Updated: War of the words escalates over Atlantic City’s future

For three hours around lunchtime Wednesday, one square block in Atlantic City played host to a high-stakes political fight rife with insults lobbed between state and local leaders.

UPDATE: Atlantic City has averted a government shutdown that had been expected to start this Friday. City Council approved a plan Wednesday night that will allow the city to pay workers every four weeks, instead of every two weeks. After city employees are paid on Friday, the next paychecks will go out the first week in May.

For three hours around lunchtime Wednesday, one square block in Atlantic City played host to a high-stakes political fight rife with insults lobbed between state and local leaders.

First up was Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who said he came to Atlantic City for a briefing from Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson.

Christie repeated his call for Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, to allow a vote on the Atlantic City takeover bill, which has already passed in the state Senate. Prieto has so far refused to post the bill for a vote, saying he wants to protect collective bargaining agreements and shield workers from unfair labor practices.

“Post the bill, Mr. Speaker,” said Christie. “It is not your right to be a one-man obstruction crew causing insolvency in the city of Atlantic City.”

Christie also took aim at Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, whom the governor accused of twisting the facts while refusing to take serious steps to solve the city’s financial woes.

“Listen, the mayor is an articulate guy. And now he’s asking for prayer and all the rest of it. It’s a wonderful thing. He’s a great guy,” he said. “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Not long after Christie left the county office building where the news conference took place, the crowd moved across the street to City Hall, where Mayor Guardian and City Council President Marty Small hosted a news conference of their own.

Guardian offered a point-by-point refutation of the governor’s remarks, including a suggestion that the city enter into more shared services agreements to save money.

“The governor says that he wants the county to mow our sports field. But our sports fields are synthetic,” said Guardian, to laughter and applause. “Rubber grass doesn’t have to be cut, and it doesn’t have to be watered.”

Small, who attended governor’s press conference, took a shot at Christie’s track record of governance on the state level.

“Look at the state of New Jersey and where they rank in all major categories in the country,” he said. “That’s why his act wore thin on a national level — you had nothing to run on but sound bites.”

Also jumping into the fray on Wednesday was Prieto, who says Christie already has enough authority to intervene in Atlantic City’s financial matters, a claim Christie flatly denies.

“I’ve made my position crystal clear — Gov. Christie has the ability to save Atlantic City from financial disaster, and I will not support legislation that tramples collective bargaining rights, fair labor practices and the civil liberties of the people of Atlantic City,” said Prieto.

Meanwhile, Atlantic City teeters on the brink of a government shutdown.

Under a plan up for a vote Wednesday night, Atlantic City would pay workers every four weeks — not every two weeks. That would keep the city open for now, although it would probably go broke again by July.

Before an Assembly voting session on Thursday, Prieto hopes to introduce a new Atlantic City takeover bill that would hold the city to financial benchmarks but protect public worker union contracts.

When asked about that possibility Wednesday, Christie shot down the idea, making the possibility of a further new deal on the takeover legislation seem unlikely.

“There are very obvious benchmarks for governments to meet, like, balance your budget. Pay revenues that you collect to the people who are entitled to them. Don’t overpay for services. Don’t employ people who serve no function,” he said. “They’ve failed every one of them.”

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