OCEAN CITY – City Manager Dennis Dare might not be able to predict how bad things are going to get, but he does know this is the toughest the task has ever been.
Dare called the ongoing process to balance the town’s budget and implement cost savings measures throughout Ocean City, “far and away the toughest year that I’ve ever gone through.”
Dare has held the city manager position in Ocean City since 1990, a role that some in the town have likened to a CEO of a corporation. In all, Dare enters his 26th year as an Ocean City employee (he served as city engineer from 1982-1990) and is unsure just how bleak economic times are going to get, and furthermore, what that will mean for Ocean City’s upcoming summer.
“The things going on in the national picture are just unprecedented, and this is a real challenge for everyone involved, but no one is sure how bad things are going to get,” said Dare. “In rethinking the way we do things, we hope to continue to provide good services to the public.”
Dare started working on cost-cutting measures in October and asked all department heads in the town infrastructure to bring possible measures forward. That list has reached 225 items, ranging from the removal of city-funded employee pagers to trimming the citywide trash pickup schedule.
While giving a report to Mayor and City Council last week, Dare said that the cuts were coming to the end of the list, and the next step is heading toward revenue enhancements and fee increases, which admittedly Dare says is often controversial.
“From what I’ve seen in the last two months, the council, with the exception of two minor things, doesn’t seem to want to reduce services in any way. So, if we can’t get the savings there, we’ve got to try to find it somewhere else”, said Dare.
With that in mind, it was not-so-surprising this week when Dare announced that the salaries of all non-union town employees would be frozen through the next fiscal year, and Dare said that the step was kind of inevitable with the council’s reluctance to trimming services like the city bus schedule, which would have saved upwards of $100,000 in the winter months.
“It comes down to people and personnel costs in the end. We’ve kept our employees competitive with other jurisdictions, and we hope we can keep them that way, but timing wise, it was clear and evident that (freezing salaries) was a step that we had to take,” said Dare.
Dare’s position claims the highest salary in the Ocean City employee ranks, ($170,814 gross earnings in 2008), but the City Council made what some could consider a precedent or example out of Dare in recent months by freezing his salary.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, who motioned for Dare’s salary to be frozen, and has been vocal in “getting to the bottom” of all the perks, benefits and salaries given to town employees, called the freeze, “the necessary step to send the right message to the taxpayers.”
The message that Dare says is being sent with this freezing of town salaries is that, “we are trying to do what we can to hold all the costs and the services for the residents and visitors in Ocean City.”
On the other hand, Dare said there is some unnecessary panic going on both locally and nationally.
“I don’t fully understand the Wall Street side of this, but with all this talk of recession everyday, some people are starting to overreact. If everyone is going to be overly conservative out of fear, then what is going to happen,” questioned Dare. “I’m afraid if we get so caught up in the fear aspects of it, our summer might be jeopardized.”
Despite the current hiring freeze that was passed down in the fall, which has left about 26 “very critical positions vacant”, like janitorial and public works positions, Dare said that his main objective is to cut costs but uphold the level of service provided.
One of the things that people love about Ocean City is that it’s clean, and if there are fewer people to do the same job, then service is obviously going to suffer. “My fear is that services that people have come to expect in Ocean City will decline, like the cleanliness of the Boardwalk bathrooms for instance, and we can’t have that,” he said.
Despite freezing Dare’s salary, the Mayor and Council have praised his work during this budget process on several occasions, and though some may experience sticker shock when seeing his annual salary, the tall order that he and other members at City Hall are facing in balancing the budget is understatedly an arduous task.
Yet, Dare has found a sort of silver lining for this summer.
“We may be cutting COLAs and freezing salaries but no one is proposing that we cut advertising, because we need to keep our names at the top of everyone’s list when and if they do decide to vacation this year,” he said. “More than ever, people need to go somewhere to forget about layoffs and 401K’s and get away from it all.”
Dare said that Ocean City’s expense in advertising this year, which at $3.04 million is the most the town has ever spent, will give the town a huge advantage when other markets are cutting their advertising budgets.
“Ocean City has always done well in tough times because we are lucky enough to be within driving distance of almost 70 percent of the country’s population, but we are a one-industry town, and everything we do has to support tourism,” he said.