For the foreseeable future, Atlantic City will be flying without a pilot.
On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie refused to sign a package of bills aimed at helping Atlantic City pull itself out of a financial hole.
One of the bills would have formed a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program, or PILOT, to allow casinos to pay a lump sum in taxes each year instead of receiving fluctuating tax bills.
In November, Christie conditionally vetoed the bills and asked members of the state Legislature to make certain changes, which they did under the assumption that Christie would sign the new versions into law.
“I’m scratching my head along with a whole lot of other people who were involved in this process,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, with a sigh.
A strong proponent of the PILOT program, Whelan criticized Christie for not working closely enough with state lawmakers to devise a package that everyone could support.
“Where’s the communication from the governor’s office on this? There wasn’t any,” said Whelan. “If we’re going to solve the problems here [in Atlantic City], there has to be some real cooperation, and that’s prefaced on real communication. And there hasn’t been that level of communication with the governor.”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, who co-sponsored the bills, echoed that frustration.
“In completing these amendments, I thought we gave him what everybody could live with, including the governor,” said Mazzeo. “He didn’t even give a reason [for not signing the bills], so I’m disappointed.”
Christie’s “pocket vetoes” came just days after Kevin Lavin, an emergency manager hired to take a look at Atlantic City’s finances, issued his final report to the governor.
Lavin’s suggestion? Sign those Atlantic City rescue bills into law. Like Christie, Lavin called for changes to bills establishing the PILOT program and reallocating the casino investment alternative tax, but he contended that the legislation could help cut Atlantic City’s budget deficits forecast over the next five years in half.
The report lauded Atlantic City officials for balancing the city budget in 2015 without raising the municipal property tax rate but also urged lawmakers to continue devising cost-saving measures for future budgets.
For example, Lavin suggested considering regionalizing the police force and privatizing the fire department, hiking the costs of parking tickets and increasing enforcement, and “monetizing” city assets including the Municipal Utilities Authority and Bader Field, among other ideas.
A recent flurry of proposals to save Atlantic City, which saw four of 12 casinos close in 2014, have also included the expansion of casino gambling into North Jersey and an outright state takeover of what was once known as The World’s Playground.
That could means the odds are even longer that Atlantic City’s financial issues will be resolved anytime soon.
“There no consensus on what can be done that would be helpful to Atlantic City at this point,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics.
“There’s no political consensus. I’m not sure that there’s a policy consensus.”