OCEAN CITY — While complaints about off-color Boardwalk displays and signage have dropped significantly in recent years, resort leaders voiced concern this week eliminating a seasonal enforcement position could erase the progress and nurture a return to how things were in the past.
During a budget work session on Wednesday, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville pointed out some changes in the way his staff is best utilized has reduced the need for a part-time seasonal code enforcement officer on the Boardwalk. The individual monitors compliance with town’s codes regarding outdoor displays and signage. Not so long ago, complaints spiked on the Boardwalk about not only the content of some outdoor displays and signage but also the location and a concerted effort was made to enforce existing ordinances.
The efforts have received the desired results for the most part with fewer complaints about non-compliant outdoor displays and signs. Based on that success, Neville’s fiscal year 2018 budget calls for the elimination of the part-time code enforcement officer on the Boardwalk, which would cost an estimated $3,100.
“We didn’t end up using that position at all last year because things were going well up there,” he said. “We were able to accomplish what we needed to just with our existing staff. The combination of our new staff that can work on nights and weekends and the success of last year leads us to believe we can eliminate that position.”
However, Mayor Rick Meehan said not so fast, pointing out the improved compliance on the Boardwalk was largely due to the presence of a code enforcement officer. He said some Boardwalk merchants will quickly recognize there is less enforcement and go back to their old practices.
“Part of the success of last year was because in previous years there was a summer enforcement officer and they anticipated that,” he said. “Once it’s not there is when the need will probably arise. We created a better position up there and I would hate to see us fall backward. Without a presence up there at all, once the Boardwalk telegraph is aware of that, things can change and they can change rapidly.”
There are fees associated with outdoor signage and display permits, but Neville said he wasn’t sure those fees offset the cost of the position.
“Ideally, we would collect additional fees to support that service, but we’re not necessarily doing that,” he said. “We’re charging a nominal fee for the outdoor display permits and I’m not sure the Boardwalk merchants will appreciate a dramatic increase to help us enforce it.”
Meehan said things could deteriorate quickly on the Boardwalk if certain merchants would stop complying with the codes because of the lack of enforcement. It’s important to note most merchants comply with the codes regarding signs and displays, but it is hyper-competitive on the Boardwalk and some would likely backslide without any real teeth in the enforcement.
“Starting at 5 p.m. on Friday to 10 a.m. on Sunday, we’ll see the problems begin,” he said. “You know what happens and it can escalate quickly. A lot of work has been done by the Boardwalk Committee and we’ve seen a lot of compliance. We know the complaints have gone down. We’ve seen fewer complaints on the Boardwalk about some of the practices that have gone on there in the past and I would really hate to see us take a step backward. If we need a seasonal enforcement officer over and above what you have, I would hope the council would support that.”
Budget Manager Jennie Knapp explained Neville was confident his department could continue to monitor and enforce outdoor displays and signage with extra hours put in by other staffers, particularly at night and on the weekends.
“I believe this is something where he wants to try it his way and see how it goes,” she said. “If you start getting complaints, that’s where I can come in to try to work things out and find a few thousand dollars to pay for the part-time staff to get us back on track.”
Meehan said he could get on board with that approach, but continued to raise concern about compliance.
“I’m okay with that, but once the fire starts, it rages and I would rather be able to start out first to avoid the complaints,” he said. “I think we would see people not complying as much as they do because they don’t see an enforcement officer up there. We’re all creatures of habit.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman agreed with Meehan’s assessment.
“I’m on the Boardwalk quite a bit and you can see where something starts because the competition is so great up there,” he said. “As the mayor said, once the fire starts, it’s hard to put out. It’s important we maintain what we’ve worked so hard to get.”
Hartman suggested the cost of the part-time enforcement officer could be offset by increasing the fees.
“If it costs a certain amount to administer that, maybe the Boardwalk merchants ought to help offset the cost of that,” he said. “Let’s take a look at what the fees are and how old they are and we can see if there is room to make adjustments.”
After considerable debate, the council decided to revisit the issue later in the budget process.