Retiree Incentive Proposed To Reduce OC Payroll Costs

OCEAN CITY — A one-time offer to 84 town employees could see many of them opting for retirement as early as late April in some cases, and in turn, helping the town save almost $1 million in payroll this year.

At the end of a City Council work session on Tuesday, City Manager Dennis Dare outlined his proposal of a retirement incentive plan for 84 of the town’s 600-plus employees, which if done, would be another step in “right-sizing” the town’s workforce and be another feather in the cap in Dare’s cost saving initiative, which he has been putting into action since October 2008.

Dare’s plan would be in three categories – one for public safety workers who have served the town for more than 30 years and are over the age of 55; one for general employees with the same age and employment tenure; and one for employees over the age of 65 but haven’t accrued 30 years of service to the town.

In all three cases, the town would give half of the annual salary as the incentive for early retirement for the employees who would, in turn, start collecting their pensions after their retirement.

“This proposal is a retirement incentive plan, not an early retirement proposal, and I have to stress that this is a one-time offer for those who have earned their pension and are eligible to retire so we can reduce our workforce voluntarily,” said Dare.

Dare noted that although many in the town’s workforce are eligible to retire but have chosen to continue to work, his projections for the next few years has created the necessity to consider this move, which hasn’t been offered to town employees in over two decades.

Since the town has instilled the hiring freeze, there are currently 54 positions that sit vacant in the town of Ocean City, or 9 percent of the workforce, according to Dare.

“We basically have 91 percent of the workforce doing 100 percent of the work,” said Dare. “This gives us an opportunity to reorganize how and what we provide in the resort, and this proposal would allow us certain things, like payroll savings, but we will lose senior personnel, lots of experience and institutional knowledge.”

The Mayor and City Council thought Dare’s plan was good one and voted unanimously to allow the proposal to move forward and either eliminate positions or reconsolidate the structure of town government by promoting people to vacant positions internally.

“In these financial times, if your workforce gets too big, instead of dangling a very nice carrot like this retirement incentive, we might have to end up using the stick,” said Dare. “When we looked at the snapshot in September and we saw real estate values continue to decline, and the stock market going back down this week, it doesn’t give me a lot of hope that there’s going to be a quick turnaround.”

The real estate information that apparently concerned Dare enough to make this proposal was a statistic of property settlements in the resort during September 2009, which saw 88 properties sold and settled on in Ocean City. However, those properties had declined in value 13 percent after the most recent assessments, and sold for an additional 6 percent less than the lower assessment.

Since 58 percent of the town’s budget is made up of property tax revenue, Dare felt this program was prudent to save costs going into the upcoming budget. Some officials have conceded privately it will be tough to hold the tax rate for residents at 39.5 cents per $100 assessed valuation.

The public safety workers eligible for this program would have to choose to sign up for it by June 30, but would have to retire by Oct. 31, so that the town would not be depleted during the busy season.

As for general employees, the proposal would ask for a decision by March 31 and a retirement by April 30.

For the employees eligible for the program that are over 65 but haven’t worked more than 30 years, they will receive their pension, but their benefit will be prorated according to number of years worked, Dare said.

“This is a good plan”, said Councilman Jim Hall. “I support this 100 percent.”

Although most estimations from town officials seem to believe that the percentage of eligible employees that will actually sign up for the program is probably less than half, and more than likely close to 25 percent, Public Works Director Hal Adkins is worried the town might be backing the town’s workforce up against a wall as far as operational efficiency goes.

“There are 31 of my staff stretched out in the entire public works division that are eligible for this,” said Adkins. “So, I’m going to have to restructure our departments again and although I believe that rightsizing is fine, there’s going to come a point where we must pause and realize that we are quickly approaching a level in which our workforce is so depleted that we can’t continue to provide the same level of services that the town’s residents and visitors are used to.  Honestly, we are quickly approaching that level.”

Adkins said that almost half of the 54 current vacant positions, as a result of the hiring freeze, are in his department, and his crews could potentially be the hardest hit from a manpower standpoint with this retirement incentive plan.

“I do know that some of the vital positions will be filled, and others will be eliminated, but I guess we are going to have to wait and see who signs up for it to see how this is really going to effect operations,” Adkins said.

Last year, Dare’s cost-cutting and revenue enhancements helped the town end the fiscal year with a $2.7 million surplus. This year, with much of that $2.7 million being one-time cuts, Dare feels that the large sum of money that could be saved with this program could fill the void.

“We are looking at $1 million in savings the first year, and that includes payment of incentives,” said Dare. “The second and subsequent years, you are probably looking at double that.”

