‘Independent Judicial Review’ Sought On OC Tax Petition

OCEAN CITY – With the full support of Mayor Rick Meehan, the City Council voted this week to seek an independent opinion regarding the legal implications of a successful petition to reduce the property tax rate to the 2009 rate.

Last month the Ocean City taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ) submitted a petition to lower Ocean City’s tax rate to the 2009 rate of 38 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The same day the Mayor and City Council approved the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget that raise the tax rate 2 percent to 47.8 cents.

A couple of weeks ago, Board of Elections Chair Mary Adeline Bradford verified 1,787 petition signatures were submitted. Out of those signatures, 310 were excused, leaving 1,477 valid signatures, which exceeded the required 1,228 signatures needed to require the town conduct a referendum within 90 days or at the next scheduled election, which is in November of 2016.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres warned the council there is potential litigation surrounding the issue.

“In my opinion, the substance of the petition violates Section 6-303 of the Tax Property Article of the Maryland Code Annotated. The substance of the petition would amend the charter, so your ability to tax would be capped at the 2009 level of taxes, and that is known as a ‘tax rollback.’ In the case of Board of Election Supervisors vs. Smallwood … the court had ruled tax rollbacks are not proper charter material and violate Section 6-303,” Ayres said at that time.

The council met in closed session to discuss the petition prior to Tuesday afternoon’s work session.

“The council voted unanimously to file petition for declaratory relief with the Circuit Court for independent judicial review because the proposed charter amendment to reduce the property tax rate constitutes an unlawful rollback in violation with State law,” Council President Lloyd Martin said.

Tony Christ of OCTSJ, who led the petition drive, stated he is saddened that the council voted unanimously to oppose the people’s will, to which Meehan responded is a misinterpretation of the facts.

“The decision by the council to seek an independent opinion to determine whether or not the proposed charter amendment is lawful was a good decision. It is seeking a second opinion, an independent opinion. Not just the opinion of a select few who in my opinion have been inconsistent with their facts and continue to try to stand up here, misinterpret the facts and scare the voters and residents of Ocean City,” the mayor said.

According to Meehan, in Fiscal Year 2009 when the property tax rate was 38 cents the assessable base of the Town of Ocean City was just over $12 billion. The revenue derived from the property tax rate was about $45.3 million. The General Fund Budget was almost $80.5 million, and property taxes were 56.29 percent of the revenue in that budget year.

Today, in Fiscal Year 2016, the assessable base is about $8.4 billion, which is $4 billion less than in 2009, and the property tax rate is set at 47.8 cents. The revenue derived from the property tax rate is about $40.2 million, which is $5 million less than in 2009. The General Fund Budget is about $79.7 million, and the amount of revenue derived from property taxes is 50.44 percent of the total revenue, which is a reduction of almost 6 percent.

“The figures that are being expounded to the public are very deceiving when you look at the actual numbers, and you look at where we stand from a budget stand point,” the mayor said. “We have been criticized for utilizing constant yield. Well constant yield is not a mandate. It is a mechanism to show government what the tax rate would be to collect the same amount of tax revenue as received in the previous year.”

A tax rollback would be an arbitrary move, the mayor stated.

“The budget process is a six-month process where we sat here going over the budget making the determination of how to fund the level of services the entire city and all of our taxpayers expect and deserve. This council accepted that responsibility when they were elected, and they passed a budget that accomplished their goals while still held to the constant yield tax rate. They should be commended,” the mayor said.

As far as a random decision resulting in a negative impact, the mayor used the Worcester County Commissioners as an example who instituted a large tax increase this year rather than addressing reduced revenues in last year’s budget.

“How did that work out? Today they are back before the residents of Worcester County passing a budget that raises the tax rate 6.5 cents that doesn’t fully fund all the things they want them to fund,” Meehan said.

The mayor concluded today the Town of Ocean City’s Fund Balance stands at 15 percent, the highest it has ever been.

“There haven’t been any arbitrary decisions made up here. To every action there is a reaction, and when you make an arbitrary decision it may feel good at the time but you will pay for it later,” he said. “I commend the council for having the fortitude and courage for doing the right thing, to go through the budget process, to do exactly what those who have circulated the petition want them to do, and that is to look at every expenditure and every source of revenue and how the budget the needs of this community. That is what they have done and I support their decisions.”

