Gov. Chris Christie signs financial rescue package for Atlantic City

Republican Gov. Chris Christie has signed a package of bills to keep financially troubled Atlantic City from running out of cash.

The Democratic-led Assembly and Senate approved the measures by wide margins Thursday just as the state's 127 miles of beaches prepared for Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. Christie said the bills give him the authority he needs.

Christie said the new laws will give him the authority to reform Atlantic City's "overblown municipal government."

The deal reached this week ended a nearly five-month-long political fight that pushed the resort city toward bankruptcy and spared it from an immediate state takeover for at least five months. The city government has five months to draw up plans to balance its books over the next five years, Christie said.

"For Atlantic City officials, the final countdown starts today," he said. "They now have 150 days to develop and implement fiscally responsible reforms and finally meet the obligations of every other municipal government in our state."

Atlantic City has had a state monopoly on casinos, but its tax base has contracted since four of its 12 casinos closed. Its Republican mayor, Don Guardian, called the deal "huge."

"We want people to know the shore is open for business," he said.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto hailed the legislative passage as an improvement over an earlier Senate- and Christie-backed bill that would have provided for an immediate takeover.

Under the legislation, casinos will not be allowed to opt out of a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan, even if voters authorize casinos in northern New Jersey.

Atlantic City will get temporary loans of $30 million for the remainder of this year, $30 million to be applied to leftover debt from last year and another $15 million for next year. The city also would be able to get at least $120 million each year from casinos under a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan that would last for 10 years.

It also could offer early retirement to its workers and retain its collective bargaining rights.

The impasse surrounded the harsher provisions of a Senate aid package that originally would have allowed the state to seize control of Atlantic City's finances and major decision-making powers, including the right to unilaterally break union contracts, in just over four months.

The state still can wield that power, but only after its community affairs department determines the plan Atlantic City comes up with is not workable. The city would be able to appeal that determination to the courts before the state can take over.
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