As takeover clock ticks down, Atlantic City works to balance budget

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Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian answers a question at the meeting Tuesday night. (Anthony Smedile/ for NewsWorks)

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian answers a question at the meeting Tuesday night. (Anthony Smedile/ for NewsWorks)

Atlantic City has less than five months to come up with a balanced budget in order to avoid a state takeover by the administration of Gov. Chris Christie.

At a public meeting in Atlantic City Hall Tuesday night, residents learned for the first time what that budget might look like.

“The things that we’re gonna be talking about now, that we’re taking action on, were unacceptable either to the police or to the fire [department] or to the residents or to the city a couple years ago,” said Mayor Don Guardian. “But as we are now in financial trouble, everybody is back on board saying we gotta do some really drastic action.”

Cutting costs and raising revenues may be easier said than done, but city officials are now confronting the problem with several months left to strike a financial balance they can present to state officials.

In 2016, the budget for the city of 40,000 was $239 million.

Guardian noted that the city has already started tightening its belt, cutting more than a quarter of municipal workers and renegotiating contracts with the police and fire unions, two of its largest expenses.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Guardian suggested even more cost-cutting measures, including hiking health care co-pays for certain city workers and selling off additional public property.

The city also is setting up more parking meters and increasing fees, installing more energy-efficient light bulbs in street lamps, and discussing the possibility of sharing municipal services with nearby towns.

But Guardian said the highest hurdle to overcome will be the city’s $240 million debt, incurred primarily by fighting casino tax appeals.

“This is the big nut. As we crack this, everything else becomes easier,” said Guardian. “So, obviously, we need to reduce the cost of government.”

The city’s tax base has dried up in recent years, and, in 2014, four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos closed amid sagging profits and competition from neighboring states.

During Tuesday’s meeting, much of the blame for the city’s financial woes fell on the state government, which locals have criticized for taking a portion of gambling proceeds but failing to adequately help the city as the gambling industry downsized.

Resident Alma Johnson slammed Christie and the state agency that would oversee the takeover, the Local Finance Board, for sitting idly by while Atlantic City scrambles to repair its finances.

“How can the Local Finance Board say they’re not gonna help us when we’ve helped the whole doggone state of New Jersey?” said Johnson. “Whether the money went elsewhere or whatever — it didn’t go here.”

The city may be facing another revenue setback this week, as more than 5,000 workers at five casinos threaten to strike Friday unless they reach a contract agreement with casino owners. Negotiations are reportedly ongoing.

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