OCEAN PINES – Whether Ocean Pines ever becomes an incorporated town will likely hinge on the question of money, specifically the question of taxes versus assessments.
Dan Stachurski, who just finished his second and last term as a Director of the Ocean Pines Association (OPA), wants to convene a group of residents to research the process, advantages and disadvantages of incorporating Ocean Pines as a town.
“I’ve been thinking about it for six years now, or maybe more,” said Stachurski, who served on the OPA Board of Directors for six years, the first three as president. “I think Ocean Pines is long overdue to take a really hard look at being a municipality versus a homeowners association.”
Stachurski said he neither supports nor disagrees with the idea right now because he needs hard facts that he does not have yet.
Heather Cook, who finished an OPA Board term last week, agreed, saying, “I think it’s certainly time to look into it. It’s an idea whose time may have come.”
County Commissioner Judy Boggs, who spent a year researching incorporation back in 1995 when she served on the OPA Board, has strong doubts about whether becoming a town would be good for Ocean Pines, and whether Ocean Pines property owners would be for it.
“At this point we have 54 percent non-resident property owners. One of the largest impediments, in my mind, is that it disenfranchises 54 percent of the residents of Ocean Pines,” Boggs said.
Non-resident property owners would lose their right to vote on elected officials and referendums in a municipal Ocean Pines. Each property in Ocean Pines currently has one vote.
“I think it would not be advantageous for most of the people in the community,” said Boggs.
Ocean Pines Comprehensive Planning Committee Chair Art Sachs said that’s a critical issue.
“If we go to a municipality, then the owners of those properties will have no say in any issue,” said Sachs.
Stachurski has no problem with that, saying, “I think it’s perfectly fine that the people who live her govern where they live.”
Every property in Ocean Pines now pays the same assessment, whether the lot or home is worth $1 million or $200,000.
“That’s the best buy in the county,” said Boggs. “In my experience, people vote their pocketbooks.”
Under a municipality, owners would have to pay municipal tax based on the assessed value of their homes.
“It would certainly cost many people more than they are paying with a tax rather than an assessment,” Boggs said.
Bill Rakow, a new member of the OPA Board, is strongly against incorporation. “It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
In his view, incorporation would not benefit residents.
“Taxes will go up tremendously,” he said. “The only way for taxes to go down would be to do away with the homeowners association. That would be very hard to do.”
Newly elected OPA Board member Les Purcell is not in favor of it.
“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’ll never fly,” said Purcell. “A place as big as Columbia has tried it four different times and it’s been shot down.”
Others see it differently.
“People would be taxed appropriately. Right now we have an across-the-board assessment,” said Cook. “I think that would be of interest to a lot of the fixed income people who live in Ocean Pines.”
OPA Board members can raise assessments by whatever amount they deem suitable, and whenever they feel it is needed, as they did this spring, raising the assessment substantially.
“We pay a county tax,” Cook said. “We are the largest population in the entire county and we have very little voice. For all the millions of dollars we send to the county in taxes, we get maybe a half million back for police.”
Stachurski went even further.
“Worcester County does not pay for the police department, fire department, or emergency services. Ocean Pines pays for all that stuff,” Stachurski said. “I’ll flat guarantee you Ocean Pines sends a lot more tax money to Worcester County than it gets back in services. … We don’t make any laws and our police can’t even enforce our own rules in Ocean Pines. We are governed by the county and frankly I don’t think we’re governed all that well by the county.”
As a town, Ocean Pines would be eligible for state pass-throughs, and state, federal, and county grants.
Purcell sees a dual layer of bureaucracy, with the OPA competing with the town staff and officials.
“We are a homeowners’ association. We should remain so,” said Purcell.
Overall, Boggs said, “In my opinion there are far more significant obstacles to becoming a municipality. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Commissioner Linda Busick said, “There are a lot of implications, involving particularly the wastewater treatment plant. I think the county wouldn’t want to give a lot of that up.”
Boggs said she could not predict the commissioners’ response. “The county has never considered it would happen,” Boggs said.
Cook said, “I do not think the County Commissioners would want to see Ocean Pines become a municipality,” because of the tax implications and loss of control.