OCEAN CITY – It officially took 126 seconds to freeze the salaries of an entire city’s workforce.
At the end of Monday night’s meeting at City Hall, City Manager Dennis Dare announced that the town would freeze the salaries of all general employees for at least the next year.
“My recommendation as we continue this budget process is to basically freeze the salaries of the employees where they are at this time for this fiscal year,” said Dare.
For an issue that will impact hundreds of people, the matter took a total of 2 minutes and 6 seconds from Dare’s presentation, to the unanimous vote by council, who agreed that all general employee salaries for the town of Ocean City should be locked in place. The freeze does not include union employees, although it could surface during negotiations between the city and representatives.
“This sounds fiscally responsible and I motion that we do the budget in this way,” said Councilman Lloyd Martin.
Martin’s motion received a quick second by Councilwoman Margaret Pillas and a unanimous vote took place just seconds later.
Pillas, who was adamant in her quest for the release of a list of the top 100 salaries of town employees thought that the decision to freeze salaries might have been directly connected to the release of the salary list.
“I expressed that I wanted to move forward with the release of the salaries and the freezing of the salaries, and I think that this is the city manager’s way of showing the citizens that government is in the same boat as them, and we want to reflect the hardship that our citizens are feeling,” she said.
The town has already instilled a hiring freeze and temporarily revoked the 3-percent Cost of Living Adjustment that employees enjoy each year and now with the addition of a salary freeze, the message being sent from City Hall appears to be that the town is trying its best to be fiscally responsible and perhaps even conservative.
In the past weeks, closed session meetings have lagged on longer than usual, and one council member, who asked to remain nameless in this case, hinted that the issue may have only taken mere minutes in the public eye, but it was heavily debated behind closed doors for some time.
The council decided to freeze Dare’s salary in recent months, and Pillas said that it was only a natural progression to extend the freeze to the working pool of city employees.
“We want the citizens to know that we understand the hardships that they are going through. Property taxes are down, as well as income, and other things, and their government should reflect that,” Pillas said.
Council President Joe Mitrecic dispelled notions that the decision or the process to freeze salaries was in any way hasty by saying, “this type of thing is happening all around the area, and we wanted to let our employees know as soon as possible and make that decision today, rather than at the 11th hour of the budget process.”
Dare is currently the highest paid city employee, earning $170,814 in gross earngings, with Public Works Director Hal Adkins ($150,025 gross) and Police Chief Bernadette DiPino ($141,742 gross) rounding out the top three, according to the salary list released last week. City Engineer Terry McGean’s $141,129 and Finance Director Martha Lucey’s $141,127 round out the top five.
What could alarm some people is the fact that the top 50 on the list all make over $100,000 per year, and number 100 on the list, a firefighter/EMT, made over $85,000 in gross earnings in 2008.
Mitrecic said the list of salaries should only be judged if one sees the longevity of each worker.
“Anytime you see a salary of $100,000, you are going to think that people might be overpaid. Some department heads might have started working for the town when they were 18 and only made $4,000 a year without pension, make much more than that after 30 years of service. In today’s market, those numbers are not outlandish, but to some people, especially retirees, those numbers could seem unheard of,” he said.
Notable numbers from the top 100 included a firefighter/EMT officer, who earned over $36,000 in overtime pay alone, and the city’s golf professional, who makes well over $80,000.
Pillas said that if she is successful in gaining access to the benefits package and city “perks” that employees receive as part of the Ocean City workforce, the numbers could be even more startling.
“I just want to see what everything costs. From cell phones to take-home cars to the benefit packages that could be worth about 20-25 percent of a worker’s salary, I want to know what the expense is for each item,” said Pillas.
There are currently 26 positions that sit vacant due to the hiring freeze, according to Dare, and he said that if some of those positions are not filled eventually, some of the services provided by the town might be adversely affected, namely, the Winterfest of Lights.
“We may have to scale back the Winterfest of Lights, because we might not have the manpower to keep it going at the current level,” he said.
Mitrecic also said the council dropped the ball on savings for the town when denying the proposed changes to the city’s bus service.
“Our town employees work on their own personal budgets and when we make decisions like this, it affects them directly. I don’t think that it’s fair to them to cut COLA’s and freeze salaries if we don’t cut everything that we possibly can,” said Mitrecic.