Thursday, March 9, 2023
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson is proud of his employees. So when union members recently attended a county commissioners’ meeting to complain about having difficulties making ends meet, he grew more frustrated with the State of New Jersey for the harm it is inflicting on county taxpayers by refusing to honor its Pilot payment obligations.
“The majority of our county employees are Atlantic County taxpayers who are currently owed nearly $10 million in Pilot payments from the state. The state continues to appeal the rulings by two Superior Court judges that it must honor the Consent Order for Settlement. By doing so, it is hindering the county’s ability to provide the same level of programs to help seniors and those in need in addition to the ability to negotiate better wages for the county employees,” explained Levinson.
“It’s time for the state to stop turning its back on Atlantic County taxpayers. The governor represents all state residents and should do the right thing. It is unconscionable what has been allowed to occur.”
Since 2017, Atlantic County has had to fight to receive its fair share of the property taxes paid by the casinos. At least half a dozen times, the state’s own Superior Court judges have ruled against the state and in favor of the county. Yet the state persists in holding back the money it owes by filing appeal after appeal and using taxpayer money to do so.
“How many times does the state have to lose its case in court before it honors its obligations,” questioned Levinson. “And why did the state pay outside counsel when it has its own staff of 1,000 or more attorneys? How much are we all paying for that?”
According to the county executive, the county has been working to raise starting salaries and provide increases to help keep up with the rapidly increasing cost of living. The county is currently involved in negotiations with some of the 23 bargaining units. In addition to their salaries, which average $56,000 for union members as well as management employees, county employees receive a benefits package valued at $36,000 for a family of four of which they contribute a graduated percentage based on their salary. Benefits include paid holidays, sick time, health benefits and a pension.
The county executive acknowledged that the highest inflation in 40 years and the unprecedented increase in state health benefits makes it increasingly challenging for many county employees to keep up. In 2023 county employees will experience a 24% rate increase in state health benefits while state union employees will see only a 3% increase for the same benefits.
“Why should county employees have to be subjected to an increase eight times larger than their state counterparts?
“My job is to look out for the best interests of all county residents which includes our county workforce,” explained Levinson. “That is why I have fought so hard for what is rightfully ours. It is the State of New Jersey that has shown a lack of concern by refusing to speak with us let alone negotiate. Aren’t Atlantic County residents also state residents? Why should we be the only county in the state to bear this burden when all 21 counties benefit from casinos?”
Levinson noted that the 2021 Pilot amendment was promoted as being needed to prevent four casinos from closing and to help all nine casinos recover from the pandemic.
“We now know that was not true, but even if it were, what about all the other businesses that needed help? What was the state willing to do for them? How many businesses closed and never reopened? How many of those employees ended up on the bread lines? No other industry benefited from legislation written specifically for them, if not by them.”
“The Pilot Amendment was the first bill in the history of the New Jersey Legislature to have its own sponsor remove his name and vote against it,” he added. “That certainly has to make you wonder about its merits.”
Levinson concluded by saying he understands his employees’ frustration with having little left after paying rent and bills. What he can’t understand and finds perplexing is why one county commissioner said she was “astounded and embarrassed” to learn of these salaries when she is a member of the commissioners’ budget task force and has been for several years.
“Our employees work hard and deserve better. Enough is enough,” he exclaimed. “Given the state’s $10 billion budget surplus, it’s time to pay Atlantic County what it is owed and prevent any further suffering among the taxpayers and dedicated public employees who help keep the state and county running.”