Three years ago New Jersey had to take over local government in Atlantic City. Even though the state had given the city a monopoly on casino gambling worth billions, reckless spending and borrowing had pushed the city to the brink of bankruptcy.
Since then, state officials have stabilized city government finances, overseen substantial budget cuts and sparked the first wave of private investment since the 1990s. They’re working to help Atlantic City government develop the fiscal responsibility and good government practices that would enable it to resume independent and healthy operation.
Marty Small Sr., the new mayor who took over when Frank Gillliam Jr. was convicted of fraud and removed from office, has a different focus. He wants more money.
Small has been casting about for new ways to get other people’s money for Atlantic City for years. He has pushed to double the toll on the Atlantic City Expressway at Pleasantville and funnel the increase to the city.
He wants a piece of the taxes and fees that the state collects in Atlantic City. Small also wants an additional share of the sports betting tax. The state put Atlantic City’s share in the hands of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
“We’re not asking for anything that no one else gets,” Small said recently.
Well, what other Jersey Shore tourism town gets those taxes and fees back from the state? What other municipality anywhere in New Jersey to this day gets to host casino gambling, which pays the majority of Atlantic City’s $207 million annual budget? (For that matter, what other town of 38,000 gets to spend $207 million a year?)
Even with all that money, Atlantic City still needs the state to pay for some ordinary municipal expenses — for example, extra police in summer and road repaving.
About a week after Small was in Trenton pleading for more money, the state Department of Community Affairs proposed redirecting $20 million from a disaster recovery block grant to pay for city bulkhead work, making city hall and other public buildings more flood resistant, and inspecting and replacing storm drain flood valves.
Gov. Phil Murphy was vague and noncommittal in response to Small’s pleading. “We sit and listen to the elected officials in this community, and we try to find a way forward together,” Murphy said. “So we’ll see on that one.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney responded with tough love.
“You can’t talk about raising taxes or finding new sources of revenue until you really do have your house in order,” Sweeney said. “This city still has a long way to go.”
The truth is that new revenue wouldn’t help Atlantic City government become responsible. It more likely would allow the city to persist in decades of wasteful and ineffective spending, during which it squandered money that should have been used to upgrade and diversify the resort.
Anyone who loves Atlantic City and wants it to achieve its potential — which is still great! — should focus on helping city government become responsible and efficient. If it ever did that, its imagined revenue problem would disappear.