Politics has complicated attempts to help Atlantic City property owners deal with a big, unexpected tax hike.
On Tuesday, the state Division of Community Affairs, which oversees the state takeover of the city, announced “Lt. Gov. (Sheila) Oliver has asked the Atlantic County executive to form a task force to look at how all of the taxing authorities have approached the issue.”
The announcement was intended to find a way to avoid future surprises. But instead it sparked fighting among Democrats and Republicans.
County Executive Dennis Levinson is a Republican and is being challenged for re-election this year by Democrat Susan Korngut, a Northfield attorney.
Following the announcement, Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman complained to the DCA about the role Levinson was given.
On Wednesday morning, the DCA sent out a clarification email stating Levinson was asked to participate in the task force, not form it.
“Did I raise hell? Absolutely,” said Suleiman. “They apologized and said it was absolutely a mistake.”
DCA spokeswoman Gena Trish said it was never the DCA’s intention that Levinson would be in charge of the task force, only that he would join it.
“That’s quite a coincidence,” Levinson said Wednesday.
In a statement, Suleiman implied Levinson was responsible for the city’s tax increase.
“While I have the utmost respect for the lieutenant governor and think she’s done a fine job in helping Atlantic City, appointing the county executive to a task force on Atlantic City’s taxes is like having the fox guard the hen house,” Suleiman said.
Levinson was furious about the attack, he said.
“That just shows you what’s wrong in Atlantic City,” Levinson said. “They (Democrats) want to continue to play politics” rather than work in a bipartisan manner.
“They are just afraid we will solve the problem,” Levinson said, adding Oliver called him — he didn’t seek it. “It was pretty clear I was going to lead the task force. Now all of a sudden I’m not.”
Levinson said it’s unfair to blame the county for the city’s higher tax bills, since the amount the county is raising from city taxpayers is down more than $1 million this year.
City property owners must pay the county more because for the first time in 11 years they don’t have a big county tax refund — averaging $7.2 million a year — to offset their share of county taxes, he said.
Last year, the county billed the city $13 million, but it only had to pay about $6 million because it had a $7.1 million refund credit from successful casino tax appeals. This year, the county billed the city $11.8 million, but the city has to pay $11.5 million because its refund credit is only $300,000.
Residents were not warned of the coming increase by any level of government, leaving them to find out about it when they received their latest tax bills.
In fact, in the previous weeks, city and state officials promoted the fact the tax rate in the city was staying flat.
That’s true of the municipal tax rate. But the county and school rates are up a combined 45 cents. The average resort home, valued at $150,000, will pay a tax bill of $5,850 this year, up $676.50 from last year, according to the Atlantic County Board of Taxation.
In another bipartisan effort, Freeholder Ernest Coursey, a Democrat who represents Atlantic City and Pleasantville, said he and other budget subcommittee members have discussed options with county Administrator Jerry DelRosso.
They considered asking the state and city whether the tax increase can be backloaded onto third- and fourth-quarter payments, so people will have more time to come up with the extra money.
“I don’t want to see neighborhood by neighborhood folks walking away from their homes” because they cannot pay their taxes, Coursey said.
The city is already faced with hundreds of vacant homes, many of which were abandoned by owners after being damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Coursey said.
The value of the city has fallen from $20 billion in 2010 to about $6.5 billion in 2016, when the state assumed fiscal oversight of Atlantic City. Last year, the city had less than $2.9 billion in property value, after the casinos were removed from the ratable base with the start of the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program in 2017. That figure is down to $2.5 billion in 2019.
Levinson has said the state should provide funding to help taxpayers, since it has had oversight of city finances since 2010 and knew the increase was coming but did nothing to prepare residents.
He also said he was disturbed the state has not stood up to explain the situation to property owners.
“Now it’s over a week since bills went out. They’ve left it up to the county to explain it,” Levinson said. “We are still waiting for the state to come forward and say, ‘Don’t blame Atlantic County for this.’ When are they going to stand up and say this is not the county’s fault?”