Sixth time's the charm for A.C. Council water vote

In 2006, airplanes sit on the tarmac at Bader Field in Atlantic City.

The sixth time was the charm for Atlantic City in the city's agonizing attempts to monetize its coveted water works.

After five failed attempts to dissolve the Municipal Utility Authority (MUA), the council voted 5-4 Wednesday evening to approve a new plan: to sell the city's defunct Bader Field airport to the authority for $110 million.

"This is really critical," said Mayor Don Guardian.

The city is attempting to scare up funds and fend off a threatened state takeover.

The city will release a required five year recovery plan on Monday, said City Council President Marty Small. It is attempting to plug a $100 million budget gap and shore up long term finances that have been decimated by the cratering casino industry. The city's ratables have plummeted from $20 billion in 2010 to about $6 billion currently.

Small said the deal with the MUA was part of an attempt to rescue the city from fiscal calamity and a state takeover. 

"We’re trying to save the city of Atlantic City for the people," he said. "You’d rather deal with us, like us or not  than have Chris Christie or his administration wreak havoc on the town."

Guardian said the city sent a revised budget to the state as requested. The recovery plan, prepared with the assistance of three public finance firms, will be presented to the public at a special council meeting 5 p.m. Monday, ten days earlier than required by the law.

Guardian said the timing was planned to require the state to act on the five year plan before election day. The state has five days to approve or reject the plan once submitted. If the state rejects the plan, it can move to seize city assets and take over government functions.

"I don't think you want to be taking over an urban city and playing with constitutional rights before an election," Guardian said.

Guardian said that despite the contentious relationship with the state, he is hopeful the state will approve the plan because it was prepared with the very kind of consultants that the state would itself employ in a takeover of the city.

"The plan has to make sense technically - it's got to work," Guardian said. "This is the plan they'd come up with."

Guardian said the MUA would most likely raise commercial water rates to help finance the purchase, in addition to selling municipal bonds.

City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said the Bader Field-MUA deal accomplished two objectives: keeping the authority in public hands and helping to put the city on "sound financial footing."

Councilman George Tibbitt said there was still uncertainty about the Bader Field deal. "Right now, we don't even know if this is a legal deal," he said. He noted that a recent auction produced a top bid of $50 million for Bader Field. The 140-acre property once fetched an offer of $850 million.

Small said the Bader Field-MUA deal gives the city “a fighting chance ...that will get us out of this rut.”

He said rates would inevitably rise, but that the hope was the burden would fall on commercial customers, not residents.

Some members of the public expressed skepticism of the MUA deal. "The $100 million number sounds nice," said Imam Amin Muhammad. "The question is where is it going. Who’s really behind these big multimillion deals. It definitely isn’t the residents."

The MUA has been the subject of much debate as at least two private firms with political ties have expressed interest in purchasing the water authority. The city is required by law to monetize the authority, and Guardian initially sought to turn it into a city department. There were also discussions of doing a deal with the county's Utility Authority.

Guardian said seven cost-saving contracts are expected to be approved with its public unions. The contracts were originally due to be voted on by Council, but the police union had not yet finished voting at the time of the meeting.

Council also approved outsourcing payroll services for a savings of $200,000.

Councilman Frank Gilliam objected to the lack of public hearings on the actions, including the sale of Bader Field. He objected to the deal as "borrowing from ourselves, adding another deficit to our budget."

Approving the sale were Councilmen Shabazz, Small, Aaron Randolph, William Marsh and Jesse Kurtz. Randolph has previously abstained from MUA votes because he is an MUA employee.

Voting no were Gilliam, Tibbitt, Jimmy Cheng and Moise Delgado.

The sale must still be approved by the state. Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Community Affairs, said the state had no comment.

The meeting ended in contention, however, as council failed to muster enough votes to pass a temporary budget that would have authorized $1.3 million for improvements to Brown's Park, and also allow the city police to accept a $23,000 federal grant for body armor replacement.

Council has declined to adopt these temporary budgets before, and then reversed course, but Atlantic City Police Chief Henry White expressed frustration after the meeting and said the vote could lead to officers working with defective equipment.

   "We have a rotation," he said, of the need for the grant. He also said there were Class 2 officers being hired who would need equipment paid for with the grant. An Atlantic City Police officer was shot and wounded last month while breaking up a robbery.