Council Divided Over OC Budget

OCEAN CITY — Despite
keeping the tax rate the same as last year in Ocean City, potentially lowering
the median property owners’ tax bill by about 2.5 percent, the City Council was
split 4-3 in passing the FY2011 budget through first reading on Monday night.

Heading into the final
two weeks of budget hearings, certain council members were outspoken in where
they wanted to see the tax rate set when it came to the end of the proceedings,
and while seemingly all wanted to lower the rate from the proposed 40.5 cents
per $100 assessed valuation, some were a bit more vocal about their goal than

Councilman Jim Hall had
stated that he wouldn’t vote the budget through unless the tax rate was set at
last years’ 39.5 cents, while Councilman Joe Hall said he wouldn’t vote it
through unless the tax rate was set at 39 cents, which he believed could have
been obtained by cutting town employee salaries by up to 5 percent.

So it was no surprise
that Joe Hall voted against the budget’s passing through on first reading on
Monday as he had last week during the final budget hearing, but it was a bit of
a surprise to see that Jim Hall voted against it, despite the tax rate being
set at the exact same number as last year, and the fact that he voted for the
budget the prior week.

In addition,
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas voted against the first reading on Monday as well,
despite voting to set the budget at 39.5 cents just a week prior.

“We hit the same number
as last year, and we worked very hard to get it down a penny,” said Jim Hall,
“but I voted against it on Monday because I have been asking for over a year to
address the issue of a new pay and benefits structure for new employees and I
still haven’t gotten it. I’m very disappointed and I just can’t move forward
and not address that.”

Both Pillas and Jim Hall
said that their votes were changed in just a matter of days concerning the
budget by what they called the “failure” of City Manager Dennis Dare to present
a comprehensive study of pay and benefits with other municipal governments and
the private sector concerning new hires.

Though the town of Ocean
City’s hiring freeze has been in effect for almost two years, leaving the
vacant positions in the resort nearing 90, and shows no signs of being lifted
any time soon, Hall thinks that the pay structure for new hires needs to be put
on the top of the priority list in order to be well prepared for the future.

“Yes, the hiring freeze
is in place and probably won’t go anywhere for a bit, but that doesn’t mean if
someone vital resigns we aren’t going to replace them,” said Hall. “If we don’t
address this, it’s going to break the city in the long run, and we keep moving
ahead with this old pay structure. I just won’t have it.”

Dare told the council on
Monday that the study concerning the pay and benefits comparisons for new hires
“is coming soon” and contested later that the city had compiled a great deal of
data on the matter, but was having some trouble getting certain businesses in
the private sector to openly share their salary and benefit statistics for
their new or even their existing employees.

“Sometimes the private
sector is much more reluctant to releasing that type of information, whereas in
government, it’s public knowledge and it gets printed in the newspaper every
year,” said Dare. “So it’s taking a little bit longer to get them the
information. I’m as interested to see the results as they are, but I’ve been
working on this budget for quite some time, and I thought it was higher on the
priority list.”

Dare said that
information from municipalities across the state, other resorts, as well as
Department of Labor Statistics will all be part of the study, along with other
facts and figures from the private sector.

Pillas went even further
with her displeasure in the absence of the so-called pay-scale study at the
budget hearings, saying that it was “impossible” for her to do her job as a
councilperson with out it, thus essentially forcing her to vote against the

“We’ve been asking for
it for almost a year, and to this day, we’ve gotten zero input,” said Pillas.
“We aren’t getting the information we need to do the job that we were elected
to do. It’s plain and simple.”

Despite the tough
economic times where budgets all across the state and the country are being cut
to the bone, Ocean City’s tax rate is still among the lowest in the state, and
significantly lower than that of Salisbury (81.4 cents) Berlin, (73 cents),
Cambridge (67.6 cents), Easton (52 cents) and Snow Hill (86 cents).

Joe Hall believes that
although the city cut millions in this year’s budget including almost an
additional million dollars in the last two weeks that cut the tax rate from
40.5 to 39.5, Ocean City has still not enabled itself for the future.

“I still don’t think
we’ve retooled our government enough for a sustainable future,” said Hall. “We
chose parts of the budget to be really tough on, but we didn’t over-scrutinize
the Recreation and Parks Department, tourism or even special events.”

Mayor Rick Meehan, on
the other hand, disagreed with Hall and ironically used “sustainable” to
describe what this year’s budget enables the resort to be.

“I think it was a
responsible budget to pass, and I believe that it makes our city sustainable
for the future because we didn’t balance the budget on one-time-only stimulus
funds or other things that some municipalities are doing,” said Meehan. “We
reduced the size of our government, we reduced the services we provide, and we
raised fees in some areas in order to balance our budget. So after all the work
we had done on this budget, the fact that it didn’t pass unanimously is very