Councilman Wants More Oversight On Surprise Expenses

Councilman Wants More Oversight On Surprise Expenses

OCEAN CITY — At least one Ocean City elected official wants greater oversight on unanticipated expenditures after a few more unbudgeted items came up during this week’s meeting.

The Ocean City government’s various committees often bring unexpected and unbudgeted funding requests to the full Mayor and Council for a variety of reasons, most often because some situation arises that was not foreseen when the budget was approved months earlier. The special appropriations run the gamut from the rather small and mundane to sometimes much larger requests, and while there is typically some creative way to fund them without tapping into the general fund, the frequency with which the requests occur was reason for concern for Councilman John Gehrig this week.

During a review of the subcommittee meetings from last week, the Mayor and Council learned the Transportation Committee was recommending the purchase of a ninth jeep to add to the fleet of Jeeps already purchased to pull the Boardwalk trams. Earlier this year, the Mayor and Council approved the purchase of eight Jeeps with an option for a ninth included.

On a recommendation from the transportation committee, the Mayor and Council on Monday unanimously approved the purchase of the ninth jeep at a cost of around $31,000, which will be funded by piggybacking on the existing contract for the other eight jeeps. The cost of uplifting the ninth jeep and outfitting it to be suitable for pulling the trams will be paid for from savings from the town’s vehicle trust fund.

While Gehrig had no problem with those expenditures specifically, especially since there was an identified funding source, he did question the frequency with which similar requests from the committee were coming in recent months.

“I’m just throwing this out there for consideration,” he said. “We’ve recently been getting a lot of these requests from the committees and another one is coming up in a subsequent committee report. We may have the funding for them and it’s not an alarm necessarily, but it seems we’ve had quite a few of these recently.”

Another unanticipated and unbudgeted request that came up on Monday that Gehrig alluded to in his previous comments was the potential expense to repair 2,000 linear feet of wooden bridges at the town-owned Eagle’s Landing golf course. Last week at the Recreation and Parks Committee level, it came to light the decades-old bridges at the golf course were in “urgent” need of repair and a ballpark estimate for repairing all of them came in around $275,000. No action was taken on the golf course bridges issue on Monday and a decision will be made at a later date, most likely during capital improvement plan discussions, but Gehrig said that issue illustrated his point about hidden expenses.

Gehrig said the various committees carefully vet the unexpected funding requests, but the full Mayor and Council are not always privy to all of the details discussed at the committee level and sometimes have to make decisions in a vacuum. He offered a solution to the perceived problem.

“Would it make sense to get all of these requests that come from the committees and maybe gather them up once a month and bring them to a work session?” he said. “The committee have all the information and we trust their recommendations, but we don’t always have all of the information up here.”

Gehrig said in the name of fiscal responsibility, some of the requests, particularly the larger ones, should probably come back to the full Mayor and Council in a work session.

“I just want to be careful about spending money, especially when it is unbudgeted,” he said. “We’re on a tight budget. The money might be there, but we should probably talk about it and prioritize some of these things.”

Council President Lloyd Martin agreed for the most part and said he would work with City Manager Doug Miller on a plan.

“I can work with Doug and we can bring some of these items back to a work session,” he said. “We can get the committee reports and see what expenditures are requested and bring them back at the next work session for approval.”

Gehrig said he was the unanticipated expenditures were frivolous or not necessary, he just wanted more information in some cases before bringing them to vote. In most cases, Budget Director Jenny Knapp and Miller can come up with creative ways to fund the unexpected by moving funds from a different account, or applying savings from some other project and even seeking grant money. Gehrig made a motion to work on a formula to bring unexpected expenditures to future work sessions, a motion passed unanimously by the council.

“I feel like I’m always asking questions like do we need this extra jeep or what about the golf course bridges?” said Gehrig. “It’s all kind of stuff. It’s everywhere. We just to prioritize it so we know how we’re spending the money.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.