Finance Administrator Martha Lucey is expected to be sitting down with all 84 candidates for the retirement incentive program in the next few weeks to thoroughly explain the program.

“People have been asking us for years if we would consider doing a retirement incentive program and for years we’ve always said no. Well this is their one-time chance,” Dare said.

Ocean City News In Brief

OCEAN CITY — In the brief this week, the City Council gave a kayak venture at the Ocean City airport another try, the annual Flag Day celebration in the resort will change dates and there are potentially more free events planned for this summer.

Council Approves Kayak Launch At Airport Again

Last June, Public Works Director Hal Adkins got unanimous concurrence from the Mayor and City Council to solicit a private operator to run a kayak eco-tourism business at the Ocean City Municipal Airport.

Unfortunately, in the time it took until the end of July for the Worcester County Zoning Appeals Board to grant its permission for the usage of the site, the plan was essentially tabled until next season, according to Adkins.

“Unfortunately, the majority of the business that Mr. Mitchell would have been anticipating getting, by the time he would have gotten up and running, the summer would have essentially been over a few weeks later so he never actually got started,” said Adkins.

At that time, Adkins had an agreement with Mitch Mitchell, proprietor of the Fenwick Island based Coastal Kayak Eco-Tours to run the daily operations and manage the canal that runs directly from the parking lot area of the airport out to the bay behind Assateague Island for the sum of $1,500 per year or 15 percent of gross income, whichever is found to be higher.

Adkins asked the Mayor and City Council for the same length of contract (one year) and the same terms of the contract in hopes that his longstanding desire to have a low-impact kayak eco-tour near the site would become a reality this year.

The council once again approved unanimously Adkins’ proposal after he assured them that their prior concerns about advertising and public relations would be handled and orchestrated by Coastal Kayak.

Ironically, this is the second time in as many months that a new kayak venture was approved for the area, as the council approved a Maryland Coastal Bays project to create a small kayak launch on the site that was formerly known as the Ocean City landfill.

“Hopefully, Mr. Mitchell will be so successful that he will want to start a similar venture near the new kayak launch near Ayres Creek,” quipped Council President Joe Mitrecic.

Adkins said that he was informed that representatives from Maryland Coastal Bays and Coastal Kayaks had been having preliminary talks concerning the forthcoming Ayres Creek launch.

Flag Day Celebration Change

The town is planning to change the annual Flag Day celebration to coincide with perhaps its most patriotic event.

Special Events Director John Sullivan told the Mayor and City Council that although the annual Flag Day celebration is held on June 14, he recommended that the town change it to June 6 this year and be included in the Ocean City Air Show.

“Last year, when the celebration fell on the same day as the Air Show it was considered to be widely successful and extremely well received by veterans and spectators,” said Sullivan. “The Air Show also happens to fall on the commemoration of D-Day so we feel that having the Flag Day celebration on June 6 would be equally well received.”

Sullivan said several local organizations such as the American Legion and the Marine Corp League have already agreed to be apart of the event, and noted that all veterans who participate in the ceremony will receive free tickets to the Air Show.

The council agreed with Sullivan, passing the proposal unanimously.

Air Show Gets New Contract, More Access

During a lengthy closed session prior to Tuesday’s City Council work session at City Hall, town officials and Ocean City Air Show promoter Brian Lilley apparently hashed out a new deal which will insure that the Air Show stays in Ocean City for at least the next three years, as well as enabling the Air Show to be allowed to serve malt beverages in designated areas and be able to sell Air Show merchandise from 12-20th streets on the Boardwalk.

Last year, the group was only allowed to sell beer and wine in designated areas and sell merchandise from 15-17th streets on the Boardwalk.

More Free Events Eyed

After receiving a ton of positive feedback and attention from the large number of free events offered during the summer months in Ocean City, the Recreation and Parks Department has apparently gone to the private sector to increase the offerings.

Recreation and Parks Department Director Tom Shuster told the Tourism Commission last week that the free movies on the beach, which are shown twice per week at varying locations, will increase to potentially four nights a week, after Jon Tremellen of the Princess Royale and Michael James of the Carousel Hotel and Family Resort have agreed to sponsor the event on the beach in front of their respective hotels once a week in July and August.

Although it’s not official, Shuster said that the Carousel has agreed to host the free movies on the beach each Wednesday night and the Princess Royale is expected to host the event each Thursday.

Underage Club Changes Ease Concerns

OCEAN CITY – Although it was found that a petition calling for the closure of the underage nightclub in downtown Ocean City never actually existed, the concerns about recent events on the Boardwalk are, in fact, very real.

