New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver was effusive in her confidence in Atlantic City’s fate during a virtual appearance before the state Assembly Budget Committee on Monday.
“I believe Atlantic City is going to have tremendous value for the state going forward,” Oliver — Gov. Phil Murphy’s designated overseer of the city — told the lawmakers. “Atlantic City provides economic support for the entire state, and I don’t think people understand that.”
“It’s the last bastion of undeveloped oceanfront in this state. I do believe many families in New Jersey are outpriced from some other shore comunities up and down the coastline. Just look at property values in Atlantic City, the square-feet cost to build something.
“Every couple of years there is a ‘hot market’ in New Jersey — Atlantic City is going to be the next ‘hot market,'” Oliver added.
From hot market to hot summer for gamblers in AC?
“When I talk to some casino owners,” Oliver said, “they feel good about the future of Atlantic City, even though they have had the experience of the pandemic. They believe they are going to have very robust tourism this summer.”
As it happens, the very pandemic that led to a 44% decline in brick-and-mortar casino revenue in 2020 compared to 2019 may induce a consolation boost for those same casinos this summer, Oliver suggested.
“That’s because families may still be reluctant to go to Europe, or to go to the Caribbean,” Oliver said. “But Atlantic City is close to home.”
Oliver said that none of the city’s nine casinos were “in noncompliance” of their annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) obligations in spite of the closure of the casinos for all of April, May, and June.
“We haven’t had any problems in that situation,” Oliver said. “The industry knows how to take care of its industry. Many of the casinos operate all over the country, or all over the world. They have some of the best experts there are to be found.”
State takeover may continue for years
As optimistic as Oliver is about the city’s future, that doesn’t mean she believes it is near the time to turn the reins of city government back over to the mayor and city council.
Asked if she thought state control would extend for another decade, Oliver said, “I don’t believe the state needs a 10-year [additional] residency in Atlantic City.
“We’ve been there coming up on five years in November, and I believe that in another four to five years, Atlantic City will be on good footing.
“The problem in Atlantic City historically was generation after generation of ineffective municipal leadership,” Oliver added of a city that has had five mayors indicted on corruption charges in a span of less than 50 years.
That led then-Gov. Chris Christie to impose a takeover of the city’s financial decisions in 2016 — and more.
“The state has to sign off on personnel actions, appointments to boards and authorities, and if someone wants to make an $11,000 purchase,” Oliver said. “We are showing local governmental leaders in Atlantic City how to effectively run a government.
“The reason Atlantic City found itself in a $120 million deficit situation was that they were used to the heyday of Atlantic City money rolling in through the doors,” Oliver said of the casino industry boom that lasted decades but came to an abrupt halt with the opening of casinos and racinos in Pennsylvania and New York starting in 2006.
“Now we are creating an environment and culture that every decision made governmentally by the city has to be made not based on politics, or networks, or friendships, but on sound business decisions.”
Flip-flop creates political intrigue
Oliver told the lawmakers after explaining her rationale for extending the state takeover indefinitely, “Who would have ever thought I would say that?”
As the Assembly speaker five years ago, Oliver opposed Christie’s takeover — while Murphy did as well while running for governor, objecting to what he called the “bigfooting” of Atlantic City’s independence by state officials.
After the duo took office in their current roles, however, that sentiment began to change as those state officials began looking carefully at the city’s finances.
Oliver pointed to four straight years without an increase in city property taxes as evidence that the state is aiding the city, not “bigfooting it.” She also noted that a needle exchange program in the city has been moved to a new location “instead of in the middle of the tourism district.” The homelessness issue also is a priority, she said.
Still, likely November 2021 Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli has blasted Murphy’s change of tune on state-run management of the city.
“Governor Murphy sits high on a hill in his multi-million dollar mansion in North Jersey claiming he knows how to best run Atlantic City,” Ciattarelli said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s time to end this ridiculous takeover and restore local control. Let the elected officials in Atlantic City and Atlantic County figure out how to best move this city forward.”
“Five years ago, Governor Murphy looked Atlantic City local leaders, employees, and residents in the eye and opposed the takeover of their community. Now, after four years of doing nothing to end it, his lieutenant governor is poking a finger in the eye of everyone in the city by telling them the state is going to lord over them for another four to five years. It’s no wonder people don’t trust politicians,” Ciattarelli added.
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