OCEAN CITY — Ocean City officials took a closer look at the aggregate rankings of major capital projects proposed in the near future and got a little closer to reaching a consensus on their priorities.
City Engineer Terry McGean this week presented to the Mayor and Council a draft five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) outlining dozens of major projects with their anticipated costs and how best to fund them. Some of the larger projects will likely be bonded, while others can be funded as pay-as-you-go projects.
Some items included in the CIP are ongoing projects that will need to be funded continuously over several years, such as street paving and canal dredging, for example. Others represent one-time major capital expenses such as resurfacing the Inlet parking lot and replacing the cart bridges at the municipal Eagle’s Landing golf course.
Some of the projects on the list need to be done almost immediately, while others can be pushed to out years. Still others might never see the light of day, but are included as potential future projects. Before those decisions are made, the Mayor and Council need to reach a consensus on prioritizing the dozens of projects in the CIP.
To that end, the town’s elected officials were tasked with assigning a priority number to each of the projects and initiatives included in the draft CIP. The Mayor and Council were asked to rate each of the projects on the list with a number from one to five, with one being the least important and five being the most important.
It’s important to note just six of the town’s eight elected officials completed the survey, although it wasn’t made known who did not complete the exercise. As a result, the highest score a single project in the CIP could score was 30 if each of those who completed the survey assigned a score.
Naturally, the elected officials reached a consensus on those projects in the CIP deemed most critical, but other projects saw a wide range of scores. Those projects that scored in the range of 26 to 30 were deemed critical, while those that scored from 21 to 25 were deemed very important. Projects that scored 16-20 were deemed important, while those that scored from 11 to 15 were classified as less important. Finally, projects that scored less than 10 in the survey completed by the majority of elected officials were pushed back for future consideration.
McGean and his staff combined the scores assigned to the various projects by the elected officials to make a priority list for the CIP. For example, continued street paving received a perfect score of 30 and was added to the critical list. Street paving comes with an estimated price tag of $2.5 million, but a large portion is paid for with state highway user fees and the town’s share of revenue from the Ocean Downs Casino, bringing the town’s out-of-pocket cost down to $800,000.
Similarly, canal dredging received a perfect 30 and was also added to the critical list. For several years, the town has been systematically dredging the bayside canals which had silted in over the years. McGean said about half of the bayside canals had been dredged, but that project will always be in the CIP even after all are completed because those done first will eventually need to be redone.
“We’re at least 45 to 50 percent done with canal dredging, so we’re about halfway there,” he said. “We’ll never be 100 percent done because they will always continue to silt in, but those numbers will drop down in later years because of what we’ve invested already.”
Another project making the critical list was the eventual streetscaping of the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division to 15th streets including widening sidewalks and undergrounding utilities, for example. The first step is conducting a study to determine how best to proceed with the project.
Projects making the “very important” list included redeveloping the old downtown public works complex known as Whiteside. The town is in the process of developing a new downtown public works complex at 2nd Street and St. Louis Avenue, eventually making the old Whiteside facility obsolete.
Another project making the “very important” list is replacing the failing cart bridges at the Eagle’s Landing golf course, which is expected to cost over $200,000. Projects making the “important” list include resurfacing the Inlet parking lot, erecting a new sign at the Inlet lot to better explain the new paid parking system and replacing the floor at the solid waste transfer station.
The challenge is determining a comfort level for carrying debt. McGean presented a chart showing the town’s current level of debt service and how it declines over the next few years when current major projects are completed and paid for.
“That red line represents the current level of debt service,” he said. “You can see we have a couple of years to go with that as an issue, but then it starts dropping down as some of these projects are completed and paid off. Some of these projects can be pushed back until that happens.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said that red line on the debt service chart represented the nuts and bolts of the entire CIP exercise.
“The red line is the current level of debt,” he said. “What we need to decide is if that’s the right level. Is it too much? Is it too little? That’s what we have to decide with this.”
Mayor Rick Meehan suggested approving the CIP as presented on Tuesday and then re-prioritizing some of the projects during upcoming budget deliberations based on urgency and the availability of funds.
“This is a living, breathing document and things will change,” he said. “Just because something is on this list doesn’t mean it won’t change. At some point, we need to adopt it even with the understanding that it is going to change. We need to have something adopted even though it isn’t etched in stone.”
Before he got into the real meat and potatoes of the presentation, McGean had good news on some of the projects in the plan. For example, the cost of the study to redevelop the streetscape of Baltimore Avenue from North Division to 15th streets was estimated at $50,000, but McGean said the actual cost for that project will come in around $5,000.
In addition, the cost of repairing or replacing the failing bulkhead along Chicago Avenue was expected to cost $2.2 million. The bad news is that project is not eligible for federal Army Corps of Engineers funding. McGean said the good news is the extent of the repairs is not nearly as onerous as anticipated. McGean said he examined the Chicago Avenue bulkhead and reduced the cost of the project down from $2.2 million to around $200,000.
