Atlantic City mayor slams state's plan for tourism district

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Cal Mazzo, 83, of Reading, Pa., takes a cigar break on the boardwalk after playing in an Atlantic City casino. File. (Akira Suwa/Inquirer)

ATLANTIC CITY - Mayor Lorenzo Langford railed against state lawmakers and the Christie administration Thursday as leaving local officials "out of the loop" as they plan a new tourism district in the cash-strapped resort.

At a news conference at his office, Langford said he would not allow the state to "ride roughshod over us in an attempt to force their agenda down our throat."

The plan would direct resources toward the city's visitors, most of whom are white, at the expense of the city's predominantly nonwhite population, he charged.

Langford, a Democrat, said he was particularly concerned that police resources would be siphoned from neighborhoods plagued by serious crime, such as assault and murder, to control panhandling and nuisance violations on the Boardwalk.

The city laid off 60 police officers this year, 17 of whom were rehired. Christine Petersen, director of public safety, said she estimated that the tourism district would require 100 additional officers at an expense to the city of roughly $1.5 million.

"Are we saying that we care about tourists but the residents can go to hell?" Langford said.

Langford threatened a lawsuit on constitutional grounds, but added, "I hope it doesn't come to that."

Reached after the news conference, state officials said Langford had made little effort to be part of the discussion in Trenton concerning legislation about the proposed tourism district.

"The mayor has never called me once," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a prime sponsor of the bill. "He's never attempted to reach out to me."

Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), who sponsored the Assembly version, said that he had a productive conversation with Langford just before Christmas, but that the mayor had not testified on the bill.

Atlantic City has struggled, losing revenue and jobs, since Pennsylvania opened its first casino in November 2006.

The Legislature has proposed several bills aimed at drawing visitors and investors to the city. Most notable is one that would create a state-run tourism district to be overseen by the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The Senate version, which reflects many of the recommendations that Gov. Christie made for the city in July, was passed this month.

The bill calls for the reinvestment authority to assume planning and zoning control over the region. Langford called the proposal a "thinly veiled scheme to create a gravy train of graft for out-of-town professionals."

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the mayor was "premature in his complaints" and called his timing "mystifying." The governor's staff has set up meetings with Langford next week, he said.

"I think the mayor needs to watch it a little bit, given the history of leadership there," he said, referring to an audit by the state comptroller released last year that showed $23 million in waste over two years. That report prompted Christie to urge Langford in January to "get his house in order."

On Thursday, Langford listed a number of ideas he would like to see in plans for the tourism district:

Allow casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes, referred to as PILOTs, at the rate of 85 percent of the average between the 2004 assessment on a property and the most recent assessment. That would save casinos on their taxes and save the city the cost of tax appeals.

Charge a $1 room tax on properties with 200 rooms or more. The money would be used to pay for lifeguards on the beaches, upgrades to lighting on the Boardwalk, and code inspections at casinos.

Provide money for Atlantic City to hire more police officers to patrol the tourism district. That could come from a $30 million subsidy the casinos no longer will be required to pay to the horse-racing industry.

Give the city jurisdiction over Boardwalk Hall and staff it with city employees.

Create a city wage tax whose proceeds would be used to slow infrastructure deterioration that Langford said was "vastly accelerated by commuters and tourists." The tax would be aimed at people who work in Atlantic City but do not live there. The mayor did not offer a specific tax level, and city Business Administrator Michael Scott said he had not projected how much money might be collected.

Langford called on Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic), a sponsor of the tourism district bill and a former Atlantic City mayor, to introduce legislation to create the municipal wage tax. Whelan, in an interview, declined to say whether he would consider it. He said several of Langford's proposals would be looked at.

Sweeney said yesterday that he would not pursue a wage tax on nonresident casino workers, whose industry has been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Asked whether he thought local officials had been given a seat at the planning table, Whelan deflected the question.

"I think we should be focusing on what we need to do, what are the specific things we need to do, to turn around the slide" of Atlantic City, he said. "I'm not so much focused on who has come to the dance late or who called who or who didn't call who."

 


Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy

at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.