Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk – March 8, 2019

Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk – March 8, 2019

Ocean City officials want everyone to know there has been no decision on growing paid parking and it’s not the primary charge of the recently convened parking task force.

At the outset of the task force meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan, who does not support more paid parking but without a council vote doesn’t control the decision, said, “When we discussed the strategic plan months ago, the issue of parking came up and it’s been an issue for many years. This task force is meeting to take a broad look at parking in general. There is no pre-set agenda and until we have a recommendation from this committee, there will be no action taken.”

It’s a good thing there are no preconceived notions ahead of the task force convening, but I fully expect some sort of paid parking increase to be the result of this task force’s work. It may be a divisive decision, but I expect it to happen. When I wrote last month about supporting new paid parking areas on oceanside streets south of 33rd Street, some robust emails in opposition came in. Nonetheless, I remain convinced these are prime areas for some new revenue and it’s reasonable for vacationers, particularly day trippers, to pay for parking steps from the Boardwalk and beach.

From the comments expressed at this week’s task force meeting, there appears to be some support for this concept among sitting council members. Here are some of the elected officials’ comments.

Councilwoman Mary Knight: “You look at this and see there are 4,000 free parking spaces. It takes around $659,000 a year to maintain those free spaces and the taxpayers are paying for that. We just need to see if there is another revenue source. The tourists should help pay for that and not just the taxpayer.”

Councilman John Gehrig: “One of my concerns is fairness for the taxpayers. They contribute a half-a-million-dollars a year to beach replenishment, another $2.5 million for the beach patrol and another million on beach cleaning. We spend $5 million a year on the beach and the Boardwalk. The people living in town are paying for that, the people paying to stay in Ocean City are contributing to that. We need to look at the day-trippers coming in and filling up the parking. They aren’t contributing to all of that.”

Councilman Dennis Dare: “Where can you go to the beach for free and have your trash picked up and have a lifeguard watching over you every block? There are very few places like that anymore, but there is a cost associated with that.”

Paid parking is a divisive issue to be certain, but I will be shocked if the task force does not support type of expansion. The prime oceanside spots along the Boardwalk are a reasonable start.

Last week’s story about a potential 34-percent property tax increase in Berlin has ignited a fire among citizens I can’t recall seeing in recent history. Berlin residents are not typically active in politics. For proof look no further than last year’s election, which was canceled when incumbents Dean Burrell, Thom Gulyas and Troy Purnell were unopposed.

While it may be a quiet political town normally, the significance of a potential 34-percent property tax increase under consideration has not been lost on town residents or business owners. Town officials have been taking a lot of heat on this paper’s Facebook page about this tax increase consideration. Gulyas engaged in the dialogue briefly before quickly backing out with some laugh emojis after being called out by town resident Jason Walter for not taking accountability for his own involvement in the town’s financial pickle.

An elderly resident stopped me in the grocery store this week and asked what this proposed tax increase would mean for her. A quick calculation of her approximately $300,000 property within town limits revealed her annual town tax bill will jump from $2,040 at the current .68 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to $2,730 if the .91 rate is approved. When I told her there would be some significant fee increases as well included in the budget, she became irate. This is a feeling that has been pervading Berlin in recent weeks.

I will be surprised if the property tax rate is increased as high as has been discussed, but there’s no question residents and businesses, probably to a larger degree, will see their taxes increased.

At this week’s beg-a-thon before the County Commissioners, Mayor Gee Williams confirmed as much. Williams said the town’s budget will be reduced by 10 percent but there will be significant revenue increases. That’s why he was seeking $35,000 more in funds from the county.

“The town will be instituting increases in our municipal property taxes, and our fees for sewer, water and stormwater,” Williams said. “Basically we’re leaving nothing untouched in terms of spreading the pain and meeting these increasing obligations, which are not just limited to public safety but with also the need to provide utilities and the basic infrastructure and services.”

It’s a challenging financial time in Berlin. While it represents a small part of the town’s budget, the optics of the elected officials gave themselves in 2017 look especially terrible today. The mayor’s salary jumped from $5,000 to $15,000, a 200-percent increase, and council member pay increased from $2,000 to $7,500, a 275-percent jump. It was a bad move then and it looks especially unacceptable now.

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.