fireworks barge Thursday for a 9 p.m. display.

The city’s licensing and inspections department has been working at a feverish pace to ensure fire, plumbing, electrical, elevator and construction codes are being adhered to at the casino hotels. The department is also responsible for inspecting restaurants, bars and pools for health compliance and issuing mercantile licenses for retailers inside the casino properties.

Dale Finch, director of the city’s Department of Licensing and Inspections, said he needed every one of the additional six inspectors who were authorized nearly a year ago when Hard Rock announced a summer opening.

“We made ourselves available to both casino properties and promised we would do all we could to assist. And we did,” Finch said, adding some of the department’s inspectors have been working well into the night to approve certain work in a timely manner.

The state Division of Gaming Enforcement has been on both properties since the beginning of the week inspecting casino games and machines. Hard Rock and Ocean Resort participated in what is known as “soft play” at the start of the week, which allows invited family and friends to play on the casino floor and offers state inspectors an opportunity to make sure the games operate properly.

A spokeswoman for the division said testing continued Wednesday.

Parking and traffic may pose issues for visitors, but nothing significant, Lushina said. Atlantic City Expressway traffic into the city may slow, but there won’t be any traffic diverted.

“I definitely think that the traffic will be heavy, but I think it’ll move quick, and I think people that’ll be stuck in it will be delighted that it’ll move quick,” he said.

Hard Rock has paid parking, and Ocean Resort is offering free parking, a practice that will continue until Labor Day. The Showboat Hotel and Resorts Casino Hotel will act as “overflow” where visitors may have more luck finding a parking spot or hotel room, according to Lushina.

In addition to the casinos, there’s metered parking on streets.

“I think there’s a chance that all four of those casinos — including Resorts, the Showboat and the two new ones — I think they could all probably sell out of hotel rooms, and I think they could all come very close to being almost full capacity in the parking garages,” for the four-day weekend, Lushina said.

Residents demand Mullica cop with sleep apnea keep job

MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Veteran officer Paul “P.J.” Sarraf faces possible termination after almost 19 years on the police force because his sleep apnea and other medical conditions prevent him from working overnight shifts or later than 8 p.m.

Township police Chief John Thompson has told him his need to work day shifts cannot be accommodated, wife Barbara Sarraf said at Tuesday’s Township Committee meeting, which was packed with Sarraf’s supporters who are trying to save his job and his pension.

Many speakers said they felt the problem was personal animosity between Thompson, who did not attend the meeting, and Sarraf.

“Because of potential litigation, please don’t look for a reply from us,” said Mayor Chris Silva. He also said the committee has no official action related to Sarraf before it.

“There are signs throughout Mullica Township in support of Officer Sarraf,” said resident Robin Garwood. “He’s been here to keep us safe and cheered our children on at the fields. This community knows and respects him.”

Saraff both lives and works in the township.

The township has 13 uniformed officers, according to its website, including seven patrol officers, a corporal, a sergeant, a captain, a matron, a detective and the chief. Support staff include a secretary and a technical coordinator. However, the resignation of Officer Joseph Giardina was accepted Tuesday night.

Barbara Sarraf said her husband will only get back what he paid into the pension system if he loses his job before 20 years on the job. If he works for 20 years, he can collect 50 percent of his pension payments upon retirement, but no health benefits. Only if he works for 25 years can he collect his full retirement and get medical benefits, she said.

“In Mullica Township, we care about each other and the people who work for us and who live in the community,” resident Jean Brindle said Tuesday. “And as a taxpayer, why pay money to lawyers and for litigation when this could be solved so easily?”

She asked the committee to simply let Sarraf work days.

The room erupted in applause and calls of, “You’ve got that right.”

It was reminiscent of how the community came out in support of tenured Mullica Township Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kelly Mascio in 2013 and 2014, when the Board of Education moved to take away her tenure and fire her after two 5-year-olds said they had engaged in sexual play in her classroom bathroom.

Mascio got a great deal of support from other teachers and from members of the community. She also lives in the township.

In June of 2014, state Arbitrator Daniel F. Brent ruled Mascio should not lose her job or tenure and was entitled to almost all of her back pay lost to unpaid suspension.

Resident Kathy Werner brought up the Mascio case.

