OCEAN CITY — The Inlet parking lot fee increase may have been the big item on the most recent list of cost cutting/revenue enhancement ideas laid out by City Manager Dennis Dare this week, but he says that list is more than likely to keep growing over the next few months.
In addition to the new flat rate of $1.50 per hour (off-season) and $2.50 per hour (in-season) parking rates at the Inlet lot, Dare proposed a number of other ideas on Tuesday to the Mayor and City Council.
Some were welcomed with other arms, while others were given a proverbial eye roll.
While the council voted to go forward with Dare’s recommendations to hike the Inlet parking lot fees and reduce the lighting by a half in the off-season on the same lot by simply unscrewing every other lighting fixture (thus saving the town almost $4,000 in the electric bill), and to lease out the operations of the Boardwalk cottage and the Inlet toll booths to a private staffing company, rather than hiring city employees to manage them, the council turned down the idea to trim the lighting on the Boardwalk and to franchise the rights to serve food and beverages on the public beach to oceanfront hotels and condominiums.
In addition, Dare was instructed by the council to move forward but continue to develop his ideas of trimming one or two days from the amount of holidays granted to city employees and to franchise the taxi service provided in Ocean City.
“I don’t want us to have to raise taxes,” said Dare. “I would much rather lower operational costs and the recent signs that we’ve been getting are showing us that the next property assessment could be as bleak or even worse as the one we received last year. We don’t think the assessments are going to be funding a recovery in Ocean City anytime soon, so we have to prepare.”
Dare said the town is faced with doing the same work and providing the same service with “less money”, citing a 6-percent drop in property tax revenue and much of the $2.7 million in savings garnered from last year’s budget surplus being a result of “one-time cuts.”
The town successfully trimmed the trash pick-up schedule last winter and that will continue, while department heads shifted employees and in the case of the public works department, revamped the entire pecking order to absorb the sting left by last year’s hiring freeze, which currently leaves the town with more than 30 vacant spots.
Dare said that in addition to the ideas pitched on Tuesday, that over the course of the next several months, he will be bringing back ideas that were turned down last year, such as trimming the off-season bus service and the looming need to repair the city’s famous Boardwalk.
“We are going to have to do some serious work to the Boardwalk in the next few years as a lot of the foundation has been there since 1962,” said Dare. “As for the bus schedules and other ideas, my job is to give them facts and figures and my resulting recommendations based on those facts and figures. So, maybe things that they turned down last year, they might have a change of heart on this time around.”
Yet, council was not interested in the $9,600 that would have been saved by simply darkening every other light on the Boardwalk in the offseason.
“My gut tells me that we need that lighting down there to deter crime,” said Councilman Jim Hall. “Having all the lights on down there saves us from other problems occurring.”
The beach franchise idea, according to Dare, would have allowed food and alcoholic beverages to be served through a lease or franchise agreement with individual oceanfront hotels.
Dare said that there are already two (the Clarion-Fountainbleau Resort and the Castle in the Sand) who are allowed to do so, as they technically own the beach in front of their hotels, and he felt that there could be a revenue stream of at least $150,000 by allowing the other seven oceanfront hotels to franchise a similar deal.
Yet, the mayor was adamant that even though the money might be nice in that case, it wasn’t the proper message to send.
“I don’t think it’s a step that we need to take for the small amount of money and the large amounts of problems that it could create,” said Meehan. “It’s not fair for our beach patrol to have to deal with all that could come along if we allow alcohol to be spread up and down our beaches.”
Dare did get some support on the idea, most notably from Councilman Jim Hall, who cited that he would have voted for the move because it was something that other leading resorts offer to their guests.
Yet, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said that going against the grain in this case in Ocean City was a part of the town’s allure.
“I think that people appreciate the fact that they don’t have to have their kids watch people drink all day long on our public beaches,” she said.
On another issue, town employees currently get 12 days off for holidays, as opposed to 11 in the county and 10 nationwide. As a result, Dare petitioned to either trim a day off near Christmas or the 4th of July.
Although council agreed with the idea, Dare was sent back to the employees to take a poll of what day they would like to see trimmed.
“We basically would get a productive days’ work out of this, and it essentially costs $130,000 a day in payroll to run this city,” said Dare. “In seeing how many days off we get as opposed to federal and county and state, we realize we should probably cut it back at least to 11.”
Despite other cuts sure to be on the way, the council did get a nod of good news on Tuesday, as the a large portion of the $500,000 removed from the employee retirement health benefits to lower the tax rate last year was recouped.
Finance Administrator Martha Lucey said that the total recommended by the pension trustees for the town’s funding of the general and public safety employee pensions was $437,000 less than what was budgeted in this year’s budget.
As a result, Lucey said she recommended the town take $400,000 and refund what was used to lower the tax rate last year.
“We knew that we could find the money, but we still have to come up with another $100,000 by June,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “We are going to continue to keep looking everywhere we can to find ways to save money and create new revenues.”