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Assembly candidates John Armato, left, Vince Mazzeo, Phil Guenther and John Risley debate Wednesday at Stockton University in Atlantic City.

PLEASE NOTE: The live stream will begin at 6pm

ATLANTIC CITY — The four candidates for state Assembly in the 2nd District, which covers most of Atlantic County, all oppose legalizing recreational marijuana via legislation, and all support a bill to rebuild boardwalks using highway trust fund money.

But when it came to the state takeover of Atlantic City, the casino payment-in-lieu-of-taxes legislation and state limits on local law enforcement cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, their differences became apparent at a debate Thursday night at Stockton University’s city campus.

“(The state takeover of Atlantic City) hasn’t worked out. Debt has increased from $100 million to $400 million. I’m not at all impressed with the results,” said Republican Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley, of Egg Harbor Township, a challenger for an Assembly seat.

He and running mate Phil Guenther, former Brigantine mayor and superintendent of the Atlantic County Special Services School District and Atlantic County Institute of Technology, said the takeover robbed residents of self-governance without fixing long-term problems.

“I support the takeover. Without it Hard Rock wouldn’t be here. Stockton would not be here,” said Democratic incumbent John Armato, of Buena Vista Township, running for his second term. “Atlantic City was on the brink of bankruptcy.”

He and incumbent running mate Vince Mazzeo, of Northfield, said the takeover is working. Both also supported the PILOT bill, which locked casinos into paying set amounts based on gross gaming revenue. The legislation was spearheaded by Mazzeo.

“It was a tough decision, but the last few years (municipal) property taxes have stabilized or have gone down,” Mazzeo said. “The PILOT bill is doing what it’s supposed to do.”

“The PILOT bill has been an unmitigated disaster — something no one wanted. The bipartisan Mayors Association did not want the PILOT bill,” countered Guenther. “It was forced on us by Mazzeo and the other people who wrote it.”

Guenther and Risley said they would like to see the PILOT legislation amended to give it a shorter term. Currently, casinos will not return to being assessed as real estate until 2027.

Atlantic City taxpayers saw a big increase this year in county and school taxes as a result of a lack of refunds from the county to the city for successful tax appeals, and because the value of the city continued to fall. Casinos, locked into the PILOT bill, did not have to contribute to cover those costs.

“I guess Mr. Guenther would have rather seen the city go bankrupt,” Mazzeo said, in one of the few slightly contentious moments of the evening.

Risley called state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s restrictions on how counties cooperate with ICE “an absolute disgrace,” and Guenther said New Jersey is not following federal law by restricting cooperation with ICE.

Mazzeo and Armato, on the other hand, said Grewal is just doing his job, and it’s up to the federal government to fix a broken immigration system.

About 100 people attended the debate, sponsored by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton and The Press of Atlantic City.

“It was informative. It covered a lot of issues,” said Jack Greenberg, of Atlantic City, who attended but said he usually doesn’t make up his mind about whom he’ll vote for until the last minute. “It gave me an idea of where they all stand. The most important thing was the tone was very civil.”

Contact: 609-272-7219


Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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