February 19, 2015 By JOHN V. SANTORE, Staff Writer
ATLANTIC CITY — At his official State of the City presentation Wednesday, Mayor Don Guardian pledged to “do everything humanly possible to avoid a property tax increase in 2015.”
The official budget he’ll present in June will come in at $235 million, a $30 million drop compared with 2014.
Guardian reiterated the size of the challenge the city faces, noting that its total property value will soon be assessed at $7.35 billion, down from a high of about $20 billion.
In the face of that decline, the city underspent its 2014 budget by $10 million, he said, a savings that can be applied to cash-flow needs in the coming year.
Guardian said city staffing will have been reduced by 200 positions as of June, but he added that the quality of municipal services isn’t suffering due to increases in efficiency that are simultaneously reducing costs.
The mayor highlighted official statistics showing drops in crime along with fewer public complaints lodged against the police. By the end of March, the city will have 285 active police officers, Guardian said, down from 330. All patrolling officers will receive body cameras, while a new computer system will allow the department to prioritize resources in real time, he said. Guardian said that starting this year, the municipal court will operate 8-10 hours a day, four days a week, allowing officers to return to street patrol on the fifth day.
Addressing the city’s debt remains a major budgetary issue, the mayor said. He supported state legislation that would redirect casino taxes to debt service, and noted that the city will soon attempt a $52 million bond sale covering the $12 million it recently borrowed and the $40 million it owes back to the state by March 31.
Guardian praised new development initiatives, such as those taken on by Stockton University, Boraie Development LLC, and Bass Pro Shops, that he said are needed to create new jobs while increasing the city’s tax base.
But he also argued that new forms of state assistance are critical to Atlantic City’s solvency. As he has in the past, Guardian took the argument beyond the payment in lieu of taxes legislation currently before the Legislature, which he again said is critical. He said Atlantic City receives far less than many other municipalities in school and budgetary aid and noted that more money from its room, luxury and parking taxes should be returned to the municipality generating them.
“Atlantic City isn’t a step child,” Guardian said, adding even during the previous, “terrible” year, the city still brought in $700 million in taxes, and about $9 billion in gambling taxes since 1978.
“We’re not asking for a buyout,” Guardian said. “We’re asking for a little of that $700 million to come back to Atlantic City.”
Council President Frank Gilliam offered support for Guardian’s presentation but said the council must continue to look for further ways to cut the 2015 budget. He said council aims to put forward its own budget in March, before emergency manager Kevin Lavin produces his findings.
In other business, the council passed three ordinances connected to development of the Steel Pier, the North Inlet and the former firehouse at Atlantic and Connecticut avenues.
Steel Pier owner Anthony Catanoso’s long-announced plans include construction of an observation wheel and the expansion of attractions onto the beachfront adjacent to the pier, while the North Inlet and Gardner’s Basin have been described as the potential home of restaurants and seafront businesses reminiscent of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Mark Callazzo, the CEO of Alpha Funding Solutions and the owner of the Atlantic City Bottle Company and The Iron Room, has said he’s looking to buy the disused firehouse, turning it into the host of both refurbished apartments and, on the first floor, a craft beverage manufacturer.
First Ward Councilman Aaron Randolph, along with At-Large Councilman Moisse Delgado, emphasized that any future development plans for the firehouse are still in the discussion phase. Both said the ultimate use of the property must be approved by the community and said they will solicit public feedback on the issue.
Councilman George Tibbitt introduced three ordinances that would restructure the Beach Patrol. Former Chief Rod Aluise, who has retired, would not be replaced, saving the city more than $100,000 annually in salary and benefits, Tibbitt said. The ordinances would also put the patrol under the Fire Department, he said, part of an overall plan that would produce what Tibbitt called “a very considerable savings.”
Breaking with tradition, council also voted to strip its members’ right to the full-time use of city cars. Members may now only borrow cars for specific tasks, and must return them once those tasks have been completed.
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