OCEAN CITY – Proponents of the performing arts center in Ocean City are taking a stand against Tony Christ and the Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice group that has organized a petition opposing the convention center’s new auditorium.
A few weeks ago, the Mayor and City Council approved the sale of bonds to finance the Roland E. Powell Convention Center Performing Arts Center (PAC) and other capital projects in its final reading.
The convention center’s new auditorium portion of the bond is in the amount of $8.47 million. The remaining $4.23 million is dedicated to a roof for the Public Safety Building, a roof for the Service Center Building, a new Beach Patrol headquarters, and an effluent disinfection system at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. All the projects will amortize over a period of 10 years.
On Wednesday evening, Christ received permission from Solicitor Guy Ayres to petition the performing arts facility alone, rather than the entire bond ordinance as originally sought. Christ wrote in an email to Ayres that he feared people would not sign the petition if the beach patrol headquarters was included in the petition effort.
The PAC project is being completed through a partnership with the Town of Ocean City and the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), which is paying $5.7 million of the auditorium’s costs.
The town is going to the bond market by the end of the year. In the meantime, Ocean City’s portion of the PAC is being paid for out of fund balance that will be reimbursed by the bond, which will be ultimately be paid off by the food and beverage tax.
This local sales tax of .5 percent on food and beverages is imposed for the purpose of paying the principal and interest on bonds issued to finance the construction, reconstruction, repair, renovation and equipment of the convention center.
A couple of weeks ago, Christ, spokesperson for the Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice, submitted a petition for referendum to City Solicitor Guy Ayres against the convention center auditorium’s $8.5 million portion of the bond ordinance to have the language approved.
At that time, Christ reasoned the newspaper disclosure of the indebtedness did not disclose the voters will be assessed additional real estate taxes annually should the food and beverage tax come short of the debt.
Christ furthered, however the ordinance states, “The City shall levy and collect ad valorem taxes upon all taxable property within the City … to pay the principle of and interest on the Convention Center portion of the Bonds in any fiscal year.”
The petition was denied five times by Ayres due to confusing language, according to emails shared by Christ with the media. At this point, Christ hired former Salisbury Solicitor Paul Wilber whose opinion was to petition the entire bond ordinance instead of singling out the PAC that was causing the confusing language.
“Each circulator would have a full copy of the Bond Ordinance for a voter to review. A circulator can explain that the referendum petition is caused by the portion of the Bond Ordinance which relates to the $8.5 million expenditure for the convention center auditorium,” Wilbur submitted.
On Tuesday morning, Christ announced the petition for referendum that includes all capital projects listed in the bond ordinance had received approval.
By Charter a petition for referendum has 40 days to circulate, and at least 40 percent of the number of voters, who voted in the last election, or 1,226 signatures in this case, is required to be collected in order for the petition to be successful to have the bond ordinance placed on the next ballot.
According to Ayres, there is no provision in the charter to extend the time period for rejected petitions, therefore petition circulators lost 11 days of soliciting time while the petition was going through the approval process. The bond ordinance petition is due on Nov. 20.
Christ’s most recent reasoning behind opposing the bond ordinance is the town’s failure to disclose information of the PAC to current convention center clients, such as one of the facility’s largest tenants the State of Maryland Fireman’s Association, that conducts a memorial service that attracts over 3,000 visitors but the PAC will only seat 1,200.
“Stephen Decatur has a bigger auditorium with more seating. A 1,200-seat center will not attract name entertainers that in turn will attract sufficient people to pay. If it were 2,500 seats, things might be different,” Christ submitted.
By Wednesday, the news of Christ’s bond ordinance petition had spread and a few city officials began warning the public against signing the petition through social media.
Councilman Doug Cymek posted on Facebook, “In the very near future, you may be asked to sign a referendum petition by a group known as Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice led by Tony Christ. Please be extremely cautious and become familiar with all the facts of the issue prior to placing your signature on the petition … the truth of the matter is Christ and his local advisor which happens to be a large hotelier apparently are not against what he refers to as the ‘Fine Arts Center.’ As late as yesterday, Christ published a statement stating if the new auditorium were 2,500 seats that would be a different matter. If that is the case than what is really behind his petition?”
Mayor Rick Meehan said signing the bond ordinance petition could cost the taxpayers of Ocean City millions of dollars. The PAC project has been approved and has received five unanimous votes by two different councils to move forward.
The town along with an appointed community committee, comprised of local citizens and business people, did its homework before voting to move forward with the project as economic studies have been conducted resulting in justification of the expense. According to the mayor, not only will there be no expense to the taxpayers but additional revenue will derive from the auditorium that benefits the taxpayer.
“The funding of this project has already been approved,” the mayor said. “The purpose of the bond issue is to reimburse the City for the funding that has been approved, and the convention center project is being completed at no cost to the Ocean City taxpayer. Our portion of the bond indebtedness is paid off entirely by the food and beverage tax. The food and beverage tax will not run out, and it has been increasing yearly. If there is no food and beverage tax collected that mean there is no business done in Ocean City at all. That is a scare tactic.”
Expenses will occur for Ocean City’s taxpayers if the auditorium is delayed or stopped, Meehan said, as the project’s design is completed, construction started this week and there is a contract to uphold with the State of Maryland.
“We are obligated to complete the project,” the mayor said.
Meehan furthered, Ocean City has full support of the State of Maryland Fireman’s Association to proceed with the PAC project, contrary to what Christ maintains.
“We have a letter from them supporting the project. Their main assembly does not take place in the auditorium. It will still take place in the main ballroom,” he said. “Anytime you have a construction project there will be concerns and complaints to be mitigated. The director of the convention center, Mr. Noccolino, has done a very good job with working with all of our tenants to make sure through the construction process any concerns they have are mitigated.”
The mayor pointed out this may be history repeating itself. In the 1990’s an expansion of Northside Park was approved and was also funded by a bond issue. The bond issue was taken to referendum to stop the expenditure. The referendum was soundly defeated and the town was able to move forward with construction but it cost the Town an additional hundreds of thousands of dollars because of delays.
“That is the same situation we are facing now, and I don’t think there is anybody that looks back now that would be able to imagine what Northside Park would be like if we hadn’t done that expansion,” the mayor said.
The Citizens For Ocean City group, which was organized in September 2011 following then-City Manager Dennis Dare’s dismissal by a former council, has publically advertised its opposition to Christ and the bond ordinance petition. The group stated, “The performing arts facility will add another amenity to Ocean City; another reason for people to move here and to visit. It will fill hotels and restaurants and benefit shops and residents, especially in the off season. It will expand the Convention Center’s marketability beyond conventions, offering a place to showcase local community talent in addition to national Arts and Entertainment, and it costs the taxpayers nothing.”
Additionally, an online petition at change.org to encourage people to not sign the bond ordinance petition and express their backing of the ordinance was created yesterday and had 50 supporters as of 6 this morning.