OCEAN CITY — Ocean City officials this week began a marathon strategic planning session that will ultimately map the future direction of the town for years to come.
The Mayor and Council, along with nearly all of the department heads, convened on Wednesday for the first of three work sessions to update the town’s strategic plan. The work sessions continued on Thursday with a full day of planning exercises, but the proverbial rubber will likely hit the road on Friday, the final day of the sessions, when the Mayor and Council are expected to take action on some of the conceptual ideas batted around during the first two days of the intense planning sessions.
Throughout much of the last year, several projects, requested expenditures, land-use decisions and other important issues were back-burnered until the anticipated strategic plan update sessions this fall. Among the issues deferred until the completion of the strategic plan update, for example, were the future of the midtown Station 3 firehouse, the redevelopment of the public park complex on the bayside at 3rd Street, issues related to the various motorized special events and the town’s donation policy for non-profits including, most notably, Atlantic General Hospital.
During the afternoon portion of Wednesday’s planning session, Finance Director Martha Bennett outlined some broad goals for the town’s financial planning going forward. Bennett was seeking some direction on the Mayor and Council’s wishes regarding the growing reserve fund balance.
In recent years, Ocean City has had a stated goal of maintaining a fund balance, or a rainy day fund of sorts, at 15 percent of the general fund budget. However, Bennett explained the town’s fund balance had increased to 25 percent, or over $20 million. Bennett asked the elected officials what their comfort level was in regards to the current reserve fund balance because that decision could direct future financial planning in terms of bonding large projects or paying for them as the town goes. Councilman Dennis Dare said while it had increased significantly, he was not in favor of reducing the current fund balance significantly.
“I’m not comfortable with 15 percent,” he said. “We think of hurricanes as our emergencies and we’ve seen what has happened in recent weeks. Not only do you spend money during emergencies, but you start to lose money because you’re not up and running.”
City Manager Doug Miller, who served in the same capacity in La Plata, Md. when that community was devastated by a tornado, agreed with the importance of maintaining a healthy reserve fund balance. He said the town’s initial responsibility was restoring essential services and infrastructure, a cost that largely fell on the community initially until federal relief funding started coming in.
“We’re certainly in good shape with everything [City Engineer] Terry [McGean] has done with the dunes and replenishment, but still need to have significant reserves,” he said. “As a resort community, in the event of an emergency we would get to the point where expenses are going out and revenue is going down because we might not be up and running.”
Later, in the afternoon session on Wednesday, each of the city’s department heads was asked what their expectations were from the three-day marathon strategic planning sessions. Nearly every one voiced a desire to have some kind of clear and consistent direction from the Mayor and Council on their direction for the city.
“I’m a major proponent for strategic planning,” said Miller. “The staff has to know the desires of the Mayor and Council and how they want those goals reached.”
Human Resources Director Wayne Evans said the Mayor and Council often have broad goals and desires for the future of the town, but the department heads and their staff have to make those goals happen on the ground.
“Your perspective is more from a macro-level,” he said. “I hope to come away from this with a good road map and make sure the staff’s efforts are meeting you expectations.”
Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino said his hopes for the strategic planning session went beyond his interests as a department head.
“Being a town resident and a town employee, it’s important to me that we maintain a clean and safe community in a cost-effective way,” he said.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said he was hoping for some clear direction from the strategic planning process on some well-defined short-term goals.
“I’d like to come out of this with a defined list of one- to two-year projects,” he said. “That’s a good way to measure success. We’ve been able to accomplish some things since this last process two years ago and it’s great for morale to be able to cross things off and get things accomplished.”
Bennett said the process should conclude on Friday with a clear direction for the future of the resort community.
“We’re a service community,” she said. “At the end of the day, we should have a clear plan for how we can provide the best possible service we can for our residents and visitors.”
Miller went around the large table during Wednesday’s session and asked each department head for a brief overview of some of the larger projects either completed, substantially completed or in progress. Naturally, some departments have more active projects than others and some have projects more visible and used on a day in, day out basis than others, but none are any less important from a larger strategic planning sense.
For example, Public Works Director Hal Adkins and his staff have a lot of irons in the fire with major projects in various stages of the planning and completion process. For example, the downtown water tower situation changed dramatically in the last year or so with the construction of the new beach ball-design water tower at 1st Street and the subsequent demolition of the old water towers at Worcester and 15th streets.
However, the Public Works Department has several other major projects in the works including a complete renovation and redesign of its main campus at 65th Street and the construction of a new public works facility on property acquired at 2nd Street that will house the Boardwalk trams, among other functions.
Similarly, McGean’s engineering department has completed several major projects on its working list including a new public boat ramp at 65th Street and the newly renovated fire department headquarters at 15th Street along with the ongoing canal dredging and other projects. However, one significant project under McGean’s purview is the possible relocation of the fire departments Station 3 at midtown. That firehouse was proposed to be moved to a more central location in front of the Public Safety Building at 65th Street, but the Mayor and Council tabled any decision on that project until the completion of the strategic planning sessions.
The Recreation and Parks Department has also crossed off many of its significant projects and initiatives, but still hanging in the balance is the parks comprehensive master plan and the future redevelopment of the downtown park complex at 3rd Street.