Public health professionals, residents, public service workers and local elected officials in New Jersey’s largest cities are watching with concern as the debate in Trenton continues over the proposed state takeover of Atlantic City.
Placing Atlantic City’s resources and workers in the hands of Governor Christie, without any protections for the rights of city residents or workers, sounds alarmingly like what happened in states like Michigan and Wisconsin. I hope Trenton keeps debating alternatives, because the threats to democracy and the rights of public workers can be as serious as the threat of bankruptcy.
After a state takeover of Flint Michigan’s city functions and water supply resulted in dangerous levels of lead in city water, one would think caution would prevail. As the Mayor of Flint Karen Weaver testified in Congress “There is no accountability for what these managers do, because they only report to the Governor.”
Atlantic City, like many of our older cities, has suffered from the economic recession, as well as from its unique setting as a Casino town. The loss of taxes and jobs due to recent Casino failures has deepened its debt and darkened its financial future.
According to the Atlantic City Press in 2014: “A series of tax appeal settlements and judgments have hammered Atlantic City’s bottom line, as the casinos argue their downward spiral means their properties are worth a fraction of what they once were. This year alone, casinos challenged nearly $2 billion worth of Atlantic City assessments, which together result in almost $49.2 million in combined city, school and county taxes.”
Yet the planned takeover of Atlantic City governance isn’t limited to taking steps to right the troubled fiscal situation. It would allow the Director of Division of Local Government Services within the Department of Community Affairs to void contracts, sell off infrastructure, cut public services, fire workers, privatize city utilities, and cancel collective bargaining agreements for police, firefighters and other city workers. The takeover plan revokes protection for workers from unfair labor practices by their employer, an issue entirely unrelated to finance.
The takeover could eliminate or transfer functions of local city departments like the Department of Health. Local city Departments of Health are essential to protecting the public health, providing immunizations, health education, and local health inspections.
The ranks of Atlantic City police and firefighters have already been cut: firefighters from 272 to 147 and police by 20%; salaries too have been slashed, not only for public safety, but municipal workers too, who have been under a wage freeze since 2011. Wealthy bondholders’ money is protected, but city workers making $22,000 a year will be hardest hit, bearing the brunt of the takeover.
As currently framed, the takeover plan would also eliminate the democratic rights of Atlantic City residents, by transferring the powers of city government to one director appointed by the Governor. The public’s right to information – the ‘Open Public Records Act’ – wouldn’t always apply, but the Director could apply it ‘to the extent practicable’.
Any major urban city in similar fiscal distress could face the same future if they face similar debt levels, in a process that provides little transparency and few safeguards for public resources and utilities.
A real solution isn’t easy, but state involvement should focus on rebuilding a viable economic future for city residents, not just slashing the budget, putting the public’s safety and well-being at risk.
Rather than placing control of New Jersey cities in the hands of an unelected director, let’s engage community, business and labor leaders, focus on a recovery plan, economic development, and job creation. Let’s make sure that any legislation sent to the Governor’s desk contains specific benchmarks, careful planning, and protection for democracy and the public interest.