OCEAN CITY — A seemingly innocuous request for upgrades and other costs at the Boardwalk information cottage last week touched off the larger debate about funding more city expenses through a portion of the room tax dedicated to tourism marketing.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, the Mayor and Council had before them a request for funding needed for the Boardwalk information cottage, an overgrown kiosk of sorts where volunteers and some paid employees dispense information to tourists on a wide variety of questions about Ocean City and its special events, for example. The request from the Downtown Association includes $250 for phone and Internet service, along with $5,000 for staffing to supplement the volunteers that man the booth during the summer. The cottage is largely manned by volunteers, including some councilmembers, but some paid part-timers are needed to fill the void at times.
In addition, the Downtown Association was seeking roughly $2,000 for upgrades to the Boardwalk cottage including carpet replacement, window replacements and other aesthetic improvements. The council ultimately approved the funding requests, but not before a continued debate on where some expenditures should be appropriately placed in the budget and which costs should be absorbed by the portion of the room tax dedicated to tourism.
It’s an issue that has come up frequently in recent weeks. For example, the council opted to move the city’s $5,000 award for the first white marlin of the year to the tourism budget and just last week opted to move the cost of lighting up the beach ball water tower downtown to the tourism budget and not the water department budget for the same reasons. Councilman Wayne Hartman questioned if the costs associated with the Boardwalk cottage should also be moved in a similar way.
“Isn’t this a function of tourism?” he said. “This should come out of the tourism budget and the room tax. We are serving tourists with this. If we start aligning things properly, at the end of the year we could have money left over for other projects.”
Councilman Dennis Dare explained 2 percent of the resort’s 4.5-percent room tax is dedicated to tourism marketing in Ocean City. The remaining 2.5 percent goes into the general fund. Dare said the policy was put in place by legislation approved by the General Assembly through a partnership with the town’s hospitality industry including the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, for example.
“We have an agreement on how we spend that and until we change that agreement, I’m not sure can keep moving these things into the tourism budget,” he said. “This is not destination marketing. We just heard a request for the lifesaving museum expansion. Perhaps our visitors can help pay for that too.”
Hartman said it made sense to move the costs of improving and upgrading the Boardwalk information cottage to the tourism budget and fund it through the room tax.
“I think we need to change the verbiage in the ordinance,” he said. “It’s just like painting the water tower. That’s a tourism-related expense and not a water tower expense. I think we need to look at this sooner rather than later.”
Councilman John Gehrig said the roughly $7,000 for Boardwalk information cottage was a relatively small sum, but no less important in terms of the town’s budget situation.
“Just for the public’s consumption, this is where we are with the budget,” he said. “It seems like just a couple hundred bucks or a couple thousand bucks, but this is where we are fiscally. We have to be responsible for every nickel. We all support the Boardwalk cottage and we all support the museum expansion request we just heard, but it’s not like we have a checkbook with $600,000 in it that’s expendable.”
Council Secretary and Tourism Committee chair Mary Knight agreed, but said changing the ordinance regarding the dedicated portion of the room tax to destination marketing would be no small task.
“Changing the ordinance would not be as simple as we think it would be,” she said. “We have agreements with our partners in this including the Chamber, the HMRA and the Downtown Association, for example.”
Gehrig said he didn’t believe moving some expenses to the tourism budget would require a major ordinance change.
“I think the actual language of the ordinance is correct,” he said. “Sixty percent of the room tax goes into the general fund and 40 percent goes to destination marketing.”
Council President Lloyd Martin summed up the debate in its simplest terms.
“We’re talking about different pockets in the same pair of pants,” he said. “We just need to make sure those pants don’t have any holes in them.”