“I went out and looked at it during an extreme low tide today and there are actually two bulkheads there,” he said. “The last 50 feet near 4th Street is different than the rest of the bulkhead and that is the section that is failing. The rest of the bulkhead is in good condition.”
After considerable debate on Tuesday, it was decided to approve the projects that made the critical, very important or important list and get those projects into the funding pipeline. However, much of the debate focused on those projects in the CIP on which the elected officials had not reached a clear consensus with the scoring system. Those projects included, for example, the resurfacing of the Inlet parking lot, an expansion or replacement of the midtown fire station and the proposed expansion of the Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum at the foot of the Boardwalk. The following is a closer look at some of those projects:
Inlet Lot Resurfacing
McGean explained resurfacing the Inlet parking lot was a priority because it has fallen into disrepair since it was last repaved nine years ago. It comes with an estimated price tag of around $550,000, but it needs to be on the “important” list in the CIP, he explained.
“It was repaved in 2000 and we’ve done everything we can to get more life out of it,” he said. “When you look at the number of tent spikes that have been driven into it and the volume of traffic on it and the number of front-loaders on it after storms, you can see why it needs to be resurfaced. Can we get another year out of it? Yes. Can we get another five years out of it? No.”
Dare pointed out the Inlet lot received an aggregate rating of just 19, or an average score of a little over three from the six elected officials who completed the survey. However, staff members who completed the survey, and perhaps know best the condition of the Inlet lot, rated it higher.
“When you look at the Inlet lot, we can repave it, but it will get torn up again after the next storm,” he said. “Is it a nice-to-have or a need-to-have? The staff scored it with fours, so when you score it at four, that tells me it’s important.”
Councilman Mark Paddack pointed out another project on the important list, erecting a new video message sign at the Inlet lot that better explains the new parking system, should be rated higher.
“What’s more important now other than paving is the new sign to better explain the Inlet parking system,” he said. “I think that needs to rate a little higher.”
Midtown Fire Station
Replacing the Station 3 firehouse, first built in 1969 and expanded in 1987, has been part of a larger strategic plan for the resort’s fire stations developed in 2002. Some have called for relocating the midtown fire station to the front parking lot of the Public Safety Building, while others have advocated for making needed repairs and keeping it at its current location.
Replacing the midtown fire station comes in with a price tag of around $3.4 million, but McGean said it only rated as a “less important” project in the survey. McGean said the town has been making modest changes to the existing fire station while a decision is still pending on its eventual replacement.
“The midtown fire station had some scores of four and some scores of one,” he said. “That’s not surprising because it has been somewhat controversial. We’ve been doing things to get that building more functional and more usable in the short-term future at least.”
While the midtown fire station only warranted a “less important” rating in the CIP, Dare suggested some funding be included for a study of how best to replace it and how best to fund it.
“I’ve proposed upgrading the midtown fire station for years,” he said. “We have a lot of needs. I’d like us to consider some funding for a study in the pay-as-you-go fund to explore what can be done.”
Dare said the midtown station could be upgraded at its current location, but the property presented challenges.
“The problem is the existing property is so small,” he said. “We have to see what can be done because it makes sense to plan for something that can accommodate our needs in the midtown area. It’s pretty far out in 2023, but we can start looking at what can be done with that site.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the consensus appeared to be making modest improvements to the existing facility in the short term.
“We need to make do with what we have for now,” he said. “This is still four years out. In the meantime, we should do anything we can to make it better.”
Lifesaving Station Museum
Another major project under consideration that was discussed on Tuesday was the proposed expansion of renovation of the iconic Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum at the foot of the Boardwalk.
Last year, the Museum Society Board proposed a significant expansion of the museum including an extension of the building eastward over a portion of the Inlet lot. That proposed project would be funded through a private-public partnership with the city contributing a significant portion, which is why it was included on the list.
Dare pointed out the existing facility is not ADA compliant and some changes were mandated and necessary. However, he said the price tag for a major expansion was much higher than anticipated.
“Maybe 20 years ago we looked at the issue of handicap accessibility,” he said. “This capital improvement plan has $300,000 in it just for the design with construction costs at $2.2 million. I had originally envisioned $300,000 for the entire project.”
Some on the council asked if the museum could be expanded northward parallel to the Boardwalk rather than eastward into the Inlet lot. McGean said in either case, approval from the state legislature would be needed.
“Any expansion of that facility will require a change in state law,” he said. “Even if it was expanded north instead of east over the Inlet lot, it would still require the approval of the state.”
Meehan said there could be an opportunity to expand the museum utilizing existing facilities in the same area. For example, when the new expansion of the public works complex at 65th Street is completed, the transit station at the south end of the Boardwalk could be repurposed for use by the museum.
“The museum is a valuable asset,” he said. “The second floor of the transit station right next door will become available when the 65th Street public works complex is finished, so there might be an opportunity to utilize that space for storage or more exhibits.”
Former Councilmember Nancy Howard, representing the museum board, said the facility would be expanded and upgraded one way or the other in the future.
“It may not happen next year and it may not happen the year after, sadly, but it will happen and it will be a great asset for the town,” she said.