Dueling Atlantic City recovery plans at issue as Christie calls 3rd summit on resort future

Democratic and Republican plans to help Atlantic City recover from its eight-year losing streak are clashing as Gov. Chris Christie will convene a third summit on the struggling resort's future.

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The co-sponsor of the Democratic plan, state Sen. James Whelan, on Wednesday called on Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown to drop a competing proposal. Whelan said Brown's plan for a five-year property tax freeze is unconstitutional because it deprives people of the right to file tax appeals.

But a plan by Whelan and Senate president Steve Sweeney would place the same restriction on Atlantic City's casinos, in return for letting them make payments in lieu of taxes for 15 years.

"But there's a difference: the casinos are agreeing to participate in a PILOT program," Whelan said.

He said the state Legislature needs to unite behind one plan to help Atlantic City.

"As long as there are two competing plans out there, it's going to be very difficult to get anything done," Whelan said. "We need a clear consensus behind this."

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Brown opposes the PILOT program, under which casinos would make specified payments each year instead of paying property taxes. The idea is to give them cost certainty while eliminating costly and unpredictable tax appeals that have cost Atlantic City's treasury tens of millions of dollars.

In proposing his own plan last month, Brown said the Democratic plan would reduce taxes on some of the larger casinos by as much as $10 million a year and would increase county taxes on property owners by $9 million a year, figures that Democrats dispute. He said he outlined his proposal to Jon Hanson, a Christie confidante overseeing the summits.

"It has been my position all along we should not just stabilize property taxes for a few casinos off the backs of hard working middle class families," Brown said Wednesday. "I remain steadfast in my willingness to work with anyone to make sure we get it right. That is why I shared my plan with Mr. Hanson so we can discuss everyone's ideas face-to-face as a group at (Thursday's) summit."

The plans emerged after two previous Christie-led meetings. Other proposals include a powerful state monitor for Atlantic City, with powers beyond the state overseer currently in place; creation of a public-private development corporation to bring new business and residents to the city, and diversion of casino investment taxes currently used for redevelopment projects to help pay down Atlantic City's municipal debt.

Christie will convene the third Atlantic City summit Thursday morning.

Atlantic City lost four of its 12 casinos last year, and two more declared bankruptcy this month.

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