Jobless Costs Hurting City

OCEAN CITY — Driving the Boardwalk Tram in Ocean City is certainly not the most glamorous of jobs, but it appears it isn’t a bad gig either.

As the City Council nit-picked over the Transportation Department’s budget on Wednesday, the biggest concern seemed to be with the amount of unemployment insurance being paid out on an annual basis to seasonal bus and tram drivers.

It was also revealed that the conversation may have been sparked by a local tram driver boasting about his ability to claim unemployment to the wrong person.

“I was at breakfast and there was a tram driver sitting near me, and he kind of smirked and almost laughed at me making a comment to me that he was getting one over on the town, and that he had the best job in Ocean City because he works for three or four months driving the tram and collects unemployment the rest of the year,” said Hall. “It just really torqued me. I mean, talk about gaming the system.”

Despite the town cutting expenditures almost all the way across the interdepartmental board, the one rise in costs in the next year will be in unemployment insurance, especially in the transportation department.

Between the seasonal bus drivers and the tram operators, the city has budgeted to shell out $625,000 in unemployment this fiscal year to its seasonal employees, including $205,000 to the tram drivers alone.

“I believe that all the tram drivers are receiving full benefits of unemployment of  $10,660 for the off-season, which means they qualify for $410 a week for 26 weeks,” said Transportation Superintendent George Thornes.

City Manager Dennis Dare elaborated that what the city has to shell out in addition to the $11.85 per hour (average pay for tram workers, ie, drivers, conductors, maintenance, and ticket sellers), in order to cover the unemployment insurance costs that are required by law, makes the total sum per tram driver to over $18 an hour.

“The solution is legislation because if anyone thinks that they can work three months out of the year, and then collect unemployment for the rest of the year, if the system allows that, then the system is broken,” Dare said.

Council members kicked around several ideas including Mary Knight’s idea to hire schoolteachers to drive the tram to alleviate the unemployment costs and Jim Hall’s pitch to possibly sub-contract the entire tram operation.

However, Dare noted that it would be difficult for a private entrepreneur to take over the business, noting that each tram car costs in excess of $200,000 (there are currently eight of them) and that the entrepreneur would have to purchase a building near by to house the trams.

Still Hall’s pitch caught the ear of a few of his colleagues.

“I don’t disagree with the idea to sub-contract it out, but in order for someone to do it, it’s going to cost them a ton of money in their initial investment, and they would end up with the same problems as we do,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “I just don’t know if anyone is going to look at the tram and think that it’s a venture they’d like to give a go to.”

Thornes predicts the town’s unemployment costs will go down.

“The way the unemployment works is that it’s based off the last five quarters, so by the third quarter of this year, we should be feeling the effects of the changes we made this year, so I think we will see the unemployment costs start to taper off and stabilize,” said Thornes.

The council is expected to look further at scaling back the bus and tram schedules at the budget wrap-up next week.

“You have to remember that we are doing what we are required to do,” said Adkins, “and we can’t do anything differently because it’s the law.”