OCEAN CITY — The five Ocean City Council candidates vying for the four open council seats took part this week in a question-and-answer session leading up to next month’s election.
Incumbents Doug Cymek, Dennis Dare, Tony DeLuca and Mary Knight are looking to retain their seats, while challenger John Gehrig is looking to become an elected official for the first time.
Cymek was elected to office in 2008 and is seeking a third, four-year term. Dare is looking to serve his second term after being the top vote getter in the 2012 election. DeLuca was elected two years ago to serve the remaining two years of Joe Mitrecic’s council term after he was elevated to the post of county commissioner. Knight, who has served as council secretary since 2012, was first elected in 2006.
A newcomer to politics, Gehrig has served in a variety of leadership capacities of local non-profit organizations, including currently as president of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
The Dispatch posed a few questions to the candidates this week and their written responses are included below. Three more questions will be posed next week in a similar format.
Ocean City voters will elect four council members next month, leaving one candidate on the outside looking in. Why specifically should you be one of the four?
Cymek: I have gained eight years of council experience since being elected in 2008. During that period, I have served on the Police Commission for a total of six years, of which three and one-half years have been as the chairman. I have also been a member of the P.R.E.S.S. Committee, (Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe Housing) and the Noise Board. My private experience as the owner of a general contracting and construction management firm provides insight in many building and housing related issues. A significant amount of time is necessary to acquire the knowledge and experience to make informed decisions in the best interest of the town and its citizens. I have the knowledge and experience to continue to do the job as your council member.
Dare: Thirty-three years of service to the Town of Ocean City as city engineer, city manager and council member makes me uniquely qualified to provide the knowledge, expertise and experience necessary to preserve our infrastructure, manage our human resources and plan our future.
DeLuca: I accomplished what I said I would. I ran two years ago on a platform of maintaining constant yield, which means no tax increases. At our first meeting, we lowered the Homestead Tax Credit from 3% to 0%. During last year’s budget process, after much discussion, taxes were held flat with no increase. This year, tax dollars were decreased, and I will do that again. The most compelling reason I should be one of the four elected is that I will achieve real results. I’ll fight hard to ensure there are no cellular towers in residential neighborhoods. Experts don’t know the long-term health and safety effects of cell tower radio waves. I effectively stopped the placement of a cell tower on top of my own condo building, which would have lowered condo fees, doing the right thing. There is a need for technology to improve telecommunication service in Ocean City, but I believe towers can be installed in a responsible manner, not in residential neighborhoods. I look forward to serving Ocean City for another four years.
Gehrig: Why me?
- 47 years old, married with two small children ages 8 and 6. This provides the most powerful motivation to protect our community, maintain and improve quality of life, and provide a bright future.
- 21-year resident with 21 years of business experience as owner of D3Corp, a successful, debt-free digital marketing agency with 45 employees. Experience managing tight budgets, problem solving, negotiating, conflict resolution and more. These skills should be part of our local government.
- Understanding of modern economy and how technology can be used to reduce costs, increase revenues, and provide new opportunities.
- Independent mind; fresh perspective, new ideas.
- Active in the community and local organizations, helping charities raise millions of dollars to help those in need. This helps me understand the heartbeat of Ocean City.
I am different because I am an independent person and do not subscribe to groupthink. Just look at the political signs around town. You see four that are always grouped together (sometimes five, including the mayor) and then there is the one that is independent, and not afraid to be that way. As councilman, I will be responsible to the citizens; not to the mayor, other council members, or outside influencers.
Knight: Time, my full-time occupation is being an advocate for Ocean City. I have the time to invest in researching pending legislation, to be knowledgeable of each week’s agenda, for supporting fundraisers, participating in city and neighborhood meetings, attending community functions, all of which keep me connected with the residents.
