OCEAN CITY — If the full City Council would have been in attendance on Wednesday, both the city bus and the Boardwalk Tram could have seen their duties lightened a bit in the name of cost savings.
There have been indications that the City Council will look to trim the scope of services of both the off-season city bus schedule and the Boardwalk Tram, but with a few members short on Wednesday, they shelved the presentation from Public Works Director Hal Adkins and Transportation Superintendent George Thornes until next week’s budget wrap-up session.
“I think we should wait and do this when everyone is here,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Otherwise, we are going to have to go over all of this stuff twice.”
Council members Doug Cymek, Lloyd Martin and Margaret Pillas were absent from Wednesday’s budget hearing, which heard presentations from the Municipal Airport, the water and wastewater departments, as well as the heavily scrutinized transportation department.
As expected, the council had taken the hints from City Manager Dennis Dare that scaling back certain services or amenities offered in Ocean City, like the tram or the winter bus schedule, might be one of the only ways for the council to find additional savings in their quest to lower the tax rate from the proposed 40.5 cents per $100 assessed valuation.
Thornes reported that the transportation department had trimmed over a half a million dollars from last year’s budget and had already decreased man hours in both tram operations (1,616 man hours) and bus operations (6,984 man hours) substantially.
“We have cut 344 deployments of the city bus over the course of a year’s time,” said Thornes. “We saw 140,000 less riders last year, and we are finding that we are running too many buses in the early morning hours, so we are starting them later, which will give us a better presence when people are using the buses late at night, and in doing so, may actually increase ridership and revenue.”
Last year, the council considered completely eliminating the “graveyard shift” during the winter months for the city bus, but the majority of the council thought that it wasn’t time to ask the people who rely on the service to get to and from work to make that much of a sacrifice.
Next week, the full council will consider the same idea and perhaps others in hopes of saving a notable amount of money.
Still, there were some members of council who are concerned with just how fine a line this decision could be in going too far with asking the public to sacrifice.
“We have to be careful that we don’t cut a service that some people really rely on when they come to Ocean City,” said Meehan. “Even though a smaller amount of people use the tram or the off-season bus, the people who do are really appreciative that it’s there and have come to expect it.”
Councilman Joe Hall, on the other hand, was looking to increase revenue by pitching an idea to raise the West Ocean City Park-n-Ride one-way bus fee (to the S. Division St. bus station) from $1 to $2.
“The Park-n-Ride does very well on the weekends, but Monday thru Thursday, it’s pretty much where its always been and that’s mostly empty,” said Hall. “I don’t think that people would have a huge problem or we’d lose ridership if we raised it a dollar to $2 each way, because no one really seems to mind paying $2 for the city bus.”
Ironically, Hall also queried Adkins when the last time the city bus fare was raised each way.
“Councilman Hall, it was at least in the last eight years, and as I recall, you were on the council when we raised it (from $1 to $2),” explained Adkins.
The Park-n-Ride, by comparison, lost 31,000 riders last year, and with the city’s decision to cut 600 man hours from the Park-n-Ride, coupled with the city’s new traffic routing system after this week’s squabble with a local business owner, in which it will instruct traffic to go to the West OC Park-n-Ride, Thornes was concerned he would be short-staffed.
“This is as conservative of a budget as we can have and still operate at the level we have been, but if there is a hiccup or an ‘uh-oh’ we are not going to be able to make it, so the traffic diversion to the Park-n-Ride concerns me,” Thornes said.
Meehan said that he didn’t believe that people would “drive off the island, just to get a ride back onto the island”, despite the fact that city signage will now recommend motorists driving towards the Inlet lot utilize the Park-n-Ride.
In the end, all departments showed a trimming of their budgets, including a 27-percent reduction in the purchasing department’s budget, thanks largely in part to the trimming of hours at the city’s impound lot.
Water, wastewater and solid waste make up the largest of the town’s departments, but all noted sizeable budget decreases, thank mainly in part to the recent decision to eliminate recycling and the city’s retirement incentive plan.
“We’ve cut everything down to the bone”, said Adkins.
Next week, the council might attempt to cut into that proverbial bone during the budget wrap-up, and consider altering the bus, the tram, and perhaps the Park-n-Ride, but few on the council think that they will come close to saving the million dollars needed to lower the proposed tax rate by a penny.