Taxes, schools, casinos and emergency manager keys to Christie's Atlantic City aid plan

Government And Institutions Associated Press

A plan commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie to help Atlantic City calls for setting predictable tax payments for casinos, temporarily freezing taxes on non-gambling property, giving schools more aid if they reduce costs and temporarily halting contributions to employee pension plans.

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The commission the governor appointed to study the resort town's future released details Thursday of its recommendations, none of which the governor has committed himself to yet.

The centerpiece is a state-appointed emergency manager for the city, with "extraordinary supervisory powers" over its spending and taxing. The commission also recommends a public-private development corporation like the one that helped New Brunswick.

The effort comes as four of the city's 12 casinos have closed this year and a fifth is on the verge of shutting down.

"Extraordinary state and local support is required in the transition phase of the Atlantic City revitalization strategy focusing on immediate activities with a high probability of success, including balancing the municipal and school cost structure toward 'new normal,'" panel Chairman Jon Hanson wrote in the introduction.

Property tax reform is a key component of the plan, aimed at letting each party know what to expect in future years within reason.

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"High effective rates and a rapidly declining tax base have created an immense financial burden for residents, local businesses and the casino industry," the report read. The "entire Atlantic City gaming industry is at risk as each incremental casino closure results in a greater tax increase than revenue increase for the surviving casinos."

The plan calls for letting casinos make "alternative tax payments" for seven to 10 years, recognizing that any additional short-term gambling revenue is likely to be "negligible." The proposal is similar to one floated earlier this week by state Senate President Steven Sweeney, and seems to indicate the Republican governor and Democrat-controlled legislature can agree on measures to help the city.

But casinos would have to be current on their taxes to participate in the alternative tax program. Revel and Trump Plaza, both of which closed in September, and the Taj Mahal, which could close Dec. 12, owe a combined $30 million in unpaid taxes.

The plan also calls for increased state aid to Atlantic City schools, provided that they or the emergency manager can reduce per-pupil costs from the current $26,000 to the state average of $18,000.

Atlantic City would be freed from making pension payments for three years, saving $71.1 million and reducing the need for costly borrowing. The plan also considers regionalizing Atlantic City's police and fire departments to save $25 million a year.

In addition, the plan envisions redirecting the $30 million currently used by the Atlantic City Alliance to promote the city to help fund the new development corporation, ACDevCo; having the state-controlled Casino Reinvestment Development Authority take over planning, zoning and code enforcement from the city; and merging the state Division of Gaming Enforcement with the Casino Control Commission.

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC