Former Gov. Chris Christie may be gone, but the state could stay in Atlantic City.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that he envisions a “partnership” between the state and cash-strapped city, but he didn’t repeat his campaign promise to end the controversial state takeover of the local government when asked about it during an unrelated news conference in the city.
And the city’s new mayor, Frank Gilliam, said he isn’t expecting state officials to pack up and leave.
“I was never a fan of the over-the-top big footing,” Murphy said of the Christie administration’s approach to Atlantic City. “I want to think much more on the sense of a partnership, and we will be a partner. And I think it’s something sooner than later.”
The Christie administration stripped major decision-making powers from city officials in November 2016 as the city’s finances teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Christie tapped Jeff Chiesa, a former state attorney general and U.S. senator, to oversee the takeover, granting him the authority to break union contracts, privatize services and negotiate with creditors, among other powers. The state also let his entire law firm bill taxpayers at rates of up to $400 per hour, and the tab so far is up to $4 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
What state oversight of Atlantic City would look like under the Murphy administration remains unclear.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who also leads the Department of Community Affairs, said in her inauguration speech that she wants to see the city eventually free of state intervention. Murphy said Wednesday that he’d meet with Gilliam later in the day.
Gilliam, who took office on Jan. 1, has been frustrated with Chiesa’s team, telling reporters that the state has prevented him from hiring his own department heads. While Gilliam said he expects a better relationship with the state under Murphy—a fellow Democrat—he said he doesn’t expect the state to completely pull out of the city.
“Most folks think that it’s going to be a drastic overhaul in terms of the governor and the state just leaving. I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” Gilliam said. “Partnerships mean that each entity has an opportunity to share their ideas. Under the past administration, that wasn’t the case. So we won’t know what those things look like until we sit down and have that discussion.”
Since the takeover started, Chiesa and state officials have unilaterally cut pay for police and firefighters, settled the city’s tax appeal debt with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and other casinos, and produced a budget last year with the first municipal tax decrease in nearly a decade. Two casinos—Hard Rock and the new owner of the former Revel—are planning to open this year after five casinos closed from 2014 to 2016.
Christie has touted the takeover’s accomplishments, dedicating time on the topic in his farewell State of the State speech. He said Atlantic City is on the verge of a “rebirth.”
“All without bankruptcy or selling public assets like the water authority—all things the naysayers said we would do when they were trying to scare you to not giving us the authority,” Christie said. “Well, they were wrong then and the opportunist politicians of both parties who now say that reversing course is necessary are just as wrong today as they were two years ago.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who sponsored the takeover law, said he has no plans to repeal the measure and will leave it to the Murphy administration to decide how to oversee the city.
“The state has to stay involved,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said. “And I think that’s what the governor said.”