Immediately following the work session, Christ, who left council chambers once the mayor started speaking, submitted a response to The Dispatch.

“My concern is that in America we are replacing the Rule of Law with the Rule of Lawyers. The council has authorized spending money to hire lawyers to kill the petition in court. We believe that it is very important for us to defend our right to petition our grievances that seeks to have a public vote on taxes. They show their utter disregard for the wishes of close to 1,500 voters and countless thousands of property owners in Ocean City. We will do our best to defend our right to petition our grievances for a public vote on taxes,” Christ stated. “We feel it is a right granted by the Bill of Rights and as such is not subject to restriction by state law.”

 

County Maintains Water-Based Festival Not Permitted, But Organizer Still Planning Event

BERLIN – County officials say the Boaters Aid Music Festival planned for Fourth of July weekend will not be taking place following the organizer’s failure to receive approval from Worcester County. Although organizer Allen Barzak received a permit from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the three-day festival planned for the Isle of Wight Bay, he did not get … Continue reading

Another Balcony Fall In Ocean City; Caution Urged By City Officials

OCEAN CITY — After a third balcony fall in as many weeks on Tuesday, Ocean City officials continued to hammer home the importance of patio and railing safety. Around 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Ocean City Police and Emergency Medical Services responded to the area of 70th Street for a reported fall from a second-floor balcony. The officers and EMS were … Continue reading

OC Museum, Partners To Celebrate Coast Guard Anniversary

OCEAN CITY — This year marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the United States Coast Guard. To recognize this milestone, the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum will host a dinner on Friday, June 19, and a breeches buoy rescue re-enactment on Saturday, June 20, beginning at 10 a.m. on the beach between the inlet and the pier. “This … Continue reading

Commissioners Agree To Raise Property, Income Tax Rates To Balance Budget

SNOW HILL – In an effort to soften the impact on local taxpayers, county officials are planning to combine a property tax increase with an income tax increase to balance the budget. Though the Worcester County Commissioners originally advertised for a 15.7 cent property tax increase, on Wednesday they agreed to base the coming year’s budget on a 6.5 cent … Continue reading

SHA, Staff Support Six-Lane Coastal Highway Vision; Transportation Comm. Still Weighing Proposal

OCEAN CITY – The Transportation Commission heard more this week about the proposed realignment of Coastal Highway that focuses heavily on pedestrian and mass transit enhancements. Last December, the State Highway Administration (SHA) came before the Mayor and City Council presenting the MD 528/Coastal Highway Community Safety and Enhancement Project. At that time, John Webster of SHA Office of Highway … Continue reading

City Council Votes 6-1 To Move Ahead With Budget; County’s Money Woes Discussed

OCEAN CITY – The budget for the upcoming fiscal year cleared opposition in first reading this week as the Mayor and City Council directed antagonists to the county if they are looking for a tax break. On Monday evening, the Fiscal Year 2016 Operating Budget came before the Mayor and Council for approval in first reading. The budget is based … Continue reading

Downtown Restaurant’s Site Plan Approval Extended By 18 Months

OCEAN CITY – A proposed major bayfront restaurant project in downtown Ocean City received an extension of its site plan last week to allow for final design decisions to be made. Last Tuesday the Planning and Zoning Commission considered a request submitted to extend site plan approval of a 5,104-square-foot restaurant, tiki bar and playground area to be located on … Continue reading

Shore Personnel Respond To Baltimore Crisis; Local Agencies Provide Help

BERLIN — While the protests and riots in Baltimore had waned somewhat by mid-week, a handful of local law enforcement agencies had manpower and resources front and center during the initial peak of the civil unrest on Monday and into Tuesday. Around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, the night the rioting and looting peaked in downtown Baltimore, the Berlin Police Department … Continue reading

Route 50 Bridge Repair Project Completed

OCEAN CITY — State Highway Administration (SHA) crews this week put the finishing touches on a major repair project on the Route 50 bridge in an effort to avoid a repeat of last summer’s major breakdown. “The crews are finalizing the repairs stemming from the project last month to ensure the smooth operation of the draw span,” said SHA Public … Continue reading