Takeover or Not, Christie Announces Plan for State to Oversee Atlantic City's Finances

by | January 27, 2016 AT 1:00 PM

By Jonathan Lai, Maddie Hanna and Amy S. Rosenberg

Back from the campaign trail, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced a plan Tuesday for the state to take control of Atlantic City's finances.

Christie, flanked by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian at a Statehouse news conference, said "all three of us up here agree" that greater state involvement is needed in Atlantic City, which has been rocked by casino closures.

Guardian's presence in Trenton alongside Christie and Sweeney represented a detente in a high-stakes standoff that had state officials threatening a hostile takeover while city officials considered bankruptcy. Guardian said a phone conversation Thursday about the coming storm had led to the cooperation.

Under new legislation, the state would get the authority to restructure municipal debt, amend or terminate city contracts, and consolidate or share municipal services with Atlantic County or other towns, Christie said.

Asked whether the actions amounted to a "takeover," Christie said: "You can call it whatever you want."

But Guardian said Tuesday night after meeting with the City Council: "We're not going to do a takeover. The old takeover bill has been pulled. Everything is back on the table."

Notably absent from the Trenton news conference was Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat.

"I will review any proposal to help Atlantic City, but I will be especially concerned about any effort to unilaterally alter collective bargaining agreements," Prieto said in a statement. "The fact is that no one speaks for the Assembly except for the Assembly. If the Assembly is not involved, then there is no agreement."

Christie said his office would work with Sweeney and Prieto to try to pass legislation in February.

If the state's "expanded responsibility" measure passes, it would last for no more than five years, Christie said. It also could help delay further talk of bankruptcy, which city officials had been set to consider at Tuesday afternoon's council meeting.

"That is clearly not my preference; it's not the Senate president's preference, and it's not the mayor's goal," Christie said.

Guardian said Tuesday evening that he had agreed to back off the heated bankruptcy rhetoric when Sweeney and Christie agreed to throw out the original takeover bill and start over.

"I believe it's a partnership," City Council President Marty Small said. "Bankruptcy is not 100 percent off the table. But I'm happy we'll have a seat at the table. The state takeover is off the table."

In Trenton, Guardian said, "The reality is very clear." Atlantic City's finances are in a "structural deficit" that even bankruptcy would not solve.

"We're not dead," Guardian said. "We're just wounded."

The city has about $240 million in debt and owes an additional $160 million in tax appeals to the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. It faces a projected $300 million deficit over the next five years, not including nonbonded obligations such as deferred pension and health benefit payments and tax appeals, according to the emergency manager Christie appointed to analyze the city's finances.

"We remain open to good-faith discussions to resolve this matter fairly," Tom Ballance, president of Borgata, said in a statement Tuesday.

Borgata and the city are locked in a legal battle. Guardian said in Trenton that the "force the state brings" would help in resolving the logjam.

Last week, Christie vetoed legislation that was intended to stabilize Atlantic City's finances, saying he wouldn't "permit the people of New Jersey to pay for their excess any longer."

The city had balanced its $262 million budget for 2015 on the assumption that it would receive $33.5 million in state aid from the legislation to pay its debt service.

At Tuesday's news conference, Christie said those bills were only "partial solutions." But he said the new legislation would incorporate a payment in lieu of taxes agreement. The previous legislation would have set terms for tax payments by casinos for 15 years, preventing future tax appeals.

Guardian left Trenton immediately after the news conference and returned to Atlantic City, where the City Council and a room full of residents awaited, believing the council would be voting on a possible Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing.

The council adjourned to meet privately with Sweeney. Asked on the way to that meeting whether the deal amounted to a takeover, Guardian said: "No."

Sweeney left after the meeting without appearing publicly, and council members said they would support the process toward a new bill authorizing some kind of state role in Atlantic City. They passed a resolution supporting a "balance between state intervention" and a complete takeover.

Sen. Jim Whelan, a Democrat, said the price of getting financial support would be a greater state role.

"When you talk about a state takeover or any takeover of anything, you're talking about the entire operations. Fiscal and everything else," he said. "I don't think the state is going to be saying, 'Put this cop here, and put that fireman there.' That's not the level of takeover."

Residents at the City Council meeting said they had been left with "crumbs" from decades of casino gaming.

"The city was raped and now they're killing you," said resident Alma Johnson.

Small said the council had been prepared to take action Tuesday on bankruptcy _ he called it "the B word" _ but held off after meeting with Sweeney and Guardian.

In New Hampshire last Thursday, Christie had accused Guardian of not having the "guts to do his job." But on Tuesday, he said, "We're working together now, and it's a beautiful thing."

Referring to a comment by Guardian earlier in the news conference, Christie said: "I think he called it kumbaya. I'll quote the mayor."

(Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.)

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