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Assembly Speaker Unveils Plan to Save Atlantic City Without Takeover by the State

Friday, April 8, 2016   (0 Comments)
Share | 04/08/16

The Assembly held a full voting session Thursday, but left off of the agenda by Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) was a bill backed by Christie, a Republican, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) that would allow the state to immediately takeover city finances. The takeover legislation, which has already cleared the Senate, would also give the state the ability to immediately rip up union deals, something Prieto said goes too far. Instead, Prieto is sponsoring his own Atlantic City intervention bill, and it won unanimous approval yesterday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Key differences between the takeover legislation and Prieto’s measure include the creation of a new committee to oversee Atlantic City finances and the setting of financial goals or benchmarks. Both of those elements are not in the takeover bill, handing over most of the authority instead to the Christie administration.

The new oversight committee, with members from the executive branch and local officials, would also create an overall five-year plan to right the city’s finances. A special master appointed by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice would judge whether the specific benchmarks are being met on annual basis. Prieto’s bill also sets up an enforcement process if the city fails to meet each benchmark, but only then would the bill trigger more aggressive measures like dissolving city departments and changing or even scrapping union contracts. The bill also incorporates elements of a separate measure, which has also passed in the Senate, that would provide the city with much-needed cash from payments in lieu of taxes that would be made by the resort’s casinos. Those payments would total $120 million annually. But Prieto, speaking at the start of the committee meeting yesterday, said it’s the protection of collective-bargaining rights for city workers that remains the core goal. “When we talk about collective bargaining, I think that is a right people have negotiated in good faith,” Prieto said.

Prieto’s bill drew bipartisan support, including from Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), whose district includes Atlantic City. “When you look at this bill it creates a team approach,” Brown said. And several officials from unions that represent city workers testified in favor of the bill, as did Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who is also a Republican. “This is very reasonable,” said Guardian, who has strongly opposed a full state takeover. “It’s the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship,” he said. Guardian said city government has been able to pass its own measure allowing workers to be paid every four weeks instead of two. That gives the city enough flexibility with its budget to survive until May, when new property tax payments will come in. Earlier in the day, before it was clear neither bill would be posted for a vote, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) sent Prieto a letter that said delaying a state takeover leaves Atlantic City “on the precipice of catastrophe.” “A bill that waits 3-5 years to address all of Atlantic City’s issues is not the answer,” Greenwald wrote. “We need help now. The city is largely insolvent already and kicking the can down the road on real solutions is part of the reason we have reached this point.” But Prieto said the takeover bill, which Greenwald supports, would not have passed if he had put it up for a vote yesterday.


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