OCEAN CITY – The ongoing cost cutting measures that local government continues to implement throughout Ocean City have begun to move toward rate increases for several services and beloved amenities.
A number of things were proposed by City Manager Dennis Dare in his continuing hopes to “right size” the way Ocean City does business, most notably, raised parking fees at the Inlet lot and downtown streets, and a change in the age limit allowed for free passage into the Winterfest of Lights.
Residents and visitors of Ocean City will have to dig a little bit deeper to park in the Inlet lot and on downtown streets after the City Council voted to raise the rates to $2.25 at the Inlet lot in the summer season.
“It’s prime parking spaces, and it’s been the same rate for six years,” said Dare. “Six years ago, we established a shoulder season rate and an in-season rate and a weekday and weekend rate, and the differential rate is 50 cents on the weekend and weekdays. Our proposal is to do away with weekday and weekend rates, as we feel every day in the summer is a weekend type of activity, so we would keep those rates constant, making it less confusing, and of course, create additional revenue.”
According to Dare, an across-the-board change in rate structure at the Inlet lot during the “summer” season of April 15-Oct. 15, will generate about $900,000 annually.
Despite the additional revenue that would be accrued by the raise, Councilman Jim Hall was still quite skeptical about a rate raise.
“You are asking to extract from the visitors almost another million dollars, and I’m worried that you are pricing us out again and that you are running people away, and that it’s just too expensive to come to Ocean City. You are asking to generate another million dollars out of that parking lot, but you are telling me that the use of the lot is down almost 8 percent,” Hall said.
Dare attributed the usage decrease to less people and shorter stays in town.
“Parking revenue has been pretty static. Some of the revenue decreased for parking this year, and we attribute that to a lot of 24-hour visitors on holiday weekends and we didn’t have that this year,” said Dare.
Gibbs defended the change calling every day in the summer time a “weekend day” and added that the change in weekday rates were due to the fact that Wednesday has historically been on of the lot’s busiest days.
“We run one rate from Monday through Thursday and run the increased rate on weekends, so the increased revenue would come from Monday through Thursday. Our existing rate is $2 and the parking lot does very well and fills up on weekends. In essence, we are only raising it a little, but not very much,” said Gibbs.
Mayor Rick Meehan noted that the Inlet parking lot is a service that people don’t have to use, but noted its bargain type value for day visitors to Ocean City and the necessity for additional revenue.
“Some of the people that use the lot are simply just here for the day,” Meehan said. “They aren’t staying in hotels, and really, that’s a small amount to pay to enjoy the beach and the amenities on the Boardwalk and park on that prime piece of parking real estate.”
Meehan also added that costs to maintain the beach and the amenities on the Boardwalk, such as restrooms, have gone up over the years, despite the Inlet lot having the same rate for six years. He claimed that, “we want to keep the same level of service and appearance that people have come to expect from the Boardwalk.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight contested that the change shouldn’t be huge factor for visitors, saying, “I don’t think that someone’s key decision to come to Ocean City is whether they are going to pay $2.25 vs. $2, so I’m in strong support of this.”
The other raise in parking fees fall on the “Cale” pay stations that sit on downtown streets. Dare said the parking fees of $1 per hour have been in place for 10 years, and the proposed rise will be to $1.25 per hour. Gibbs noted that visitors were getting a bargain for parking for quite some time.
“We don’t think the 25-cent raise per hour on the Cale pay machines is unreasonable because it’s comparable to other resorts like Bethany Beach,” said Gibbs.
Meehan added that the Cale pay machines are allowing people to only pay for the time that they use, thus lowering fines and simplifying the issue.
“It all comes down to the user pays, and we’ve made it much more user friendly. If the user doesn’t pay, the taxpayers will have to if we don’t get additional revenue, so I think the new charges are fair,” he said.
Dare added that a general rule of thumb, or perhaps good business practice for a municipality, is to not have your parking fees lower than the price of mass transit, so the $2.25 parking rate could generate income in other areas, most notably, the bus.
“I think this may encourage people to use the bus more often which would cut down on traffic,” said Councilman Lloyd Martin, “I don’t see it harming a whole lot with the rate change, because it makes us comparable with other places.”
Councilman Joe Hall argued that perhaps October should be eliminated from requiring people to pay for parking as a way to offset the raise, but supported the proposal in the end.
“I believe in paying for parking, and I think we have one of the most affordable parking systems around, but I look forward to how we will apply this new found revenue, but that’s another discussion,” Joe Hall said.
Another notable change proposed on Tuesday included lowering the age limit for free entry to Winterfest of Lights to 10 years of age. Currently, children under 12 get in for free, and with the new changes, anyone 10 or older will pay the $4 price of admission, and that change will reportedly will generate another $20,000 in admission fees.
Camp Horizon’s free bus service was proposed several months ago to be eliminated, but after some backlash from the users of the summer pick-up and drop-off camper bus, the town decided to keep the service, and will charge $15 per week and cap the number of riders at 39. The service will continue to be on a first-come, first-serve basis, and they will utilize a town-owned bus, rather than the pricey County buses used in past years.
In addition, the council decided against putting some town-owned Equivalent Dwelling Units (EDUs) in West Ocean City on the real estate market.
“This is not the time to sell these valuable pieces of land. It makes no sense,” said Jim Hall. “The market is at rock bottom and I don’t want to give away our gold coins for a quarter.”
The EDUs in question include five at the park-n-ride in West Ocean City, and one on the Route 611 corridor.