Mayor Asks County To Remove Communication ‘Wall’

SNOW HILL — The “wall” blocking communication between Ocean City and Worcester County came down, according to officials, when Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan visited the County Commission this week to make requests regarding a tax differential, grant funding and unrestricted tourism funds.

Channeling his best impression of President Ronald Reagan, Meehan asked that Commission President Bud Church open up communication channels between the county and the resort town that Meehan considered jammed currently.

“Mr. President, I ask you to take down that wall,” said the mayor.

With the annual county budget process underway, Meehan made three requests on behalf of his town. A previous appeal for a property tax differential first made in 2007 was again brought up. Meehan argued that Ocean City deserves the differential under Section 6-306 of the Property Tax Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland, which reads that “if a municipal corporation performs services or programs instead of similar county services or programs, the governing body of the county may grant a tax setoff to the municipal corporation.”

After initially being presented in 2007, Ocean City’s request for a tax differential, stemming from the fact it provides some redundant county services, was repeated in 2012. According to Meehan, the town has yet to receive a response to that 2012 letter.

Meehan’s second request again revisited previous appeals to the commission. He asked that grant funding for the resort be returned to its 2009 level of $4,280,415.

“In 2009, the amount of county grants received by Ocean City increased and we appeared to be moving in the right direction,” wrote Meehan in a letter to the commissioners.

Over the last few budget cycles, grant funding has dipped due to the recession.

The final Ocean City request was that any tourism funding they receive from Worcester be unrestricted, which had been the norm until last year when the county decided to group all of its advertising money into a lump sum under the county’s Tourism Department. With that arrangement, towns were still able to access just as much funding as in previous years and apply it however they would like. The only difference was that instead of sending money to individual municipalities the county would keep the money in a single fund until it was needed which would allow the tourism department to use the bulk of the money as grant leverage.

While keeping the advertising monies in a single fund meant more overall grants for the county, Meehan claimed that the restrictions that resulted “reduced [Ocean City’s] buying power” and hurt total tourism in Worcester.

“Some of the restrictions with the county’s website having to be on the ad limited it to print advertisements, and other advertising that isn’t exactly where we wanted to be,” Meehan said. “We stretched it in those directions when we really needed it to be part of our budget directly into what our advertising agency does with our media buys. That’s what cost us.”

Ocean City doesn’t want to “confuse people with websites,” he continued, since the town has already spent $5 million building ococean.com. Any ad restrictions that force the town into adding the county website or seal are “too restrictive,” said Meehan.

“Being able to use that money directly in our advertising helps us buy better value, get more advertising for the dollars,” he asserted. “I know you did it this way to increase the county’s advertising dollars but in the long-run it cost us.”

Meehan added that going back to the old system of writing Ocean City a check for advertising and then stepping away doesn’t hurt the other parts of the county because the resort always advertises Ocean City, the greater Ocean City area and Worcester County.

While the commission’s response to Meehan’s comments were positive, several commissioners weren’t aware of some of the problems the mayor was highlighting. In regards to lumping the advertising funding together last year, Commissioner Virgil Shockley explained that the commission did what it thought was best, since the new system meant more grants overall.

“We actually thought we were doing a good thing here,” he said.

In regards to the “wall” that Meehan mentioned several times during his presentation, Church and Commissioner Louise Gulyas, who represents Ocean City, both said they had no knowledge of such an obstruction.

“There is no wall,” said Gulyas.

According to Church, if there was a wall it would have been built not only by the commission but by Ocean City as well. “There are two sides to that wall,” he said.

However, Church told Meehan that the commission was unaware Ocean City felt blocked off. If that is the belief among resort management, Church said, “I didn’t really feel there was a wall there, but if your perception is that there’s a wall there we’ll take the wall down,” he said.

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