OCEAN CITY — Mayor Rick Meehan will be the first to tell you that he is looking forward to a new calendar year, and he firmly believes that 2010 can and will be a good one for the resort, despite fiscal projections that forecast a similar rough road as the one traveled upon in 2009.
So, as Ocean City collectively bids adieu to what will go down as a tough year for many visitors and residents of the area, Meehan sat down with The Dispatch in his City Hall office on Monday and briefly looked back on the year that was and looked ahead to 2010 from a fiscal, personal and even philosophical standpoint.
Q: People always seem to go into a new year with a heightened sense of optimism and a so-called fresh start from the perils of the year that was. Do you think that the residents and visitors of Ocean City are relieved that 2009 is finally coming to a close and are carrying into the new year any bit of optimism?
A: I think we got some good signs to be optimistic about during the second half of 2009, and if you look at how Ocean City fared compared to other places, especially from July 1 on, was a pleasant surprise to a lot of people who found that we did a little better than most people thought we would, so that in itself should create a little bit of optimism.
Ocean City is certainly not immune as a community or a vacation destination to all the things going on around us, but we have worked very hard to make sure that we are going into the new year in the right direction, and I think if people really look at what we are doing, they will feel a bit better about where we are headed.
Q: Historically, you are not a politician who sits secluded in his office and governs from a desk. On the contrary, you are visible in the community and have always argued that you strive to have a very strong presence and understanding of the people whom you represent. As you look back on 2009, talk about how the decrease in some vital numbers or statistical figures equated to troubles for real people living and working in this community.
A: Even a flat economy hurts or makes it difficult for people because costs are always rising even when profits are declining. If you look at the different industries in Ocean City, even though tourism is our main industry, there are others like real estate, which supports it. I think real estate was the hardest hit and if you talk to people in the restaur7ant or bar industry, they will tell you that they saw how much real estate generates the economy in Ocean City.
I think the uncertainty about real estate affected everybody, including our non-resident property owners. Everyone had to make adjustments and even though people I know personally who own businesses had good summers, they will tell you that spring and fall were both down, and there is a real concern for January, February and early March this year. We are always more optimistic as winter turns to spring, which leads us to the summer, but I think this year, the biggest concern is getting through the next few months.
Q: There were a number of big stories or events that took place over the course of 2009. What do you think was the most interesting storyline of 2009 here in Ocean City?
A: It may not be very glamorous and it might even be cliché, but what we did with the budget this year was the biggest storyline of the year for me. When you think about the budget crisis throughout this country, the state and even the counties, it is a tremendous achievement for us to end up where we did and recognize the savings we did even before the budget process took place.
Not to steal [City Manager] Dennis’ [Dare] phrase, but we right-sized the government and did a number of things to make cuts and anticipate some of the cuts that were going to come down from the state so we would have money to offset reductions and the eventual further reductions that came later in the year. We did a great job with the budget this year, and as we move forward, we are in a good position going into the new year. And if you recall, when we passed that budget, I don’t remember one person stepping up and arguing the merits of the budget we presented, so that makes me think that we have the support of the taxpayers.
Q: It was considered a major achievement to lower the tax rate to 39.5 cents (per $100 assessed valuation) from the proposed 41 cents from the city manager during the budget process. As assessments, which decreased $1.1 billion, enter the second of a three-year plateau and coupled with the fact that many of the $2.7 million in cuts last year were one-time savings for the town, how difficult will it be to hold the line on the tax rate?
A: I don’t know yet. Our goal is always to at the very least hold the line. I do think it’s probably a little early to determine whether or not we will be able to do that this year, but that is going to be and is always the goal.
We are going to continue the hiring freeze and make more cuts where we can, and we will also be doing another pre-budget analysis, which I think is very smart. We are fortunate that we have enterprise funds that help pay for things like water and wastewater, but I think that beach replenishment is going to be a big challenge as we move forward. We are in good shape to pay for our portion and we are in a good position for federal funding, but that and things like the Boardwalk [reconstruction] project [alleged to begin in 2012] are going to be things that we have to think about while we prepare this upcoming budget and how we plan for future ones.
Q: Do you think that residents will understand if the town is forced to raise the tax rate, all things considered, and furthermore, do you think that residents and non-resident property owners will be understanding of the so-called governmental tasks at hand that you just described?
A: Our citizens have always been very supportive and understanding when we do vital projects because we have worked very hard to keep up the infrastructure and the services for the visitors and residents. When you look at your tax rate, you can look out the window and see the improvements and the return on your investment. You can look at the police presence, the beach, the clean streets and know that this is the price for living in a small resort town. We try to keep the citizens a part of the process and I think that we all have a great amount of pride for our community and what it takes to help it grow.
Q: How do you think the presence of slots will alter the daily lives and business practices of area residents?
A: The basis for slots relies on discretionary income, and that’s what tourism essentially depends on, so I think there will be added competition for that dollar. I truly believe that people come to this area for the beach, but it will be a bit of an education and a transition at the beginning.
I’m not so worried about the short-term, as I am about further on up the road. If the presence of slots in Maryland recaptures some of that money that is spent in Delaware, what is Delaware going to have to do to recapture that lost income? You are already seeing conversations starting about sports betting and table games in Delaware, so my concern is where will it all stop?
Q: What surprised you the most in 2009 on the local level?
A: I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s kind of hard to be surprised on some level, but if I had to pick one, I think I was most surprised with how controversial the advertising agency search ended up being. We have a very talented agency that produced very good results for the town of Ocean City for a long time. Although I do agree that we should periodically have a review, I guess the intensity of the review and the scrutiny that came along with it was a lot more than I anticipated, especially with the results that MGH had brought to the town.
Q: What is your biggest hope for Ocean City in 2010?
A: Some things are out of our control on the local level, and unfortunately, I think some of those things that are happening nationally have a big effect on us. I think there’s a big degree of uncertainty for people concerning the big issues that face this country as a whole and I think we need to get past some of those so we can keep moving forward. I think in Ocean City, our morale is good, but people need to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. When you can see an end to the hard times, it energizes you and it puts everyone in a mood to want to move forward in a good direction. We’ve got a lot of good things planned for this year in Ocean City, and hopefully, we can do some things to help people see a little light at the end of the tunnel.