Joseph D. Rush, Jr. joined the beach patrol in Atlantic City when qualifying tests were conducted in stormy weather at sea to judge an applicant’s mettle, local Republican leaders signed off on each hire and lifeguards attended movies free by flashing their badge. He retired in 2000 with an annual lifeguard’s pension of $30,000.
That’s right, lifeguard pension. It’s one of those relics from the lavish and loud Prohibition-era Atlantic City depicted in television and film. Despite just a four-month beach season and a battered casino industry, lifeguards who work 20 years, the last 10 of them consecutively, still qualify at age 45 for pensions equal to half their salaries. When they die, the payments continue to their dependents.
About 100 ex-lifeguards and survivors collected anywhere from $850 to $61,000 from the city’s general fund last year, according to public records. In all, it comes to $1 million this year. That’s a significant chunk of cash for a municipal government with annual revenue of about $262 million and, more importantly, it’s emblematic of the city’s broader struggle to downsize spending and contain a budget deficit that has soared as the local economy collapsed.
Kevin Lavin, the emergency manager appointed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to stabilize the finances of the city of 39,000, has cited lifeguard pensions as a possible item for “shared sacrifice” in a community already forced to fire workers and raise taxes. He intends to reveal more about his plans in a report that could come as early as this week.
Retired lifeguards don’t intend to sit idly by and watch their pensions carried away by the political and economic tide.
“We worked under the precept that we were going to get a pension, and that’s a certain amount of money,” said the 84- year-old Rush. “I’m not responsible for the mismanagement of the politicians, and I’m not responsible for the casinos leaving.”
As formerly-bankrupt Detroit was home to auto making, Atlantic City for decades was a one-industry gaming haven, the Las Vegas of the East Coast. Along the marina and beaches, patrolled by lifeguards, casinos shook money loose from their guests, generating a bounty for the city to subsidize the pensions for the part-timers and bankroll a municipal workforce well above the national average.
Today, the junk-rated city, where more than a third of its residents live in poverty, is struggling to avoid bankruptcy. Four ocean-side casinos -- one in three -- shuttered last year. Its tax base has eroded by 64 percent over the past five years. Investors in May demanded a lofty 7.75 percent yield on bonds maturing in 2040 even though the state could divert aid to make the payments if needed. The city closed a $101 million deficit this year partly by plugging in casino revenue it hasn’t received yet.
“Cities on a downward spiral have these legacy costs that are very difficult to eliminate,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal research in New York at Evercore Wealth Management, which oversees $5.9 billion in investments. “There are only so many people you can fire.”
Atlantic City, developed as a resort community in 1854, drew revelers long before its first casino opened in 1978. People eager to escape the stifling summer heat of nearby cities such as Philadelphia thronged its beaches, and drank and gambled illegally in back rooms during the Prohibition era with the complicity of city officials.