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Senate passes emergency relief bill for Atlantic City casinos

The state Senate Monday approved a series of temporary and permanent tax breaks for a dormant Atlantic City casino industry that has been shut down since mid-March because of the novel coronavirus.

The tax relief bill, along with another piece of legislation that would provide interest-free loans to casinos that made their required payments in lieu of taxes during the pandemic, was designed to ensure that South Jersey’s largest economic engine — and one of the state’s largest revenue generators — could recover quickly.

Several senators raised concerns over cuts to programs for seniors and disabled residents funded by casino taxes and the optics of giving breaks to a multibillion industry, but the bill’s sponsors, Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Sen. Chris Brown, said New Jersey relies on a stable casino industry.

“My concern has been and remains with the families who overnight found themselves unemployed and left to deal with a broken unemployment system for the last three months,” said Brown, R-Atlantic. “Working in a bipartisan manner, we took a step today toward saving 27,000 casino jobs while also assisting our small businesses so we can put our Atlantic County families back to work.”

The bill, S2400, reduces gaming revenue taxes for one year beginning from the date Atlantic City’s nine casinos reopen, as well as eliminates hotel fees through the end of 2020, defers certain licensing fees and permanently allows for a 100% deduction of provisional gaming credits and coupons against gross revenues. The bill also allocates $100 million of COVID-19-related federal grant money to the state Economic Development Authority for small business assistance.

The bill was amended Monday to reduce the amount of time casinos would be permitted a reduction in gaming revenue taxes and also eliminated a break on parking fees and tourism promotion fees. The Senate voted in favor of an emergency resolution Monday to expedite the passage of the bill.

Based on recent industry performance, and incorporating for Monday’s changes, the proposed legislation could reduce the amount of casino-related taxes and fees paid to the state and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority by as much as $93 million over the course of one year.

Atlantic City’s nine casinos have been closed since March 16, and no date has been set for their reopening. Gov. Phil Murphy has said he would like to get the casinos reopened by July 4, but the state has yet to approve industry and property-specific safety plans.

The industry recorded reported record losses in gaming revenue in April and May. More than 26,000 casino employees have been out of work for months.

The legislation would reduce the amount of money dedicated to the Casino Revenue Fund, which was created after New Jersey voters approved casinos in Atlantic City for the sole purpose of using gaming taxes to fund programs for the state’s seniors and disabled residents, such as food distribution, medical and public transportation, and emergency housing needs. A handful of lawmakers Monday questioned how seniors and disabled residents would get services if funding was reduced.

“The goal of this bill is strictly to get (the casino) industry up and running to fund these programs,” said Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland. “Right now, (the casinos are not) funding much of anything.”

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, had initially expressed reservations about the legislation because of its potential impact on senior programs and property taxpayers. On Monday, he said the amended version was a “much better bill,” but said he “still wanted to look it over,” before fully supporting the proposal.

Other lawmakers wondered about the optics of providing a break to the casino industry during the Senate vote Monday. State Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, said the bill was “wrong policy” and abstained from voting.

State Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland, said casinos are the only industry in the state with certain taxes and, therefore, deserve unique consideration.

“We need casinos to be dealt with separately because for 30 years the state of New Jersey has layered special tax upon special tax on this industry,” he said. “The taxes that are being waived here are simply special taxes.”

Following the 28-4 vote Monday in the Senate, the bill was sent to the Assembly. The full Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday, but the bill had not been added to the agenda as of Monday evening.

PHOTOS of the Atlantic City Boardwalk bar crawl

WATCH NOW: Merchants, customers 'ready to get back out there' as Stage 2 businesses reopen

Deborah Guerriero woke up with butterflies at 5:30 a.m. Monday.

Her five Ta-Dah! clothing stores in Ocean City were set to open for the first time with shoppers inside since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state in March.

By midafternoon, Guerriero was smiling, albeit behind a mask.

There was a consistent line of patrons waiting to get inside her store on Asbury Avenue near 9th street.

“It’s nice to see people,” Guerriero said. “Did I expect this? No, but all our regular customers came back for us.”

New Jersey shifted into stage 2 of its multiphase reopening plan Monday. Stage 2 allows outdoor dining and nonessential retail stores to open with half capacity. The stage also allows car dealerships to reopen, open houses for real estate and curbside pickup for libraries. The stage is expected to be a big boost for businesses.

“We did open up an online service,” Guerriero said, “but it’s nothing like selling to people, eye to eye.”

Businesses wondered what kinds of crowds they would have Monday. Some worried that people who feared the virus would stay away from crowds and stores.

But many shoppers said they couldn’t wait to return to their favorite establishments.

Toni Lombertino, 22, drove up the Garden State Parkway to Ta-Dah! from Wildwood Crest where the South Philadelphia resident spends her summers. Lombertino and other shoppers said they relished the experience of being able to peruse a rack a clothes or try on an outfit.

“I get all my summer clothes here,” she said. “It feels really good to just walk in the store. As soon as my sister told me it was open, I said, ‘I’m going to Ocean City. I don’t care how far it is.’”

Further down on Asbury Avenue, Jennifer Barrett waited with her family for an outdoor table at Yianni’s Café.

