Almost two years into the job, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian says the biggest challenge of being mayor is dealing with the daily crises.
There have been many, from the closing of four casinos last year to finding out this week that someone wants to put homeless people in tents. In a one-hour meeting with The Press’ editorial board Tuesday, Guardian talked about the many issues he deals with on daily basis.
Atlantic City’s most successful casino will play an important role in the city’s financial future.
ON THE BUDGET
Guardian fired back at criticisms over his administration’s handling of the budget, saying he’s made $25 million in “real cuts” to the city’s departments and has reduced the number of city employees from 1,255 in 2013 to 939 today. He said if not for a federal grant that helped pay for 85 firefighters the city was going to lay off, the budget would have been $20 million smaller.
“This is as fast as we can cut it and still provide services,” Guardian said.
He also said the budget made $40 million in reserve payments, including $27.5 million the city owed in tax appeals. He said “you can’t beat me up both ways” for deferring health and pension benefit payments “when I pay off $27 million out of this year’s budget.”
ON LAVIN’S REPORT
Guardian provided some insight into state Emergency Manager Kevin Lavin’s second report on the municipality’s finances, which was due at the end of June. Guardian said he’s seen a draft of the report.
Guardian said the “pretty thick report” will say the city must continue to reduce costs, like the total number of employees, because of “longevity costs.”
“That’s what really kills us,” Guardian said. “We pay 75 percent of their health benefits for them and their spouse, forever, until they both die.”
The report will also recommend getting more money from casinos and the state, looking at regionalization of services and monetizing or protecting any value the city has, such as Bader Field.
Guardian said he speaks with Lavin at least once a week and that he has found Lavin’s recommendations “hard to disagree with.”
ON THE PILOT
Guardian defended the city’s rescue package that Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed, again saying that he wants the bills signed into law.
Guardian said the main bill, the Casino Property Taxation Stabilization Act, which ends casino tax appeals by entering casinos into a payment in lieu of taxes program, will prevent a potential tax appeal by the Trump Taj Mahal.
He said while tying the payments to gross gambling revenue — which is trending downward — rather than total revenue “is an issue,” he said using total revenue wasn’t considered when the bill was first put together.
“It’s kind of like the armchair quarterback,” Guardian said. “The Legislature has had plenty of time to make that determination. I think it’s not fair to take pot shots at people who stood up and came up with the legislation.
Guardian said he’s in favor of bringing the municipal utilities authority under the city, but said he doesn’t want to sell or lease the utility or have layoffs.
Guardian’s chief of staff, Chris Filiciello, said “there’s interest” of brining a sports team back to Atlantic City.
And developer Glenn Straub recently paid his third and fourth quarter taxes, hand-delivering a check at City Hall for $4.3 million.