City Manager Ironing Out Difficult Budget’s Details

OCEAN CITY — Seemingly everyone who follows local politics knows that City Manager Dennis Dare is trying to “right-size” the local government.

The question is: what is the right size for Ocean City’s government to operate efficiently and effectively?

Dare may not have necessarily coined the phrase “right-sizing”, but he’s been literally showing town officials and tax payers what the word means since the fall of 2008, as he’s slashed city spending by the millions and established new revenue generators for the town.

Dare’s been called everything from the chief executive officer of the large corporation that is Ocean City to being likened to a common street pimp trying to siphon more money out of his minions by one angry citizen during the recent taxi medallion debates.

Dare started working for the town as the city engineer 27 years ago for a $32,000 salary, and he said that even he would have never believed that he would make the six-figure salary that he currently earns, which tops the city’s salary list.

While the town itself has felt the brunt of the recession much like every other municipality in America, Dare has had to try to balance the fact the town will be drawing in less property tax revenue for the foreseeable future, thanks largely to a $1.1 billion downturn in property assessments in 2008, with his belief that “visitors who come to Ocean City should not and will not care about our fiscal crisis”. He noted in October of 2008, “we have to continue to provide the services and the amenities that they have come to expect in Ocean City.”

Salaries have been frozen and capital projects have been on hold for over a year, a fact that Dare is extremely concerned about.

In addition, almost every town department has been reorganized and restructured to operate more cost efficiently and all of which has been done almost internally.

“Outside of going from collecting trash one day a week rather than two days a week in the off-season, we really haven’t asked the public for any sacrifices,” said Dare.

Now, as Dare is scheduled to come before the Mayor and Council on April 19, to give a first draft of next year’s budget, he’s still working with Budget Manager Jennie Knapp on a workable draft.

“Right now, during our first look at the budget, is that we are a long way from having a budget that operates at a constant yield, which I estimate is going to be right around 40.5 cents,” said Dare. “I’m scheduled to present on the 19th and as of right now, I don’t have one that I’m comfortable presenting yet.”

As far as the question “what size is the right size for government in Ocean City,” Dare said that it’s getting close, but the changes may not be over.

“We are getting close to knowing what the right size for local government is,” said Dare. “I’ve said I don’t know what it is, but I’m pretty sure that I’m going to know it when I see it. All municipal government is really, is municipal services, and municipal governments exist to provide a higher level of service that would be given by a county, which would have to take care of everyone in it’s borders.”

Yet, even though Dare has pitched and overseen the myriad of changes, that have happened throughout this right-sizing process, he hinted that any future changes will be felt on a much more personal level by the public. 

“Over the past year and a half, I guess I’ve played all my cards, and I don’t think I have any left up my sleeve,” said Dare. “The things we may have to look at next are probably going to have to be reducing services that we offer the public, and I know the council isn’t going to like that, but running a bus up and down Coastal Highway at 4 a.m. in the middle of winter is nice but we are losing money. Winterfest of Lights is great, but we are losing money, and running the Boardwalk tram at certain times in the day is losing us money. So if we have to reduce the operating expenses more, we will be forced to look at all the services we provide, however popular they may be.”

Dare pointed to the economic boom that happened in Ocean City during the late 90s and early part of the 2000s as the reason that services perhaps ballooned to a level of luxury more so than pure necessity.

“Historically, it’s hard for elected officials to say no when presented with an issue, problem or opportunity by the public,” said Dare. “So when our revenues were rising and people had the resources to pay taxes and fees, they demanded more services, and we were able to provide that. In turn, they were willing to pay for it, but we’ve reached a place with the national economy where they can’t have the ability or willingness to pay for the same levels of service so we are trying to reestablish and provide those core levels of service.”

City officials are looking forward to seeing what Dare brings to the table on April 19, but they know that it will be the start of another long and arduous budget process.

“It’s the hardest thing that the Mayor and Council have to do every year, and this year is going to be very difficult to meet our goal of holding the line on the tax rate,” said Mayor Rick Meehan, “but we are going to have to be realistic despite how proactive we’ve been to make changes to make more money and changes to save ourselves money.”