OCEAN CITY — A review of the proposed revenue and user-fee policy for Ocean City Recreation and Parks Department camps and programs this week led to a spirited debate about how much of the burden should be borne by the resident taxpayers compared to non-resident users.
During Tuesday’s Recreation and Parks Committee meeting, members began reviewing the proposed revenue and user-fee policy for next year, leading to a lengthy discourse on the fees that are charged to residents and non-residents for the department’s countless programs, camps and sports leagues. For years, the department has charged one fee for Ocean City residents and a slightly higher fee for non-residents.
The amount of difference varies by program and camp for a variety of reasons, and there is no standard straight percentage in the gap. For some programs, the non-resident fee is considerably higher, while for others, the difference can be as little as 10 percent.
During Tuesday’s review of the proposed revenue and user-fee structure for next year and beyond, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the residents already pay for a lot of the facilities and other fixed costs through taxes and encouraged the committee to take a closer look at the divide between resident and non-resident fees.
“There are a lot of fixed costs from the facilities to the electric to paying officials and supervisors and staff and all of that is maintained by the resident taxpayers,” he said. “Although we built Northside Park for us, the residents shouldn’t have to subsidize the non-residents users of our facilities and programs, but I’m not certain how to implement that.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman agreed the fee structure should be revisited.
“We should come to a percentage and just apply that across the board,” he said. “We want to increase the user-fee revenue, but we want to do it in a way that is equitable for everyone.”
Recreation Supervisor Kate Gaddis said there was some rhyme and reason for the diversity in the fee structure for camps and programs and developing a cookie-cutter approach could be challenging.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t just say non-residents always pay more across the board with a standard figure like 10 percent,” she said. “It just doesn’t work that way … We also don’t want to price ourselves out of the market for non-resident participation. We can take a closer look at this. We did a lot this year and we can revisit this next year. For some programs, the non-resident fee is 10 percent or 20 percent or even 30 percent more. We had to redo it because it was so inconsistent.”
Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito pointed out the revenue in the user fees for non-residents is often made up in other ways.
“Our goal is to bring people into the resort to stay in our hotels and eat at our restaurants,” she said. “We are a resort town and we encourage visitors to use our facilities. We embrace everyone. We want people to come to Ocean City and enjoy everything we have to offer. Many things to the Town of Ocean City does are tourism-based. The businesses don’t charge non-residents more.”
Nonetheless, Dare continued to point out the fixed costs subsidized by the resident taxpayers, characterizing somewhat as double-dipping.
“With indoor soccer, the taxpayers are paying for lights or heat or air conditioning depending on the time of year,” he said. “With outdoor soccer, there is no air conditioning, but we have to pay for field maintenance. All of these things come with a cost and most of them are paid by the taxpayers.”
Gaddis said she had reviewed the policies of neighboring departments and other jurisdictions around the region and found no clear-cut answer.
“Worcester and Wicomico don’t charge non-resident fees at all,” she said. “Ocean Pines does. I have not come across that industry norm. There just isn’t an established number out there. We’re looking at direct and indirect costs and we’re trying to define indirect costs so we can recoup some of the revenue. Maybe we can come up with a range of percentages instead of a one-size-fits-all number.”
Gaddis said most the department’s camps run about 50 percent residents and 50 percent non-residents with some higher than others. She said the divide was not that wide with the largest gap coming in around 60-40 for some programs.
“It’s not as different as I thought it would be, and none of them were outrageous,” she said. “The programs varied by season. The season with the highest level of non-resident participation was winter, which is not surprising because we are a regional indoor facility.”
Gaddis said a typical camp might be $130 for residents and $153 for non-residents. The $23 difference represents an increase of roughly 16 to 17 percent.
Petito said her staff could dig deeper to find an appropriate percentage for the user fees.
“We’re working on next year because we already set the fees for this year,” she said. “There is no rush to do this today. We can go back to the drawing board and come up with some numbers everybody can live with.”