(Editor’s Note: This article is the latest in an ongoing profile series of the current Ocean City Mayor and Council members.)
OCEAN CITY – Jim Hall has seen the town come a long way in his 22 years on the City Council, but now he says it’s time for Ocean City to start moving in a new direction.
Hall, a self-proclaimed “man on the street” for the people of Ocean City, is amongst the longest tenured elected officials in town, second only to current Mayor Rick Meehan, who has served two years longer than Hall.
While Meehan moved up from councilman to council president and is now in his second term as mayor, Hall has remained a constant on the panel of the “voting seven” since 1987, helping to guide Ocean City through fruitful and frugal of times and has admittedly been on both sides of the voting majority.
“Politics is the art of compromise, and you have to figure out where your four votes are,” said Hall. “When you are on the four side you can get a lot done, but when you are on the three side, it can be frustrating at times.”
Hall, who would never be mistaken for soft spoken or less than brutally honest, has always considered himself to be well connected with the people of Ocean City, contesting he might have the inside track a little more so than some other members on the council.
“I’m absolutely more connected with the people. I’m self employed, so I don’t have a pension, or a fixed income, or even a paycheck coming every week, and that’s different than other council members that might be retired with a pension, and going out to dinner every night,” said Hall.
Hall calls his role as a councilman a “full-time-part-time job,” but has his hand in a lot of different pots when it comes to business ventures, including the local real estate industry.
“I think I’m the man on the street, I’m in the lawn sprinkler business so I’m digging ditches and crawling under people’s houses, and I’m in the real estate business so I’m selling properties. I sell cars, and I do politics, so I’m always talking to people all the time and I hear what is being said on the street, said Hall. “But, when I go to council meetings, I sometimes feel like people aren’t waking up in the same town.”
Hall has worked along side dozens of different people on the council, each with different agendas, opinions and backgrounds, and though some in the general voting population have questioned this current council’s cohesion or ability to play well in the proverbial sandbox with one another, he feels the differences are a good thing.
“The council isn’t cohesive, but it shouldn’t be. That’s why there are seven members, and all of us are as different as different can be”, said Hall; “There’s a private detective (Doug Cymek), a contractor (Joe Mitrecic), a lawn sprinkler/realtor guy (Hall), a 7-Eleven owner (Lloyd Martin), a boardwalk shop owner (Margaret Pillas), a retired worker (Mary Knight), and a restaurant owner (Joe Hall), so there’s a good makeup of people right now.”
The current council, when compared with previous councils, has quite a task in front of it as it tries to balance what has been called the toughest budget, and at the same time, lead Ocean City forward in order to keep it viable as an affordable place for visitors.
“We put a ton of money in infrastructure, and as the old mayor (Roland “Fish” Powell) used to say: ‘when there is money in the checkbook, it’s easy to be a politician’,” explained Hall. “When we wanted to do something before, we would just vote on it and write the check, but what we are facing now, for the first time in 20 years, we don’t have any money in the checkbook, and the tax revenue is decreasing, so we have some tough decisions to make on what to cut.”
Still, Hall feels like he is in the minority when it comes to what he says is the “reality” of the economic situation in this country and what that means to local industry.
“People are hurting out there, and I not only see it, but I hear about it everyday,” said Hall. “I see it coming and I think there are members that say that it’s all going to be okay and that the money is there when it isn’t. That is what is so perplexing to me about this council, some of the decisions made are just crazy to me.”
With that said, Hall recently moved over to the majority side of the council as he was a vocal opponent of the convention center expansion, but voted in favor of it last week, admitting that he was brought on board with the lowering of the food and beverage tax by a half percent.
“The way that whole thing unwound didn’t sit right with me,” said Hall. “We were going to do something one week and something else the next, but when they came back with lowering the food tax, putting the square footage back in, and making the auditorium smaller so we didn’t have to make structural changes, I could get on board.”
The tax rate has also been a recent topic of discussion as City Manager Dennis Dare recently said that if everyone in town wanted to get the same tax bill as last year, the tax rate would have to be raised from 38 cents to 42 cents, and despite praising the job that Dare has done thus far, Hall says that it would be a move that he would frown upon.
“I’m not sure where we are, but the last time I talked to him he still had five cents of tax rate to deal with, and that’s not going to fly,” Hall said. “I told him not to come to me with a tax increase, because the taxpayers and the visitors to this town have been taxed out.”
Hall contests that a bigger issue the town must address to combat its budget woes is the salary structure for employees.
“The payroll is too high here, and I don’t want to take anything from our current employees, but we need to get a new pay and pension scale,” said Hall. “We can’t be the fat cat for everyone anymore.”
In the end, Hall says that the town’s leaders have to realize that though Ocean City has experienced incredible growth, the town is still small in the winter months.
“It’s a different town now because we don’t have any more money in the checkbook,” said Hall. “We need to take care of our infrastructure and go back to making decisions around the fact that we only have 6,000 people here in the winter.”
When questioned on how long he will continue to serve on the council, Hall gave no official answer, but hinted at the notion that he is somewhat surprised he is still here.
“I was top vote getter this year and that shocked me, because usually when you are on for 20 years people say ‘I’m tired of him, he’s been on too long, let’s get rid of him,’ but I guess I’m doing something right,” he said.