ATLANTIC CITY — Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver will lead a task force to help the city government and school board work with the county to reduce property taxes in the resort after a surprise property tax increase this year.
“We look forward to ... considering all ideas for minimizing property taxes and increasing the city’s ratable base,” said Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa M. Ryan in an email response to questions Tuesday.
Ryan said the task force will hold its first meeting Monday, Sept. 9, in Atlantic City City Hall, and invitations have gone out to Democratic Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr., Democratic City Council President Marty Small Sr., Republican County Executive Dennis Levinson, school Superintendent Barry Caldwell, city Interim Business Administrator Anthony Swan, Democratic county Freeholder Ernest Coursey and the New Jersey Treasurer’s Office.
The formation of the task force comes after taxpayers in the resort saw their property tax bills increase dramatically. The increase came as a surprise to most because of officials’ public proclamations of flat budgets and sound fiscal practices.
The average resort home, valued at $150,000, will pay a tax bill of $5,850 this year. That’s up $676.50 from last year, according to the Atlantic County Board of Taxation.
But the makeup of the task force — all government officials — drew the ire of Levinson.
“Why the same people who got us into this mess? With the exception of Ernest Coursey and me, everyone on there is responsible for where we are,” Levinson said of city and state officials. “All these people are going to do is justify what they‘ve done so far. It’s human nature.”
He said he would have formed a task force of accountants, economists, financial planners and property assessors.
The city not only needs to control taxes, he said, but also must get out from under $600 million in debt that requires $50 million in annual debt service.
Small, who chairs City Council’s revenue and finance committee, said he is open to any ideas that benefit the city’s taxpayers.
“It takes a collaborative effort,” Small said. “The residents don’t want to hear any finger pointing. We’re all going to be team players and work together for the greater good of the hard-working taxpayers of the city of Atlantic City.”
Gilliam, in an emailed statement, said the “formation of the Atlantic City Tax Task Force will ensure that the City of Atlantic City, Atlantic City Board of Education, and Atlantic County are all working towards the same tax policy goals.”
“We want Atlantic City to be a vibrant and thriving community that serves its current residents but will also attract new residents as well,” Gilliam said.
Levinson said he wouldn’t have put himself on the task force, had he been allowed to form it as a DCA press release stated last week. Instead, he said, he would have let people with demonstrated experience in public budgets and forecasting do their job and make recommendations.
Last week, the DCA put out a press release saying Levinson had been asked to form the task force, then sent out a corrected statement the next day saying he had been invited to join the task force. DCA said the original statement had been incomplete, but Levinson said he believes a negative response from Democrats quashed his role. Democrat Susan Korngut, a Northfield attorney, is challenging him for county executive this year.
Atlantic City’s county tax rate went up by about 25 cents, and school taxes by 20 cents, even though county and school budgets were stable and the amount of money to be raised by the county from noncasino city property owners fell by more than $1 million.
The county tax rate increase was due to the sudden loss of refunds from the county to the city, after successful tax appeals ended with the start of the payment in lieu of taxes program. The PILOT stopped casino tax appeals and the county refunds that accompanied them.
Over the past 11 years, those refunds had averaged $7 million a year and were used to offset how much taxpayers had to pay to the county.
The increase in the school tax rate was largely due to a drop in the value of the city, as two casino properties — Ocean Casino Resort and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City — reopened and joined the PILOT program and successful tax appeals continued on noncasino properties.
In a joint statement Monday, Republican Assembly Candidates Phil Guenther, of Brigantine, and Freeholder John Risley, of Egg Harbor Township, said the state takeover has only driven Atlantic City further into debt and higher taxes.
The two are challenging Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, in this year’s Assembly race.
If elected, Guenther and Risley said, “On day one ... we will introduce legislation to end the PILOT so that the casinos will no longer be exempt from paying (regular) property taxes and properly assess them like every other gaming jurisdiction in the country.”
Rich DiCriscio, campaign manager for the two incumbent Democrats, responded Tuesday: “You have to wonder what world Guenther and Risley are living in because here on planet Earth the reality is that the PILOT legislation stabilized Atlantic City’s finances when it was literally weeks away from bankruptcy, saving Atlantic County from falling into a deep economic depression. These failed career politicians should be thanking Vince Mazzeo for his instrumental role in the turnaround of Atlantic City we’re seeing today.”