I am an independent thinker, obligated to no one. Many times heated discussions precede a council vote. A vote which becomes a concurrence of seven points of view. Paraphrasing Malcom Forbes: Innovation results from thinking independently together. I see no benefit in casting a vote to be a sliver of a “common voice”. I value my independence and take exception to anyone inferring that I am incapable of speaking for myself.
My prior management experience aids me in bringing reason to the Council during our spirited debates. My experience in local government positions allows me to continue to deal with many issues that still need resolution.
The issue of tax differential has huge ramifications for all property owners in Worcester County. Ocean City has proposed a phased-in increase in annual grants to account for repaying more than $17 million Ocean City property owners have paid for duplicated services. That proposal has not gotten any traction. How as a council person would you approach settling this issue once and for all? Would you support the town taking the county to court?
Cymek: I respectfully disagree that the issue has not gained any traction since there has been significant progress in my opinion. Most recently, Harold Higgins, chief administrative officer for Worcester County, attended one of our regular council meetings and indicated a sincere desire to begin discussions in an effort to resolve the matter. The Town of Ocean City and Worcester County have engaged their experts to determine the level of duplicated services, however, the reports are considerably far apart, but indicate some adjustment is due the Ocean City taxpayers. If Worcester County fails to continue to negotiate in good faith, I would support pursuing legislative action first and as a last recourse initiating litigation to compel a fair and equitable settlement. County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic should be applauded for his continued efforts on behalf of Ocean City taxpayers.
As to whether an agreement will be reached before the next budget, I feel both parties will be hard pressed to settle this complex matter before the budget process begins unless both sides are committed to do so.
Dare: Let’s be clear that it is $17 million a year, or hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades, paid by city property owners for services not provided by the county to the town. To put it in perspective, each Ocean City property owner pays more than $500 each year to Worcester County for services that the county does not provide to us.
In Maryland, only 15 percent of residents live in towns and cities, and the legislative body in Annapolis has not helped those municipal residents who suffer from double taxation.
If the County Commissioners were to give Ocean City taxpayers the relief they deserve, six of those seven commissioners would see their constituents’ taxes go up, so it is highly unlikely they will grant proper tax differential. In reality, the only possibility for Ocean City taxpayers to get the relief from over-taxation is in the courts, and I will fully support a court action if Worcester County does not provide tax differential this year.
DeLuca: This is an important topic that has been debated in Ocean City for over 25 years. Ocean City is paying twice for certain services. Our citizens are essentially being charged twice. The school system contribution has been left largely out of the equation. It should be included prior to the next budget. The $17 million would equate to a $500 refund per property owner each year.
After 25 years, it is time to take the county to court just like Anne Arundel County and the City of Annapolis did to resolve this county tax bill issue, if an agreement is not reached before the next budget. Let’s be proactive, instead of just talking about it for another few decades. Only one county commissioner will ever vote for the tax differential, and that’s Ocean City’s commissioner. The other six are not going to significantly raise the taxes more than $500 per property owner in their six towns. I will be the first to make a motion to go the same route as the City of Annapolis and take legal action.
Gehrig: I take our tax situation very seriously. I am a taxpayer, too, of course, and therefore have a vested interest in maximizing the value of every dollar all of us contribute. The tax differential situation does not qualify as “maximizing value.” OC taxpayers have essentially been double-paying a portion of our taxes for decades. Officials persistently talk about the issue but it never gets resolved. Instead, taxpayers keep double-paying year after year.
A lawsuit can be threatened but it really is not an option, and the county likely knows it. County taxes will only rise if OC wins the lawsuit and OC residents will then bear the larger burden of that increase.
Instead, creative solutions are needed, including but certainly not limited to, strategies to shift the direct cost of the services in question, explore offsets by identifying resources that the county can provide to improve quality of life in Ocean City and marketability of OC, and combining forces with the county to provide ideas that may stimulate state investment that helps OC residents receive lower tax bills. Let’s work together for a solution; not create a wedge with a lawsuit that doesn’t fix the problem anyway.