“It’s nice to be out and feel normal again,” said Barrett, a resident of Elk Township, Gloucester County, who is vacationing outside of Sea Isle City. “I liked things quiet at home. I liked no cars driving by. I liked spending time with my family. But enough of that, I’m ready to get back out there in a safe way.”

All restaurants and businesses got a break with Monday’s weather. With sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s, conditions were near-perfect for outdoor dining or strolling from shop to shop.

“You feel some kind normalcy coming along,” said Yianni’s owner Peggy Siganos. “I think this is just a stress relief for everybody. The customers are supportive and understanding. We’re all changing our routine. We just have to take our time, take a deep breath and figure it out as we go along.”

More than 100 people lined up outside of Boscov’s department store in Egg Harbor Township before it opened at 11 a.m. Dozens of cars were in the parking lot by 10 a.m.

“It was a tremendous response from our community,” assistant store manager Janine Haines said. “We have a loyal following, and I saw a lot of familiar faces this morning.”

Boscov’s, like many businesses, took precautions to protect customers and employees from the virus. Boscov’s usually has 50 registers open, but operated with just 17 on Monday. Hand sanitizer was available at the entrance and on columns inside the store. Many stores gave away masks or sold them for a $1. Ta-Dah! planned to steam its clothes at the end of the day.

“It’s a different world,” Haines said. “We’re doing our best.”

Shahlil Gauhar of Egg Harbor Township was surprised to see the Boscov’s parking lot so crowded.

“It feels so different coming out and shopping,” he said while waiting in a Boscov’s checkout line. “I thought nobody would come, but I’m very happy. I hope everyone stays safe because there still may be some spikes (in the virus). This is fine. Nobody’s coughing.”

In the Smithville section of Galloway Township, Marshall Cramer fully opened his Country Folk and Antique Row store for the first time in months.

The sign above his store was especially apropos Monday. It read “Welcome Back.”

On the opposite side of the parking lot from Country Folk, some diners enjoyed a meal outdoors at Fred & Ethel’s Lantern Light Restaurant and Tavern.

“I’m glad to get off the couch,” Cramer said. “For three months, I’ve been doing what the governor asked me to do, lay on the couch and watch TV. It’s very tiring. I’d rather be at the store.”

Plenty of people seemed to share Cramer’s sentiment. Even a rooster strolled through the Smithville parking lot. The only problem — he wasn’t wearing a mask.

GALLERY: Businesses reopen as governor lowers restricitions

South Jersey school districts dealing with aid reductions after passing budgets

ATLANTIC CITY — When the Atlantic City school board’s $198.6 million budget was voted down in May because some members were concerned about the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on state aid, the county superintendent stepped in and pushed the budget through anyway to meet the May 14 deadline.

Now, the district is dealing with a $12 million reduction in its proposed aid.

Atlantic City and hundreds of other school districts in the state that were slated to see an increase in state aid this year under the school funding reform law passed in 2018 had those increases slashed as the state deals with a $10 billion reduction in revenue related to the economic shutdown amid the pandemic.

“There was a lot of uncertainty as far as what the governor was going to rule because we knew the state was coming up short,” said Atlantic City school board President John Devlin. “Now, we’re in the position of scrambling and back-pedaling.”

The updated school aid figures were released late last month by the Department of Education.

Atlantic City School District was anticipating a nearly $18 million increase in state aid under the governor’s original proposed budget.

Devlin said he has spoken with the administration, but he is unclear yet what might be cut.

He said a reduction in force is not on the table, but new programs, new positions and raises will likely be on the chopping block.

The fears of the Atlantic City School board echoed that of many other boards this spring that were required to meet the state-imposed deadline of May 14 to file their budget without final state aid numbers and knowing that cuts could be coming.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed 2021 budget was released in late February with $16.3 billion for preschool through 12th grade public education, an increase of $336.5 million for K-12 education formula aid and $83 million in new preschool spending.

Those figures are always tentative until the Legislature approves a final budget, and it is signed into law by the June 30 deadline, which is now pushed back.

The Egg Harbor Township Board of Education, in a split vote in April, approved a $152 million budget, raising the tax levy to the 2% state-imposed cap and implementing full-day kindergarten for next year.

The township was going to receive an addition $6 million aid, but the latest figures reduce that by about $4 million. Board President Pete Castellano said that because the Legislature still must approve the numbers, he is holding out hope that the district will receive more funds.

“We hope to hear more by July 1. In the meantime, our business administrator is developing options for cost savings based on the proposal,” Castellano said.

He said that an additional $1 million in federal funding through the CARES Act, passed in March in response to the pandemic, will help the district.

“While we understand the COVID-19 pandemic is a tragic situation no one could have foreseen, it’s still extremely disappointing to see any cuts in state aid for EHT, especially since we have been chronically underfunded for two decades,” Castellano said. “Had it not been for the pandemic, our state aid numbers this year were just starting to get closer to where they should be.”

He said that during this time, it is more important than ever to fund the schools.

