The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the likely extension of the Garden State takeover of Atlantic City, because, as one of our most respected and insightful fiscal experts there, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, put it: it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period. That is, Mr. Pfeiffer believes continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it assures more fiscal discipline will be in place—or, in his own words: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved…The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The Steep Road to Municipal Fiscal Recovery. In the wake of a release of a new state report, “Atlantic City, Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity,” [64-page report]  released by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, a report recommending continuation of the almost two-year-old state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, that state governance now appears likely to last a full five years, due to “longstanding challenges” to New Jersey officials, as recommended by the Governor’s office. While the Governor, in his campaign, had, as part of his platform, a commitment to terminate the state takeover of Atlantic City, now, three-quarters of a year after taking office, the Governor appears likely to leave the state takeover in place—indeed, possibly for an additional three years.

The Murphy Administration has released a plan to assist the city to get back on its fiscal feet, a plan which benefited from input from numerous study groups, task forces, and committees, as well as a redirection of some state government funds to youth programs, and a training program for municipal department heads; that plan does not end the takeover; rather the report recommends keeping the takeover in place for the full five years called for under the 2016 law, unless signal fiscal and financial improvement is put in place before then, including the significant reduction or total elimination of Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid—or, as Gov. Murphy put it: “We had a pretty clear-eyed sense of what the challenge was…That doesn’t mean Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state won’t continue to stay the course and be a partner. We’re not going away; we’re going to go out and executive this plan.”

Under New Jersey’s state takeover law gave the state broad powers, including the right to overturn decisions of the city council, override or even abolish city agencies and seize and sell assets, including Atlantic City’s much-coveted water utility. The statue empowers state overseers, in addition, to hire or fire workers, break union contracts, and restructure Atlantic City’s debt, most of which was done to varying degrees, although no major assets have been sold off.

What Is the City’s Perspective? Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has conceded the uncomfortable governance challenge under the takeover, which was initiated in November of 2016 by former Governor Chris Christie, but he notes that Gov. Murphy’s administration has been willing to listen to concerns and work with city officials, even as it has retained the final governing say-so.

How Can a State Transition Governance Back to a City? Unlike under a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where a federal bankruptcy court has the final say in approving (or not) a plan of debt adjustment under which governance authority reverts back to a municipality’s elected leaders, a state takeover lacks a Betty Crocker cookbook set of instructions. Gov. Murphy’s quasi-emergency manager, Jim Johnson, whom the Governor named to review Atlantic City’s transition back to local control, said the state administration should remain in place for an additional three years, unless Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid has been “substantially reduced or eliminated” and that its municipal workforce is on “solid footing.”  Under the provisions of the state takeover, enacted shortly after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its municipal bond debt, the state was empowered to alter outstanding debt and municipal contracts—or, as Mr. Johnson wrote: “Atlantic City has a set of fiscal, operational, economic and social challenges that will only be resolved with significant direction from, and partnership with the State.”

Focus on the Fiscal Future. Mr. Pfeiffer said it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period, adding that the continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it will assure greater fiscal discipline will be in place, or, as he put it: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved: The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

  • the importance of diversifying Atlantic City’s economy beyond casinos,
  • providing increased training for senior municipal workers, and
  • purchasing data that can better track city services.

Mr. Johnson also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and toward providing increased financial support for youth programming.

Transitioning Back to Local Control. Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam noted: “The citizens of Atlantic City deserve to have their local elected officials control their destiny…I am very optimistic that this is a huge step in the right direction for Atlantic City and its future.” Mr. Johnson, who was a primary challenger to the Gov. two years ago, was named after that election as a special counsel to review the state’s oversight of Atlantic City—and he came somewhat prepared thanks to his previous service as a U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for enforcement under former President Bill Clinton.

Gov. Murphy, who had been critical of the state takeover during his gubernatorial campaign, and who had criticized former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for implementing it without support from former Mayor Donald Guardian, noted: “This is a community that needs the state’s help as a partner, not as a big-footing jamming down, taking away—you know, taxation without representation,” adding: “That doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner.” The Governor, soon after assuming office, had removed former Gov. Christie’s designated takeover manager Jeffrey Chiesa as the state designee to oversee the state role in Atlantic City. It should be noted, as we have previously, that Mr. Chiesa forged a number of settlements on owed casino property tax appeals and effected a $56 million reduction in Atlantic City’s FY2017 budget. All of which brings us back to the wary fiscal trepidation of Mr. Pfeiffer, because Atlantic City’s debt is still in the high risk range so favored by some casino players in the city: a CCC-plus from S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

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