Rumors have been spreading around the tight knit community of Boardwalk merchants in past weeks about the existence of a petition calling for the closure of H2O, the popular underage nightclub located on Worcester St. Some merchants blame the club for drawing the large crowds of mischievous youths that have gotten into loads of trouble in the past month, including 25 arrests stemming from a near-riot one weekend, which saw 16 arrests and several police officers assaulted, and a large fight earlier this month, leading to nine more arrests.

“I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t gotten involved with the situation,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, a Boardwalk merchant. “I do know that the club is a breeding ground for disruptive behavior and it hypes the kids up so when they come out of the club, they just walk a block up to the Boardwalk and often, trouble occurs.”

Numerous phone calls to merchants found that many of them had heard about the so-called petition, but surprisingly, no one had actually signed it, or seen it.

“I have not seen it, but if it’s real, I would probably sign it,” said Danny King, owner of Kingies Cotton Candy on the boards. “These kids are just coming down here looking for trouble, and I think that if the club moved north a little ways up the island, it would probably solve the whole problem.”

By Wednesday, however, it was confirmed that the petition was nothing more than a “big fat rumor,” according to Somerset South owner Jimmy Miller, who admitted Saturdays have been the only night of the week that have seemingly scared so many of the Boardwalk merchants to the point of shaking a finger at the club.

“It seems to be Saturdays, late at night, right around the time when the club lets out that things start getting scary,” said Miller, “but if you look at the police reports, it’s not kids that are down here on vacation who are causing problems, it’s local kids from Salisbury, Snow Hill, Pocomoke, and Dover.”

H20 owner Robbie Rosenblitt contends that his club is seemingly the easy scapegoat in the issue and has taken recent proactive measures while working with town officials and the local police department to do his part to better the situation.

“The mayor [Rick Meehan] called me and raised a concern, and my reply was ‘what can I do to help?’”, said Rosenblitt. “I later attended a meeting at the Ocean City Development Corporation [OCDC] with the chief [Bernadette DiPino] and some of her staff, as well as a separate police commission meeting, and I offered up some suggestions about things we could do, and listened to some of their suggestions.  It was one of the more constructive meetings that I’ve ever been to.”

At the meetings, Rosenblitt offered up a new caveat of sorts to his admission policy, in which he and his partners will no longer allow 19- and 20-year-olds into the club on Saturday nights.

“After reading about the incidents in the papers, I found that most of the people who were arrested were over 18, so we thought that on Saturdays, that this would be a good policy to instill,” said Rosenblitt.

The change, coupled with the addition of a stricter dress code and an added police presence in the area, has been cited as one of the main reasons that the Boardwalk has enjoyed consecutive quiet and incident-free Saturdays on the Boardwalk.

“The last two Saturdays have been back to normal,” said Miller. “So, if in fact the quietness was due to the changes made at H2O, then I am very happy, and I hope that it will now give these kids a very safe environment to have a good time, because it’s all about safety.”

Although it could be argued that H20, which is open seven nights a week, is the easy target in the recent problems that the Boardwalk has endured on Saturday nights, there are still some who think the club would be a better fit in a different section of town.

“It just seems out of place,” said King. “There’s an arcade right down the street and then Trimper’s and Thrasher’s and all the amusements which families enjoy. If people can’t get their Thrasher’s Fries without walking through kids in gangs, then whatever is drawing the gangs to town has to go.”

Vicki Barrett, who is the head of the Boardwalk Development Association, praised the owners of H2O for making the changes and said he has other concerns about the Boardwalk.

“I have more concern with Salvia and noise pollution, but I think there is a cultural shift down there at a certain time in the night, and I think that it’s scaring some people,” said Barrett, “but the club owners have assured us they are doing all they can to help.”

Rosenblitt says that he stays in constant contact with town and the police department and knows that he isn’t being scapegoated by either party, saying, “we’ve always worked hand in hand with them to create a fun and safe environment for kids to come to at H2O.” He added, “some people who don’t truly understand the problems on the Boardwalk oftentimes immediately point their finger at us.”

Others on the Boardwalk realize unsupervised high school graduates and young adults who flock to the resort each year cause many of the annual problems in June.

There have even been grassroots campaigns calling for the town to end Senior Week, but despite many merchants seemingly trying to hold on until month’s end, few would like to see it done away with.

“I think the biggest issue we are facing right now on the Boardwalk is the number of kids that are in town,” said Barrett, “but I would be upset if Senior Week went away, unless something much better replaced it.”

OC Take-Home Vehicles On Chopping Block

OCEAN CITY – City Council members will determine what they consider a “perk” and what is an absolute necessity in reference to city employees’ take-home vehicles, and that decision might change the way some town employees get to and from work.

