SNOW HILL – A hoped for $7.6 million county grant for the planned downtown Ocean City parking garage will be delayed with county elected officials choosing to wait until the local financial picture clears.
The County Commissioners said this week that no decisions on the massive grant requested by the resort in lieu of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) can be made until the State of Maryland budget cuts are handed down and the county develops its own budget next spring.
Ocean City submitted the grant amount, at the request of the County Commissioners, in place of the TIF proposal the town made to the county earlier this summer. Under the TIF plan, the county would remit half of the property taxes received from Ocean City below Route 50 over the next 10 or 20 years back to the town for the parking garage.
“Ocean City really needs a guarantee and we should put this in our budget right now,” said Commissioner Louise Gulyas, who represents Ocean City.
Gulyas was the lone proponent of the funding, explaining later that she had intended the money to be disbursed incrementally, year by year, and not all at once. She was the only commissioner to vote against the motion to wait.
“I don’t think we can commit anything, not until we find out what the state legislature is going to do and get into our own budget process,” Commissioner Judy Boggs.
Gerry Mason, Worcester County chief administrator, said that Ocean City needed to know the county’s decision because resort officials intend to go before the Maryland General Assembly to request funds.
“Our answer should be, we can’t consider it till we know how much money we have,” said Boggs.
The tax differential legislation proposed by Carol Krimm, owner of a second home in Ocean City, could complicate matters.
“I think we need to know where that’s going till we give huge sums to anyone,” said Commissioner Linda Busick.
Berlin, Snow Hill, and Pocomoke City elected officials do not support the tax differential, Gulyas said.
“That doesn’t mean it’s a dead issue,” said Commission President Jim Purnell.
“It’s still proposed legislation and we need to see where it’s going to,” said Commissioner Bud Church.
Gulyas said her sources say it’s not going to be introduced.
“From talking to some legislators I don’t think it’s going to go,” Gulyas said. “The people who are doing this don’t even live here.”
Busick said Worcester County should not be responsible for 50 percent of the funding of the $14 million parking garage.
“They’re not really asking for 50 percent. They’re asking for greater,” said Harold Higgins, Worcester County finance officer.
The request is actually for 54 percent of the total estimated project cost.
Purnell said the county has to be careful with a school under construction and a school and jail to renovate.
“I don’t think we’re positioned to make any decisions right now,” said Purnell. “We have to be very serious from this point on when you’re talking about all the cuts that will possibly come down from the state.”
The state deficit stands at $1.3 billion.
“The other consideration we have is the Worcester County taxpayer,” said Boggs.
Although the other commissioners get mad when she says it, Gulyas said she felt she had to point out that Ocean City pays the majority of taxes in the county.
The grant amount reflects the tax money funneled to the county from downtown Ocean City, town Engineer Terry McGean said.
Gulyas, who had hoped to get the other commissioners to commit to the funding, saw which way the vote would go in the end.
“I think it’s very important we tell Ocean City we support the garage and when we do our budget this will be uppermost in our mind,” she said.
In a later interview, Gulyas said she thought she had the votes to approve incremental funding for the garage.
“I feel that since tourism is the No. 1 business in the county and since traffic is a major problem in Ocean City we really should support them,” Gulyas said “We can’t have gridlock. That’ll be the ruin of Ocean City.
More parking downtown will speed up the revitalization of the surface streets, what lies beyond the Boardwalk, according to Gulyas.
“In areas of redevelopment, when they have put in parking garages, the area gets new structures, new businesses,” Gulyas said. “The downtown area is changing but this would help to push it along.”
Gulyas said she hopes that her fellow commissioners will be more comfortable with helping out Ocean City once they have a better handle on whatever financial changes might arise.
Meanwhile, the garage plan is at a standstill.
“If that’s put off till spring, I don’t know if we can move forward,” said Glenn Irwin, director of the Ocean City Development Corporation. “We won’t be moving forward without the county’s participation.”
McGean outlined a possible timeline for the project.
“We have conceptual stuff but we do not have complete drawings,” said McGean. “Once we have the funding in place, it would probably take six months in design and then nine to 12 months to build. … Parking garages can go up very quickly.”