OCEAN CITY – City Council members will determine what they consider a “perk” and what is an absolute necessity in reference to city employees’ take-home vehicles, and that decision might change the way some town employees get to and from work.
A $2.5 million trimming of the Ocean City budget over the past few months has led to a proposed reduction of the town’s take-home vehicle fleet, according to City Manager Dennis Dare, but if the council gets its way, more vehicles may be cut than what Dare proposed at Tuesday’s work session at City Hall.
Dare brought forward a proposal outlining a six-vehicle trim of the town’s 71-vehicle current fleet, outlining public safety employees use 44 vehicles and 21 cars are used by general employees.
The six vehicles that Dare claims to have sliced weren’t true cuts, according to Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, who noted that two of the vehicles are used by Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin and Lt. Ward Kovac during the summer season, but not in the winter, and the other four were purchased by the town’s volunteer firefighters allegedly using a fund paid for by town money.
Dare said he hoped to eventually cut more of the town’s vehicle fleet through attrition.
“During the process of reviewing this, we were hoping to drive down some of the operating costs,” said Dare. “The question becomes who needs the take-home vehicles, and after many hours of pondering the numbers, it became apparent to me that it’s only the critical responders who can respond in a critical amount of time.”
In hopes to weed out those vehicles used by “non-critical responders,” Dare proposed a 15-mile radius around Ocean City as the border in which employees of the town must live in order to be granted use of a take-home city vehicle.
With that said, he noted that 65 percent of the current employees who have take-home vehicles live within the 15-mile radius and a larger percentage live within 25 miles.
Hypothetically, if the 15-mile radius were put into effect once council brings the issue back in the near future, 17 vehicles would be snatched away from their drivers, all of who live outside the 15-mile perimeter.
Three additional take-home vehicles are used by three police officers who live outside of the 15-mile perimeter, but their vehicles can’t be taken away because they drive K-9 squad cars protected under union contract, according to Dare.
Notable names that would lose their vehicle if the rule were instilled include Ocean City Airport Manager George Goodrow, who lives 28 miles from Ocean City; Fire Marshal Sam Villani, who lives 17 miles away; Department of Transportation Director George Thornes, who lives 29 miles away: and Wastewater Superintendent Charlie Felin, who lives 24 miles away. In addition, six police officers live outside the 15-mile radius and could lose their car if the rule is instilled, including one captain, one lieutenant, one corporal, and three detectives.
With concerns to Pillas’ claims that the six cars were not true cuts, Dare said those vehicles were essentially “asterisks” or interchangeable cars to the fleet, citing the two seasonal cars, and said that the four vehicles bought by the volunteer firefighters were with “donated money and not taxpayer money.”
In addition, Dare clarified on Wednesday, that over the course of the past year, five cars were removed from the take-home vehicle fleet, all in the public works department, either through “retirement or change of assignment.”
“It was 70 cars plus six ‘asterisks’ and now it is 65 plus six ‘asterisks’,” said Dare, citing that the town still covers the fuel and repairs on the four vehicles that were purchased by the volunteer firefighters.
Dare refused to speculate if he thought any of the employees that lived outside the 15-mile radius were “critical responders”, simply saying, “that is going to be a decision that the council is going to have to make.”
Additional provisions were set in place for the town vehicles in Dare’s presentation including rules that clearly state that town vehicles are to be used for town business only, including banning employees from taking their kids to and from school in the vehicles, as well as not allowing passengers who aren’t “authorized persons on city business.”
There was some discussion what Dare meant by eliminating the vehicles by attrition, and he clarified it to council saying that vehicles wouldn’t be replaced if the person retired and wouldn’t be replaced when the vehicle comes to the end of its lifespan.
Dare said the 15-mile radius would ensure that there would be a critical response time of a half hour or less, but Council President Joe Mitrecic seemed to think that the perimeter was just the beginning.
“The 15-mile radius is just a good place to start, but we really need to determine what is totally necessary, and what is a perk,” said Mitrecic. “What it’s going to come down to is (council) has to make a decision, and there are going to be some unhappy people no matter what we decide.”
Pillas suggested the more extreme idea of departmental “carpooling” and essentially having all town vehicles left in town at the end of the day.
“I want to right-size this,” said Pillas. “Maybe it’s just an illusion that taking these away would be a problem, because it worked with the trash pickup when we cut that back and no one thought that would work.”
Pillas argued her point that many town vehicles were a perk by noting that 35 of the town vehicles are driven by employees who make over $100,000 per year.
“It’s not like we are trying to take cars away from people who can’t afford a vehicle,” she said.
In the end, council members decided to reconvene at a later date to decide on which parts of Dare’s recommendation they agree with and potentially which things they would like to take further. Either way, Dare said that the employees would still get the job done.
“Our employees are dedicated, and they are going to respond whether it’s in a take-home vehicle or not,” said Dare.