OCEAN CITY – Perhaps in an effort to reassure town business leaders the approved and potential cuts to programs and services in the resort in the face of serious budget issues will not greatly impact the tourist season, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan this week briefed Economic Development Committee (EDC) members of a wide variety of “right-sizing” measures being undertaken.
Meehan addressed the EDC on Wednesday as part of a larger presentation by town officials on the town’s marketing and promotion efforts on the cusp of a new summer season. The mayor tempered his upbeat remarks somewhat with a breakdown of budget-balancing measures already approved or proposed as town officials work to close a significant gap between revenues and expenditures in the coming fiscal year.
Meehan explained the budget process has changed from a cycle of a couple of weeks to a year-round effort as town elected officials continue to be proactive. In the course of the last year or so, town officials have approved several revenue-stretching initiatives aimed at softening the brunt of the budget realities.
“The budget is a difficult job and we have to go out and meet the challenge,” he said. “We’ve changed the way we do the budget. We work on it all year long, and by doing that, we begin to prepare for the next year.”
The mayor explained the town started this year’s budget process staring at a deficit of about $3.5 million, around $800,000 of which was lost from the state. However, he said the cost-saving measures implemented last year and the proposed changes this year have already helped close the gap.
Many of the changes related to the town’s workforce. For example, a hiring freeze implemented last year cut down the town’s workforce by 85 employees, reducing it from 605 to 520. In the wake of the hiring freeze, certain employees were cross-trained to do other jobs and some departments were consolidated.
In addition, the town this year offered early retirement incentives for certain long-term employees and 32 of them took the offer. That measure is expected to save the town $900,000 this year and as much as $1.6 million next year.
Other measures included lowering the starting pay for many part-time employees, eliminating take-home vehicles for some employees and re-bidding the town’s employee insurance package. More recently, the town restructured its impound lot for towed vehicles, turning the facility from a $150,000 loss to a break-even operation this year with the potential to raise money in out years.
In addition, the town created a taxi franchising system, which, despite some early hiccups, is starting to achieve the desired results, according to the mayor.
“That one turned out to be difficult, and we anticipated that going in, but now it seems to be working the way it was supposed to work,” he said. “We’ll realize a significant amount of revenue from that, and in the end, the taxi operators appear to be happy with how it’s working.”
Another firestorm was created just two weeks ago when town officials decided to dump the resort’s curbside recycling program in a substantial cost-saving effort. Meehan said the backlash has quieted somewhat as residents and visitors have become more familiar with the town’s larger scale trash-removal and recycling program.
“Recycling is an emotional issue,” he said. “People are passionate about it because they feel like they’re doing their part, but if you look at the big picture, you realize we are recycling.”
Meehan said town officials are very cognizant of the importance of maintaining the high quality of services and programs despite the cuts.
“”We have to remember what we’re here for,” he said. “We’re a tourist community and we can’t cut everything. The challenge is to implement these cuts without a noticeable drop in the things that bring people here.”