Ongoing Hiring Freeze Touches Off Pay Scale Debate

Shawn J. Soper
News Editor

OCEAN CITY – A seemingly innocuous discussion about replacing a retiring civilian position in the Ocean City Police Department this week touched off a much larger philosophical debate about the town’s ongoing effort to restructure its pay scale and benefits package for new employees and the need to quickly fill vacated positions.

Earlier this year, Ocean City officials embarked on a study to compare the salary and benefits package for new employees as part of a larger effort to reduce spending and “right size” the municipal government. Around the same time, the town offered an attractive retirement package to long-time employees to get out early, with the thinking being the retirees could be replaced by new hires much at the opposite end of the pay scale.

While the policies are sound in principle, the number of retirees along with other positions to fill has now outpaced the effort to reconfigure the pay scale and benefits package for new hires, touching off an interesting debate at the close of the council work session this week. The issue arose during a discussion of filling a civilian human resources position in the police department before the changes are made to the salary package.

“I really want to get to the end of this pay scale and benefits issue,” said Councilman Joe Hall. “It sounds like we’re going in the right direction, but it’s been a long, long conversation. I’m not voting to put a full-time hire on the town payroll until we get this worked out.”

City Manager Dennis Dare explained forming a new pay structure for all new hires was not as simple as looking just at the vacant police department position.

“We have a lot of things to look at here,” he said. “We have to define the pay structure and salary package for 200 job descriptions. It’s not something that’s going to happen in two weeks.”

Joe Hall suggested hiring part-time employees to bridge the gap until the salary study was complete or sub-contracting some of the work. Dare said the human resources position could be filled by some temporary means, but that would not simplify the much larger task at hand.

“We could do some of this in City Hall, or we could bring somebody in from the street, or we could not do it at all,” said Dare. “What we’ve done for this one single job, we’d have to do 200 more times.”

Councilman Lloyd Martin suggested his colleagues vote to fill the police department vacancy and continue to move forward with the salary structure study.

“The town has to move forward, not sideways or even backward,” he said. “This position is fully funded and it’s going to come in much lower than our current employee receives. It just doesn’t make any sense. If you need another bus boy, you hire one. You do what you need to do to make sure that table is bussed.”

Dare explained the individual was retiring from the position at the top end of the pay scale, or around $53,000, while the new hire would come in at around $32,000, resulting in a savings of $23,000 right off the bat. However, further tweaks in the pay scale and benefits package could save the town slightly more. Nonetheless, Martin said he was comfortable with the savings for the position in question if it meant a seamless transition.

“Are we willing to logjam the police department to save $700 to $1,000?” he asked. “We’re saving $23,000 already so I think we probably need to move forward with this one hire at least.”

Dare agreed there was at least some sense of urgency to fill the police department’s human resources position, particularly because of its potential sensitivity.

“The point is to get the replacement on board so he or she can be trained by the person who has done the job for the last 30 years,” he said.

Councilman Jim Hall weighed in on the issue, utilizing a real estate analogy.

“If you take on one more employee at the old pay and benefit structure, you’re taking on a 30-year mortgage,” he said. “When Lloyd is short at his store, I’m sure he or a family member jumps behind the counter and its the same thing with Joe at his restaurant. He’s going to jump in and get that table cleared.”

Jim Hall advocated borrowing the same principal from the private sector and applying to the town’s hiring dilemma.

“I think we need to do this in-house, even if the chief has to step in and do it,” he said. “This is a 30-year decision. If you hire this person tomorrow, you’re taking on a 30-year mortgage. I think we need to ask the chief to find a way to cover her store until we get through this.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said comparing a municipal police department to a convenience store or a restaurant was not practical.

“I agree we need to talk about this and get it done, but this is not just as simple as getting somebody to jump behind the counter,” he said. “We’re running out of people to jump behind the counter.”

However, Joe Hall pointed out the debate wasn’t about the single hire for the department, but the hundreds of other positions that need to be filled.

“If this was a $1,500 issue, I would have voted for it, but we’re talking about $1,500 for the next 30 years,” he said. “When you multiply that by 200 employees, we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars.”

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