When things are going well, be thankful and don’t do anything to mess it up. Most people don’t need this advice, but Atlantic City Council does.
Just as the city’s most promising tourism season in more than a decade is about to begin, the council’s hunger for money prompted it to propose doubling the Atlantic City Expressway toll at the entrance and giving the city all of the additional revenue. In 2017, that would have been about $14 million.
Council President Marty Small Sr. said the money would only be used to reduce local taxes. People in New Jersey know how that scam works — spending can be increased while the dedicated toll money keeps the property tax from rising or even lowers it a bit.
This perpetuates the irresponsible approach of some city officials to try to fix the city’s near-bankruptcy with other people’s money instead of bringing their spending in line with its continuing river of casino money — more than $120 million a year. This toll doubling, in fact, was first proposed in 2016 as part of the city’s rejected fiscal plan based mainly on borrowing more money.
Worse than this self-serving proposal, however, is how cavalier council members are about their responsibility as representatives of Atlantic City.
They went ahead and passed a resolution proposing the toll doubling without thinking about the message they were sending to the city’s millions of potential visitors. So out went the headline around the nation, “Atlantic City officials to consider doubling tolls.”
What an awful message to start the season. Might as well say “Atlantic City officials looking to nickel and dime people coming for new casinos and attractions.”
Turned out it wasn’t possible from the start. Council members didn’t bother calling the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which would have told them that it is required to use toll revenue only for “operating, maintaining and repairing the transportation system.”
They didn’t even tell Mayor Frank Gilliam, who was surprised by the toll proposal. He helpfully suggested, “Any time you’re looking to tap into or have someone increase fees for any particular reason, you want to have a discussion or conversation first.”
The state Department of Community Affairs, which took over the city in 2016 to restore its finances, was kind in its response, saying it welcomes “any innovative ideas the city’s elected leaders have to increase revenue” and would review their merits.
Council members should start there with their proposals, since the state’s job is to ensure the city returns to solvency.
But the state can’t stop council members from making Atlantic City look bad. They must do that themselves.