A $2.5 million trimming of the Ocean City budget over the past few months has led to a proposed reduction of the town’s take-home vehicle fleet, according to City Manager Dennis Dare, but if the council gets its way, more vehicles may be cut than what Dare proposed at Tuesday’s work session at City Hall.

Dare brought forward a proposal outlining a six-vehicle trim of the town’s 71-vehicle current fleet, outlining public safety employees use 44 vehicles and 21 cars are used by general employees.

The six vehicles that Dare claims to have sliced weren’t true cuts, according to Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, who noted that two of the vehicles are used by Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin and Lt. Ward Kovac during the summer season, but not in the winter, and the other four were purchased by the town’s volunteer firefighters allegedly using a fund paid for by town money.

Dare said he hoped to eventually cut more of the town’s vehicle fleet through attrition.

“During the process of reviewing this, we were hoping to drive down some of the operating costs,” said Dare. “The question becomes who needs the take-home vehicles, and after many hours of pondering the numbers, it became apparent to me that it’s only the critical responders who can respond in a critical amount of time.”

In hopes to weed out those vehicles used by “non-critical responders,” Dare proposed a 15-mile radius around Ocean City as the border in which employees of the town must live in order to be granted use of a take-home city vehicle.

With that said, he noted that 65 percent of the current employees who have take-home vehicles live within the 15-mile radius and a larger percentage live within 25 miles.

Hypothetically, if the 15-mile radius were put into effect once council brings the issue back in the near future, 17 vehicles would be snatched away from their drivers, all of who live outside the 15-mile perimeter.

Three additional take-home vehicles are used by three police officers who live outside of the 15-mile perimeter, but their vehicles can’t be taken away because they drive K-9 squad cars protected under union contract, according to Dare.

Notable names that would lose their vehicle if the rule were instilled include Ocean City Airport Manager George Goodrow, who lives 28 miles from Ocean City; Fire Marshal Sam Villani, who lives 17 miles away; Department of Transportation Director George Thornes, who lives 29 miles away: and Wastewater Superintendent Charlie Felin, who lives 24 miles away. In addition, six police officers live outside the 15-mile radius and could lose their car if the rule is instilled, including one captain, one lieutenant, one corporal, and three detectives.

With concerns to Pillas’ claims that the six cars were not true cuts, Dare said those vehicles were essentially “asterisks” or interchangeable cars to the fleet, citing the two seasonal cars, and said that the four vehicles bought by the volunteer firefighters were with “donated money and not taxpayer money.”

In addition, Dare clarified on Wednesday, that over the course of the past year, five cars were removed from the take-home vehicle fleet, all in the public works department, either through “retirement or change of assignment.”

“It was 70 cars plus six ‘asterisks’ and now it is 65 plus six ‘asterisks’,” said Dare, citing that the town still covers the fuel and repairs on the four vehicles that were purchased by the volunteer firefighters.

Dare refused to speculate if he thought any of the employees that lived outside the 15-mile radius were “critical responders”, simply saying, “that is going to be a decision that the council is going to have to make.”

Additional provisions were set in place for the town vehicles in Dare’s presentation including rules that clearly state that town vehicles are to be used for town business only, including banning employees from taking their kids to and from school in the vehicles, as well as not allowing passengers who aren’t “authorized persons on city business.”

There was some discussion what Dare meant by eliminating the vehicles by attrition, and he clarified it to council saying that vehicles wouldn’t be replaced if the person retired and wouldn’t be replaced when the vehicle comes to the end of its lifespan.

Dare said the 15-mile radius would ensure that there would be a critical response time of a half hour or less, but Council President Joe Mitrecic seemed to think that the perimeter was just the beginning.

“The 15-mile radius is just a good place to start, but we really need to determine what is totally necessary, and what is a perk,” said Mitrecic. “What it’s going to come down to is (council) has to make a decision, and there are going to be some unhappy people no matter what we decide.”

Pillas suggested the more extreme idea of departmental “carpooling” and essentially having all town vehicles left in town at the end of the day.

“I want to right-size this,” said Pillas. “Maybe it’s just an illusion that taking these away would be a problem, because it worked with the trash pickup when we cut that back and no one thought that would work.”

Pillas argued her point that many town vehicles were a perk by noting that 35 of the town vehicles are driven by employees who make over $100,000 per year.

“It’s not like we are trying to take cars away from people who can’t afford a vehicle,” she said.

In the end, council members decided to reconvene at a later date to decide on which parts of Dare’s recommendation they agree with and potentially which things they would like to take further. Either way, Dare said that the employees would still get the job done.

“Our employees are dedicated, and they are going to respond whether it’s in a take-home vehicle or not,” said Dare.