The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has a long history of funding poorly chosen projects, failing to oversee recipients and even letting funds be redirected inappropriately. A state audit of the agency found mismanagement and waste, and a report on state oversight of the city criticized some of its choices of projects to fund.
But those are the old days. The new CRDA, its funding reduced by the need to bail out nearly bankrupt Atlantic City government, is dedicated to helping the city recover by supporting its tourism and quality of life. Since then we’ve praised it for putting more thought into whether to fund projects, for example cutting off millions for the Miss America Competition and funding a realistic effort to open a supermarket in the city.
A plan to spend $10.5 million to renovate 25,000 square feet of office space at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall and provide it for free to the city school board, however, looks like a mix of old and new CRDA approaches.
Other school districts take care of their office needs on their own, typically repurposing one of their many educational buildings. The Vineland Board of Education, for example, last year moved from one former school building into another, the Landis Administration Building. Resorts up the coast such as Long Branch and Asbury Park use old buildings — and seemingly much less space than the Atlantic City board would be given.
The Atlantic City Board of Education had its own building, too, but years ago sold it to fill a one-time budget hole. It has been renting since.
The CRDA said by law it can only spend its luxury tax funds — from levies on the sale of alcohol, tickets and rooms — on either capital improvements such as this project or marketing Atlantic City. Executive Director Matt Doherty said that given the choice of marketing the casino resort to visitors or benefiting residents, “the latter is more important.” He said that while the state takeover ended the city’s $30 million a year marketing effort, the CRDA still does marketing through the use of social media, which he said is more cost effective.
The benefit to residents would come when city school board spends the $650,000 a year it saves on rent on classroom programming for children, Doherty said, which will be contractually required.
Under-used Boardwalk Hall also will benefit, he said. The daily activity of board employees and visitors will “breathe life into the building.”
So a school board that cashed in its building will appear to be rewarded with large and expensively renovated rent-free offices for its 82 employees. Doherty said it’s up to the state Board of Education and its longtime fiscal monitor of Atlantic City School Board whether 82 employees and 25,000 square feet are the right size for the district.
The time to determine if the board has too many employees and needs too much office space at too great a cost is before they’re all funded at taxpayer expense. That should have been done convincingly by the New Jersey Board of Education and its monitor of Atlantic City before the CRDA entertained the proposal.
Nor are we convinced that the money wouldn’t be better spent marketing the casino resort. The more Atlantic City improves — and it has made great strides since the takeover — the greater the need to make visitors and investors aware of that improvement. Growing resort tourism is the surest way to improve the quality of life for residents of the city and beyond.