Gov. Murphy will keep state in charge of Atlantic City for up to three more years

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City Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

City Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Atlantic City could remain under state rule until 2021, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday, despite saying during his campaign that he wanted to return local control to the gambling town.

A new report by special counsel Jim Johnson suggests keeping the state in charge of Atlantic City until the law authorizing the state takeover expires, or until state officials deem it financially stable.

In a press conference at an Atlantic City elementary school Thursday afternoon, Murphy renewed his past criticism of former Gov. Chris Christie for “bigfooting” the city without the support of local officials.

“But I also said — and we said — that doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner,” Murphy noted. “We’re not going away.”

Christie put Atlantic City under state control in November 2016 amid fears that the city would declare bankruptcy. At the time, the resort town was facing an increasing budget deficit and a ballooning half-billion dollars in debt.

Local and state officials bristled at what they considered a hostile takeover by the Christie administration. Former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, called it a “fascist dictatorship.”

Once the takeover took effect, officials with the Christie administration rewrote public worker contracts with several departments, including the police and firefighters, despite objections from union members. The administration also negotiated an end to several multimillion-dollar tax appeals by city casinos.

Now, the Murphy administration is seeking to keep that regime in place. But current officials are hoping to take a softer approach than the previous administration, emphasizing that they want to partner with the city rather than overrule it.

Johnson, who was appointed by Murphy in February, lays out a path forward for Atlantic City in his report.

He suggests Atlantic City better explain career paths for city workers, reinstitute regular job evaluations, offer continuing education and ethics courses, and send municipal managers for training. Johnson also suggests Atlantic City purchase software to track data about city services.

Johnson said Atlantic City needs to diversify its economy to be less reliant on the casino industry. The city, he argued, could better leverage its proximity to the airport, focus on attracting millennials, and review the regulatory framework for the gambling industry.

The report also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority money to invest in city youth, develop big projects like a grocery store, and establish a Citizens Advisory Board to work with the police department.

State officials also said they want to build on progress that has been unfolding in Atlantic City over the summer, including the opening of two new casinos, as well as the opening of South Jersey Gas’ new headquarters and Stockton University’s new waterfront campus.

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