Knight: Worcester County officials have finally admitted that Ocean City pays the county for services that they don’t provide such as public safety and public works, but the two are still millions of dollars apart. There is minimal traction. The fact that the county administrator sat through an Ocean City Council meeting where tax differential was discussed shows that the county is concerned. The Ocean City taxpayer funds 60% of the county’s budget.
One example of this disparity is education: Three hundred of the 6649 students attending Worcester County public schools are Ocean City residents. Ocean City taxpayers contribute approximately $150,000 per student to Snow Hill while the remainder of the County taxpayers contributes $4,620 per student. This needs to be corrected. One idea to be considered; along with tax set off is a collaboration of the two factions to develop a large scale sports complex for residents’ use while attracting national tournaments.
However, if an amicable agreement cannot be reached by mid winter’s budget deadline, I would support legal action.
Two years ago, Ocean City imposed a smoking ban on the Boardwalk and limited smoking to designated sites on the beach. The success of this program has been mixed, as smoking still takes place on the Boardwalk as well as on the beach outside of the select areas. How do you propose the city go about enforcing these new policies?
Cymek: The smoking ban has now been in place for two summers. The Mayor and City Council requested stepped up enforcement efforts this past summer. However, seasonal hiring of public safety aids known as PSA’s, along with sworn police officers was down significantly due to a lack of qualified applicants and accordingly enforcement efforts suffered. The Police Commission is working diligently with the Ocean City Police Department to increase the hiring of additional public safety personnel for the upcoming season in order to increase enforcement. I support the strict enforcement of the smoking ordinance for our Boardwalk, parks and the beach and clearly recognize the need for adequate staffing in order to do so.
Dare: In the first season, the goal was education. Last season, the objective was to continue education with light enforcement. We have seen substantial compliance, especially considering the turnover of visitors every week.
We do not need more resources to enforce the ordinance; we need stricter enforcement from our existing personnel. And signage needs to be improved to inform new visitors more effectively and to remind our returning guests of the ordinance.
DeLuca: No additional resources are needed to enforce new policies. At this time, we already have sufficient resources in place. The no smoking enforcement went well over the summer, per the director of public works, who oversees cleaning of the beaches and Boardwalk. The new streamlined grey containers were well received and widely used. Over 200,000 cigarette butts collected. The only issue we faced was the accumulation of cigarette butts west of the Boardwalk, at the base of the ramp area, where individuals gather to smoke. Fortunately, the small street sweeper can vacuum all of these butts up when we do daily cleaning. As Rehoboth Beach told us in the beginning, the education process would take time to perfect. The first year, 2015, was an education year, and no fines were written. Last year, 2016, the police wrote 80 citations. We increased the fine from $25 to $100 in late July 2016, so next year we expect to see a significant reduction in individuals smoking on the beaches (in non-designated areas) and on our Boardwalk. The process is working.
Gehrig: No human resources should be assigned to it at all. The smoking rate per capita is declining, signifying that the smoking problem is slowly taking care of itself. I believe in providing a comfortable beach experience for all of our residents and guests. This ordinance has an enforcement problem. Our police and beach patrol have too many other important things to do than to be hall monitors patrolling to see if little Johnny is smoking in the boy’s room. Leave the designated areas as is and many good people will honor the policy on their own. This honor system may encourage other smokers to do the same. Offenders can be cited as we have the time. Let’s have a small rulebook and keep our eye on the ball.
Knight: This ordinance passed less than two years ago remains a work in progress. I look at the Boardwalk and see near total success in the future if we increase the size and sharpen the message of the signs. Stronger enforcement is also needed.
The fundamental problem remains; we are a tourist destination, the tourist population changes once or twice a week presenting us with a new group to educate. After two seasons, many of our visitors understand the statute, but some will always refuse to comply.
The beach is a different entity. Enforcement by lifeguards is not practical, and a police presence is impossible. Courtesy is the primary mode of compliance on the sand, but as the percent of smokers decrease every year so will the number of offenders.