OCEAN CITY — The trimming of the low hanging fruit may end up being an annual occurrence at City Hall.
Last fall, as the economy’s decline became more pronounced, City Manager Dennis Dare brought a list of more than 100 items that the department heads and staff had proposed as possible cuts and revenue enhancements for the town of Ocean City to perhaps provide a bit of a cushion from potential financial fallout.
When all was said and done, almost $2.7 million was cut from the budget, and those cuts have been credited as one of the main reasons that Ocean City is sitting proverbially by the water, but not fiscally beneath it.
As a result, the Mayor and City Council might just be making the “trimming of the low hanging fruit”, an analogy used by Dare last fall to describe cutting unnecessary or excessive expenditures, a yearly thing, and one that will be an autumn prelude to the often intense budget hearings each spring.
“Making those cuts have put us in a better financial situation than pretty much any other jurisdiction that I’ve seen as far as being able to absorb the reductions and take-backs by the state and other agencies,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Maybe what we should do is have that same process again this year, and review where we are, what our costs are, and maybe review any initiatives we didn’t adopt last year.”
Meehan said on Wednesday that his comments at Monday night’s weekly meeting were more than just a conversation starter and expects the trimming of this year’s fruit to be done more with a microscope and less with a proverbial ax.
“We probably won’t be cutting as much as we did last year, so I think it will be less of a chopping block and more of a review,” said Meehan, “but I think that we can take what we learned last year and see how things worked for us now that we’ve gotten through one season with this new format.”
Councilman Jim Hall agreed with Meehan’s proposal.
“The employees have brought us a lot of good ideas now that they’ve had a chance to work under this new system, and they might be able to give us new things to cut, or new ideas,” said Hall.
It was on the backs of the employees and departments that a large chunk of the savings came last year, and continuing on that trend, Meehan hinted that the hiring freeze will probably still be in place, and any positions that are vacated due to retirements may not be filled.
“I think that we’ll see a lot of personnel changes, but by no means does that mean layoffs or furloughs,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “I just think that some positions will be eliminated through standard attrition.”
Meehan also hinted that when the so-called “fall trimming” gets underway, one of the things at the top of the list should be a serious conversation about an item he feels the council missed last year.
“I think the council made a mistake last year in not going with the city manager’s recommendation to raise the Inlet parking lot fee, which would have increased revenue down there by almost $900,000,” said Meehan. “I think we missed a real chance there, but I also see us with the opportunity of passing it this fall, and having a more appropriate fee in place when the lot opens again in the spring, creating revenue for this fiscal year.”
The argument has been made that the Inlet parking lot is priced too low at between $1.50 and $2 per hour depending on the time of year and day of the week.
“Some private lots in the downtown area charge more for their street lots than we do for our oceanfront Inlet lot,” noted Meehan. “More importantly though, this process worked the last time around, and I think that there were enough positive results to make this an annual process.”