OCEAN CITY — The issue of a $1.2 million study to determine a long-term solution to the chronic Inlet shoaling problem arose anew this week and Ocean City officials again weren’t keen on helping to fund it.
The Inlet and other channels in and around the commercial harbor naturally fill in and require constant maintenance dredging, but the problem has become more acute in recent years to the point the Inlet is often impassable and unnavigable for larger vessels on even the highest of tides. While maintenance dredging continues, including a project expected to begin next week, local, state and federal officials have been exploring a long-term solution including dredging the Inlet channel to a greater depth and possibly even a reconfiguration of the jetties or a relocation of the channel.
The Inlet is the Army Corps of Engineers’ responsibility and the federal agency has shown a willingness to be part of the solution. However, before any major changes take place in the Inlet, the Corps wants to conduct a feasibility study to chart a course for action. The study is a necessary first step and is essentially a requirement before the federal government invests potentially millions of dollars into a long-term fix.
The study is expected to cost $1.2 million, of which the federal government would fund half, or $600,000. The remaining $600,000 would be funded by a combination of state and local sources including 50 percent, or $300,000 from the state and 25 percent each, or $150,000 each from Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City.
In April, the Worcester County Commissioners sent a letter to the Ocean City Mayor and Council seeking a contribution from the town to help fund the local share of the study. The county has already committed $300,000 to get the project moving forward and is seeking an equitable share from Ocean City.
The exact number is somewhat of a moving target, however. While the state passed legislation to fund Maryland’s share of the study, not all of the $300,000 contribution is funded in the current fiscal year and may be spread out in subsequent years. The county is seeking a contribution of either $150,000 or $200,000 from the Town of Ocean City as partners in the local share.
Ocean City officials weren’t keen on contributing to the study when the issue was first broached in January. At that time, consideration was given to providing Ocean City’s share from the federal beach replenishment money and town officials scoffed at that notion, calling the Inlet shoaling problem largely a county issue.
Now, months later, the county has come back to Ocean City seeking an equitable split of the local share for the overall $1.2 million study and the town’s response this week was similar to the position it took months ago. Councilman John Gehrig pointed out the town contributes the lion’s share of revenue to the county budget, and ostensibly has already paid a considerable amount of the $300,000 local share for the study.
“The county has asked Ocean City for $150,000 or $200,000 of the local share, depending on what numbers are used,” he said. “The total local share is $300,000, but Ocean City already contributes 60 percent of the county’s revenue. If the total local share is $300,000, Ocean City has already contributed $180,000 of that $300,000 through tax revenue paid to Worcester County.”
Following the same logic, Gehrig said the county could end up paying nothing or even gaining from the project in the end.
“If we agree with the county commissioners and send another $150,000 for the study, our contribution would then be $330,000,” he said. “The county would actually be getting a profit of $30,000, or 10 percent of the entire local share.”
Gehrig said with the town’s $180,000 contribution already, following the 60-percent revenue formula, that would leave $120,000 to complete the $300,000 local share. Gehrig said he might not object to sharing that remaining $120,000.
“In my mind, that leaves a balance of $120,000,” he said. “I’m kind of okay with splitting that in half. A 50-50 split on that would leave us with an additional contribution of $60,000. I think I’m okay with that.”
At least two times a year, and more often than that in recent years, the Corps sends a dredge vessel to conduct maintenance dredging at the Inlet in order to keep the channel open. City Engineer Terry McGean explained a short-term fix would have the dredge boats do maintenance dredging more frequently, but there is a cost associated with that and the dredge boats are not always available.
“The maintenance dredging is curing the symptoms, but it’s not curing the disease,” he said. “The purpose of the study is to cure the disease.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said he wouldn’t be averse to the town contributing somewhat to the cost of the study, but wanted more solid numbers before making a commitment.
“The maintenance dredging is not the answer,” he said. “It’s an expensive process and it’s not a long-term fix. We all know the importance of the Inlet to everyone. I think we need to find out what the true number is and what boats are impacted. We need to find out what boats in the White Marlin Open are impacted because they are having issues. When we have the true number, we can make an intelligent decision.”
Gehrig said he agreed with the concept of the study and the possible long-term solution it could provide, but didn’t want Ocean City to be on the hook for the lion’s share of the local contribution. He referenced the ongoing tax differential issue and said that needed to be resolved for the good of all parties involved.
“It’s hard to say you’re wrong and I don’t disagree with what you’re saying,” he said. “We are the White Marlin Capital of the World and it’s part of our heritage and history. The issue with the county needs to be resolved. They are our partners and we’re a team and we don’t act like it.”
Gehrig reiterated his point about the town already contributing to the local share through its 60-percent contribution to the county’s revenue.
“We need to talk about this because these are the real numbers,” he said. “We have this $180,000 we’re already contributing and it’s more than 50 percent of the project already. I just feel this is important and sometimes being right isn’t always enough. Those are real numbers. Those are real dollars. Those dollars leave our bank and go into their bank.”
Gehrig said reason should dictate what the county contributes and what Ocean City contributes, if anything.
“I think there needs to be a reasonable approach,” he said. “I think it’s wildly unreasonable for them to make a profit on us for their project, but it’s not unreasonable for us to help our economy, our local businesses and the people who use our waterway.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he endorsed the study conceptually, but again reiterated it is largely a county issue and the cost should be shared equally among all of the county residents who utilize the Inlet.
“I support this project and I think it’s important,” he said. “I really do believe this is a county project. It benefits Ocean City, but it also benefits West Ocean City, Ocean Pines and everybody in the county.”
Meehan essentially said the county should step up and put its money where its mouth is for the Inlet study.
‘I think it’s a great opportunity for them to step up and do something I think is their responsibility to do,” he said. “From my personal point of view, I think this should be a county project. I believe in the team concept, but both sides need to play as a team. We’ve certainly showed a willingness to do that on bended knee on a number of occasions.”
Meehan pointed to the town’s failed request to have the county help fund the Boardwalk access control project.
“I went down there and asked them to participate in the Boardwalk security project because that benefits every single person in Worcester County,” he said. “It helps keep Worcester County safe and it helps make sure Ocean City is a safe place to visit and keep the revenue stream open for Worcester County.”
However, Meehan said that request fell on deaf ears in the county.
“The county administrator put that in the budget and it was immediately voted out,” he said. “I’m not really sure that’s good teamwork. That was almost a softball that was lobbed up and said come on, let’s get together and try to solve some of our issues so we can move forward.”
Meehan pointed out while Ocean City and Worcester County are largely viewed as separate entities, the two jurisdictions are essentially partners.
“I look at this as another opportunity for the county to take that step and do something that benefits all of us and take some responsibility, not just for Ocean City residents, but all of Worcester County as well.,” he said. “Never forget, we are all Worcester County residents and the businesses here are all Worcester County businesses and the people who come here are visiting Worcester County.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed to the Ocean City Municipal Airport as an example of a service provided by the town that is utilized by the entire county. Earlier in the work session, the council approved a $1.4 million project for the airport.
“When we talked about this before, I said I supported the study being done, but I didn’t say I supported Ocean City paying for it,” he said. “We just approved a pretty large expenditure on the airport, but we didn’t ask Worcester County to help pay for those expenses. They’re benefitting from it, but it’s our airport and we owned up to it. I think the shoe is on the other foot with the Inlet. The West Ocean City harbor is theirs.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said no decision should be made before the true numbers for the local share of the study are determined.
“From what I’m hearing, the next step is to ask the city manager to bring us back verified numbers and to update since April to figure out the exact request,” he said. “There are a lot of numbers flying back and forth, so I think that’s an important next step.”