OCEAN CITY – Amid allegations petitioners are using scare tactics and untruths to gain signatures, city officials are warning the public to do their homework and ask questions of those opposing the new Performing Arts Center.
Tony Christ, spokesperson for the Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ), received approval last week for a petition singling out opposition against an $8.5 million bond to fund the new Performing Arts Center (PAC) at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.
The PAC is part of a $12.7 bond ordinance. The remaining $4.23 million of the ordinance 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.
The PAC project is under contract between the Town of Ocean City and the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), who is paying $5.7 million of the auditorium’s costs.
The two-story, 1,200-seat auditorium is currently under construction under the auspices on Whiting Turner. Construction began prior to the bond sale because there was a window of opportunity to divide the second-floor ballroom from the project without interfering with convention center tenants and their scheduled events.
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 ultimately be paid off by the food and beverage tax.
The 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.
By charter, a petition for referendum has 40 days to circulate and must obtain at least 40 percent of the number of voters, who voted in the last election, or 1,226 signatures in this case. The petition’s deadline is Nov. 20. If the required signatures are verified, the bond ordinance pertaining to the PAC can be placed on the next ballot.
On Tuesday, Mayor Rick Meehan acknowledged the petition is already making a mark as the town postponed going to the bond market from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5, due to the petition’s deadline.
“If the petition is successful in gaining the appropriate amount of signatures, that will basically put a halt to the section [of the bond] pertaining to the PAC, and we will have to change the terms of the bond and it takes us 24 hours to do that,” the mayor said.
After crunching some numbers, City Engineer Terry McGean came to the conclusion if the PAC project were cancelled at this time expenditures to date plus the cost to restore current construction work back to original condition would be $2.8 million.
According to McGean, if the project were to be suspended for a limited time, the cost would be $3,600 per day of delay plus a minimum of $30,000 to remobilize sub-contractors. A delay beyond three months means there is no guarantee that subcontractors would honor their bid prices and delay costs would be considerably higher.
Petitioner Herb Pawlukewicz has hit the streets in the residential neighborhood of Caine Woods in north Ocean City. As of Tuesday, he said he has been to over 60 homes and has collected about 35 signatures. Those not signing are reasoning they need more information.
“I say [to taxpayers] I am circulating a petition on the PAC at the convention center, and our concern is that if … the food and beverage tax defaults, it falls on the Ocean City taxpayer’s backs,” he said.
Last week Meehan pointed out the local food and beverage tax has been on the rise annually. He added the only way the tax would default is if Ocean City’s economy came to a halt and no food and beverages were consumed in the resort.
When the unrealistic chance of the food and beverage tax defaulting was brought to Pawlukewicz’s attention, he responded, “I just let them [taxpayers] sign the petition off what they know. I don’t say anything.”
For the residents who request more information before signing, Christ has prepared literature titled, “The Loss of Freedom”, to share.
According to this document, the PAC would disturb some of Ocean City’s biggest present users of the convention center, including the State of Maryland Fireman’s Association and the cheerleaders conventions, and risk losing their business.
Last week, Meehan stated the Fireman’s Association is not against the PAC project, and the association has submitted a letter of support of the project. Attempts to reach association officials for confirmation were unsuccessful this week.
However, in March, The Dispatch reported Tina Galdieri, managing partner of Epic Brands, which organizes the annual cheerleading events in Ocean City, confirmed the cheerleading convention intends to return to Ocean City in 2014, despite the facility’s construction.
Christ furthered, over the last week the town government has misused its position of service to scare the public by stating signing the petition would cost the city millions and taxes will increase.
“Don’t worry if it happens before the election, we can petition that too, and at the election you can remind the politicians whom they work for by voting them out,” he said.
Christ concluded, “Although we have elections and we grant the right to govern to our elected officials, we Americans have always reserved the right, through referendum, to remind our elected officials who the boss is … We Americans can choose when, at any time, we wish to exercise our right to collect signatures to put any lawful item on the ballot. It is up to elected officials to respect this hallowed right, not to obstruct it or bulldoze it … When government brazenly ignores this right and recklessly spends the public’s money before the loan is approved by the people, it should be of great concern to all.”
Meehan has titled Christ an, “obstructionist”, who claims he is out to protect the taxpayers when in reality if the petition is successful it will cost the taxpayers.
“They are working against the taxpayers,” he said. “If they sign this petition, which could stop the construction, they would then be liable for the construction because the food and beverage tax can only be used for bond indebtedness that relates to construction.”
Christ made a point in mentioning in one of his emails to the media that he is financing this campaign on his own, including nearly $1,000 paid to an attorney to draft the petition language.
“Please understand that neither I or OCTSJ is related to either group in that we believe both groups [former and past council majorities] are culpable for current conditions,” Christ said. “We will join in with ideas we consider in the best interest of the residents of Ocean City. We are issue driven not personality drive.
Meehan looked back to all the construction that has taken place at the convention center, especially the expansion in the 1990s, and how all costs have been covered by the food and beverage tax, not the taxpayers.
The mayor also recalled the expansion of Northside Park in the 1980’s that was also funded by a bond that was petitioned. The petition was successful and the project came to a stop, however the referendum was soundly defeated. But due to the delay the taxpayers ended up having to pay an extra $400,000 for additional costs.
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, including a Crossroads economic study 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 PAC project has been voted unanimously on five times by two different councils. On Nov. 7, 2011, the Mayor and City Council voted unanimously to request state funding between 25 percent and 50 percent of the cost for construction of the auditorium. On July 16, 2012, there was an unanimous vote to enter into an agreement with the MSA for construction of the convention center auditorium with the city funding $8.3 million and the state funding $5.7 million. On Sept. 17, 2012, another unanimous vote was recorded to expend an amount not to exceed $8.3 million for the auditorium to be reimbursed through a future bond sale. All three votes were of the former council led by former Council President Jim Hall, who Christ mentioned in an email to the media is “supposed to help” in the cause.
Under the current Mayor and City Council, on Dec, 17, 2012 a final design of the auditorium was presented. There was no vote taken but no objections to proceed. On Oct. 7, an unanimous vote was made to include $8.3 million for the convention center auditorium in the bond sale.