OCEAN CITY — Motorists hoping to park at Ocean City’s Inlet lot will have to dig a little deeper next year, as City Council unanimously approved a rate increase on Tuesday.
Although it’s been debated and talked about in recent months, leading many to believe that a rate increase at the Inlet parking lot was perhaps inevitable, the council finally put the speculation to bed this week, approving one of City Manager Dennis Dare’s three possible recommendations considering fee increases at the oceanfront parking lot at the Ocean City Inlet.
The City Council had passed on an opportunity last year to raise the rates, and several council members have conceded since that it was a mistake to hold the proverbial price point at the town’s most prime parking lot.
Coincidentally, the council did not make the same mistake twice, as the added revenue projected from the change in April 2010 is well over a half a million dollars.
“We should have done this last year, but we missed our shot to increase revenue when we really need it,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “Anyone who follows things closely knows that the price to park on the Inlet lot has always been a bargain, and the full lot all summer proves that, but with many of our neighboring resorts raising their parking fees, we can’t ignore that option in these times.”
The new Inlet parking lot rate structure will be new flat rates (seven days a week) of $1.50 per hour in the off-season (April 15-Memorial Day and Labor Day to Oct. 15) and $2.50 per hour during the summer months (Memorial Day to Labor Day), eliminating the differentiating fee structure that set one price for the week and another for the weekend by essentially raising the current rates by 50 cents.
The Inlet lot brought in over $1.8 million in revenue last year, and that number is expected to increase by approximately $650,000, according to City Engineer Terry McGean on Wednesday.
Dare said he was pleased with the council’s nod of approval and tried to dispel any public uproar that could occur from raised rates by repainting the gloomy economic picture for the residents and visitors of Ocean City.
“We’ve got a long haul ahead of us and it is important that we make preparations for the tough times ahead or we prepare to be sorry,” said Dare. “The $650,000 would account for half a penny in the tax rate, and we could either raise the tax rate or we could raise the parking lot fees to a very competitive rate.”
Dare says that the town essentially goes into this year’s budget process “$500,000 in the hole” pointing to the dollars that the town must allocate to the beach replenishment fund, which will be largely drained this year to repair the damages from the recent Nor’Ida storm.
“In order for me to formulate a workable budget to present to the Mayor and City Council, we’ve got to find a way wherever we can to either reduce our operational costs or increase revenue,” said Dare. “I’m looking for pennies, which eventually add up to dollars, so when you get a chance to add $650,000 to the bottom line, you kind of have to take it.”
Mayor Rick Meehan seemed to favor keeping a tiered system of rate structure, thus playing into the weekday deal packages that many Ocean City hotels and businesses are offering. Yet, he thought the council voted wisely in this instance.
“We have always tried to be conservative with our parking lot fee structure, but in 2010, with everything that we are facing in the economy, and taking into account the fact that many of our neighboring competitors are also raising their parking fees, I think this change is justifiable,” said Meehan.
The raise in parking lot fees might be the first of many revenue increase or cost cutting measures pitched by Dare in upcoming months, after the council passed through a semi-annual budget review last year, based on the success of the $2.7 million budget surplus that was gained from last season’s “trimming of the low hanging fruit”, as per the words of the city manager.
Still, town officials realize that as vital as it is for them to cut costs and add revenue in the harsh economic climate, visitors and residents may not welcome the additional cost with open arms.
“Look, we aren’t here to gouge anyone with prices to park your car,” said Mitrecic. “I don’t want anyone to remember their trip to Ocean City based solely on how much it cost, but if you look at prime parking spots like the Inlet lot in other areas of the country, they charge a lot more than $2.50 an hour.”
Locally, Dewey Beach, Rehoboth Beach, and Bethany Beach in Delaware all ushered in parking fee increases prior to last summer, but all rates are below $2 per hour.
Meehan mirrored Mitrecic’s sentiments, but added that additional operational costs also needed to be taken into account.
“We’ve seen much more long-term usage of the Inlet lot, and it’s causing us more maintenance fees as a result,” said Meehan. “Some people are going down there first thing in the morning and spending the entire day and night down there in the same spot and that causes us to have to send more people down there to empty the trash and clean up what is left behind in many cases.”