OCEAN CITY – As the town continues to trim the low hanging fruit, and nears the end of its budget cuts, the hope remains that fee increases will be kept to a minimum.
City Manager Dennis Dare said that the town is “almost through all the cuts that we can make to the budget” and told the Mayor and City Council last week that the savings gained in the citywide “belt-tightening process” has grown to almost $2.5 million.
Dare’s first round of cuts saved the town upwards of $1.4 million and with additional cuts in recent months the total has snowballed to the current number.
Approximately $589,000 alone was potentially saved by temporarily revoking the annual 3-percent Cost Of Living Adjustment for non-union town employees for this year and reduction of tram services, city bus service from four buses per shift to three buses and trash pick-up have all gone into increasing the savings for this budget year from the original $1.4 million figure.
“These aren’t really cuts per say, this is a new way of thinking at how we operate our town,” said Dare.
Increasing efficiency in order to be fiscally responsible seems to be the obvious strategy from City Hall, and Dare even proposed to the council that the total budget might need to cut.
“It seems that everything is down about 10 percent”, said Dare, “and I have no idea if it is realistic to expect that we are going to hold the same numbers as last year. If the consensus is that visitor-ship is going to be down this year, then perhaps we should consider reducing the budget.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins described the cuts recently as a three-phase process, that first took care of immediate and “no-brainer” cost savings items, like town vehicle car wash contracts and holiday gift cards given to town employees. The second category, said Adkins while explaining the cuts during the recent ADA bus service reduction public hearing, was to trim the “low hanging fruit.”
The final phase, according to Adkins, was to address possible service reduction or revenue enhancement measures that has been seen recently in issues ranging from further cuts to the bus service, which was denied by the council, and Inlet parking lot and off-street fee increases, which is an issue that has been temporarily tabled by the town’s elected team of seven.
Councilman Jim Hall’s stance for the past several weeks has been to “make all the cuts first, and then increase fees if we have to,” and that stance has been supported by several council members and the mayor, most recently, during the debate on whether to add 2 percent to the license fees charged to area businesses.
“I do agree with Jim Hall’s notion to make cuts first and then deal with revenue enhancements. That would be a good order of a way to address things,” said Meehan.
Pending items on the “budget cuts” list, according to Dare, is the potential alteration to the town’s “take home vehicle” policy, and combining the Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Guide with the Sea For Yourself Guide which cost the town more than $92,000 this year despite printing 75,000 less copies and scaling back the number of pages.
Dare said that a “memo of understanding” is in the works to join the two publications and called the move a “win-win” for the town and the chamber.
If the raise in parking rates is in fact passed, the town will see a revenue enhancement of approximately $900,000, a move that Council President Joe Mitrecic hopes to see happen.
“I’ve always seen parking as a user fee, as in the user pays. You don’t have to use that service, but you most certainly can. Is an extra quarter an hour too much to ask for someone to come to a clean beach, swim in an ocean that is well guarded, use all the amenities of the Boardwalk, and know their car will be safe? I personally don’t think so,” he said.
Dare told the council that he fears the downturn in the economy could stretch at least three budgets years, and perhaps more, and that unknown seems to be driving the council to make all the cuts they can, wherever they can.
Still, some on the council fear that too many fee increases will scare off perhaps an already dwindling number of visitors to the resort, referring to the perception some have that Ocean City is too expensive already.
“I just feel like we are once again pricing ourselves out. Ocean City is just too expensive,” said Jim Hall.
Mitrecic said that there is no concrete figure or magic number that will indicate the breaking point for the residents and the visitors of Ocean City.
“I don’t know what dollar amount will put visitors over the edge to make them say that they can’t afford to come to Ocean City anymore, but I assure you, we are looking at everything and we will take into consideration how it affects our residents and our visitors for years to come,” he said.