OCEAN CITY — Hitting or perhaps lowering the tax rate might be the immediate goal for the Mayor and City Council, but Mayor Rick Meehan said that they shouldn’t forget about the town’s long-term needs as well.
Meehan said this week that if the council finds additional money to trim from the town’s FY 2011 budget, it might want to consider putting a little of it to the side into a fund dedicated to capital projects, thus keeping the constant yield tax rate at the proposed 40.5 cents per $100 assessed valuation.
“When we were elected to office in Ocean City, the town was handed to us in a certain condition, and it is our job to make sure that when we leave this office, that we return the town in the same or hopefully a better condition than what we got it in,” Meehan said. “We have nothing in the budget for capital projects this year, and that really concerns me.”
The town voted in 2009 to table all capital projects until economic conditions turned around, but as City Manager Dennis Dare points out, even a little bit of time that a municipality neglects its infrastructure can prove to be costly.
“We have always tried to stay ahead of our infrastructure and the visitors and residents have come to expect the roads and things like that to be in a certain condition,” said Dare. “We can’t fall behind on that for too long, because people are going to notice potholes and failing infrastructure rather quickly and that’s bad for everyone.”
Capital projects in Ocean City were one of the first things that were cut or seemingly tabled almost two years ago when Dare first muttered the term “right-sizing” and there are a number of items, including the million dollar renovation to the Caroline Street Comfort Station, that are just waiting on the proverbial shelf.
Meehan believes that holding the line on the tax rate is crucial, but looking long term at ensuring that the town’s infrastructure is in good standing is just as crucial.
“Instant gratification in lowering the tax rate is a great thing politically speaking, but we need to also look at where we are going to be in future budgets and we need to try to forecast how the decisions we make today are going to effect Ocean City in years to come. We can’t go backwards with things like infrastructure,” Meehan said.
Councilman Joe Hall, whose first move on the council was to motion that capital projects be tabled, is more concerned with the short-term goal to cut the tax rate below 40.5 cents.
“I think some of the members of council have misplaced priorities, because they were just as keen as I was to cut capital projects, but they won’t look at amenities or putting paid parking on additional streets in Ocean City,” said Hall. “We need to get on sound economic footing and need to sell these empty condos, get back to regular occupancy and then start planning growth.”
Dare pointed out that in order for the constant yield tax rate to be lowered by a penny, the council needs to find an additional $1 million ($1,028,000 to be exact). Meehan’s concerns for the big zero that sits by the line item that says capital projects might further be accentuated by the fact that the State Highway Administration recently came before the council and said it has no money for any roadway projects for the foreseeable future, meaning that the city’s main artery, Coastal Highway, will not be improved nor repaired until at least the fall.
As the council debates where to find additional money to trim from the budget, there is a separate debate simmering below the surface or perhaps in the back room of City Hall about what to do with any savings found by the “voting seven.”
On one hand, there are some who believe that infrastructure is as big of a part of the draw to the tourist population, but on the other hand, there are those who believe that lower taxes will mean higher occupancy.
“A lower tax rate is a message from local government that says that we are efficient and it’s the best sales pitch that any realtor in this town could have right now,” said Hall.