Other districts facing large decreases include Pleasantville, which was expecting a $1.5 million increase in aid this year under the governor’s initial proposal. Pleasantville school business administrator Elisha Thompkins noted at the most recent school board meeting that he was developing plans to reduce the budget by about $1 million. The board approved its $94 million budget with no reductions in staff for the first time in three years.

Additionally, Hammonton will need to make up a $1.6 million reduction in proposed aid, and Atlantic County Institute of Technology will see a $1.7 million reduction.

In Cumberland County, Bridgeton may see a $5.6 million reduction in aid and Cumberland County Technical Education Center is slated to lose $2 million of its proposed aid. Vineland’s proposed aid was reduced by $858,227.

Devlin criticized the school budgeting process this year, although he understands that this is an unprecedented situation.

“I know there’s uncertainty and the unknown, but I think communication or a phone call would clear a lot of those things up,” he said, adding there was too much emphasis for districts to meet the state deadline under the current circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic City school board is watching another revenue source that is subject to change. Devlin said he is waiting to hear about any impact on the funding the district receives through the Casino PILOT, which is distributed by the city to the school. Last year, the school district received $45 million.

"Mostly vote-by-mail" July 7 primary begins; machines only for disabled on Election Day

The July 7 primary election really started this weekend, when vote-by-mail ballots began arriving in registered voters' mailboxes.

The ballots have confused some voters, who have declared themselves Democrats or Republicans, but never requested a vote-by-mail ballot. Like most things these days, the new way of running the election is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered that the primary — which he had already moved from June 2 to July 7 — be a mostly vote-by-mail election to minimize viral spread. He also ordered that anyone registered as either Democrat or Republican automatically be sent a vote-by-mail ballot, and that all unaffiliated voters get vote-by-mail applications.

Candidates and officials are urging voters to fill out and mail the ballot themselves, and avoid allowing a stranger either to "help" with the ballot or offer take it to the mailbox for voters.

"If you follow step-by-step the instructions, I believe it will not be an issue for completing," Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairperson Evelyn Caterson said Monday. Explicit instructions are included with every ballot -- in Atlantic County alone 107,000 were mailed, she said.

"It is postage paid, so fill it out and put it as soon as possible in any mailbox or take it to the post office, which will deliver it to the Board of Elections," Caterson said.

Caterson, whose office is responsible for making sure signatures on paper ballots are legitimate and for counting those that are properly cast, is preparing to handle a historic number of paper ballots this election.

The board has never had the potential of handling such huge numbers, Caterson said. Since this is a presidential primary, and includes is a hotly contested 2nd congressional district primary on the Democratic side, the return rate could be high and the numbers overwhelming.

Even if only 50% are returned, that would be more than 50,000 ballots. The largest number the Atlantic County board has handled in the past was about 10,000, Caterson said.

Caterson said the word needs to get out that there will be fewer polling places open July 7 than on a traditional Election Day, and that machine voting will not be possible this time for the vast majority of voters.

"I think the headline should read, 'Voting machines only open to people with disabilities,'" Caterson said. "I don't want people showing up and getting upset."

Each municipality must have at least one polling place open on July 7, but only those voters with disabilities such as blindness who need machine assistance will be permitted to use voting machines.

Others who show up at the polls must vote with a provisional paper ballot, according to the letter from County Clerk Ed McGettigan that arrived with the ballots. They must either already be declared members of the party for whom they wish to vote, or unaffiliated voters ready to declare themselves either Democrats or Republicans.

It is already too late to change from one party to the other to vote in the primary, according to state law.

Democratic Congressional candidate Brigid Callahan Harrison and three others have requested a federal monitor for the July 7 primary election in Atlantic County, citing concerns about potential voter fraud.

Harrison, Pleasantville Councilman Lawrence “Tony” Davenport, Pleasantville school board member Jerome Page and Democratic surrogate candidate Levi Fox together sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito in Newark, asking his office to monitor the election because of a history of voter fraud allegations in Pleasantville and Atlantic City.

“The voter fraud allegations have largely centered on Craig Callaway, a former Atlantic City Council president who served more than three years in federal and state prisons after pleading guilty of taking $10,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent and for overseeing a blackmail plot to force the resignation of a political rival from the Atlantic City Council,” the letter said.

Callaway declined to comment at the time, when contacted by phone.

Callaway has backed Harrison’s strongest opponent, Amy Kennedy, of Brigantine, who also got the endorsement of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee, which has strong ties to Callaway.

Josh Roesch, campaign manager for Kennedy, said at the time that Harrison was "using the same dog-whistle, racist tactics employed by Donald Trump to suppress the vote in minority communities and to scare and intimidate African-American voters.”

The two are in a six-person race for the right to run against U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, in November.

Kennedy also won the endorsement of Atlantic County Democrats at the group’s convention in March.

Harrison, on the other hand, has been endorsed by six of the eight other county chairmen in the 2nd Congressional District and has the support of state Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, D-Atlantic, and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez.

Callaway is tied to a lawsuit alleging voter fraud in the Pleasantville Board of Education election last year. In that case, pending in Atlantic County Superior Court, candidate Doris Rowell alleges Callaway, his family members and others associated with him improperly handled vote-by-mail ballots.