Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk

Although they handle a lot of business throughout the year, the decision the Worcester County Commissioners consider each year that impacts the most amount of people involves education funding.

That’s why numerous concerns were privately expressed this week following Commissioner Jim Bunting’s ascension to the president’s chair. For the last five years, Bud Church, who served 10 years on the Worcester County Board of Education as an appointed member, has been the president of the commission. Church is an unabashed supporter of the public school system and his record since 2002 confirms he will go along with just about anything the school system wants so long as it does not mean an increase in taxes.

On the flip side is Bunting, who along with former Commissioner Virgil Shockley has been the most outspoken critic of public spending on education in recent years. In fact, Bunting has voted against two of the last three budgets because of his belief the county is not positioned well enough from a financial perspective to okay employee raises, which is almost always at the top of the list of priorities from the Worcester County Board of Education.

Back in May, Bunting pointed out that the salary increases the commission granted to Board of Education employees, who of course are county employees, have not been distributed in the way that the commission originally designated them. This was most apparent with starting teacher salaries, said Bunting.

“The last two years in a row there was a 2-percent increase in salaries for everybody … if the Board of Ed had applied that as a COLA for the last two years in a row we would be ninth [in teacher pay], but they didn’t [and now we are 16th],” said Bunting in the spring. “So, the County Commissioners are not the bad guys. If we wanted our starting salaries to rank up there they could have been, they could have been ninth.”

This is a major change at the top of the county’s elected body and its impact should be known almost immediately. The handling of the budget is expected to be the big change.

What’s unclear is whether it was a harmonious decision among the seven commissioners. There was no indication that Church was ready to give up the presidency previously, but he did put a good face forward at Tuesday’s meeting. In typical county fashion, the officials decided who would be president behind closed doors and then presented a united front, which was probably feigned, when it came to make the announcement. It’s just another example of how the county is covert in its dealings, and this was a chance for the several commissioners who preached about transparency during the election to prove they were not just peddling election bull. They failed in their first opportunity.

The Ocean City Planning Commission deserves credit for holding the proposed Hyatt Place Hotel project on 16th Street to a higher standard this week regarding parking.

Parking is a major issue for most of Ocean City, particularly the commercially and residential congested area south of the Route 90 bridge.

If you build a huge hotel, you need to be able to accommodate your guests. It’s not just about what the code stipulates. Guests should be able to reasonably assume parking will be available when booking a hotel room, no matter the cost.

A few years ago, I booked a hotel room on a Saturday night in Washington DC and was dismayed upon arrival when the attendant said the hotel’s parking garage was full because it was a Saturday. I was advised I might be able to find street parking if I was lucky. When I asked what I was supposed to do, the hotel clerk brought out a map with a highlighted route to a pay lot a few blocks away for $20 a night. It was ridiculous.

This will most likely not be the case in Ocean City with this property, but the reality is some guests will not have parking spots when the hotel is full even with the compromise reached this week between the property owner and the commission. That will push these vehicles toward the bayside, causing further problems along those streets where a dearth of parking is already present.

Although the project met the code requirements for parking, the planning commission did a nice job of trying to persuade the property owner to go a bit further beyond what the code allowed.

“It is our job to make sure the neighborhoods don’t get stressed, that its safe, and we take care of the surrounding community, and I don’t feel this meets that test at all,” Commissioner Peck Miller said. “We are redeveloping Ocean City, and we should look at the areas in this town … you are not being a good neighbor to do this kind of project to this scale.”

Taking it a step further was Commissioner Lauren Taylor, whose family redeveloped the site immediately to the south of the Seascape years ago. The property was home to the Santa Maria Motel, which was built around the same time as the Seascape, and a Courtyard by Marriott now sits on it.

“I will tell you most people bring more than one car when they come, and the front desk will have nothing but people standing there screaming because they can’t find a place to park … You will be charging people $300 a night and they will have nowhere to park. They are not going to want to come back to Ocean City,” she said.

In the end, a compromise was reached that might still not be entirely suitable, but it’s far better than what the code requires. Good job by the commission for pushing and to the property for realizing a compromise was the way to go.