Following Tuesday’s news that the administration of Governor Chris Christie has rejected Atlantic City’s recovery plan, State Senator Jim Whelan is criticizing Mayor Don Guardian and the city council for not leaving the privatization of the city’s water authority on the table. That step would be a key component of the state takeover plan Christie favors, and which he and Whelan drew up at the governor’s mansion along with Democratic power broker George Norcross and Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Whelan also called Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Charles Richman’s final decision on the troubled gaming capital’s home-rule recovery plan disappointing. The city intends to appeal the decision, a court battle that could forestall the takeover until after Christie is term-limited out in 2018 if the cash-strapped resort town can afford the legal fees. Under the terms of the takeover, the state would have the power to sell off Bader Field and the water authority, break union contracts and make hiring and firing decisions.
“Commissioner Richman’s decision is disappointing for Atlantic City residents and taxpayers, but it reflects the failure of City leadership on this issue,” Whelan wrote in a statement. “Approximately 300 cities have made the difficult decision to sell or lease their water systems to private companies. Bayonne recently entered into an agreement to lease its water system for $150 million upfront plus $2.5 million a year for 40 years for maintenance and upgrades.”
Whelan also pointed to the city’s plan to sell one of its few remaining valuable assets, former municipal airport Bader Field, to the water authority itself, a step that would require authorizing more lending for the sake of the sale. The former east coast gaming capital’s casino industry suffered a steep decline when out-of-state competition brought property values low, leading to costly tax appeals and the shuttering of five casinos in the last decade.
“Throughout this process, I and others have urged City leaders to enter into an agreement with the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, which would have provided immediate cash flow to the City while keeping the water in public hands,” Whelan continued. “Instead, the City comes up with a shell game with its local utilities authority to increase debt by $110 million to purchase Bader Field with no plans of what to do with it.”