Commentary: Atlantic City is becoming a Shakespearean tragedy

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I know the cartoon I drew about beleaguered Atlantic City is inspired by Aesop’s Fables, but before you dig any deeper into the Shore resort’s fiscal woes, I request you reacquaint yourself with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and revisit the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. 
 
Once you do, I hope you’ll understand why I’ve come to see Chris Christie’s emergency management team of Kevin Lavin and Kevynn Orr in a totally new light. 
 
Last week, Christie’s fiscal dynamic duo released a much-anticipated report about the financial future of Atlantic City. The goodish news? They don’t envision declaring bankruptcy (although it’d be illegal for them to recommend bankruptcy at this point before entering “good fault” negotiations with creditors). 
 
The bad news? Their report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, offered few solutions on how to fix the problems and they’re probably going to declare bankruptcy anyway. 
 
First, the facts of the reports double down on the fact that Atlantic City has become the degenerate gambler desperately digging in the backseat for spare change. Thanks to plunging property values and declining tax collections, the city faces the prospect of laying off over 250 employees just to help close a $101 million budget gap (nearly 40 percent of the 2014 budget) that has opened up this year.
 
The duo’s immediate goal is to cut $10 million from the municipal budget, but considering Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian has already made $30 million in cuts, that seems hardly Herculean. Especially considering that in addition to that gaping budget hole is the school system, which needs an additional $47.1 million. 
 
On top of that, Atlantic City still owes creditors an estimated $845 million, prompting Moody’s credit rating agency once again to give the city a big thumbs down and warn of a possible default. 
 
Looking at these numbers, it’s really hard for me to see how Atlantic City’s fiscal trash can of a balance sheet gets cleaned up outside a federal courthouse. 
 
Now that I’ve showered you in boring fiscal calamity, let’s look at how Christie’s duo proposes to solve Atlantic City’s morass. Just imagine crickets chirping (or a clock ticking towards Christie’s big presidential getaway) and you’ll get the picture. 
 
The report’s ideas include cutting upwards of 345 jobs (on top of Guardian’s 150 job cuts), reducing benefit and pension payments (a tried and true Christie trademark) and revenue of about $47.5 million from bills currently stalled in the Legislature. 
 
On top of that, there’s not much. There are almost no details on how to attack the school district’s shortfall, other than “layoffs across all levels.” There also seems to be no discussion how cutting decent-paying jobs will further erode business revenues and harm the city’s tax base.
 
So the take-action Christie administration has held three summits, issues three reports, and basically what we’re left with is a note that reads “to be determined.” It’s not as if this work is pro-bono – Lavin reportedly earns $135,000 a year, Orr’s compensation hasn’t been released, Ernst & Young is being paid $250,000 just for the first phase of work, and their staff has been hired at taxpayer expense.  At this point, Christie’s boldest action was to hammer the final nail into Atlantic City’s coffin by pushing the bankrupt, defunct and still ownerless Revel Casino onto taxpayers. 
 
Which brings me back to Shakespeare. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (essentially one character played by two actors) were childhood friends summoned by the king to help understand Hamlet’s madness, and eventually ordered to kill him.
 
Now imagine the duo of Lavin and Orr playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Chris Christie would obviously play power-hungry King Claudius, and the role of Hamlet would be filled by the troubled and possibly-insane Atlantic City. Spoiler alert: “Hamlet” ends in a bloodbath where everyone ends up dead, including the lovable duo who end up getting killed on Hamlet’s orders (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”) 
 
I wish I had a more optimistic appraisal of the situation to give you. I don’t. If you want to be entertained, head over to Storybook Land. As Hamlet would say, “The rest is silence,” at least until we get another important report from King Claudius (who once seemed like such a capable monarch). 
 
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Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter at @RobTornoe

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