“A few years ago we all supported a teacher at the school. I can’t believe you would now turn your back on an officer,” Werner said. “It’s going to divide the town again.”

“I have lived here 67 years,” said resident Kathy Wooten. “I am appalled. I don’t know how you cannot accommodate a person with a medical condition.”

Former Mullica police officer Erik Carricarte, who retired in 2016 after narrowly avoiding being killed by a passing car during a traffic stop, said Saraff is about 80 percent through his career, with about 20 percent of his time to go before he can retire.

“If somebody tries to take that away, what does that say to you?” asked Carricarte, who said the department has been understaffed for years because so many officers leave.

Sarraf said after the meeting he was overwhelmed by the show of support.

Top NJ Democrats propose sales tax for shore rentals to balance state budget

New Jersey lawmakers Wednesday delivered Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy a counteroffer in budget negotiations, including a proposal to add a sales tax on short-term rental properties along the shore.

Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney unveiled the proposal days ahead of Saturday’s budget deadline alongside other Democratic state senators in the Statehouse. He said Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is behind the proposal. Murphy, a fellow Democrat, declined to comment, according to his office.

State legislators in Atlantic and Cape May counties, both Republicans and Democrats, blasted the proposal and said they would never support a tax on short-term rentals that could hurt shore towns.

“They just don’t get it. It’s hard enough for working families and retirees to afford to live in New Jersey,” state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said in a statement. “As if raising the income tax, corporate business tax and sales tax while cutting the homestead rebate wasn’t bad enough to make New Jersey less competitive and harder to afford, the latest scheme to tax summer rentals is counterproductive and will hit South Jersey working families and retirees the hardest.”

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, also said he was 100 percent against the proposal.

“This is something that I thought a lot of us had made clear,” he said. “We really have to be careful about adding on more and more taxes and fees.”

The proposal is the latest salvo in the freshman governor’s first budget negotiation as the prospects for a state government shutdown grow. Democrats are clashing over which taxes to raise to finance increases in transit, education and pension spending.

Sweeney’s latest proposal changes the Legislature’s expiration of a business tax hike from two year to four years, increases real estate transfer taxes on property over $1 million from 1 percent to 2 percent and levies a 6.625 percent sales tax on short-term rental property. Currently such rentals are untaxed by the state.

The proposals are aimed at satisfying Murphy’s request for “sustainable” and long-term revenue. Sweeney also said he wants a long-term plan to address costs in state government.

“Honestly all these taxes, really, bother the hell out of me because what we’re not talking about is fixing New Jersey,” he said.

Murphy spoke earlier Wednesday in Newark, the state’s biggest city, alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and local and state officials. He reiterated the possibility he could line-item veto spending out of the budget if there’s not enough tax revenue to support it.

“The lack of sustainable revenues necessary to ensure these promises means everything we want to do ... will be put at risk,” Murphy said.

A failure to enact a balanced budget by the start of the fiscal year on Sunday would result in a state government shutdown. Murphy and legislators say they want to avoid that, but they’re clashing over taxes.

Specifically, Murphy said he rejects a $36.5 billion spending plan lawmakers sent him last week because it contains unstable tax revenue. Legislators sent him a tax hike from 9 percent to 11.5 percent on businesses earning from $1 million to $25 million. On companies that make over $25 million, the state would levy a 13 percent hike, putting New Jersey’s corporate tax at the top of the list nationwide, above Iowa’s at 12 percent.

Murphy said he doesn’t want New Jersey to be such an outlier.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said he thought the budget was close to being settled and he was surprised to see the proposal.

“I would not be in favor of a seasonal tax increase or realty transfer fee, this would hurt the shore towns too much,” he said. “My hope ... is that we can have an agreement with ideas that have already been presented.”

Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, said the Legislature should not be in the business of deterring tourism.

“The last-minute proposal of a tax increase on shore rentals is one I cannot support,” he said. “Atlantic City is on the way up again; I won’t vote for anything that jeopardizes that.”

Staff Writer John DeRosier contributed to this report.

Press archives 

Sweeney Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said in a statement to The Press of Atlantic City that the exact details of when sports betting will be up and running in New Jersey are still being worked out but he is anticipating decisive action.