OCEAN CITY — Just as quickly as one can say unanimous vote, Ocean City’s fleet of 71 take-home vehicles was chopped to 26.
City Manager Dennis Dare knows he has 45 angry town employees to deal with, but he said the public’s voice demanded change in the town’s take-home vehicle policy, and that’s the change he went with on Tuesday, proposing a 63-percent cut of the town’s take home vehicles which will garner savings for the town in upwards of $90,000 a year.
“We probably pissed off some really good people, and reneged on promises we made when we hired them in order to offer a positive public perception of what we are doing in local government,” said Dare. “I felt it’s what we had to do, even though I’m not happy about it, but I couldn’t win the public argument.”
City Council members have been courting the idea to make substantial cuts to the town’s take-home vehicle fleet on and off for several years, but last spring, they made a bigger push, seemingly pressuring Dare to establish a 15-mile radius that would constitute being eligible for a take-home vehicle, which would have trimmed a dozen or so vehicles from the list.
Tuesday’s recommendation and eventual concurrence from the Mayor and City Council was much more harsh than the original cutbacks that had been approved in May, but pushed back until October, due to the looming summer season. Some say that the public outcry attached to this issue, which some council members say was somewhere between passionate and irate, led to this rather significant cutback.
“This was a very tough decision for me, as I know a lot of the people effected by this personally,” said Councilman Doug Cymek, “but we have all felt the effects of this economy and I think the taxpayers deserve this.”
Dare called his decision one he based on “fairness and equity”, but there was some noticeable department heads in the room whose expressions blatantly thought that the decision was unfair or at the very least made them unhappy.
Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino’s usual calm and collective poker face was noticeably irritated as council approved Dare’s recommendation, and when looking at the breakdown of the 45 vehicles cut, it is presumably because the public safety division was perhaps the hardest hit.
Fourteen police officers will lose their take-home vehicles including two captains, six lieutenants, one sergeant, a corporal and four detectives.
Ten cars will be clipped from public safety workers as well as three will taken from the Fire Marshal’s Office.
Dare noted that those members of the bomb squad will keep their take-home vehicles as will the K-9 units of the police department who are required to have take home-vehicles as per the union contract.
The vehicles will now be kept at their respective departments and will essentially be checked out like a library book during business hours by employees to be used for official town business within the resort.
However, some of those vehicles may be issued as a seasonal take-home basis, as in the case of the Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin and Lt. Ward Kovacs, who respond to numerous off-duty calls throughout the summer season.
The one thing that the council chose to keep, however, was the police “saturation program”, which enables officers who live within city limits to take their marked cars home with them to increase police presence in local neighborhoods.
“I think the saturation program is a great thing and I think we need to keep them in the neighborhoods,” said Councilman Jim Hall.
Of the almost 600 town employees only 71, or about 12 percent, had a town vehicle, but in the name of cost cutting, the council pushed forward and won a battle they felt they had to win for the general public.
The new town policy will go into effect on Oct. 16.
Council President Joe Mitrecic seemed content with Dare’s presentation after last week saying in this paper the city manager would have to go to the mat for every take-home vehicle to continue in the status quo manner.
“Dennis [Dare] is going to have to justify each and every one of those vehicles on a car-by-car basis,” said Mitrecic last week. “If he can’t justify its usage, then it’s gone in my book.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mitrecic was pleased with the fleet reduction.
“Thank you Dennis,” said Mitrecic. “I know this was a tough call to make, but I think the town will really benefit from this decision.”