By Hilary Russ
TRENTON, N.J. (Reuters) - New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney said on Tuesday the state should take over Atlantic City and, if it does not, he would support a bankruptcy filing for the gambling hub.
Sweeney and two other state senators said they planned to introduce legislation that would give the state even more control of the city's financial management. Sweeney did not provide further details during a press event on Tuesday.
The city must already have its budget and hiring approved by a state board, has a state monitor and is overseen by Emergency Manager Kevin Lavin, appointed by Governor Chris Christie nearly a year ago.
A spokesman for Lavin said the emergency manager did not have a comment on Sweeney's plan.
Sweeney said more control is necessary because Mayor Don Guardian and the city council have not done enough to reduce the size of government, despite layoffs that have already occurred.
The legislature has been finalizing legislation calling for casinos to make set payments in lieu of taxes. That is aimed at stabilizing Atlantic City's tax base, which has been eviscerated by casinos' declining value because of competition from neighboring states.
Lawmakers are growing tired of working on that and other measures to help Atlantic City while suggestions that would reduce costs or create revenue - such as selling the city's water utility - remain unrealized, Sweeney said.
Atlantic City has about 39,000 residents but an operating budget of about $262 million. That equals $6,717 per person, which is "completely unacceptable and unsustainable," Sweeney said.
Newark's budget, by comparison, costs about $2,736 per person and Paterson's about $1,700, he said.
If the legislature does not act on the forthcoming plan quickly, "I will support a declaration of bankruptcy for Atlantic City," Sweeney said. "We have to do what needs to be done to bring financial stability and responsibility to the city."
An aid to Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian did not immediately reply to a request for comment. But Guardian said the proposals for a state takeover or bankruptcy was "Atlantic City's Pearl Harbor," according to the Associated Press.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Andrew Hay)