OCEAN CITY — Balancing the budget might be the most difficult task the Mayor and City Council has to undertake each year; Yet with 2009’s economic forecast looking anything but sunny, is the task facing local government more like: Mission: Impossible?
Mayor Rick Meehan said that the 2009 Ocean City budget, like every year, must be at the top of the priority list.
“The City Manager (Dennis Dare) has already been proactive at making necessary cuts and I think that is the right move. There will be difficult decisions ahead of us as we are forced to reevaluate the services that we provide the citizens of Ocean City in light of this economy,” said Meehan.
Dare put Ocean City on a “spending diet” in November cutting $1.4 million in spending off the bat, much of it perks enjoyed by town employees and staff, and has followed that in recent weeks with proposed cuts that are starting to hit citizens a little closer to home, such as the proposed trimming of the bus service, trash pickup and handicapped ADA bus service.
Though Dare has received help from City Engineer Terry McGean as well as Public Works Director Hal Adkins on the cuts, he conceded in a recent interview that some of the toughest cuts might be upcoming.
“Anytime you make cuts, you are going to upset some people, and we are just at the beginning here. We are trying to make cuts that can be a long-term benefit to the town. We need a lifestyle change, not a fad diet,” Dare said. “Sometimes it’s not what you can afford to do, it’s what you can afford not to do.”
Meehan realized that changes should be made, but the town must not make changes that affect its main draw.
“Tourism is our only industry, and we have to make sure that we balance the changes that we are making to protect our industry. I think everyone is encouraged that we are making cuts, and I think the public knows that they have a government that is willing to fight for them and their best interests,” said Meehan.
Council President Joe Mitrecic said that the upcoming budget might be the most challenging.
“With the exception of Rick (Meehan) and Jim (Hall), who served on the council back in the 80s when there was absolutely no growth, this is probably the toughest budget year that anyone on the council has ever sat through,” Mitrecic said.
Another challenge that might face the council is the divide within the new council itself. There seems to be a 4-3 split thus far since the October election that saw Joe Hall return to the council after a two-year absence, Mary Knight and Jim Hall get re-elected, and Doug Cymek gain a seat on the council in his third try.
The council has essentially been split on a number of recent issues including the controversial decision to grant ad agency MGH a $178,000 redesign of the town website and the recent talks concerning the convention center upgrade with Margaret Pillas, Joe Hall and Jim Hall holding the opposition votes in many cases.
Pillas said that the three are not in opposition of the “pace of change” but are concerned with the “process.” Jim Hall has been quite vocal in recent meetings contesting when plans are presented to the council and when he is asked to vote on those issues, often feeling that decisions are trying to be rushed through.
Two weeks ago, the council heard the first phase of a proposal to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center when a motion approving the $5 million upgrade to the facility was laid on the table. Hall quickly threw up the caution flag.
“A week ago, I heard about these plans for the first time, and now you want me to vote for it, I’m not even through the report yet. I think we need to discuss this further, said Hall.
Joe Hall sent a public letter to the press and members of local government last week asking for support in his quest to lower the constant yield tax by two cents. Hall also called out to the public to be vocal in letting government know just how much citizens are willing to give up in essential services during Dare’s ongoing budget cuts, saying, “we maintain the highest levels of services, and to maintain the services at the current levels, taxes will have to be raised, and I don’t think it’s the time to raise taxes.”
Despite the divide in the council, Meehan stressed that the task at hand for the group far outweighs the differing opinions.
“I think everyone is very anxious to be recognized and have their thoughts read in the papers, but in the long run, it takes eight people working together to get anything done, and we will get judged on the job we do, not what our opinions are,” said Meehan.
Mitrecic said that the divided council could simply be a public misconception.
“Since the election, there are probably more things that we’ve been unanimous on then divided on. We remain split on big ticket items, but that’s probably a good thing and means that everyone is doing their homework and bringing a strong opinion to the table.” he said.
Mitrecic hopes the council will “put to bed one way or another” the convention center issue “early in the year” and handle the tough upcoming budget as a cohesive unit.
“That’s why the people of Ocean City elects seven different people, for the difference in opinions. If an issue doesn’t pass that I voted for, then it probably wasn’t the time to do it,” said Mitrecic.
The one thing that everyone does agree on is that Ocean City must “tighten its belt” in lieu of the failing economy, but Meehan thinks that standing idle is the wrong thing to do.
“When times are tough, you can’t just do nothing. We have to always be retooling the way we do things and what we have to offer to our visitors,” the mayor said. “We not only need to look at how the city spends money, but the public needs to look at how they spend theirs.”
Meehan says that he expects the January public hearing that will determine whether the bus service will be trimmed is going to be “extremely sensitive” but stated that he has heard no major complaints thus far about the budget cuts.
“Our residents are our partners, and I think everyone is encouraged that we are making cuts and necessary changes like our new website that will really pay benefits this year and take Ocean City to a new level,” Meehan said.
There may be a divide in the new council, and a difference in opinion on which direction the town should proceed in light of the economy, but perhaps Joe Hall’s recent letter inadvertently captured the essence of both sides of the argument.
“Change is hard and naturally resisted, even though it can be better for all of us. Please remember there is no reward with out responsible risk taking,” said Hall.